Monthly Archives: August 2012

Stories People Tell Me (1)

“It was a dark and stormy night, and we were seated around the campfire, when someone said, ‘Tell us a story;” and this is the story the Captain told…”

Between 1960 and 2000, I entertained clients and business colleagues from all over the world. That was always part of my job. I enjoyed the travel, the dinner out in nice restaurants, and listening to some very bright people tell their stories in this social and non-threatening, environment. It was both a learning and a profitable experience. I will share some of there stories with those of you who like to read such things, and perhaps you might add one or two to your personal repertoire.

If you have a favorite story to tell, please send it to me. I’ll use it if I can, and credit you (or not) as you prefer.

1. Ray and the German Field Marshall:

My Brit friend, Ray, told me of his adventure while he worked for Honeywell U.K. in the late Sixties: The company called a world-wide, 3 day sales meeting, to discuss their new product line. It included their senior sales staff from all over the world. The days were filled with business meetings. The evenings they were on their own, and ended up in small groups for dinner and drinks with their international colleagues. Ray ended up dining with an older German colleague, whom he had just met, and they got on famously. They were both story tellers.

As the night wore on, and the drinks continued, the German loosened up and turned the topic to World War II. Ray told his memories of life in England as a boy during the war. The German listened intently. When Ray concluded his story, the German began his tale, with this line: “I served in the German Army,” he said. “I was a Field Marshall in charge of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force.”

Ray bade him proceed.

“I was drafted into the Hitler Youth at a young age, and served in a variety of patriotic and support positions in the Berlin local area. We were taught to revere +

+and serve Adolf Hitler without question or delay. He was our god.

“Over a period of time, I assumed more quasi-military responsibilities and, like your Home Guard, felt I was defending the German homeland. I don’t know what we would have done if we ever met real soldiers, but we tried not to think about it, did what we were told, and did our best.

“Sometime in 1944 we were given a special order. Our leaders said it was a prestige assignment. We were assigned to guard a certain underground bunker in Berlin. We learned it was Adolf Hitler’s, the Fuhrer’s, command bunker. The Allies were closing in and most of the regular forces had been killed or had deserted. We were told it was up to us to defend the Fuhrer with our lives. Once again, we did what we were told.

“We knew, even as children, that the end was near. We could hear and see the artillery and bombs landing nearby, and hear the distant machine gun fire of the Russian troops closing in on us.

“One day, we were told to clean up and put on whatever gear we had for an official inspection by an important person. We were ready. Shortly, out of the bunker came this person. It was Hitler himself.

“He looked old, and sick. He had difficulty walking and his hands shook noticeably. He walked down the line, smiling, and making the occasional friendly comment. Finally, he stopped, faced the group, and thanked us for our service. He said that his cowardly troops had failed and deserted him, as had his staff. He was alone with his closest aides and us. He told us that since we were now his immediate staff, we should be promoted. He walked down the line and gave each boy a handshake and a new title. He appointed me to replace Marshall Goring as Field Marshall of the German Luftwaffe. He then went back into the bunker and we never saw him again.

“Our sergeant waited until everyone was gone. Then he said: ‘I relieve you from your obligations. The war is lost. Take off that gear, sp+lit up, and run for your lives.’ That’s what we did.

“Berlin was already devastated, and the shelling and bombs continued to fall, until they abruptly stopped, and an eerie silence fell on the city. I continued to run. I must have run for the rest of the day and into the night.  Then, I rounded one last corner and ran into an Allied patrol. They were Americans. They took me into custody and brought me back to their Headquarters for questioning.

I tried to be brave and when they asked me who I was, I said: ‘I am a German Field Marshall. I command the Luftwaffe.’ They just stared at me. Then, they conferred, and some guards came and took me to the next higher level; and then to the level above that; and several more levels, until I was in the area where they held Nazi high ranking officials.

“They had pried the whole story out of me by then. I think they were slightly amused by it. Several American senior officers came by to chat with the ‘German Field Marshall.’ Eventually, they decided I was not a threat. I was kept in a stalag for several months. Then they sent me off to a re-education camp where they taught me, over time, that what I had learned was not true. I received a whole new outlook on lfe.

“I stayed there for about a year, and then I was released. They helped me find a home and a job and I set to work, as always, to do my best. It paid off. Here I am today with a family of my own, a god job, and a promising future.

“I think that’s a pretty good ending for a 13 year old German Field Marshall,” he concluded.

2. Howard on Work Sequencing and Organizational Promotions:

In 1964, I had run out of interest, enthusiasm  and growing space, in the garment business. I enjoyed my job but, as I looked ahead, I saw  no where to grow. The boss had first hired his son, and then his son-in-law and, although they were nice enough guys, I felt sure that they had the promotion and career path already locked up.

Brother Leo introduced me to his friend Howard, who was Personnel Manager of a growing scientific computer company, 3C, and with Howard’s help I secured an entry level position in this whole new industry. I was the Senior Sales Correspondent. That meant I was in Sales, which was always fun, and I dealt with troubled customers. I wrote reassuring letters, spoke with them on the phone, and hosted them when they were in town. It was a good job and I really enjoyed it (as Brother Leo advised: “Get an inside job with no heavy lifting”). With his and Howard’s help, I had skipped from one industry to another, and done exactly that.

I kept in touch with Howard after that. He was another of those smart people I was privileged to deal with. He had education, experience, and common sense. Naturally, he was a story teller too. Howard and I had lunch together about once a month. I always paid, He called it his “hot meal program.” I found it to be a learning and counseling session for me. Once, for example, I complained about a heavy work schedule. I had too much to do and realized I had to set priorities, but I couldn’t get my arms around the solution. Howard told me this:

“Everything you have to do can be can be broken into 3 categories: 1. Boss Imposed. 2. Organization Imposed, 3. Self Imposed. You can even keep 3 in-boxes on your desk to aid in the sorting.

“You always do the Boss Imposed things first. That’s what you are judged on. Whatever the boss tells you to do, you do first.

“The Organization Imposed items are what the departments you work with expect from you. It may be interdepartmental meetings, support at a presentation or trade show, a survey, the answer to certain inquiries – all of these are important to someone and they are your second priorities.

“The Self Imposed tasks are the things you want to do. It may be a function or some departmental morale boost, or looking into a new system for your group. All of these are important, but not as important as the tasks you will be judged on.”

“Okay,” I said, “sounds good. Now, what if I do that sorting and I still don’t have enough time to get it all done?”

Howard smiled. “That,” he said, “is why God made evenings and weekends.”

Another time, our luncheon conversation turned to a mutual friend who had taken on a highly compensated, and highly visible, position for which he was not qualified. It wasn’t just a great challenge. He was in over his head. Howard shook his head sadly and said, “Don’t ever take a job that makes you sick, makes you reorder your priorities against your better judgement, or causes you to act in an unnatural or bizarre way for fear of losing it. Step aside gracefully. You may get another chance later. If they have to remove you for cause, it can be a career ender.”

Howard was an interesting but odd duck. He was tall and gangly, and the people who worked for him affectionately called+ him “Ichabod Crane.” He had no children and lived with his wife in a spacious old Victorian that offered them both lots of room for to roam unfettered. The house had no curtains, and Howard’s idea of decor was to glue dozens of large black circles, made of construction paper, in  varying sizes, all over his walls. When you approached his home by night and looked into the living room through the uncurtained windows, it looked like the house had recently survived a Civil War cannonball attack.

Howard saved his best story for my promotion. He was giving me an organizational overview (at lunch, at my expense) on hiring, promoting, and firing. He said, “There are many good books that explain the principles of hiring correctly. Use them as you will, but remember this Great Truth: If you invest the time and effort to hire good people in the first place, you can forget all about the rest of it.”

Then he launched into this tale. It may be anecdotal, but I have never forgotten it:

“Around 1810, the Prussian Army established The Prussian Military Academy and Leadership College. Like our own U.S. Army War College, its purpose was to recognize and train promising young officers for the higher ranks. Attendance and successful graduation were prerequisites for appointment to the aristocratic Prussian General Staff. It produced the finest officers Prussia had for the First World War, and the top German officers for World War II. It was closed by the Allies after World War II.

“It employed the Army’s brightest and most experienced officers as faculty instructors.  Its techiniques were cold and rough, but it worked. A diploma from the Prussian Military and Leadership College was a ticket to success.

In one Organizational Development course, they taught the young officers that there are 4 types of people to be considered when searching for a military leader:

‘All officers are a mixture of Intelligence and Ambition. They may be divided into 4 categories: 1. Intelligent & Ambitious . 2. Intelligent & Lazy. 3. Stupid and Lazy. 4. Stupid & Ambitious.

‘The Intelligent & Ambitious make good staff officers. They are the detail people. They know the right thing to do, and they will take the time and effort to do it properly. They work by the book.

‘The Intelligent & Lazy make good field officers. They too know the right thing to do, but they won’t make the effort to look for complicated solutions. They’ll look for shortcuts to reach their goal. That is what you want in a field officer.

‘The Stupid and Lazy have their uses too. Keep a few of them around. Usually, they know that they’re in over their heads and are so grateful to have their rank that they will be loyal and will do whatever you tell them. They are also good for the occasions where you need an officer and can’t spare anybody good. Frankly, if things go wrong, you can blame them.

‘The Stupid & Ambitious, however, must be rooted out and terminated immediately. Their Ambition will drive them to run rampant, spreading  their Stupidity, throughout your command. They leave wrack and ruin in their wake.”

In all the years since Howard told me that story, I have applied it to countless business, political, military, and religious leaders. It always works.

Thanks, Howard. I’ll remember you and your imaginative way of offering advice. Your colleagues still remember your advice offered during the turbulence of our being acquired by a much larger company. They asked you what they should do to prove their value to the new owners. You said: “You’re going to be there 8 hours a day anyway, so work steady and do the things that show.”

3. Dana: China, USSR, and the Death Ray:

In 1971 the U.S. Government hinted that they might allow trade with China in the near future. There were all sorts of policies and regulations to follow, so the company hired Dana as a consultant to advise us on what to do. Dana had years of experience in dealing with both China and the USSR. I asked him once how he got away with that, as the two countries did not trust each other. Dana replied, “I have 2 sets of business cards: One for China and one for the USSR. So far, they haven’t cross checked.” I thought: “Good luck, Dana.”

Sometime in 1972, Dana took me to Washington where we attended briefings by the State Department, the Pentagon, and the C.I.A. It was extremely interesting. These people did not want any computer equipment shipped into China because they feared what they called “Diverted and Multiple Uses.” In other words, the computer might  be generating harmless medical data during the day, but on the third shift it might plan nuclear warhead trajectories. I remember one Pentagon official, I’ll call Dr. No, who picked me out of the crowd and asked: “Is it true that a meteorologist’s weather prediction and a nuclear missile’s trajectory look exactly the same on a computer printout?”

I answered that I didn’t know. I had never seen either one.

He smiled and said, “Neither have I; but you’d be amazed at some of the answers I get.”

Later in the briefing, he gave us a list of the equipment which could not be exported into China: “….computer technology, automated robots, weapons of any and all types, sneakers, spare parts, automated manufacturing equipment of any kind…”

I raised my hand. “Sir,” I asked. “why ‘sneakers?’

He looked at me and replied, “Because that’s what they wear over there: Sneakers. Millions and millions of sneakers.”

“Yes,” I said, “but why is that important to us?”

He replied: “Because if all those factories are making millions and millions of sneakers, they won’t be able to make anything else!”

Aha. Now I understood.

Dana hand-held me during this entire process and saved me from many diplomatic gaffes. However, it was clear to me, we’re weren’t shipping anything to China in the near term. I reported the same to my management.

Dana was not deterred. He switched to opportunities in the USSR. He told me that I had achieved an international coup: The State Department had approved a US visit of certain USSR trade dignitaries. One of them, Sergei, was the son of the Number 5 man in the Soviet Presidium. It was a big deal. I was to host them for two nights and two days at our headquarters and in their evening social programs. There were four of them. I was briefed by the FBI. One of the guidelines was: “Allow for at least a quart of vodka per day.”

“One quart for the party?” I asked.

“No,” my instructor replied, “one quart per man.”

I knew now that I was in over my head.

In due time, Dana showed up with the Soviet party. It became clear they were looking for a good time. I gave them a plant tour (the manufacturing floor, traffic, accounts payable, but not so much as a peek into Engineering or Research & Development). They seemed pleased.

The first night they had dinner at an executive’s home (they made a pass at his wife), and the second night was mine. I took them shopping. I took them to a bargain basement that was positively clogging the aisles with product, and then I took them to a prestige jewelry and accessory shop. “We have seen the bottom and the top of the American shopping cycle, and we have everything in between,” I said. They were impressed. Then, we went for dinner at a Boston steak house. We took over the place.

They had protectors with them, both theirs and ours, and promptly got deep into the vodka. They started proposing toasts. Toasts to every Soviet and American leader they could think of: “To Peace between our nations. To success and riches to both our systems.” It would have been unpatriotic and offensive not to drink such toasts. I had learned one trick from my earlier years in this kind of job: Get rid of your drink. When no one was looking, I would pour my drink into the soup or, better yet, into a nearby potted plant. It must have been really potted before that night was over. I always thought that if the plants ever again took control of the Earth, I would be tried as a war criminal. Anyway, the Soviets admired my capacity for vodka.

That night, when we rolled them back into the hotel, some rather large and stern looking US agents were waiting for us. The Russians were politely told to stay in their rooms for the night. If they left their rooms, there would be consequences.

The Russians nodded gamely and went quietly to their rooms. I asked an agent, “Are you really going to stay here all night and watch them?”

“No,” he said. “I’m going home.”

“How do you know they won’t come out of their rooms?”

He looked at me and asked: “If you were in Moscow, and the KGB told you not to leave your hotel room, what would you do?

I said, “I’d be too afraid to even look out the window.”

He smiled and said, “Same for them.”

There is a footnote: Dana didn’t make much money from us, but he did from another company making oil exploration equipment. They had developed a new product that could be mounted on the back of a truck. There was a ram on a piston that pounded the ground and sent back echos, something like Sonar I guess, that could indicate underground cavities where oil might be found. Then they’d dig a test hole, and (Voila!), there was Oil. They had been selling this basic system, with State Department approval, into Russia for many years.

This was an evolutionary, not revolutionary machine. It was classified as “An existing product improvement.” Earlier versions of this machine had been sold to the USSR for years, and there was no reason to expect anything but approval for this updated version.

Dana had all the paperwork, it sailed through the State Department, and he went in for the final interview and looked forward to a short meeting and an approved Export Certificate. Almost as a last thought, the State Department official said, “Tell me, Dana, what do you call this new machine?”

Dana obligingly replied: “We call it a Neutron Generator.”

The official went white. “A ‘Neutron Generator’? That sounds like some kind of Death Ray! Permit denied!”

I had a drink with Dana shortly after that. No one at State would even talk to him about it. Dana said, “If only I had called it an Oil Exploration Tester, or even an Oil Oriented Ground  Pounding Machine, I’d be in the chips by now.”

Ah yes, what’s in a name? Sorry, Dana. You’ve got to keep it simple.

4. Ted, the Queen Mary, and the Japanese Pilot:

Ted was our new Sales V.P. He was a big, gruff, outgoing man who had been one of those 19 year old B-17 pilots during World War II. He had seen it all, done it all, and ran his division with an iron hand.

In 1964, Ted was vice president of sales and marketing for Computer Control Co., Inc. He liked action, excitement, competence, and (of course) stories. He gave me my first promotion, because I moved a mailbox.

I started working at Computer Control Co., Inc (3C) in 1964 as a “Senior Sales Correspondent” That meant I wrote sales letters, talked to customers with problems, and hosted their visits. My group was umpteen levels down in Ted’s organization.

Everyone knew Ted. He was big and he was loud and he ran through the corridors from meeting to meeting. “If he ever hits one of those I-beams that support the roof,” someone said once,” we’ll all be killed in the collapse.”

Each noon, I used to sit alone in the main sales office eating a brown bag lunch and reading someone else’s Wall Street Journal and New York Times. This way I saved on both lunches and subscriptions. One day I was sitting there, munching and reading, when I heard a howl from the corridor outside our door. It was Ted. He stuck his face in the door, red and angry, and looked at me. I was the only one there. “I just ripped my jacket on your God damn interoffice mailbox!” He yelled. “Move it!” With that, he was gone.

I walked outside the office to see the cause of his anger. It was a metal, interoffice mailbox fastened to the fiberboard wall with two screws. I took out my Swiss Army Knife (I recommend every aspiring executive carry one), removed the two screws, moved the mailbox inside the office door, and screwed it back into the wall. It took under ten minutes. I went back to my munching and reading. A half hour later I heard Ted’s voice again: “Hey, you.” He was talking to me. “Where’s the mailbox?”

“I moved it to the inside wall.”


“You said to move it.”

“Yeah, but that wasn’t your job, and you were on your lunch hour anyway.”

“No big deal. You wanted it moved, I moved it.”

“What’s your name?”

I told him my name.

About two weeks later my manager was promoted into a new job and, guess what? Ted made me the new department manager. I was now Customer Services Manager.

I did well working for Ted and as his trust grew he sent me to represent him at corporate meetings when he was traveling. I took good notes and could thoroughly brief him on who said what, and even what I thought they really meant. My problem was Old Ben, the company president. He was big and tough like Ted and could run roughshod over anybody who got in his way. I had to press him sometimes on sales issues and if he didn’t feel like talking about it, he would stomp me into the ground and return to his office. I told Ted about my problem.

“You’re approaching it all wrong,” Ted began. “Think of it this way: Old Ben is the Queen Mary and you are a tugboat. You have to guide the Queen Mary. Now if a tugboat gets in front of the Queen Mary, it will get rammed, run over, and sunk without a ripple. But – that is not the way good tugboats operate. They stand off at the side, safely out of the way, and they gently tap the Queen Mary. Once, twice, maybe three or more times – and you know what? The Queen Mary starts to turn. The cumulative effect of all those gentle taps is to make the Queen Mary go exactly where the tugboat wants. That’s how you handle Old Ben.” I was the tugboat and Ben was the Queen Mary? Thereafter, I kept out of his direct path,  and offered suggestions from time to time. A few of these he accepted. I never had another problem with Ben.

One more Ted story: When we started doing business in Japan, the bosses had some reservations about letting Ted lead the sales effort. It wasn’t just his size,aggressive nature, and volume that concerned them. It wasn’t any cultural concerns at all. It was that Ted loved to tell war stories that often involved tales of his bombing Japanese troop installations, railway lines, and maybe the occasional city or two. They feared that the Japanese would take umbrage at this. Ted was duly warned of their concern. He promised to be discreet. He was set loose upon the Japanese once again.

As usual, Ted was a man of his word. He handled himself as the professional he was although sometimes, under the influence of an extra brandy, or sake, a wartime reference might slip out. He didn’t think they noticed. The Japanese miss nothing.

One time Ted visited a large Japanese client outside of Tokyo and they held a reception in his honor. The sake flowed like water and the Japanese were pressing Ted for a story about his role in the last war. He finally told them he was a pilot. “A pilot?” they said, “We have a pilot too.” With that, they wheeled out their version of a Japanese Ted. He was big and loud and filled with stories of his adventures as a Japanese pilot during World War II.

The Japanese pilot fired the first salvo: “You Americans were lucky. You had so much equipment and spare parts, and training. We Japanese pilots had nothing. We sat on the ground with a joy stick and some pedals practicing take-offs and landings for a half day. Then they put us in an old plane and said go! My first try at take-off, I pull back too soon and plane go up and then smash down on the runway. They tow plane away to be fixed, and bring up another old plane. They say go! I try take-off again, but this time I wait too long to pull back, and crash into trees at end of runway. They tow plane away and bring up another old plane. They say go!”

“Wait a minute,” Ted interrupted. “Did you crash that third plane too?”

“No,” said the Japanese pilot. “This time I get it off the ground. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” said Ted, “if you crashed that third plane you’d be an American Air Ace.”

The laughter and the sake flowed until dawn.

5. Alfred, Travel Agencies, P&L, and Rasputin:

Alfred was the VP of Corporate Administration. That included Human Resources, Facilities, Internal Audit, Long Range Planning, and other assignments too numerous to mention. At first, I thought this a harmless enough empire, until my boss explained to me that what Alfred had done was to consolidate all the important administration and support functions under his aegis. He had a finger in every pie. Alfred used to jokingly claim: “I run P&L. That stands for Parking Lots and Latrines.” My boss warned me that the guy was dangerous.

Alfred had a PhD. in clinical psychology, and several years of corporate experience. He was a master manipulator. He sat at the right hand of the CEO’s throne. He could make about anything happen that he wanted to happen. People walked softly around Alfred. The other VP’s referred to him, behind his back of course, as Rasputin, Svengali, Machiavelli, and The Shadow.

I never had much to do with Alfred, but we did develop a measure of friendship. We coincidentally met one night at the movie theater, where they were showing a new film entitled, “The Exorcist.” Judy said to me, “There’s a strange little man, sitting in the corner, staring at us.” It was Alfred. He was alone as usual. He gladly joined Judy and I when we invited him. He said this was the third time he had seen “The Exorcist” that day. That should have been a clue right there. He shared many psychological insights with me, and I joked that I knew all about this exorcism business, as I had been an altar boy for nearly 10 years. He loved that. He had been an altar boy too. He told me many stories, and it was an enjoyable evening.

After that, he came by my office several times each week to chat and tell stories. He often spoke of his father, who was a G-Man during the Thirties. His father’s friend, Elliot Ness (of “The Untouchables” fame) used to visit Alfred’s home frequently. Once, he unloaded his pistol and let Alfred hold it. That was a lifelong memory. Alfred adored his father, and Elliot Ness, both of whom came across in his stories as honest and competent men, but cold and distant.

At that time, I was embroiled in a company political battle that I should have known I could not win, but I foolishly tried anyway. I felt I was going to be moved aside for a new manager. One day, I confided this fear to Alfred. He told me not to worry. “Nobody can come in here without my knowing about it, and there is nothing in process.” I felt better. The next week, I was moved into a new job.

Alfred came by shortly after and asked if I was okay. I said, “Yes, but I asked you if this was in the works, and you assured me that it was not.”

Alfred looked at me in puzzlement. “Ed,” he said, “that wasn’t personal, that was just business. Surely you did not expect me to tell the truth?”

I was at a loss. I actually had expected the truth, or at least a wave-off like, “I can’t talk about anything like that.”

However, I ended up in a new position that eventually led to a much better job. I think Alfred played a role in that too. He still stopped by for a chat as if nothing had happened. I played it that way too. Nothing personal. It’s only business.

I blush to admit that I did have a sort of petty revenge:

Alfred was a bit paranoid, I’m afraid. He traveled around the countryside  in a closed van with antennae on the outside, and all sorts of high tech radios and communications devices inside. When he had to make certain telephone calls, he left his office, went outside, and made them from his van.

He also loved Corvettes, and had money enough to buy himself one, for cash. And what a beauty it was. A showroom new, 1974 t-top convertible with every conceivable option. He brought me out to see it in the parking lot. He jumped in, started the engine, and pulled onto the exit ramp, when suddenly, the car just burst into flames. It had a fiberglass body, and the whole thing just disintegrated as I watched the smokey flames rage over it. It was tragic. Alfred was safe, but shaken, and he came to stand beside me and watch the flames consume his dream. I don’t know why I said this, I must have a cruel streak too, but I did say: “I’m sure it wasn’t a bomb.”

Alfred turned white. “A bomb? Why did you suggest that? Did you know anyone who wants to put a bomb in my car?”

I assured him I did not. I was just wool-gathering and trying to cheer him up. He walked away, mumbling: “Bomb? Bomb?”

He told me later that they found it was a short circuit in the electrical system. I just nodded and said, “Yes, that would explain it.”

A year or so later, I ended up running Corporate Travel & Events. I oversaw all the corporate meetings, field training sessions, recognition programs, and board meetings. It was the ideal job for me. When the assignment was announced, Alfred came to see me. “Here’s what I want you to do,” he said.  “Go hire an outside travel group as your industry consultants.”

” I don’t think I need them,” I replied, “why would I want to do that?”

He replied, “Because if the whole thing ever goes down the chute, you’ve got somebody to fire.” I had no firm grasp of the obvious.

The other execs at Alfred’s level couldn’t understand our weird sort of friendship, but actually, in his own way, and with appropriate precautions, he could be a business friend. My boss warned me it was like charming a cobra: “Everything is fine until it isn’t.”

I never had any more problems with Alfred.  He retired a few years after that, and seemed to have quite a small fortune. Whenever he was in town, he always called me for lunch. We did many enjoyable lunches together. He always paid. He insisted on it. We were an odd couple, but there was some mutual respect and even admiration there. He was a brilliant guy and gave me all sorts of advice on interviewing, hiring, and company politics.

Alfred died of a seizure a short time later. He lingered for a while. He called me. I was happy that he called me, and pleased that I could be of a little personal assistance to him, helping to make his final burden lighter.

Goodnight, Alfred. I was never entirely sure of you, but I learned from you and enjoyed your company, on the good days. Rest in Peace.

And that’s not “just business.”

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Everything Old is New Again

“Everything Old is New Again”: That’s a great song lyric, cliche, and truism. And, it’s happening all around us.

Today, I read an article in the NYT about how, in an effort to save fuel expenses, and reduce toxic emissions, the owners of the large seagoing tankers and cargo ships are considering….installing sails!

Think about it: Those ships require steady, but not excessive speed. They need to conserve expensive fossil fuel,. They want to take advantage of natural forces , go green and reduce their carbon footprint. Why not go back to sails? The ships would have standard diesel engines, in case of emergency or a calm, but they would be capable of deploying sails in a stiff breeze. The engines would idle, and the sails would propel the ship. I think that’s genius.

It’s not the only example. In my life I have seen many more. How about the filling stations of the 1940’s? They offered cheap gas, oil, water, and air. They lost out to the big garages that were filling stations, repair shops, and mini malls. Now the garages are in trouble, and what’s coming back? Filling stations.

What about the little appliance repair and shoe shops that could fix and extend the life of your toaster, or resole your shoes? People tire of the disposal vs. fix-it mentality (“Throw it away and buy a new one). Will the repair shops come back?

Remember the 1950’s? Several of my teenage Saturday evenings were spent in a Drive-In. You could see a first run movie, at low cost, with food and restrooms available, and not be bothered by rude people in the next seats. Families loved it too. Judy and I would take a night out with the kids, see a double feature, cartoons, have popcorn, a drink, and watch the films while the kids fell happily asleep in the back seat. The Drive-Ins died out. They were so “yesterday.” The developers were offering the owners big bucks for the land they sat on. The developers aren’t buying today like they were. So, the Drive-Ins are making a comeback attempt. You might find a Drive-In not too far from where you live. I think more are to come. Maybe this decade will herald “The Return of the Drive-Ins.”

How about bottle deposits? During WWII, kids made spending money by collecting empty bottles (2 cents for a small bottle, 5 cents for a large). That died out when they introduced disposable, plastic bottles. Now, guess what? The deposit concept is back, and here in Maine, that includes soda bottles, liquor, juice containers, (5 cents for a soda or juice bottle, 15 cents for a liquor bottle), and most everything else that has carbonation, and a few that don’t (like water) . The kids once again can make spending money by collecting empty bottles.

Have you noticed that Coke and Pepsi are coming back with the original sugar additive as a sweetener, and not corn syrup? Sugar tastes better. It always did and it always will.

Remember radio? Television supposedly killed it in the Fifties. Not so. Radio hung in there and now it’s back with satellite radio. I thought it was frivolous until I got a six month free trial with my new Ford. They have individual stations, each specializing in the kind of music you like, without chatty D.J.’s and obnoxious commercials. It’s wonderful. I may collect cans and bottles to cover the $15/month it’s going to cost me.

I expect “The Shadow” and other radio drama series to be back soon in a modern format; maybe a Big Band Saturday Night Dance Party too.

Oh, and did silent movies get swept away decades ago? Guess what won the recent Oscar for best picture: “Silent Movie.”

A recent piece on “60 Minutes” explained how typewriters are making a small comeback. People like the tactile sensation, the privacy, the challenge, and the control. No Liberian or Eastern European scammer is going to steal your identity on a typewriter.

The smelly, depressing, nursing home that my parents’ generation dreaded, and feared, is being replaced by assisted living facilities and home care. People can still have independence, and be in a congenial environment near family and friends. It may even be cheaper.

I heard a radio advertisement for a large bank that said if you call their 800 number, you’ll get a real person on the phone, and not a machine that tells you that the menu has changed, and ties you into stressful  knots. Humans are back..

On a commercial level, I’d bet on hard copy photographs in an album coming back.. My grandchildren love to go through my family photo albums. Yes, they can go on-line and see the digital photos their parents’ took (at least 6 photos of every scene), but it’s not identified and not the tactile same as enjoying a family album with someone who can sit and explain whose those people were and why they’re still important.

I’d also rethink home appearances by local merchants. How about a greengrocer, dairy truck, or a butcher whose licensed vending truck appears in your neighborhood, by appointment, at a certain time each week?

Could you use a milk and dairy man making regular deliveries? Is there a chance we could bring Main Street back?

Several years ago, in New York City, I happened onto “The Last Wound-Up.” No, it’s not a Western emporium run by Porky Pig. It’s a store that sells the same tin wind-up toys I had when a kid. You wind it up, it goes like crazy for a minute or so, then you wind it up again. Some kids prefer it to a battery operated version. You don’t just watch it, you interact with it. And they’ll never have to hear their parents say, “I’m sick of buying batteries for that thing.”

And.. what’s next? I don’t know, but I can hope it has to do with keeping the family together; neighborhoods too (what about a return to neighborhood grocery stores? A place to pick up today’s supper and sundries). Maybe we could look at returning kids’ sports to the kids, sand lot games, and downsize the adults who want to be #1,  putting more stress on the kids, and more expense on their family? We learned a lot about priorities from the scandals at Penn. State.

The examples go on and on. We start to realize that change is good only if it’s an improvement. We mustn’t sweep away the good with the bad. I once heard a futurist exclaim: “If it’s not broken, break it anyway, and start anew.” Foolishness, say I. I think this particular futurist was unmasked as a fraud and an opportunist. He ended up serving time at Club Fed.

Who knows what’s next? We can think up new opportunities and, if they make economic sense, maybe someone will convert the wish into reality. There are only so many varieties of anything we can try before we repeat ourselves. In some cases, we’re already there.

That’s why “Everything Old is New Again.”

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Advice to the Graduates

Another graduation season has passed and, once again, nobody asked me to speak at their commencement. I went through college, the army, stayed married, raised a family, welcomed grandchildren, kept a job forever, survived two acquisitions, two mergers, countless reorganizations, a couple of heart attacks, stayed happy, and am now a self-anointed philosopher in retirement. Maybe if someone asked, I would share the Great Truths that I observed and learned about starting out and surviving in the working world. What the heck, I will anyway:

1. You must create your own game plan: How will you judge success? What matters to you? Is it money, marriage, power, fame, family, church, friends, and in what order? It’s your life, so you get to establish the priorities.

2. Understand that every organization has the same goal: To perpetuate its own existence, and to grow. They reward people who contribute to this goal, and neutralize those who don’t. After this, Increasing Profits is next on every corporate values list. Additional Services is next on every non-profit values list. Evangelization is next on every religious values list.  All other organizational goals are further down the page.

3. Get everything in writing. Companies merge, get acquired, change staff, and go in and out of business. As you get older, you may find that how hard you worked, and how long you were there, matters less than the deal you signed going in. Say: “Of course I trust you. It’s just good business to write it down. I watch my personal interests just as I watch the corporate interests.” Then write it down and get it signed.

4. Don’t confuse courtesy with interest. People with good manners will hear you out, suggest they will get back to you, and disappear forever. Ask specific questions. “When may I hear from you?” “Would next Tuesday be a good time for me to call?” Pin it down. Follow up. If there’s no chance, you might as well know it today.

5. Find a mentor. There are few ladders from one management level to the next higher one, and they are narrow and congested. Someone has to pull you up. Get a mentor whose values you share, and work loyally for them. Display your talents and show initiative. Be trustworthy and balanced. People hire and promote in their own image. It might as well be you.

6. Follow policies and procedures, but watch what the boss does too. Privates and generals don’t have the same perks and privileges, but it helps to know how the top gun thinks.

7. Try for a piece of the action (e.g.: Equity). Stock is good, if you believe in their future. If you don’t believe in their future, start looking around. When a firm succeeds, it’s not always the people who made it succeed that get rich. When a firm fails, it’s not always the people who made it fail that get hurt. Be on the right list.

8. Stay in touch. If you don’t make calls, you won’t get calls. You will learn more from social interaction with your peers and superiors than from any  business book in the HR library. Say:  “The coffee’s on me.” Ask, listen, and never betray a trust.

9. Pursue what you believe in and don’t take “no” from anyone who can’t say “yes.” Some people use policy instead of judgment, and everyone is authorized to say no. That’s just a screening process. Talk to the boss. A company can do anything legal that it wants. Policy is just what they prefer.

10. If you start a business, pick one that you understand. Know your product and market better than anyone else. Add value. It’s hard to sell the same stuff as everybody else, only cheaper. Someone will always make it cheaper. Look to the great  fortunes and learn how they did it. There is no single way: Henry Ford did it with automobiles. Bill Gates did it with software. William Wrigley did it with chewing gum.

Personally, I’ve always admired a business like Wrigley’s, where a great many people give you a little money each. You’re better off than with a few big customers who want to run your show. Big customers are pushy.

Here are a few bonus thoughts: Keep your priorities straight. It’s easier to get a new job than a new family; rich and lonely is just a little bit less lousy than poor and lonely.  Keep your values intact. You can con others but not yourself, and sooner or later you will catch up with you. Listen to people and don’t be defensive. Keep yourself healthy. Good things can’t happen unless you can make them happen. No matter how much you love a company, a company can’t love you back. It’s all about today’s performance. Stay current. Remember Watergate and Enron: It’s not always the bad deed that brings you down, it’s the cover-up. Be the first to call for an Audit. Work smart. Don’t confuse activity with accomplishment.

And – Don’t fight the Establishment unless you want to commit yourself to some non-traditional life style. I’ve never seen anyone win that battle. The Establishment is too big, too smart, too rich, and too powerful. Besides, the Establishment won’t fight you unless you start it. The Brits tell the tale of the Tugboat and the Queen Mary: If the Tugboat tries to turn the Queen Mary by stopping in front of her, the Tugboat will be run over and sink without a ripple. But – if the Tugboat stands off to the side, and throws frequent and gentle shoves in the right direction, the Queen Mary will eventually respond.

And, by the way, don’t believe that the Establishment is just the Top 1%. They may be in there, but The Establishment is also the guy who owns the lumber yard in your own home town, if that’s where you intend to apply for a job.

Finally, if you make it big, pass on what you learned to interested others, and leave something on the table for the next guy. If you just want to use money to keep score, play Monopoly. People don’t get hurt in Monopoly.

That’s my short list of what I think you need to know to succeed in business. Your real education is about to begin.

Now get out there – and survive.

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The High Tech Illuminati

I spent 3 years in the rag business (e.g. the garment industry) and 30 years in high tech (computers). I met many of the sales principles in both industries and observed that they are more alike than different. They are both Type A, aggressive, driven, well-dressed, egocentric, communicators who could sell anything from ladies’ sportswear to 32 bit computers. They are interchangeable. They never give up. I always remember the garment district salesman my boss and I were interviewing for a job with our firm. When we started to talk about training, he said: “I’ve been doing this for 20 years.  Just give me the samples and an order book. I’ll take it from there.” I admire them.

On the technology front, we meet a different side of the coin. The successful technology people tend to be super bright (“Bright off the scale!” said my friend, Harvard engineering Ph.D. Dr. Mike Schneider) but more introverted, occasionally drifting towards the anti-social, and casual in both appearance and attitude. If they can work together, the combination can be formidable. If they clash, they can pull the organization apart. The biggest perceived problem: The Techies resent the Sales Types making so much more money.

On the local level, we encounter Techies on 800 Help lines, sometimes in stores, and at the occasional social event. That reminds me of a story (what doesn’t?):

Back in the 1980’s, I was working for a high tech company where many of the Board members were Harvard graduates, and members of the Boston Establishment. We were having a meeting on the Harvard campus with attendance by some of the Harvard staff, and it was a great success. After we closed, I spent a little time roaming the campus. I  met a group of Harvard engineering seniors having coffee at a little campus shop. They smiled at my 3 piece suit, I smiled at their scruffy T-shirts and jeans, and we started a friendly conversation. It soon turned to the types of Techies one will meet in their workaday lives. They told me there were two emerging categories of Techies. I will re-tell it as close to the original as I can:

“There are basically two types of Techies: The Nerd and the Dork. Both can be highly qualified in their field and effective in their job, but there is a big difference in how you place them.

The Nerd is a friendly. He knows his stuff and is so excited about it that he wants to simplify and explain it to you so you can understand and join in the fun. Dealing with a Nerd can be an amusing, learning experience. You put him in a position dealing with the public.

“Then, there is the Dork. He too knows his stuff, but he wears his knowledge as a badge of honor that demands homage. To emphasize his superiority, he will use arcane technical terms, make things sound more complicated than they are, and perhaps, after solving your problem, say something offensive like: ‘That was so easy.’ Dorks can be difficult to deal with. Keep them in the Lab.”

I think, as the times change, the friendly Nerds are becoming known as the friendly Geeks (which I originally thought was offensive. In the old carnival world of early 20th Century America, a Geek was someone who’d bite the head off a chicken. Just sayin’…). We even have a company called “Geek Squad” that specializes in friendly Techies who will solve your problems over the phone, on-line, and even come to your house.

This is my contribution to someone’s work-in-progress Dictionary: Be sure to specify that both Nerds and Geeks are friendly. Put the Geek up front. Keep the Dork happy in the back room.

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A Letter to The Motion Picture Academy

Dear Hollywood Film Makers: Please accept some feedback from a loyal movie goer of many years standing. I think my first movie was “The Mummy’s Ghost,” starring Lon Chaney, Jr., which I saw at The Fitchburg Theater in 1944. Admittedly, I watched most of it from under the theater seat, but I paid my twelve cents, I was there, and I loved every minute of it – and the thousands of movies I have seen since. I just think that the current generation of filmmakers could do a better job of enticing older customers, like me, back into the movie theaters with a little more sensitivity to our feelings and requirements. Otherwise, you will be “Net-Flixed.” Here are a few examples of what I mean:

1. “What did he say?” In the 1930’s Golden Age of Movies, stage actors new to the microphone, would scream out their lines. It was nerve wracking, but at least you could hear them. In this post “Godfather” movie world, people either mumble or whisper. That’s not the way people talk. It may be dramatic, but I can’t hear you. Enunciate! Speak up!

2. “Is that the dog or the horse?” When my father ate in a dimly lit restaurant, he would ask the waiter, “Didn’t you pay the electric bill?” I understand now what he meant. Your films have become so dark it’s hard to see what’s happening. It gets worse watching the video which is smaller yet and just as dark. Why does so much have to happen at night or in dark hallways? I want to see what the people are doing. Turn on the lights!

3. “Is that the will or the microdot?” Your movies give us things to read. Often they are important to the story line. Make the print bigger and use contrasting colors. Red on blue may be esthetically pleasing but it is almost illegible. Better yet, have someone read it aloud. Tell us what it says!

4. “Lose the accents.” It is not necessary for a Midwestern housewife to speak with an Austro-Serbian accent. It is affected and detracts from the performance. Just have her talk United States, for Heaven’s sake!

5. “Don’t step on the laughs.” Funny lines make people laugh. That’s the good news. Don’t immediately follow it with another funny line as we’ll miss it while everyone still laughs at the first one. That’s the bad news. Either pause for a reaction or, better yet, bridge the dialogue between one joke and another.

6. “Give the staff a raise?” Do you save money by giving everyone on staff a screen mention? I like to know the actors and principle staff. I’m not sure about the gaffers and best boys. I have no interest in your secretary, driver, or the caterers. Cut!

7. “Crude language, nudity, and gore.” I won’t go moral on you but these are at least rich spices and should be used sparingly. Overuse is numbing and can detract from a mainline movie. Also, people do imitate what they see and hear in movies so you have some responsibility here. Don’t make others censor you, do it yourself with good judgment and common sense. Remember, the biggest box office success of all time was “Gone With The Wind.” (it still draws huge TV audiences some seventy years later). It contained exactly one “bad word:” “Damn!” And – they got fined for using that.

8. “Little things mean a lot.” There are lots of overused clichés: the kick in the groin, the unnecessary car chase, the tipping of the banquet table, give them a rest. My least favorite is the ten minute fight scene. Have you ever seen a real brawl? It is either over in two punches, or it turns into a wrestling match until bored onlookers, or the cops, pry the two would-be combatants apart. By the way, the little outnumbered guy may not always lose, but he does not always win either. And neither does the attractive young woman.

9. “What happened then?” I know you can’t always have a happy ending, that’s not real life, but at least account for all the story lines you raise. What happened to the brother who fell out the back window? Is he dead, alive, or still sprawled in the alley? Give us a beginning, middle, and an end.

10. “Discount the critics.” In business we learn that it is easier to plan than implement. We have more idea men than workers, and to criticize someone else’s work is the easiest of all. If you can quote Oscar Wilde and do other witty slurs, you’re guaranteed a job as a movie critic. It is hard to be objective. It’s all based on who we are and where we’ve come from. Not every movie about a troubled childhood abroad, shown with subtitles, and filled with meaningful dialogue and pregnant pauses, is an artistic event. Some of them are boring. Not every comedy-western is trite. Some are fun. So – listen to your audience, hear everybody out, talk to your peers, and then go with your best judgment. That goes for my advice too.

I am sure that others could add-to and improve this starter list, and maybe they will. Let us hope that by the end of the next year, you can honestly re-use the slogan you used so well in the Fifties and say:

“Movies are better than ever’

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The Manager as Humanist (or Jerk, as the case may be)

Self-criticism is not a management core competency. Just read the business papers and see how few top executives, perhaps excluding only the Japanese, stand up and take responsibility for their mismanagement failures. In our part of the world, blame gets minimized, redefined, denied, and passed down to the next guy on the totem pole. My friend, Dr. Mike Schneider, used to say, “The last guy out the door broke the window in the Men’s Room too.”

The problem is that the Brightest and Best do not always make it to the top. There was a hypothesis around in the Seventies called, “The Theory of Ultimate Incompetence.” It said that we all get promoted until we hit a level where our performance is adequate enough to stay there, but not good enough to be promoted to the next higher position. This means that eventually, we all end up in the job at which we are the most incompetent. It’s scary, but there’s some truth in it.

What I’ve done over the years (while nursing a business career that rocketed me up to the middle) is to collect the signs and sayings of people in high positions who might be considered incompetent. These are the people who rely on jabs and japes, and the occasional old saw, to intimidate people into following them, because they lack the skills to lead. As I said once of an old boss, “He couldn’t organize a two float parade.”

Okay, here are the things to listen for. One slip alone need not alarm you, it could have been a mistake, and we all have bad days. It’s when you hear two or three or more of these that it’s time to sharpen up the resume and get far, far away from anybody who would say:

1. “At my level:” This self-important observation connotes that the speaker considers himself significantly higher than the listener(s), and expects premium treatment. It is often a prelude to an expression of outrage at some trivial indignity that we lesser mortals have to put up with each day: Like bussing one’s own tray in the company cafeteria.

2. “Me, me, me, and you:” I knew one business hero who skipped from company to company taking credit for a string of successful turnarounds and programs. He used to relish telling business war stories of his successes at his last employer: IBM. My old boss, Frank Keaney, another IBM veteran, once said: “IBM never packaged anybody out the back door for doing too good a job.”  Frank called it dead on. The hero lasted until he encountered the inevitable “Bad Quarter” that brought the world down around his ears. He responded by firing the sales manager and gently chiding himself for getting so involved in major problems that he let this one issue escape notice. In other words, when things went right: He did it. When things went wrong: Somone else did it. And, someone else got fired for it. Eventually , they caught up with him.

As my lawyer friend Stan Driban so aptly summed it up: “The Queen of Hearts never screamed, “Off with my head!”

3. “Look right, look left, one of you won’t be here in six months:” It is hard to believe that any idiot would actually say this, but I have heard it used more than once. This is used almost exclusively by intimidators who hope that their words will suffice to get people moving forward where their leadership and example may not. It is on the same level with: “The terminations will continue until morale improves.” Every person I have ever heard use this phrase has turned out to be an incompetent. There are no exceptions.

4. “I never had a bad day:” This is a variation of the old, “I don’t have ulcers, I give them.” It is also an indication that the speaker is not being honest with the audience; and if they lie in things small, they may lie in things big. Everybody has a bad day. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, that’s his or her call. They just shouldn’t be a jerk about it.

5. “I’m only one guy:” This is a pure cop-out. It means: ”Although I screwed it up totally (see also ‘FUBAR”: U.S. Army acronym for this phenomena: ‘Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition’), it is not my fault. I was too busy doing other more important things than to meet this obligation. Somebody should have seen my predicament and helped me.”

Boo! Hiss! Off with his head!

6. “I wasn’t informed:” I think the difference between a junior executive and a senior executive copping out, is that the junior executive says, “I didn’t know.” The senior executive says, “I wasn’t informed.” Both are outrageous attempts to evade blame and, frankly, neither works.

7. “It’s the little people:” Unless you’re a shoe manufacturer employing elves, don’t ever thank the “little people.” It’s supercilious, condescending, and offensive. The staff should rise up like the peasants in those old Frankenstein films and with burning torches, pikes, and rakes drive anyone who says this from the corporate village.

8. “Our treasure is our people:” It used to be that some version of this worked, until people realized they were being laid off (“downsize, right size, capsize” as the Brits say) to protect margins, profits, and  – oh yes – executive bonus plans. We all know they would have us little buggers on the street in ten minutes if the law permitted it, and if it meant another 15% in the bonus pool.

9. “We:” Mark Twain said that the first person plural pronoun “We” should only by used by kings, editors, and people with tape worms. After a 40+ year career in business, I would add pregnant women, anyone with multiple personalities, and people carrying a mouse in their pocket. It is a pompous affectation and unless you’re using it in the exclusive sense of “We won!”, drop it from your business vocabulary and mistrust anyone who uses it.

10. “My work here is done:” You only hear this from someone who is trying to get the hell out the door to a new job before the one he has now collapses down around his ears. This is an explanation with no content. It is just an empty term used by a departing manager to suggest he’s done a wonderful job, is now off to bigger and better things, and whatever happens here next week is the new guy’s fault (including that broken window in the Men’s Room).

11“And that’s not a shot at you:” This is an “adult” version of  the obnoxious child’s hokey mantra: “I was only kidding.” It’s used to deflect criticism for an over-the-top and unwarranted, often public, assault on another person’s dignity or competence: “Your program so is fouled up and mismanaged it could only have been conceived by a stumbling, bumbling, incompetent boob! And that’s not a shot at you.” The object of this tirade is supposed to feel much better after the concluding modifier.

12. “Trust the system:” This one has almost a quasi-religious element to it. It means that you should totally believe in the system, although you have seen it fail for others countless times, and have no reason to believe that the system is more than a loose collection of ill thought-out and often contradictory management policies and practices. It is right up there with: “Use the old, frayed rope ladder to cross the canyon. It is perfectly safe.” This is where you get it in writing.

That’s it. Now think of the executive that you want to evaluate. Start with 100%. Deduct ten points for any of these placebo expressions that you have heard him or her use. You might even make it twenty points if you feel strongly about it.

Any boss who still scores at 90% or higher is destined for the Business Hall of Fame.

Anything over 80% puts them ahead of the curve and indicates an interest in becoming a decent and responsible manager.

A score of 70%, like the old “Gentlemen’s ‘C’,” that Ivy League colleges awarded in the Fifties to n’eer-do-wells, indicates that the boss may get by, but frankly, it’s doubtful and, at best, a survival plateau. If it’s a family business, they give guys like this. who know too much. a nice corner office with windows and tell them to watch out for the return of the glaciers.

Anything below 75% means the Final Accounting is closer than you think; the outlook is devastation and disaster both for the boss and for those around him.

If your executive’s score is low, and your gut feel says “bad”, is there any cause for Hope that the situation can be turned around? Oh sure, there’s always Hope, but it’s dimming fast.

My advice is: Head for the hills.

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Interesting People: Monsieur Rose

One of the perks of working for a successful high-tech start-up, like Data General Corporation, was hanging around with smart people. They are “bright off the scale” as my friend Dr. Mike Schneider used to say. Oh sure, once in a while a bogey slips through the net, but they are quickly identified, neutralized, and ejected before they cause too much harm. I found myself in such a high performance environment in 1971 when I went to work for Data General, “the darling of Wall Street,” and the fastest growing company of the Seventies.

One of my jobs was entertaining over dinner the senior clients who came in to meet the company founders. The founders weren’t into “entertaining” while I enjoyed the occasional social night out with business heavyweights from around the world. I met some very interesting people. People who liked to tell stories:

I remember Monsieur Rose (pronounced like the wine), a principal of Company Olivier, an important French trading company. They had been doing business in the eastern world, mainly China, since the 17th century. He told me the great secret of doing business with China: “The Chinese value long term relationships, and courtly and conservative business people. The American companies who go over there with high pressure sales pitches, accompanied by  ‘Flash and Cash,’ will fail every time.”

Thus should we approach the Mysterious East.

M. Rose knew his company history, loved French wine, and enjoyed telling a good story. I was interested in all three, so we got on splendidly.

He told this story to illustrate the Chinese business mentality: In the 1960’s and 70’s, during Mao’s reign of terror in China, M. Rose would meet in Paris with the Chinese negotiators on important business matters. “The Chinese team never knew from one day to the next who was in charge in Peking (now Beijing), or what the party line would be for today. People were in and out of favor, ideas were adopted and abandoned, and laws were made and changed. It was a turbulent, confusing, and dangerous time.”

“How could the Chinese negotiators in Paris deal with all that chaos back home?” I asked. “It must have made their jobs impossible.”

“Not at all,” smiled M. Rose. “The Chinese are the ultimate business professionals. They are flexible. They are pragmatic. The Chinese team would get a daily cable from Beijing saying this policy is in or out, that leader is good or bad, and this is the correct thinking for today. They whole-heartedly adopted the new political position before their next business meeting. They’d come in wearing business suits one day and quilted jackets the next. They’d wave Mao’s little Red Book of principles – or not. The homeland politics may have changed, but not their mission: They were there to get the best deal possible for China; and that’s exactly what they did”

My favorite Mr. Rose story was about China and their trading mastery. Back in the 18th century, the Chinese realized that there was great Western interest in their delicate tea, their exquisite pottery, and their handsome furnishings. “The big markets in Europe, and the United States were difficult to penetrate for all the usual reasons. The Chinese realized they needed an angle. They found it in an inspired marketing approach: They offered their pottery to Western distributors in a package deal: You buy their pottery. The pottery comes packaged in tea leaves. Both pottery and tea leaves come packed in a crate that is itself a handsome teak box. The merchant would sell the pottery, sell the tea, and sell the chest.

“It was the first time in business history that a merchant could make money on the product, the packing material, and the shipping container. There was no recycling. Nothing was wasted.”

Yes, I like smart people.

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Telephonic Answering Machines: They Must Go!

Recently I tried calling a large manufacturer about a product problem I was having with my ten year old electric drill. I called the 800 Help Line and ran into the ubiquitous telephone answering machine. It ruined my entire day.

First of all, it asked if I spoke English. Really. Then it told me to listen closely because their menu had recently changed. I had called just last week and the menu hadn’t changed at all. Then it gave me several options that didn’t quite fit my interest, so I pushed “O” for an operator. Forget it. The machine babbled on and told me that I could always just go away and check their website. That wasn’t satisfactory.

Finally, I got transferred to the right department, and a second answering machine. This one also had options that had recently changed, and wasn’t about to let me near a human being. It assured me that my call was very important. Yes, I can see that. When calls are important to you, it only makes sense that you put people on hold and aggravate then beyond measure

At long last, it transferred me to a human being, or rather the answering machine of a human being. This machine assured me that they were experiencing a high volume of calls (at midnight?), and that their operators were helping other clients. I wondered: If your call volume is so high, why don’t you hire more people? I didn’t say it because I’m sure the machine didn’t care, and I was afraid that if I let Attitude creep into my voice, the computer would sense it and cut me off. I did hear a few lovely, recorded songs to let me know they were still there.

Much later, someone picked up the phone. It was an elapsed time of 21+ minutes since I initiated the call The human couldn’t help me. My electric drill had been discontinued, and they didn’t know who stocked replacement parts. They suggested I Google it.

I hung up, having learned two things: 1. Google replacement parts first. 2. Buy somebody’s else’s electric drill.

As I thought about this adventure, I wondered: What would happen if 911 Emergency Services switched to an automated answering service? I visualized this exchange:

(Dialing 911)

Hello, this is 911 Emergency Services. If you wish to continue this call in English, Press “1.”

(Press 1)

Please listen closely as our menu has recently changed:

Press “1” if you are currently being attacked and would like police assistance.

Press “2” If you are concerned about a pending attack.

Press “3” If you are witnessing a crime now.

Press “4” If you are committing a crime now.

Press “5” If you wish Fire Department assistance

Press “6” If you would like an ambulance.

All other calls, Press “7.”

(Press “O”, for Operator)

I’m sorry, I don’t understand that. Would you like to speak with one of our duty officers? If so, Press “O O.”

(Press “O O”)

I’m sorry. We are experiencing a higher than normal call volume at this time, and all of our officers are busy helping other victims. Your call will be taken in the order it was received. The current waiting time is fourteen minutes.

However, you could check our website and send us a message by clicking on the “Contact Us” icon. We will respond as promptly as the situation allows.

In the meantime, we’ll play some inspiration messages for you from our departmental chaplain.

Thank you for your call. We appreciate being of service.

And, remember this exchange when our budget for the new year comes up at the next City Council Meeting; consider now how you voted down our increase request last year.

Goodbye, and Good Luck!

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On New Cars

Family Cars, Options and other Necessary Evils

       The first family car I can remember was the 1939 Packard Eight that my father purchased in 1941, He loved that car. In addition to looks, status, and power,it had outside spotlights and every conceivable option a car could offer: A heater/defroster, an AM radio, and a cigarette lighter. Then, he bought an after-market kit and installed directional turn signals. Now, in winter, you didn’t have to lower the window and stick out your arm to signal a turn (while freezing out everyone in the back seat). What more could there be?

          My father worked in the auto parts business, and growing up I heard all the stories about his early motoring days: The hand crank to start the engine (it could break your wrist if you held it wrong); the knob over the driver’s visor that you manually turned to make the windshield wipers move; the “defroster” crank which allowed you to open the bottom of the windshield a crack to help clear frost off the glass; and don’t even get me going on driving a car with a planetary transmission (three pedals/no shift). Maybe a heater/defroster, an AM radio, and a cigarette lighter were the only options you really needed.

I kept that mind set over the next 15 years or so, until I got my first car: a 1949 Studebaker (this was in 1958). It too had a heater/defroster (which could not be turned off, even in summer) and a cigarette lighter. It did not have a radio. It took another 6 months to find the money to buy a used radio at a junkyard and pay somebody to install it, and the antenna, for me. Then, Life was good. I had it all. Almost.

A few years before, Jesse, our family mechanic, had built and installed an air conditioner in his own car. It was a kit, bolted under the dashboard, the size of a small refrigerator, but it cranked out cold air on the hottest summer days. It was wonderful. Such an option was beyond me, of course, but I did want one. However, I managed to buy a car that had another new option: windshield washers. By this time, I was in the Army and doing my share of highway driving. If a trailer whisked by you at 60 mph, depositing mud and road junk all over your windshield, you had to pull the car over to the roadside, and get out with a cloth to wipe the windshield clear enough to see through. The washer shortened travel time. Now, you merely pushed a button and a water spray cleaned the windshield while the blades wiped it off; most of it anyway.

I still wanted that air conditioner though. I kept at it and sometime in the late Sixties, about 10 years after the Studebaker, I got my first air conditioned car. It was a 1968 Ford LTD station wagon. I bought it off the dealer’s lot, as is, and learned when I got it home that in addition to the A/C, it had an automatic transmission (no more shifting!), an AM/FM radio and a power tailgate. You could raise and lower the tailgate window from the driver’s seat, while in motion. It was a wonderful device. When you just wanted fresh air, you lowered the back window and that big wagon just sucked in the fresh air like a vacuum cleaner. The car did not have seat belts, and I had 4 kids who loved to play in the “way back,” but, as far as I know, no one ever fell out, and this new option was a great success.

Surely, surely, there was no other option that could possibly be added. Wrong. Sometime in the Seventies, a neighbor bought a Cadillac that had heated side view mirrors and heated seats. I thought that was ridiculous – until we were both shoveling out our cars one winter morning. He just sat inside with the heated seats warming his rear end, while the ice melted away and dropped off his side view mirrors. Yes, heated mirrors and seats were the wave of the future, and made it to my list of necessary extras.

Later, in that same decade, the option floodgates really opened: the radio now had an 8 track tape player, idiot lights on the dashboard that warned of pending mechanical doom, spiked snow tires that eliminated the need to crawl under the car in winter to install chains (the spiked tires didn’t last all that long; they tore up the roads). I bought a 1973 Mustang convertible that had all these good things, plus power windows and locks.

The Eighties brought even more new stuff. Once, while I was on the road, I rented a new Buick in Canada. When I returned to the hotel that evening, I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the headlights. They stayed on even when I shut off the motor. I asked the garage attendant for help and he told me not to worry. That was a new option: headlights for better visibility in daylight driving (“…at night, the headlights let you see the other car; in daytime, the headlights let the other car see you.”) He said the lights would go off by themselves in 5 minutes or so. They did.

And on it went. In the Nineties I got my first car with a “popper” door lock. No more toil actually inserting and turning the door key in the lock. You just pushed the button and “pop”, the door unlocked. And still, like the incoming tide, the options and extras kept rolling in.

My latest new car has a GPS locator. I shut off the sound because I don’t need to hear any new voices when I think I’m alone on the highway. But, I can’t get lost anymore. It also has a satellite radio. I thought the radio was unnecessary until I tried it, and learned I could select whatever kind of music I like, and play it 24 X 7 without repetitious commercials, and DJ’s who talk too much. I like satellite radio now.

And finally, another friend recently bought a new, top of the line Cadillac. It’s got everything I’ve mentioned here, and much more. He offered to let me take it for a spin but he said, “You really should come in and watch the factory DVD with me so you can understand some of the new features.” I knew that wasn’t necessary. I’d just sit in the driver’s seat and familiarize myself with everything. I did that. It was like sitting at the control panel of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The first thing I noticed was that it didn’t have an ignition key, nor any keyhole that I could find. I stopped there. I thanked him for his offer, but said I was pressed for time. I draw the line at watching movies before I can understand how to start a car.

You know, I haven’t smoked for years, so I don’t need a cigarette lighter anymore (not that they offer them anyway). Maybe a heater/defroster, air conditioner, and satellite radio are all the options I really need anyway.

Once again, Dad was basically right.

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A Christmas Story: On Gratitude

               On Gratitude

           I’m one of those people who look like I work there. I can go into a strange office and people will greet me like a familiar colleague. They mention company projects, ask directions, whatever. One time a company was having an office dedication ceremony and several people congratulated me. Someone even asked if I was going to speak.

If I dash out at noon to do a personal errand at a local store, people will approach and ask my opinion on their purchase.  They may want me to guide them to a particular product, or even press me to ring it up and wrap it.  It’s flattering on one level, I suppose. I’m the middle-aged “Everyman.” But, like all celebrity, it gets annoying over time. It’s even worse the few times I go to dinner wearing black tie. Strangers ask me for the wine list.

One Christmas, I ran a holiday dinner for the executives of my firm at a downtown Boston private club. It was a formal event. We had a room and the party was in full swing. Everybody was having a good time. I stepped outside the room for a breather. I was standing in the corridor looking officious (I do that well too), when I noticed an attractive, elderly woman with a dazzling smile making her way toward me. I knew she thought I had some official function here, but she was so pleasant I had to nod and smile back .

She took my hand and pressed something into my palm. “You were always so kind to my late husband and me,” she said. “Twenty-five years of quality service. This is just a Christmas thank you and remembrance.”

I started to sputter, “But I’m not…..”

“Shhh,” she smiled, holding a finger to her lips. “I know you’re not supposed to, but this will be our secret.” With that, a pat on the hand, and another dazzling smile, she turned, and returned to her party.

Now what do I do? Another case of mistaken identity, albeit on a higher plane; but mistaken identity all the same. Before I get upset about anything, I employ my first rule: Assess the magnitude of the problem: I opened my hand. Inside was a crisp, neatly folded, five dollar bill.

I stared at it for a moment or two. “Twenty-five years of quality service,” I thought to myself, “and she gives me a lousy five bucks.”

Published Column, The Boston Herald, 2010; Copyright The Jokesmith 2011

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