Stories People Tell Me (#2)

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things: Of ships and shoes and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings….” (Credit: Lewis Carroll, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’)

This is a continuation of Stories People Tell Me (#1)

5. Mad Men: In the mid Sixties, and beyond, I got to go with my boss to Madison Avenue and meet the “Mad Men,” a current term for the aggressive and creative types who produce the advertisements that compel us to purchase the products of America. The products, which, as the movie title so aptly put it, include: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The “Mad Men” told stories.

5.1 One of my favorite stories had to do with a certain shampoo which years ago had peaked sales-wise. The company naturally wanted to sell more, but there was no place to go. They seem to have penetrated every market they could identify. They challenged their advertising agency to  come up with a  new plan to increase sales.

The advertising agency, after much thought and discussion, did exactly that. They came up with a way to almost double sales without new products, new markets, or additional expense. They did it with a two-word change to the label.

In the instructions section of the shampoo bottle label, they added these 2 words: “Rinse, Repeat.”

5.2. Once we were in the City for lunch. The agency took us to Tavern on the Green. It was in Central Park and was quite elegant, atmospheric, and expensive. Money was no issue as the agency would just add it to our corporate bill, in one way or another.

The big exercise/adventure thing at that time was SCUBA (e.g. “Self-Contained Underwater breathing Apparatus”) diving. The agency guys drank martinis and told wonderful stories of their great underwater adventures.

One of the guys was pontificating on diver safety: The need for a partner, equipment checks, awareness of weather and the diving area, and the importance of a sharp knife. attached to your belt or boot. I said, “A knife like that wouldn’t be much good against a shark now, would it?”

He replied, “Sharks sense blood in the water. The knife is not for the shark. The knife is for your partner. It buys time.”

5.3. Our advertising director, Bill,  had a drinking problem. That was a relatively common problem among these high strung, high stress guys. The company gave him a break and shipped him off for treatment and protected his job – all at company expense. One noon in the City, our mutual boss and I walked into a pub for lunch. I heard the boss take a sharp intake of air. There was Bill, sitting at the bar, drinking. He saw the boss at the same time the boss saw him. He immediately went into defensive mode: “It’s only white wine,” Bill said. “I can’t get drunk on wine.”

The boss looked at him and said: “Yes, Bill. That’s why they call those elegant gentlemen you see lying in the alley, ‘Wine-Os'”.

Bill paid his bill and left. He left the company soon after.

5.4.  The best presentation I’ve even seen was conducted by Leslie, an agency principal.Leslie was an amateur mountain climber of some fame, and one wall of his cathedral ceilinged office  was the rocky side of a mountain. It was made of real rocks, floor to ceiling. I didn’t see its like again until several years later when such climbs were in pricey exercise gymns and on cruise boat work-out areas. Leslie had it first.

As the presentation began, Leslie stripped to his dress shirt, slacks, and boots. He attached his climbing equipment. The theme was “Preparation.”

Then he began his climb. He called this phase, “Campaign Initiation.”

He ran into a few problems, halfway up the wall, which he promptly dealt with, calling them “Obstacles and Objections to be Resolved.”

He reached the top, sat on an outcrop of rock, and delivered  his words on “Success.”

Then, he repelled back down, while talking about “Follow-Up.”

Finally, he landed, removed his equipment and talked about our business, calling it “Asking for the Order,” while he asked for our order.

He got it.

6. Tom the Conservative: Back in the 1960’s, before casual work wear was discovered, all the men came to work in suits, jackets, and ties. They believed that management and clients both took their first impression from your appearance, e.g. “You are what you look like.” Tom was Vice President of planning for the Fortune 500 firm we both worked for. Tom was straight as an arrow. He had several degrees from prestigious universities, belonged to the right church and clubs, and was surely an Establishment Man on the way up. He was also a great guy, and when we sat down together, it was not economics we discussed. It was office gossip, corporate politics, and naturally – we told stories.

One day, I joined him for coffee in his neat office and noticed that showing between his tailored pants leg and his (five pound) black wing tip shoe was (horror of horrors!) a white athletic sock. I managed to check out his other leg when he changed positions, and on that leg we wore his standard, black, executive hose. One leg white sock, one leg black sock. I had to ask him about it.

“Oh, that,” he said. I have an allergy causing a rash on my left foot so the doctor told me to wear a white cotton sock for a while.

“Then,” I asked, “why didn’t you wear a white sock on the other foot too, instead of the executive hose?’

He looked at me in surprise. “If I did that,” he said with a shudder, “people might think I was wearing white socks with a business suit. This way, they know something’s wrong and will ask me, like you just did. Then, I can explain my situation and they will understand  and know that I am properly dressed.”

I thought that was wonderful, Establishment logic.

7.  Tales by Leo:

Brother Leo made a career developing and implementing management testing systems, interviewing and reporting on candidates being considered for promotional opportunities, and speaking and counseling top management on organization matters. He collected a lifetime’s worth of business anecdotes. Here are a few of my favorites:

7.1. Roland was a brilliant and somewhat eccentric senior engineer in one of Leo’s client accounts. He was not a people person, had no interest in a management role, and wanted to be left alone in his lab, where he performed beautifully. His management was savvy enough to let him be – but they did want Leo to have a chat with him over lunch and see if there were any issues that should be confronted.

Luncheon was always the same with Roland: He ordered hot soup, a sandwich, and ice cream. He ate them in this order: The ice cream, followed by the sandwich, followed by the soup. “Why did he do that?” they wondered.

When Roland arrived at the cafeteria table with his usual 3 items, Leo watched as Roland ate them in his usual order: The ice cream, the sandwich, the soup. In a roundabout way,   he asked Roland about his unusual eating sequence. Roland was mildly surprised by the question. “It’s only logical,” he said. “I eat the ice cream first so it won’t melt. The sandwich I can eat anytime, but I choose to eat it second. That gives the soup a chance to cool.”

Now it all made sense.

7.2 Robert was a hard driving senior executive with a successful track record who was being considered by the Board of Directors for the recently vacated CEO position at the firm. He seemed a shoe-in for the job. Unfortunately, he wasn’t selected. It went to a lesser qualified candidate who seemed to have some political connection with an important board member and it was he, not Robert, who got the job. Everyone waited for Robert’s inevitable explosion, recriminations, and heated resignation. The office staff even started a “Ghoul Pool” as to the day and hour it would happen.

Leo was on the firm’s consulting staff, and Roger called him into his office. “You know what happened?” Roger began. Leo nodded yes. “Everybody’s waiting for me to go off the deep end. I hear they’re even betting as to when it will happen.” Again, Leo nodded yes. “Did you buy a ticket?” Leo said no.

“Well good; don’t waste your money picking a date. It’s not going to happen,” Roger said. “I’ve worked too long and too hard to burn my bridges behind me. I will not trade 20 years of work for 20 seconds of satisfaction. I’ll go, but I’ll go on my time table.”

Robert was as good as his word. His record was well known in the industry and they also knew the story. Within 6 months, he was recruited and hired into the top job with another firm. He resigned from his current post, helped ease the succession, wished everyone well, and left for a more important and remunerative position like the classy guy that he was.

7.3  Leo and I were once discussing an individual known to us both who had really made a botched job of an important assignment that he should have been able to accomplish with ease. I commented, “I expected more of him. After all, he has 20 years of experience in that kind of work.”

Leo replied, “No one has 20 years of experience at anything. After some point, we all stop learning and start to coast. The most you can hope for is 10 years of experience twice. The majority of managers have 5 years of experience 4 times. Some have 2 years of experience 10 times, and, at the bottom of the heap, you find the people who have 1 year of experience 20 times.”

I often think of that when I have to put someone’s years of experience into perspective.

7.4 Leo dealt with a number of family businesses that had some unique problems. One of these was dealing with a family member in an important company job, that he just could not handle. In the case of a family concern, this is both a business and a personal problem.

One day, Leo spoke with the patriarch of a successful family manufacturing firm who told him this story: “My oldest son came to me recently, and said that he should be announced now as my successor as president and CEO of the business. I asked him why he felt that was appropriate and he responded: “Because I am the senior son.”

“I told him this story I heard years ago: When the turkey farmer dies, the farm owners recruit a new turkey farmer. They do not promote the oldest turkey.”

7.5 Talking about different things together: Leo was working a project with the CEO of a large, multi-divisional company, with branches all over the United States. He said his biggest concern was in the communications area, where people might misunderstand, and misimplement, some corporate communication.

He told Leo about the time he had his secretary call the manager of one of his small mid-western plants, and ask what their summer hiring policy was. She told the plant manager there was no rush, it was Friday, and if he could get it to her the following Monday, that would be fine.

The plant manager hung up. He called in the HR manager and asked about their summer hiring policy. The HR manager said they didn’t have one. They  just hired people if they needed them.

The plant manager said, “We’ll have one by Monday!”

The entire HR staff was called in for the weekend job. The found out what the competition was doing, locally and around the country, what the appropriate laws were concerning the matter, and established pay scales and a review procedure. By Monday morning it was written, bound, and off to the the CEO’s office via same day freight.

That afternoon, the CEO watched his secretary haul in this heavy loose leaf binder and place it on his desk. “What is that?” he asked.

“That’s the summer hiring policy manual from the plant manager I called for you last Friday.”

The president said, “I don’t want that. Call him back and tell him my sister’s kid lives near his plant and I was just wondering if they were hiring for the summer.”

Leo is still out there and keeping his hand in with the new generation of business leaders and business hopefuls. And, I hope, he is working on “The Book.”

8. Artie D, the Logical Lawyer:

My colleague, attorney Stan Driban, once characterized Artie D as “A logical man in an illogical world.” That is a perfect description of my long time friend.

Artie and I met at 3C in 1964 and immediately hit it off despite our many apparent differences. Artie was a Brown University contracts lawyer, I was a UMass English Major working in sales support. Artie was an athlete, football player, weight lifter, and a bad man to cross on any level, intellectual or physical. I wasn’t. Artie had a grand sense of humor and enjoyed telling stories. Me too.

One of the first Artie D tales was when he told me how he kept up his reading pace while he was in the Army. He read only paperbacks because, at the end of each day, he would rip out the pages he had read and throw them away. The problem, of course, was that he’d occasionally recommend a book he had just finished to a buddy and, if the chap asked to borrow it, Artie would have to reply: “I threw it away.”

“Why did you rip out the pages and essentially throw the book away?” I asked.

Artie replied, “Every day, my pack grew lighter.”

We started lunching together in 1964 and basically kept up the tradition, with only minor interruptions, through 4 different companies, until 1999. I once told him, “I’ve heard every damn story you know in the past 35 years. Why do you keep retelling them?”

Artie replied, “They are the only stories I know.”

I guess he could have said the same thing about mine.

In our positions working with sales people, and clients, and co-workers who enjoyed the occasional (and frequent) drink, Artie once told Bill and I we had to be careful not to overdue it.

Bill said, “Artie, don’t worry. You’ll never be an alcoholic.”

Artie liked that. He said, “Because of my character and resolve?”

Bill said, “No, because you’re too cheap to pick up the tab.”

In fairness, Artie and wife Bev did enjoy the occasional weekend dinner at some nice, local restaurant. Artie told us one time how he even saved money on those dinners out: “Bev and I get dressed up, then we sit at the kitchen table with a soft light and perhaps put some music on, and we have one or two cocktails. Then, when we get to the restaurant, we don’t have to pay for drinks.”

Bill smiled and said, “Artie, why don’t you both just stay there in the kitchen, have your dinner there, and save the entire restaurant bill?”

Artie went into his think mode. It was such an obvious solution to the expense of eating out. I gather the concept, as frugal as it was, did not fly with his wife.

Like me, Artie is retired now. We still do the occasional lunches. Artie is still the Renaissance Man he always was. He consults, raises dogs, has a garden, can fix anything wrong with any car, and any house, built a pond in his backyard (“Lake Artie”) to stock fish and attract wildlife for the grandchildren, reads, and can juggle at least 3 weekend football games at the same time (twin TV’s and a radio – all at the same time).

He’s always good for some seasoned, informed, and – of course – logical advice.Artie is a good friend.


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