Category Archives: Business Insights

Thoughts on the corporate world

Memoir Publishing: Advice from a Ghost

Nana Reading Aug 06 MPL

             Library Book Club Reading, “The Nana in the Chair,” 2006,

with grandchildren Jon and Julia on book selling duty (somebody has to do it)


In my business career, I dealt with sales, executive support, events, and speech writing (among other things) for over 40 years. I ran corporate events around the world. I met lots of people and heard lots of stories. When I retired, I took with me those things that I thought I’d like to do part-time. They were both about writing: Speech writing and book writing.

I had published a couple of books of my own: “We’re Roasting Harry Tuesday Night,” (Prentice-Hall) was about writing and producing a business or social roast. I wrote and ran a lot of those.

“The Nana in the Chair” (AuthorHouse; revised edition RoofTop Publishing) is a family memoir of my Irish grandmother who told us grand stories of Ireland during World War II. I went on the promotion circuit.

I also self-published two niche joke books about Finance (“The Attack of the Killer Bean Counters”) and Human Resources (What is a Human Resource?) through my own Jokesmith Press imprint.

I  did newspaper commentary, wrote (and augmented) business speeches, published The Jokesmith (1985-2012), a speakers’ comedy newsletter, and worked with people who wanted to write and publish their own memoir. Most of these were business people.

The books and the writing helped me establish credibility  I remember a quote I read in a biography of the famed novelist Somerset Maugham. He wrote: “I am in the first rank of second rate writers.” I laughed and thought, “Okay, maybe I am in the first rank of third-rate writers. But – at least I’m in the first rank of something. I’ll use that.” And I did.

I also learned that there are two important things you must do if you wish to be regarded as an expert in your chosen field: 1. Tell everybody you are an expert. 2. Publish a book. I did both of those too.

Over the years of observing successful people in action, I learned that there are four benchmarks on the road to business and financial success: 1. Preparation (education & training) and experience. 2. Be in the right place at the right time. 3. Work hard and work smart (working smart , in my opinion, is more important than working hard), and 4. Get lucky. You need all four.

However, even that’s not enough to make a best selling memoir. A lot of people have done those four things successfully, and profited from it, but they still don’t have a story worthy of a national audience. You need something above and beyond that: Think about the genius of Bill  Gates, the unstoppable force that was Steve Jobs, the successful performance over time that is Warren Buffet. Now those are stories worthy of a national, or even world-wide, audience.

Is this a new concept? Nope. Think about Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Joe Kennedy, Roy Kroc, and the legions of successful people who stretch out across our history. Were they all nice guys? No way. But they did have a story worthy of telling and worthy of reading.

I met Emile, for example. He had escaped from one of Hitler’s death camps in the Forties, came to this country as a penniless, non-English speaking immigrant, and amassed a considerable fortune over the years. He became a philanthropist in his senior years. He liked to say: “I came here with the clothes on my back, and my ten fingers.” Emile was about seventy when I met him in New York during the Sixties. After he told me his story over dinner and a bottle of wine one night, I asked him, “Mr. E., what would happen if you lost it all tomorrow?”

Emile paused for a moment, shrugged, and then replied, “I still have my ten fingers. I would build it all up again.”

When I started working with executives who wanted to write their memoirs, I kept all these things in mind. I wasn’t just interested in making money as a ghost writer, but in getting the book published, and telling a story that was worth being read. A story that could amuse, teach, inspire. I was brutally honest with the people who interviewed me.

I met one retired executive in Boston. He lived in a penthouse apartment in one of Boston’s most fashionable buildings. We had coffee on his terrace  one spring morning, overlooking the city of Boston, the harbor, and the airport. It was like something from a travelogue. He told me his story. It was a good story. It touched all four of my key points, but that was it. There was no magic to it. He wasn’t even close to Emile. No, my client was just a good man of business who did well for himself, his family, and probably a few others..

I try to let them down easily. I said, “That’s an interesting story, and maybe you could self-publish it (and I know how to do that, by the way), but I don’t see it  being commercially published, nor as a national sales success.”

He replied, “That’s okay. I don’t really care about that. I made my grandchildren very rich, and I want them to know my side of the story.”

I thought that was a great answer, and helped him with the project. I think eventually he printed up a couple of hundred copies of his story, at his expense, passed them out to his family and close friends, and that was it. He felt vindicated.

It reminded me of a story (possible apocryphal) that  I heard about old Joe Kennedy. Someone asked him once how his grandchildren might feel about their inheritance if  they learned he was a bootlegger and a robber baron. Old Joe allegedly said: “No grandchildren are ever embarrassed about how the old man got all the money he left them.” It may not be a true story, but the premise works for me.

There are so many outlets for publishing today. There is the Vanity Press. For the right money, they can produce a professional looking book to rival anything on Barnes & Noble shelves; although the content may be sadly lacking. One publisher told me, “If you want to write a book about your cat, this is the way to go.”

Then there is P.O.D. or “Print on Demand.” I’ve used one of these presses. They do a good job, at a reasonable price, and for around a thousand bucks you can end up with a good looking paper back, 50 copies, and a listing on They offer such additional services as proof reading, cover design, and merchandising – all at extra cost, of course. Few of these books are commercial successes.

Next, there are eBooks. Some of these books never appear in hard copy. They are all “in the cloud” for customers to download on their computers and electronic readers. You can publish one of these eBooks on or Apple’s website, for few dollars, and people can download it for a buck or two You get to keep a percentage of the sales. As usual, unless you want to pay extra, marketing and publicity are up to you.

And then, there is the Holy Grail of publishing, the commercial publishing houses  (Random, House, Knopf, Little, Brown, Inc. etc – the biggies).  You don’t have much of a chance here. They won’t even look at your manuscript unless you submit it through a literary agent. However, literary agents are almost as selective as publishers, so you have to be special to  attract even their attention. It’s  a Catch-22: You can’t be published without a record of success, and you can’t compile a record of success without being published.

Yes, there are vanity agents who will read your manuscript and offer suggestions and some help, but it seems they are more interested in the fees they charge than they are in publishing your book and earning commissions the hard way.

So, what do you do? First, you ask yourself, why would you write your memoir?  If you want fame, national recognition, money, or a guest shot on Oprah, you might want to consider gardening instead. But – if you want to write it because it needs to be written, because it has to be written, and maybe nobody else can do it but you, you have the right motivation. You know the story shouldn’t be lost. That’s why you do it. If all else fails, you write it out on your word processor, print it neatly, and then photo copy it in 25 bound copies at Office Max or Staples. Then, at Christmas, or at some other appropriate gathering, you give signed copies to the people, family and friends, most likely to care.

Will you get rich and famous? Most likely  not. But, you’ll feel good about it. And, you will hope, like I do, that  somewhere, some day, maybe 50 or 100 years from now, a bright, young, family member will find it in a trunk somewhere, read it, and say the 22d Century equivalent of “Wow! This old guy was really cool. I want to remember this story and share it with my kids and grand kids.”

And that, my friends, is both the reason why you should write your memoir, and the ultimate reward.

They say you are never gone as long as people are talking about you.

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Reflection: On Gambling

Sleight of Hand

       Illustration from “SLEIGHTS: A Number of Incidental Effects, Tricks, Sleights, Moves, and Passes (1914)”; by Burling Hull; given to me by Dad’s friend, Levi Lashua (Auctioneer, Table Tennis Hustler, and Parlor Magician Extraordinaire) in 1947 on my 10th birthday

I am not a gambler.

Well, I suppose everything you do in life is some kind of a gamble. I’m not a gambler in the sense of Off Track Betting, or even frequently purchased lottery tickets. In fact, a statistician once told me that your chances of winning the top prize in a national lottery is about the same, in a practical sense, whether or not you buy a ticket. You lose the distinction in the rounding off of the odds. Of course, without the ticket you have no chance at all, microscopic though such a chance might be, but – when it comes to the lottery, you’re not buying a ticket anyway, you’re buying a dream.

Over the years, I have known a few heavy bettors, but never anyone who made real money over the long run. There are too many skilled gamblers out there, and the odds are against you.

A while back, I ran corporate events and recognition programs all over the world, including resorts throughout Las Vegas, Reno, the Caribbean,  and on cruise ships – all of which feature casinos. They are a magnet for the high energy,competitive, aggressive types who seek thrills and endorphin highs at every opportunity (especially with a few drinks under their belts). Meeting Managers always kept a special eye on these guys to try and make sure they didn’t go off the deep end. It didn’t work all the time, and a few Happy Campers on a sponsored vacation trip, ended up going home sadder, poorer, but hopefully wiser. In general, casinos are not desirable destinations for corporate recognition programs.

People in jobs like mine, Meeting Managers, rarely gambled. They were not heavy drinkers, or heavy anything-else either. One colleague, a senior Meeting Manager from IBM I met on the road, and I talked about that one night over dinner. I shared my insight and he said, “Absolutely. Look around at the Meeting Managers you meet out here: There aren’t many old men in our business. If you want the fast life, don’t take this job. You’ll kill your fool self, burn out, or get fired within a year.”

I smiled at the memory of the old nuns in parochial school back in the Forties gravely warning us about “Occasions of Sin.” I guess a casino might qualify.

I learned a few new things about casinos too. They will attract business using every tactic, and trick, in the book. For example, resort casinos are designed and built so that you cannot get from the lobby to your room without walking through the casino, or at least walking past the casino. You can’t go in or out without hearing the laughter, the music, the clank of coins hitting the winner’s tray, seeing the dancing colored lights – everything that appeals to the senses. Why are slot machines so noisy when they dispense coins into the winner’s tray? That noise is designed in, and it’s special. It cries “Winners Over Here!” And the would-be winners come. Once, in Las Vegas, I saw a big bus pull in one morning loaded with area senior citizens. Their luxury bus ride was free, as was a nice lunch at the casino, and then they had 4 hours to lose their money. The buses arrived every morning.

A few of the elderly women carried white, canvas work gloves. “Why is that?” I asked.

“Because,” the floor manager said, “they don’t want to develop calluses from pulling down the slot machine handle several times each minute.”

I worked for, and hung around, with Texans on the road for a while. I always found Texans and Germans to be the most raucous partiers. They were both loud, funny, story tellers who, after hours, enjoyed a drink with friends, telling, and listening to, each other’s tales. And – you better have something new, because they had heard them all.

Like the other successful people I met, they knew their own limits and paced themselves accordingly. One night a bunch of Texans got going on the subject of gambling and “Pappy’s advice.”

One guy said he was told: “If you ever find yourself at a bar, sitting next to a slick looking dude with a deck of cards, who wants to bet you 20 bucks that he can make the Jack of Hearts jump out of that deck and spit cider into your ear, don’t take the bet! You’ll just be out 20 bucks and have an earful of cider.”

Another guy said, “Just look at these casinos. They’re like some temples the ancient Romans built. These casinos are palaces, and people don’t built palaces to commemorate their losses.”

Another told the story of the Texas gambler who: “…..came to Las Vegas in a $50,000 Cadillac El Dorado, and went home in a $250,000 Greyhound Bus.”

And finally, my favorite, the story about two Texans who ended up in a small border down that allowed no gambling whatsoever. They had to find a game, and eventually the bartender steered them to a private room in back where betting games of every sort were available. The two split up and when they got back together an hour later, one of them said: “Every game in this room is fixed.”

His friend replied, “Shhh! If they hear you say that, they won’t let us play!”

And, people take their gambling seriously. One night in Las Vegas, a group of high stakes poker players invited me to swing by their suite after a late night event for a nightcap. I agreed, and showed up after the game for a drink and a visit. Everybody was talking and laughing, and I picked up the deck of cards that was on the table and, unobtrusively  “rigged it.” I had learned a magic trick from an old book (see illustration) whereby you can quickly and quietly stack a deck of cards so that you know all the cards, rank and suit, in order. You can even let someone cut the deck, and you can still pick up the “read” within a card or two. It’s an easily learned memory trick.

I quietly stacked the deck and, during a conversational lull, conspicuously put the deck on the table. I felt the back of the top card as though was searching for something. I said “Six.” I flipped the card over. It was a “Six.” Then I said, “Jack, Eight, King, Three.” I flipped those 4 cards face up: They were “Jack, Eight, King, Three.”

The room grew quiet. I looked up and everybody was gathered around, looking very serious indeed, and watching my performance. I knew it had been a high stakes game, and one of the guys, sensing my unasked question, said: “That’s the deck we’ve been playing with.”

Another guy, the host, became visibly upset: “Guys,” he said, “the casino sent that deck up with the refreshments. I don’t know anything else about it.”

I saw where this was going. I said, “It’s a trick! I stacked the deck while you all were talking!”

There was a pause. “You stacked the deck while we were all around you?”

“Yes,” I said, “It’s a magic trick, and you weren’t paying attention because your focus was elsewhere.” I then broke the Magician’s Code and showed them how the trick was accomplished.

And I had to show them again, and again, and yet again until they could all do it themselves. Then, everything was calm and fine, and I had learned another rule about gambling that the Texas boys’ great grandfathers had probably learned a century or more before in the Old West:

First Great Rule of Gambling: Gambling, Magic Tricks,and/or Sleight of Hand, never go together.

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My Computer, My Electric Drill, The Druids, and Me

Druids cover

                      Cover Art by Mark Grammel

This is the cover of my (unpublished) book, “The Druids as Entrepreneurs.” It’s all about the people and activities of a mythical high-tech manufacturing company, named “Binkley’s, Inc.” It was named after its autocratic founder, C.T. Binkley. It’s about the people who populated this business, by department, their human aspects and their corporate aspects, good and bad, funny and sad.

The second part of this two-part essay is my book’s introduction to the computer industry. It is called “The Computer at Stonehenge.”  An early computer indeed, Stonehenge was built between 3100 and 1550 BC in a remote and beautiful location 13 KM North of Salisbury England; where it may still be seen today. My poem was originally published in the computer magazine, Datamation, circa 1975.

First, the essay on my current status in the wonderful user’s world of computer technology and marketing:

I have a computer. I use it for email and word processing. I have an electric drill. I use it for creating holes of various sizes and also as a power screw driver. Both of these machines are of equal value to me. Before I had the Black & Decker electric drill, I had a Craftsman manual drill and screwdriver. Before I had the computer, I had an IBM electric typewriter and before that, an Olivetti manual typewriter. I still have those machines in the cellar and could go back to them with only moderate inconvenience.

What I like about the electric drill is that it’s even older than the computer, but still works as easily and professionally as it ever did. No one has come and told me that I must buy an update, or even a new drill, because of changes the manufacturer made, that I don’t need or want, and without which my electric drill won’t work.

Nobody has installed an electric drill update, so that if I squeeze the handle and jerk the trigger at the same time, the drill goes blank and forgets how to drill holes.

Nobody has called and asked me to join an electric drill users club, or spend time on a drill chat line, or buy expensive and mind numbing games that can now be played on my electric drill.

Sidebar: One of my favorites anecdotes about Albert Einstein happened in the late Forties when he joined Princeton University in New Jersey. He bought a Volkswagen to get around town. He was observed driving it,  and was shortly called by an enthusiastic young man who asked the professor if he’d like to join the Princeton Volkswagen Club. Einstein asked what that was. The young man explained that it was a club consisting of Volkswagen owners who met monthly and exchanged Volkswagen ideas and experiences.

Einstein thought for a moment, and then asked: “I have a toothbrush too. Is there a club for that?”

So, ladies and gentlemen of Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Dell, and all your peers throughout the industry, hear this plaintive and sincere request:

1. Don’t let your bright young techies go wild and add features and benefits that we really don’t need so that when I inadvertently hit two keys at the same time, the damn computer jumps off the desk.

2. Support the stuff that’s out here. I have a 1973 Mustang Convertible and I can still get parts and support for it. It still works like it always did, and goes as fast as it ever did (and no, I don’t want to join a Mustang club).

3. Acknowledge and respect the fact that there are technically challenged seniors out here who would like to use your product without needless complications. You can make those complications, or “improvements,” available to those who want them (and – at extra expense too!), but do not force such things on those who do not want or need them.

4. Feel free to use me as a Beta test site. Send me the instruction manual and the device and let’s see how well I do setting it up and using it. I am the perfect test subject. As someone once said: “Nothing is foolproof, because fools are just so damn creative.”

5. Finally, as I learned in the Army, when involved in any development or strategic plan, remember the Factors of KISS: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Write for my shipping address and phone number.


And now: “The Computer at Stonehenge”

There are strange things done,

To Be Number One

In selling the computer.


Has their stratagem

That daily grows acuter.

And Apple & Dell

May compete like Hell

But the story’s missing link,

Is the system old,

At Stonehenge sold,

by the firm of Druids, Inc.


The Druids were


And they built a granite box,

That tracked the moons,

Warned of Monsoons,

and forecast Equinox.

Their price was right,

Their future bright,

The prototype was sold;

From Stonehenge site

Their bits and bytes,

Would ship for Celtic gold.

The riggers came

To move the frame,

It weighed a million ton!

The traffic folk

Thought it a joke,

Their wagon wheels just spun.

“We’ll nay move that,”

The foreman spat,

“Just let the wild weeds grow.

It’s Druid-kind,


And belly up they’ll go.”


That man spoke true,

And thus to you,

A warning from the ages:

Your stock will slip,

If you can’t ship,

What’s in your brochure’s pages.

See if it sells,

Without the bells,

And strings that ring and quiver.

For Druid repute

Went down the chute,

Because they couldn’t deliver.

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The Ten Meanings of “No!”

Mr. Barkley’s Chalk Talk, #101 

No 10 illus

Mr. Barkley appears in front of a blackboard, holding a piece of chalk.


Barkley: My subject today is the word “No!” What does “No!” really mean? Well, it depends. “No!” could mean any one of ten things, and you have to understand which “No!” you just heard, or you won’t be able to overcome it. Let’s go through the list:

He writes: “#1 No!” on the board.

This “No!” really means “Not now!” You’ve asked me at the wrong time or place. Go away, come back later, and try again. Don’t irritate me by pushing it now.

He writes: #2 No!” on the board.

This “No!” means “Not from you.” I want your boss or someone with the detail in here with you on this one. This is too big for me to act on your word alone.

He writes: #3 No!” on the board.

This “No!” is really a test. I want to see how badly you want it. I wonder if you’ll come back and try again? We’ll see.

He writes: #4 No!” on the board.

This “No!” means, “You’re not quite there yet.” I wonder if you’ve left something on the table. Sweeten the deal and we’ll talk again later.

He writes: “#5 No!” on the board.

This “No!” means you’re pushing it; you’ve asked for too much lately. Let it cool off for a while and try again later.

He writes: #6 No!” on the board.

This “No!” means I don’t like what you said or how you said it. Remember your place. Come back later, say you’re sorry, and maybe we can try again.

He writes: #7 No!” on the board.

This “No!” means I want to think about it some more. It’s a safe answer. Nothing starts when I say “No!” “No!” buys me time. If it’s important, I know you’ll come back.

He writes: #8 No!” on the board.

This “No!” means we have different agendas. You know that I’m waiting for you to do something else, and you better do it before you ask anything of me.

He writes: “#9 No!” on the board.

This “No!” means I’m not sure I’m seeing the entire picture. Make me feel comfortable.

He writes: “#10 No!” on the board.

This “No!” means “No!”: “Not now, not ever!” Pause. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of these.

You must learn how to tell one “No!” from the other. Use your experience and your deductive skills: Think about where we are, and who is with us. Listen to my voice, both what I say and how I say it. Watch my body English. Think about what has recently transpired in our relationship. Consider what environment and circumstances I’m operating in today. Ask if there’s an issue and, if so, what it is so you can address it.  Put all that together. You’ll figure it out.

Remember: It’s my game, and you can’t play my game unless you understand my rules.


He walks off.

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Advertising: Selling a Depreciating Asset

Mr. Binkley’s Chalk Talk, #102: On Advertising 

            Mr. Binkley wanders across the screen with his tripod easel under his arm. He sets it up, perhaps having a little trouble with it, “Mr. McGoo style,” then faces the audience and begins his presentation:

Mr. Binkley: “Today we’re going to talk about advertising:  why we need it, and how we do it.

I’m sure you all know about the merchandiser, John Wanamaker, who started all this back in the 1800s. Wanamaker is considered to be the father of both modern advertising and the modern department store.

You’ve never heard of “Wanamaker’s?” For shame. Go look him up.

Anyway, one day his accountant asked old Wanamaker if he thought he got a fair business return from all the money he spent on advertising. Wanamaker said no. He said, “I know that half my advertising dollars are wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

You see, Wanamaker knew the purpose of advertising was to appear in the right format and location to sell three things: First, you sell yourself. Second, you sell your company. Third, you sell your product.

And you never know who is going to sell what, where, and when. It could be a million dollar Super Bowl commercial, it could be a hundred dollar sign on a bus, it could be a two buck ball point pen with your name on it. You never know.

So – You put a smile on your face, a shine on your shoes, and you position your product in the best possible light in as many places as common sense and your budget allows.

Yes, advertising is “spin.” You want people to know all the good parts.

Let me give you an example of a true, unvarnished product statement, without any advertising spin, and then you tell me if you’d buy it.

Suppose you read this advertisement in the classified section of next Sunday’s newspaper:


“For Sale: Depreciating Asset!”


WARNING! This product will cost 10% of the value of your home. It will lose 20% of its value immediately upon purchase, and another 20% each year thereafter. In five years it will be virtually worthless.

You may have to borrow money at high interest rates and on sometimes risky contractual terms in order to buy it.

There are numerous fees and taxes associated with this purchase. These fees and taxes will continue on an annual basis over the lifetime of the product.

The product is high maintenance, fragile, and costly to operate and repair.

The product is dangerous, and owners are frequently injured and even killed by its careless operation, or by the careless operation of others.

The product’s efficacy can be negatively influenced by the weather and seasonal changes.

The rental or construction of a special building to house and protect the product is recommended.

The product requires special and costly operator training, licensing, and government inspection, forms and records.

In additional to medical insurance, costly property insurance is also required as the product is easily damaged.

You may expect police monitoring during all hours of operation.

The product is a prime target of thieves, occasionally involving personal violence.”

“Isn’t it a good thing we don’t have to sell automobiles this way?”

Mr. B. folds up the easel and mumbling, walks away.




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Charles Dickens on Sales

Charles Dickens on Sales 

 It was the best of sales; it was the worst of sales.

I would like to share two classic examples, from my own experience, of good selling and bad selling. I’ll start with the bad selling so we can end this piece on a positive note:

1. Bad Selling: We had a Big Box chain here in New England that carried everything from refrigerators and stoves to batteries and CD’s. Their stores were clean, well lit, and stocked with all sorts of goodies to delight the discerning consumer. Their prices were fair, if not always the lowest, but best of all, they had a sales team that knew their business.

I went in there once to buy a computer cable. I gave the clerk the part number. He said, “We have that, but customers who use it complain about feedback and static. I’d recommend this one instead.” I quickly compared prices to make sure he wasn’t just trading me up, but the cables were the same price. I went with his suggestion and was pleased with the outcome.

After that, we bought a refrigerator, stove, stereo, and numerous other household appliances there. In every case we dealt with someone who knew the product, could answer questions, and seemed eager to help.

Then came the economic crunch, and business fell off. They were hurting. The in-store stock got skinnier and oftentimes items had to be placed on order for later delivery. One day I read in the Wall Street Journal that some “genius” at Big Box corporate had decided to cut costs and save money by laying off … the top sales earners! He figured he could save on commissions and bonuses by replacing their best sales people with salaried clerks whom he thought could handle all the customer’s needs.

Was he ever wrong. Within a short time, the new team showed up with the new attitude: “If we have it, it’s over there, against the wall.” As for answers to user questions, that degenerated into: “Maybe you can find it on the company’s website.” I stopped shopping there, and so did everybody else. They skidded right down the slippery slope into bankruptcy. Recently, I passed their store. It was empty with big “For Lease” signs in the window. What a shame. The boss didn’t understand that customers wanted to buy from people who knew their business, understood the customer’s need, and could answer the customer’s questions. Goodbye, Big Box, Inc. You’re another casualty of bad management creating and running a bad sales team.

2. Good Selling: A while back I went into the local news and coffee shop to buy a New York Times newspaper. The owner, an old Townie who had been there for years, said they were sold out. I said okay and started to leave, but he said, “Wait! You should try this one.” He produced a copy of last Sunday’s New York Times.

I said: “Last Sunday’s paper?”

He said, “Their coverage is about a week ahead of everybody else, so you don’t lose that much. Plus you get the best in-depth business reporting from Pulitzer Prize winning journalists who have access to all the big name corporate CEO’s. They also have interviews, commentary, references, everything you need to find out what’s going on, how it affects you, and what you can do about it. You should buy and read this paper.”

I was stunned. He had this little “elevator speech” all prepared to sell his product and when he had the chance, he used it with enthusiasm and went for the close. I reached in my pocket, pulled out the cash, and bought his newspaper.

And so, while I roast the numbies at Big Box, Inc., I toast the best salesman I have met in a long time: The gentleman who convinced me to buy last week’s newspaper, today, at the regular price.

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I Forgot

Back in the 1960’s, I was working for Bernie at the Fred’k H. Sprague Co., Inc., otherwise known as Hunter Sportswear. The company manufactured ladies casual clothing: Bermuda shorts,  slacks,  pedal pushers, culottes, skirts and the like. We sold them throughout the country at such large department stores as Macy’s, Filene’s, Gimbels’s,  Rich’s of Atlanta, and a number of ladies specialty shops, such as Casual Corner. We had a factory store that was always busy. It was a good business, and I often accompanied Bernie to New York City where we maintained a sales office in the midst of the garment district.

I learned a lot about business, and life, from Bernie and his associates. It was a highly competitive, even cutthroat, industry and Bernie taught me to be on guard at all times. For example, if you were sitting in the reception area of an important buyer, in the prestigious offices of the Empire State Building, along with your competitors, don’t ever leave your samples behind while you visit the restroom. It was a right of passage that someone would take a sharp blade and cut along the seam of your sample Bermuda shorts. Then, when your time with the buyer came, and she put her hands inside the waistband to snap them open, the seams would give and the pants would come apart in her hands. She’d throw them back at you and say, “Get this junk out of my office.”

Another time, Bernie warned me about the sales experts who visited the manufacturers having a slow season. Looking at the heaps of unsold garments, they’d say, “Here’s the deal: I’ll sell all these for you in return for a 20% commission, payable in cash, upon shipment to the customer. I only sell to the best name, big department stores. They’ll even pick-up, in their own trucks.” The desperate manufacturer might accept the deal. Within a day or two, trucks from the big name stores would arrive, load up all the merchandise, sign for it, and be on their way. The “expert” would be there to collect his cash commission, shake hands, and be gone.

One to two months later, the trucks would come rolling back to the manufacturer, carrying most of the same merchandise. It turned out the “expert” had indeed sold them to the prime stores, but on  consignment. He had told them: “There’s no obligation: Sell what you can in the next 60 days, and ship the rest back to the factory, at no charge.” The manufacturer would be out the 20% commission, out the fresh garments he had shipped, and too often, out of business.

Bernie deserves a book of his own, for him and for his stories, but I always remember one piece of advice he gave that stuck with me all these years. We were having a meeting with an important client, and I was presenting the spring line. The client had asked me to bring along a model or two so she could see how the clothes looked on a real person and not just on a dress hanger or a mannequin. I failed to do that. When she asked where the models were, I honestly replied: “I forgot.”

The showing went on, but we didn’t get the big order.

On the way home, Bernie said to me: “If you make a mistake, don’t ever try to get out of it by saying ‘I forgot.'”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” said Bernie, “‘I forgot’ isn’t a reason, it’s an excuse. When you say ‘I forgot’ some people hear you saying ‘Whatever you wanted wasn’t important enough for me to remember it, or to write it down.’ They take that as an insult. You put them down and offended their dignity. There’s a price to be paid for that.”

Not another word was said on the subject. The next day, I bought a pocket Day-Timer in which I wrote down everything I had to do, and everyplace I had to be. I still use it today. It’s even more helpful as you get older.

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The New Reality: Bread, Milk, and Other Complications

When I was a kid, my mother would send me to Tucker Brothers, the neighborhood grocery store, with instructions to pick up “…a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread.” I knew exactly what that meant. It was a straight forward instruction that required no explanation or discussion. Not so today.

I recently visited our local mega food market to claim a similar order, and found over 65 types of milk, and nearly a hundred different kinds of bread. In the milk cooler we have skim, 1%, 2%, lactose free (in a variety of strengths, some with extra calcium), fat free, Buttermilk, Silk, all in a variety of dairies and brands, and we haven’t even reached the shelf with chocolate, coffee, and strawberry milks, – all premixed for the busy family’s convenience.

As for bread, there’s a variety of wheat, oats, rye, honey this-and-that, multi-grain, light, low cal, gluten free, dietetic,  thin sliced, sandwich size, sourdough, Italian, organic, oatmeal, pockets, bagels, roll-ups, buns, and rolls (dinner and finger). Let’s not forget cinnamon, cinnamon with raisin, and plain old raisin bread.

Now I’m told to pick up “…a 2%, lactose free milk, in the blue carton, with extra calcium, and don’t forget to check the expiration date.” What? No lot number?

And it’s not just the supermarket where our lives have been needlessly complicated by choice. Go into Starbuck’s some day and just order “coffee.” They’ll look at you as a refugee from some far away place and time; or, try ordering a “doughnut” at Dunkin’ Donuts. They’ll wave their hand across the sweeping display cases of doughnut offerings and suggest that you “pick one.”

The rest of our lives are spent in similar unnecessary complication: The IRS tax forms are so complicated that nearly 80% of all American tax payers have to hire a tax professional. The Wall Street collapse that cost so many jobs and pensions was partially due to greed, but also due to complex financial instruments and mortgage packages so complicated that neither the people selling them, let alone the people buying them, fully understood what they were doing.

Congress tries to pass reasonable sounding laws and regulations that most of us can support, only to learn they have riders on them authorizing someone’s home state $50 million dollars to study why dogs bark and bees buzz. So, the responsible person has to vote against the entire package, and the partisan fights are on.

A friend of mine in state office tells me of the stacks of bills he gets delivered each day which he is supposed to read, understand, and vote on. As one national politician said in a rare moment of candor: “We’ll understand what they’re about after we pass them.” Yes, and maybe we’ll understand that gas is flammable after we pour some on a fire.

I have a PC using Microsoft’s Word Software. They keep updating it with features and benefits I don’t want or need. They change, if not discontinue, the standard I had worked with and make me use my time to learn their new, profit increasing, more complicated system. I don’t want features and benefits. I want simplicity, consistency, and support.

And that goes for my phone too. I use it to send and receive phone calls. I don’t want it to be a camera, a music player, a flashlight, a texting machine and I will never use it to watch television or movies. I just want a telephone.

Why is all this happening? The first reason is because we can do it. I read recently where the computing power contained within one of those talking Hallmark holiday greeting cards exceeds the computer capacity of the Eagle space module that landed on the moon in 1969. If they can make computer chips that cheaply, it’s no wonder they’re in everything from car keys to sneakers to wine coolers.

The second reason is sales and competition. If you’re making electric camping lanterns, you better add an AM/FM radio, a highway blinker, siren, and a compressor to inflate tires before your competition does. After all, you’re only adding pennies to your manufacturing costs and dollars to your sales price and profit margins.

The third reason is natural curiosity and the innate human instinct to forge ahead. If we can build industrial robots, we can build them for the home too. They can do the daily menial chores, and by night we can make them sing and dance and do entertaining impressions. Oh, and maybe, after we’re in bed, they can just sit there in the dark for the rest of the night and wipe out any evil doer who breaks in. Cool.

When I started work in 1960, our company hired a Futurist who told us that by the time we were in the 1980’s, we would be looking for additional ways to keep ourselves busy because, while our income would be steady and sufficient, most of what we’d be doing would have been taken over by technology. We’d be living like royalty. Well, that didn’t happen.

Then in the 1970’s , I went to a trade show exhibition of the “paperless office.” Everything would be recorded on computer files and not a shred of paper would be found in the modern office. My boss commented: “We’ll see the paperless toilet before we see the paperless office.” He called that one right.

In the turbulent 1990’s, we were told: “You will never see less change in your business and private lives than you see today. It only gets faster and more complicated.” That one has worked out.

And, of course, medical science promised us healthier lives and longer life spans. They delivered on some of that. Our kids don’t get polio or TB like they once did, but where did autism, invulnerable viruses, and peanut butter allergies come from? As for extended life, they can indefinitely prolong the last 10% of life. Myself, I would have preferred a few extra years in my prime.

Where does it all lead? Some fear it all leads down the garden path to a sheer cliff, with rocks at the bottom. That’s not fair. More likely, it leads to more discoveries, improved processes, more knowledge, more advancements, and more changes at an ever increasing rate. It’s neither bad nor good. It depends on what we decide to adopt, what we do with it, and how we handle it thereafter.

All we can do is be aware, keep up as best we can, read, listen, question, discuss, and train ourselves to better judge the outcome and value vs. the cost and complexity.

This is the New Reality, and it’s here to stay.

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A Career Assessment: The Social Contract & Punching the Ticket

I was born in 1937. That makes me one of the last generation eligible to retire on Social Security and Medicare at the age of 65. I also worked for the same company for nearly 30 years and was one of the last to have a guaranteed, defined benefit pension,  and participate in the company’s health plan.  My children won’t have these benefits, and my grandchildren may only read about them in an economics class as historical anomalies.

My good fortune was in adhering to what in the Fifties was called “The Social Contract.” Some said that, in simple terms, “If you take care of the Establishment, the Establishment will take care of you.” My father called it “Punching Your Ticket.” He was born in 1903, and firmly believed that we all come into life with a ticket we are expected to have punched for important accomplishments at various stages of our lives. “You must behave yourself, follow the law, attend school, work part-time after school, and full-time in the summer, get a college degree  serve with the military, get a full time job, and settle down to the mature life of family and responsibility.” When I went into the army in 1959, my Uncle George, a World War I hero, gave me similar advice: “Keep your nose clean, your shoes shined, and shut up. You’ll be fine.”

(Editor’s Note: Uncle George specialized in such pithy advice. When I got out of the Army in the 1960’s, and went into the Active Army Reserve, we were asked to parade down Main Street on Memorial Day. I remembered going to watch Uncle George parade with his World War I buddies during the 1940’s, so I asked him if he had any insights on military parades. He said, “Yes: Never march behind the horses.” He had that right too.)

So, I had my ticket punched, and did all those things that were expected of me, and the Social Contract was honored. I retired in a good place, keep myself busy and out of trouble, and recently started blogging about my thoughts and experiences.

The young people today are not so fortunate. We have gone through a major paradigm shift in the Social Contract.  In the Fifties, people talked about a “One Decision Career:” You accept your first job , stay there, and work your way up as far as you can, and then retire with a reasonable pension. There is no such concept today. In fact, my son told me that if you’re in one place much over 2-3 years, they wonder what’s wrong with you. Back then,  holding  two or more jobs in 2-3 years would border on “Job Hopping.” It suggested lack of commitment, continuity, even maturity issues.

Part of the problem is the government, but the government is always part of both the problem and the solution. That has always been the case.

Another part is the young folks themselves. Many of them don’t grow up as fast as they once did. They want to remain kids forever, with their electronic toys, high school mentalities, and freedom from responsibility. Many still live at home, some because they have to, others because they want to. I have a friend who talks about his twenty-something son in terms of “he’s only a kid.” A kid? When I was twenty-something, I was married, had a college degree, was a 2nd lieutenant in the Army, a platoon leader responsible for 5 tanks, associated support vehicles, and 30 men – and I never thought of myself as a kid. I don’t think anybody else did either.

Also, we must consider the priority shift in The Establishment itself. Somebody once wrote, “Say what you want about the old time Robber Barons like Morgan, Pullman, Rockefeller, Ford, Astor and that lot but…. although they took what they wanted, they left in their wake millions of jobs in banks and railroads and oil and  factories, and in shipping.” That was a major contribution to the American Dream. They built railroad tracks and strung power lines across the country, and in later life funded libraries, hospitals, charitable foundations, and colleges.  Too many of this current lot leave nothing in their wake but unemployment and foreclosures and broken promises.

This was brought home to me again recently when I read about a book by that young Wall Street trader who’s  off on an ethics tirade against the giant bank, Morgan Stanley  I’m sure there are many things there that need to be cleaned up at Morgan Stanley, just as there are at every bank and corporate headquarters in the country. But what about him? In his 30’s, he was making over a half million dollars a year,  selling complex financial instruments he didn’t fully understand, to people who understood them even less, at prices far more than they were worth. How ethical is that? It sounds to me more like a snake oil salesman than an investment banker, trader, or ethicist. How many new jobs , and benefits to the economy, do such efforts produce?

When I went to work for my first big company, in 1964, we had a briefing by the company president, “Big” Ben, a successful middle aged technocrat. Someone asked him how he would define the CEO’s job. He thought for a moment and replied, “Balance. It’s all about balance. I serve several different interest communities. First there are the investors; without them we don’t have the money to operate. Then there are the customers; without them, there are no markets and no profit. Then there are the employees; without them there is no production. Then there are the local, state, and federal governments with whom we must work and maintain good relationships to operate effectively. Then there is the local community, from whom we recruit, obtain licenses, and purchase utilities and protection. It is always in our interest to work with them. If  the CEO should fail in any one of these balancing acts, the whole company could be damaged, or even destroyed.”

I wonder how many CEO’s see their jobs in that light today? They may still say what we used to say: “We’re a Team.” But today, it gets a modern twist: “We’re a Team, Until We’re Not.”

I know, the pendulum never stops swinging. There is no middle ground, we just constantly go from one extreme to the other, and the lucky ones, like me, live and work in the middle times. I was a child in the Forties, free of the danger of war, but participating in its excitement and support; a teenager in high school and college during the Fifties; “The Happy Days” time for many, but not all, of us; an adult in the Sixties, and  just starting out with wife, family, Army, and job (I always liked John Cleese’s great line: “I missed the Sixties. I was working.” That was my story too). The Seventies, Eighties and Nineties were the business bubble years when opportunity was there for the taking and everything seemed to work. And finally, the “Aughts,” when I tap danced off stage a few years before the dam burst.

Did this Social Contract concept work for everyone of my generation? Unfortunately, no. There are many good people out there struggling today through no fault of their own; but it did seem to work better than whatever, if anything, replaced it.

I guess my career was equal parts good fortune, good timing, and good work. I wish we could recapture some of those earlier times, attitudes, and business mentalities to benefit today’s young people. What is today’s Social Contract? What is on the ticket they must get punched? I guess they just have to figure it out for themselves.

I wish them all great good fortune. I envy them their opportunity and challenge. Sometimes, I think it might be fun to go through it again and see if I could do it; but, on the other hand, I am grateful to be where I am, and sincerely hope that events and opportunities work out for  today’s young starters as well as they did for me and my generation.

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How To Get Rich

How to Get Rich: Mary (4th Birthday)

            A successful entrepreneur once told me: “You’ll never get rich selling your time.” I guess that depends on how much you sell it for. I know a few lawyers who do well selling their time; and they don’t even exceed 24 hours in any given day (unless, of course, they fly to Europe; that adds an extra 6 hours). Entertainers do all right too. As do surgeons, business consultants, and plumbers. I guess it all depend on whom  you ask and what they did to succeed. We all believe that what worked for us is the “right way.”

George R., a successful NYC businessman told me, “It’s difficult to make a little money. It’s easier to make a lot of money.” George’s businesses failed more times than the Queen has hats. His answer was to close up the failed business and start over. That worked for him. I don’t have the stomach for that. My Uncle George once said, “We have to work for a living. We’re too proud to beg and too nervous to steal.”

My old boss, Bernie, was another Type A walking casebook. His wife insisted he take some time off and travel around the world before he killed himself from overwork. She told how they made it to India, where Bernie was fascinated by the street bazaars. One day, he made a deal with this Indian merchant to buy out his entire inventory of small, copper warming ovens with covers. Bernie then called a friend who manufactured pool cues. He had the copper ovens shipped directly to him. The pool cue guy then mounted a long handle onto the copper ovens, and Bernie advertised them in all the New England and Home Decorating magazines as “Reproduction Antique Colonial Bed Warmers.”

“I sold out the entire inventory in a few months,” Bernie told us. “And the orders are still coming in. That idea paid for our trip several times over.”

It’s quite rare to see a get rich quick scheme work. I have friends in pyramid clubs. They call them “circles” nowadays to get away from the Ponzi connection  (A man named Ponzi started the pyramid club idea a hundred years ago with a scheme for selling international postage stamps for more than he paid for them. It didn’t work. His investors were ruined, and he ended up in prison).

Today, they have people selling soaps, cosmetics, vitamins, and whatever else they can think of. The problem is they have to spend all their time recruiting new dealers. That’s where the profit is. It’s not in selling the product. When people want soap, they buy it at the market. They won’t pay a premium to have you drop it off at their house. A friend in Maine joined a pyramid club selling vitamins. He went to all their motivational meetings with songs and speakers and balloon drops and everything. I asked him how he did. He said, “I never made a nickel, but they get you all excited, and that’s worth something right there.”

I’m not technical, so I need an “old world” solution. If you find the right niche you can make money selling buggy whips and candles. I toyed with the “Wrigley Gum Model” a couple of times. The Wrigleys are one of America’s wealthiest families. They got there by selling chewing gum. Yes, chewing gum; billions of sticks of chewing gum. The Mars family did the same thing with M&M candies, and the Cocoa Cola people made a fortune selling caramel flavored sugar water. Think of Hallmark: Who ever thought you could make a multi-billion dollar business out of printing sentiments on paper so people could pay five dollars to mail them to each other. You need a different card for each occasion too. What a great system.

And let’s remember Ray Kroc who made a fortune reinventing McDonald’s and the hamburger. You probably spend a few dollars each week for bottled water which can cost 50 times what you pay for the city’s water, and may be convenient but not necessarily much better. Don’t forget those overpriced lattes you wait in long lines for.

Here’s the secret: You can differentiate and merchandise commodity items. If you can put a name on it, and give it a new twist, you can sell coffee, hamburgers, and water. The gas stations now have machines that sell air! There’s no end to the possibilities.

Come up with an idea that gets lots of people to give you a little money each (the Wrigley Model). It works. All you have to do is figure out what it should be and how to spin it.

Failing that, marry money.

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