careers

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

career in a nutshell

The Early Years

One of my memorable early career opportunities was a summer spent as a “Fuller Brush Man”.  This entailed going door to door selling all kinds of household items from actual hair brushes to foot spray.  In order to provide encouragement and incentive, the company actually had you buy product regularly and then desperately try sell it at a predetermined profit, or own it.  They gave you a specific territory, so multiple sales people weren’t harassing the same prospects.  The rookies always fought for the wealthy neighborhoods, only to quickly learn these were the people that reject you the quickest or simply wouldn’t answer the door.  Needless to say, that at the end of the summer, we owned enough foot spray to last a lifetime.

My other jobs in high school seemed to center around working in delis.  From a local supermarket to my uncle’s store in a sketchy part of Newark, NJ.  The particular set of skills for this career included slicing meats and cheeses on a machine with a very sharp spinning blade while avoiding serious injury, and trying to hit the weight the customer asked for.  I was mediocre at both.  Sandwich making, according to my uncle, was an art not a science.  It was critically important, for instance, to fold the meats before putting them on the bread to make it look fuller and more appetizing, and to apply the condiment to both sides.  “You’re going to eat both sides right?” he would say, as if stating something infinitely profound and life changing.  I couldn’t really give the response that was on the tip of my tongue; after all, he was also overstocked with foot spray.

Later in college, jobs were more varied.  A list of fulfilling career opportunities included delivering pizzas, painting houses, roofing, brick cleaning and a particularly challenging opportunity: waterproofing bridges.  If you’ve never heard of this, I know I never have, it entails unrolling a large, heavy and very sticky roll of what looks like tar paper on a highway bridge before they pave over it.  It would take a couple of people from the “B” crew to unravel the roll.  They would close down only the lane where we worked.  If a large truck came barreling through in the very next lane, the resulting turbulence would make the material flap around uncontrollably sticking to itself and often the people handling it.  The more experienced members of the “A” crew, who did not have to do this found it hilarious and would rush over to help as soon as they stopped laughing.  The “B” crew was comprised of a handful of hippies with, or on their way to some useless college degree whose only real ability was being able to work overnight shifts and strangely being able to stay awake.. “Better living through chemistry” as the ads used to say.

 

Getting Serious

I had to work my way through school so I needed to find something more financially lucrative and less temporary.  I finally found something that involved developing skills I would need much later in my career:  sales, marketing, inventory control, distribution channels, etc.  The parallels in methods and strategies were amazing. 

Perhaps the biggest difference was that the later business involved products that were legal in all states.  The basic plan was to buy low and sell high.  The best way to accomplish this was to buy in large quantities and sell in small.  Other than this ingenious revelation, the specific skills involved were; always playing music so the neighbors can’t hear what you’re doing, and simply staying home and available for customers.  These were skills I had in abundance.  I did this for a few years even after graduating, but never stopped yearning for a real job.  For some reason, I identified a real job as one requiring a shirt and tie.

The Wonderful World of (legal) Sales

Retail - I hesitantly relocated from the familiar campus environment of Knoxville Tennessee to the “real world” environs of New Jersey where I was surrounded by a wider cross section of society.  Namely, it had more adults and similar types of serious people.  It all began in retail.  Armed with a well earned and prestigious college degree (albeit in fine arts), I got a job at a large discount department store called “2 Guys” as an assistant department manager of the drug department (no, the irony wasn’t lost on me).  I loved it!  This was the first job that involved wearing a shirt and tie and looking professional.  I learned a bit about managing people, merchandising and the fine art of seeing through various customer scams.  The most common of which was buying vitamins during our 2 for 1 sale and then trying to return one for a refund without a receipt.  “But you can see that I bought it here and never opened it” they would invariably say.  Yeah right; that may work on some people, but I have a college degree (albeit in fine arts).

 I was single, was allowed to keep my beard and still rode a motorcycle to work every chance I got.  Although only there for about a year, I made some friends that I still treasure some fifty years later.  It all went well until the day I accidentally saw my boss’s pay check.  He was a 15 year veteran at the store but barely made more than I did!  This was no way to climb the ladder of success on the way becoming a business tycoon. 

A Word or two about sales – Before launching into the rest of my career, which seems to center around sales, I want to mention some things I have learned.  First, let me say what sales is not.  It is not just slapping someone on the back and saying “hey Bob, how are the kids doing”.  Neither does it have to be “what can we do to put you in this car today?”  Effective sales is a combination of traits that you already possess and feel comfortable using.  In other words, be yourself and be good at it.  I worked at a company with dozens of sales people.  As is typical, the top handful of salespeople accounted for most of the sales.  These people were very different from one another.  We did have the omnipresent “closer” whose philosophy was that you have to hear “no” seven times before you believe it.  Until then, pretend the “no” is just the prospect saying “I don’t understand please elaborate” and proceed with your sales pitch and the part that may be unclear to the prospect.  There was a very soft spoken, intelligent man who was also an attorney.  There was an accountant who brought everything down to facts and figures as well as the charismatic guy who had to be on a golf course to sell (but sell he did, they all did).  They had very different styles and personalities, and all were successful.  However, there are some universal skills you should brush up on:

A - Know your product and learn as much as you can about the specific issue the prospect is working on, as well as the prospect himself.  Never, but never, shoot from the hip when asked a question that you’re not 100% sure you know the answer to.  The best and most credible response if you’re not certain of the answer is “I’m pretty sure it’s this, but I’ll double check and get back to you”.  Then do it.

B –Learn the most basic skill of all; listening.  This seems simple at first, but there are many facets to it.Developing good listening techniques is far more active than you might think and learning appropriate body language to reflect this is also critical.

I took a great sales course once that taught you how to determine what type of person you’re talking to, so you can decide what course of action to take.  I rebelled against pigeon holing people into four specific types, but to my surprise, it actually worked.  It’s an interesting formula, but the most important exercise is to figure out what type of person you are so you could accent the part of your skill set that is appropriate and suppress what isn’t for each situation.  It was fascinating to learn the difference between who you think you are and how you are actually perceived. 

 

Anyone need Insurance? - For some reason, probably bad advice, I figured that the big money was in insurance sales.  The first interview I had was with a major insurance company that required 25 references!  It was difficult, but I eventually came up with names of friends, relatives, neighbors, past coworkers, teachers, etc.  On my first day the list was handed back to me and I was asked to call everyone on the list and try to sell them life insurance.  Why not just say “call everyone on this list and tell them to never invite you to a social gathering again, ever”.  I left so fast, I’m not even sure I said good bye.  I did end up working at another insurance company, but certainly not the lowly selling of life insurance, but the sophisticated sounding selling of “employee benefit packages”.  This was preferable because you dealt with small business owners regarding major medical plans and dental coverage for their employees.  You sat in their offices during business hours like a professional, not around the kitchen table in the evenings talking about death.  We worked mostly on commission.  In other words, most of us were dirt poor and destined to starve or leave.Seeing this inevitable truth, the management decided that we should also sell life insurance, which entailed much higher commissions and a far larger pool of prospects.  You know, like sitting around the kitchen table in the evenings talking about death.  As distasteful as I found this, I had to at least try for a myriad of financial reasons.  I hated it!  I recall one memorable occasion when we had a promotion that involved sending out a mailer offering a free road atlas to anyone who would answer some simple questions and return the form.  No downside to the prospect right?  Wrong.  We would then hound them on the phone or simply go to their home to “deliver the free gift in person”.  On one such occasion, my boss thought he would test me and send me to someone’s house who clearly stipulated on the form that he did not want a salesman to call.  I stressed about this the whole way to his house and finally mustered the courage to ring the doorbell.  An older gentleman finally stuck his head through the door and after I introduced myself, demanded to know why I was there when he clearly stated that he wanted no salesman.  I stammered out something like “I understand sir, but my boss said I’m the closest thing we have to no salesman at all”.  He actually chuckled and let me in!  I did not make a sale, but learned that humor opens a surprising number of doors.  The day I left my career in insurance, they were introducing a revolutionary new sales tool called the flip chart specifically designed for life insurance.  After flipping through all the corporate images of our beautiful building and smiling employees, the last page showed a happy family with mother, two kids and a family dog, all gazing up lovingly at the father.  The trick was that the father was on a transparent overlay and you’re supposed to say “what if this happens to you?” then, dramatically flip the page with the father on it and leave the rest of the family looking lovingly at the empty space like a bunch of idiots.  The prospect is then supposed to gasp and write a check.  Even I had more pride than that and left.

Sales Engineer - I bounced around some other “can’t fail” sales careers and ended up in industrial sales working for a small company where I was one of a handful of salesmen.  This was a great start to the career I eventually ended up in.  I’ve always liked mechanics and large machinery and really enjoyed talking to engineers about processes and issues with processes that needed to be addressed and solved.  We supplied industrial valves for large applications from refineries to breweries.Unfortunately the company owner was as interested in women as he was in business.  He lived out of state with his wife and kids, but actually had a bedroom built in the back of the offices for “working late”.  He often took great pleasure in parading whatever bimbo du jour was leaving in the mornings past our desks and high fiving us on the way back.  The company went under relatively quickly and I was left looking for work.  But, at least I finally had an identity: Industrial “Sales Engineer”.

 I scoured the classifieds and spotted the perfect job.  It was for a company that supplied industrial filters for the alcoholic beverage industry looking for a “Sales Engineer”.  They sold to breweries like Anheuser Busch, distilleries like Seagram, etc.  A real opportunity to supply beer, wine and spirits filters instead of just being one. I managed to get an appointment for an interview.  I knew close to nothing about what breweries and distilleries used to filter their products, so I went to the library to memorize some impressive sounding filtration terms.  I also had some tricks up my sleeve that worked in the past.  I always carried an empty pen, as well as a backup.  During the interview, I would begin to earnestly take notes (a listening skill) with the empty pen and then look annoyed when it didn’t work.  At that point I was usually offered a pen and I would politely decline and say that I always carry an extra thereby looking efficient and prepared.  Don’t scoff, it works.  At any rate I was called back for additional interviews with other people and then eventually taken to lunch by the owner as a final test.  I used this method later in my own business.  When hiring someone, I always took the prospects on the short list to lunch to see if they had acceptable table manners and to see how they treated the servers.  It’s very revealing.  Incidentally, I learned a great many other things about business and ethics from this man and will forever be grateful.  In any case, I must have passed the test because I was hired.  I was promoted to sales manager, then regional sales manager in my 10 year tenure.  The company represented several European manufacturers, as well as manufacturing their own filtration products.My responsibilities included handling some of our large key accounts directly and eventually traveling around the country trying to hire companies as regional distributors.  When I found potential distributors, I would give their sales department a technical lecture on our products and applications in the spirits industry.  I was actually decent at all aspects of the job, but that.  When asked questions like “so, how does that work exactly?”  I seemed to overuse “just fine” as an answer.  Remember that “prestigious” degree in fine arts; that did not serve me well in this particular arena.  I eventually went to the boss one day and pointed out to him that when it came to discussing some of the more intricate technical issues, I was over my head and generally full of bologna.  He said “we know”, all too quickly, and asked what I proposed to do to address that.  I suggested that we hire a sales person that was not full of bologna in these arenas.  He agreed and instructed me to visit the local colleges on career day and give a speech to students who were graduating with technical degrees, about the wonderful world of sales.  This worked, and we got a dozen or so great candidates.  The best one was a charming, spirited and cute little redheaded girl with a degree in chemistry and a real knack for sales.  She was wise beyond her years and had sound judgment except for that momentary lapse years later, when she agreed to marry me, but that’s another story.

We worked well together for about a year, when I got an extremely flattering offer from a similar, but much larger company who just acquired a major filter manufacturer in England and were looking at setting up a presence in the market in the U.S.  The headquarters were in California and the president of the U.S. division flew me out to the West Coast for an interview.  He was an extremely charismatic transplant from England who took to the California lifestyle with ease.  The interview was conducted on the beach.  While he walked barefoot carrying his shoes and his sport coat slung over his shoulder, I shuffled along beside him in my 3 piece suit carrying my briefcase and unsuccessfully trying to keep sand out of my wingtips.  He offered me the position and suggested I move to California.  I told him I was flattered, but cannot function properly in this environment.  I need to have a tie choking me and be surrounded by a stressful East Coast environment populated by type “A” people.  He relented, and allowed me to open a field office in New Jersey. 

Working for this man was also educational.I learned a lot from him about international marketing.  He took me to England several times and taught me how British companies work.  What their priorities and methods are.  For better or worse; they are not as completely immersed in the “bottom line right now” philosophy that most U.S. companies are focused on.  They pay an annoying amount of attention to tradition in manufacturing and decorum.I often heard things like “we’ve always made it this way” and “you cannot speak to him directly, but I’ll get his supervisor”.  At the same time, however, they had a “plan global and sell local” philosophy and a keen eye toward the future.Another thing I eventually grew to learn from dealing with most companies outside the U.S. is that they view America as the land of limitless and ever-growing opportunity.There are no mature markets in their view.  All markets are in their infancy and totally comprised of low hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked.  I spent the balance of my career trying to disabuse them of this belief.  Once you understand this point of view, it becomes a bit easier to relate to and negotiate with them. 

During my brief tenure, we made the biggest sale they ever made when we sold several huge filters to the world’s largest brewery.  It was a lot of work and a great achievement.  The customer was extremely demanding and when it was finally over, I decided that if I ever had my own company, I would refuse to work with them.  After all, I’m a child of the sixties, a free spirit and don’t like being told what to do. I really enjoyed my job until the company that purchased the filter manufacturer in England decided to sell it to a Swiss conglomerate.  I was stunned!  My boss, ever the optimist, said “so what, you’re now national sales manager of the valve division”.

For better or worse, I now considered myself a filtration expert with a hard earned reputation for marketing knowledge and ethics.  The European manufacturers really appreciated my efforts in the U.S. and wanted me to start my own company and continue to grow their brand in America.  I was flattered, but never had an entrepreneurial spirit (or nerve).  One of the larger sales I was working on was a substantial blanket order with a major company that would guarantee business (and income) for at least a few years.  I finally told them that if we get the order, I would resign my nice safe job with the predictable income and go for it.

I had some stipulations though; A – My company would have to have exclusive distribution rights in the U.S.  If anyone wanted their products, they would have to buy them from my company B – I would by product in 40 ft containers, store them in public warehouses and pay for them as they sold, not before C - They would have to share some of the advertising cost, but I would pay all other overhead. 

I never thought all those stars would align, but they did.

I’m in Business!

I immediately emptied my savings and retirement accounts, and rented an office.  I figured that my biggest asset at the time was my good reputation in the industry, so I named the company after my last name and the word “filtration” to make clear, what I actually did.  So, Abec Filtration was born.  I began by traveling around the country visiting old accounts, meeting with potential distributors, exhibiting at trade shows, etc.  Also, as typical for new business owners, I bought all kinds of giveaways with the company name.  Everything for money clips to coasters, to hats, pens, calculators, etc., etc.  I still used the same travel agent, but made it clear to her that things have changed.  No more business class flights, luxury rental cars and high end hotels.  It was now “Hello Red Roof Inn, do you include breakfast?” I was actually doing OK, until the “substantial blanket order” was rescinded unexpectedly.  The company had some technical issues and had to go back to their original suppliers in order to eliminate additional variables.  I was stunned!  Remember the cute little redheaded girl.She nagged me out of smoking some years earlier.  We were still together and I told her that I have to go back to chain smoking for a year, until this settles out, then I’ll quit again, I promise.She responded with words that should never come out of the mouth of a cute little redheaded girl.  In my defense, I did go back to smoking and did quit a year later.

Oh Crap I’m in Business

I didn’t know what to do, other than redouble my efforts and work even harder.  I kept in touch with the account I lost, but it still took a few years to get the blanket order back.  Remember, the brewery that I sold all the filter machinery to and swore never to work with again?  They contacted me and said they needed replacement gaskets for the filters I sold them a couple of years ago.  When I saw the potential profit, I immediately abandoned my naïve “child of the sixties, free spirit” philosophy and replaced the decrepit deck on my house with the profit just from the gaskets.  I also followed up with them regularly to see if they needed spare parts, technical help, or just someone to fetch coffee.

 I set up some distributors around the country and negotiated some better deals with suppliers.  I took on other companies to represent.  An Italian maker of filter housings and a domestic manufacturer of filter cartridges.It worked!  The business grew in spite of itself and started making money.  I even told my original European suppliers that I will start buying product outright, instead of on consignment. They were hesitant and wanted to make sure I felt financially comfortable with this arrangement.  It felt like I was working with family!  I’ve made many deals in my career and the ones I’m most proud of, are where I could have made more money, but chose not to.  This was like that, and worked to further solidify our partnership.  I also requested that they give me a shot at supplying them with raw materials for manufacturing.  They did, and I started exporting container loads of carbon.  This worked well.  I was able to save them some money and also dampen the effects of currency fluctuations, not to mention making additional profit. Product was always bought and sold in local currency, so if the dollar was weak, I got beat up on the import end, but made up for it on the export side.

I took little salary and kept throwing money back into the company.  I eventually even bought my own building with offices and a warehouse. Still being a “one man band” (with two mortgages) I had to learn to drive a fork lift, load trucks and all sorts of other non shirt and tie things.  It felt great actually handling all the product in and out of the warehouse, thereby eliminating all the mistakes the public warehousing made.  It was certainly understandable though.  When visiting these facilities to help arrange my complex inventory of filters, I invariable found them in between canned pineapples and ladies shoes or similar.  Now they were “home” and cared for as they should be.  I felt like they were my children that I sent out in the world to send back money.  Being a one person operation I and had to travel extensively, run the shipping and receiving, as well as answering all calls.  I was also volunteering at a suicide hotline that I felt like calling myself on occasion. 

The business was paying for itself and I was finally able to hire a secretary.  What a game changer!It allowed me to travel more comfortably as well as work in the back without constant interruption.I also realized that, with the growing technology of telephone systems, it only takes two people to make the company look way bigger than it was.  As long as the owner himself never picked up the phone, the customers had no idea whether there were two or two hundred employees.  “Press 2 for sales, 3 for shipping” and so on.  My customers never really saw the facility, as they were spread throughout the country.  This worked for the rest of the life of the business.It was gratifying to see the company start to develop its own positive reputation.  My business philosophy was always based on the concept that unless you can walk away from the business and have it still make money with others running it, you haven’t really built a business.  You’re simply self-employed.  So, it was great to witness it take on a life of its own and become a purchasable entity.  This became a crucial part of the exit strategy.It was a machine of sorts that made a profit and just needed regular maintenance and creative marketing to do so.  As an example, one of the companies I admired was LL Bean.  Their reputation at the time was impeccable.  They weren’t the cheapest around or the fanciest.  But they had this credibility that made you feel comfortable buying anything from them.  I recall thinking that the only way they could do better, is if Mr. Bean would call me personally and thank me for my business.  He had millions of customers, so that was ridiculous, but we didn’t.  We had hundreds.  So my secretary and I made a tradition of calling every one of our customers in between Christmas and New Year (when few pick up the phone, but all had voicemail) just to thank them for their business and wish them a great year.  On the rare occasion that someone picked up the phone, they would be grateful for the call and, without asking, go check their inventory to see if they needed anything.

The Finish Line?

On the personal front, my wife gave birth to a miniature version of a cute little redheaded girl, who became the focus of our lives.  I looked forward to selling the company; retiring early and spending time watching her grow up.  I eventually sold it to the European conglomerate that I represented and now sit on their board of directors.  I have been spending my time with the hobbies I never had enough time for, doing some volunteer work and marveling at how inefficient I’ve become when suddenly changing tempo.  When I worked, I lived by the axioms that “if you want something done fast and right, give it to the busiest person”. I became the quintessential opposite of this.  Everything takes forever and usually has to be done twice.  I tell people that retirement is like getting to the end of a moving walkway at the airport when you momentarily lose balance.  I feel like I’ve been standing there for over ten years now still wind milling my arms trying to regain my balance and get my bearings, but at least I’m learning to enjoy it more.  The cute little redheaded girl is still working full time and seems to enjoy it.  The little tiny version is applying to law schools.  Not sure how that happened so quickly, but I’m glad I was able to retire early and watch her grow up.  Looking back, I think that was my greatest accomplishment.

 


Submitted: November 11, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Peter Abec. All rights reserved.

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sarah emily

You forgot the job you’re the best at, being a father! I really enjoyed this read, made me laugh and then cry at the end… I love reading these :)

Thu, November 18th, 2021 12:53pm

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