In this blog series, I am sharing stories my Dad shared with us as we were growing up about business—and now I see about life. Dad loved business. He loved sales in particular and through his experiences selling and brokering scrap and steel for 39 years across the nation, he had a lot of stories to tell. In my last blog, I shared how he got into the business he wanted and how being honest kept him there. This one is all about the importance of being ‘who you are’ in every situation, even if you aren’t sure it will bring in what you want. Here we go:
One morning, after Dad had worked in the order department for 18 months, the owner of the company, Mr. Alter, came to him and said, “When you’re uptown, go into Horst-Zimmerman dealership and pick up a car. They’ll help you with what you want to get.” It was 1957.
Excited, he now had a car that he could rely on if he ever got a sales territory, his ultimate goal. After he got the car, Mr. Alter did give him a little territory in Rockford, Illinois which was where the company’s main competitor did most of its business. Figuring this was his chance to show what he could do, the first industrial call he made in Rockford was at a plant that had 14 acres under its roof. The company was Atwood Vacuum.
That first day as a salesperson he said he learned something valuable. When you are in business you should think about being straightforward on all accounts, whatever the situation is. Making it to Rockford, he sat out in the car for 20 minutes trying to get up enough nerve to go in and talk to Atwood’s purchasing manager, Earl. When he finally went in, he thought the best thing he could do is tell the purchasing manager the truth about his experience, so he introduced myself and explained, “This is my very first call. I have no experience and I just want to put that up front.”
Earl’s kindness was commendable as he simply responded in a congenial way, asking, “Have you ever been through our plant? Come on, we’ll walk through.” It was quite a sizeable plant and as they walked, Earl asked, “You know, the scrap iron that we produce is machine shop turnings. Do you have a home for something like that?” Yes I do,” said Dad, “But aren’t you under contract with another firm?” “We are,” said Earl. “But I can slip out a couple of cars. You just keep it to yourself.”
That offer was meant to be a kind gesture on his part; to take a young man with no experience and give him a start. It burned into Dad’s mind the importance of first being ‘who you are’ and being up front about your understanding or experience in all business situations. And, second, always give people a chance.
When Dad returned to Alter Company after his first outing with a solid sale in a competitor’s territory, he could see the look of amazement on Mr. Alter’s face as he must have wondered, “How in the hell did he do that?” Dad said, had he been called on to explain, he would have had to credit it to timing and the fact that he was “out there.” However, he said while timing counts and being available in the moment is important, being ‘who he was’ made the sale.
When we share our true selves in a business situation, it frees us to be vulnerable and attract people who are inspired by that openness—people who will give us a chance and help us succeed. Decades later, I would remember this when the marketing director of a software company just entering the market with an exciting new product interviewed our agency based on a referral from a media rep. I remember sitting across the table from her as she told me she was also interviewing an agency that had more experience, publishing in places like Computer World. At that time, we had never done anything like that. So I told her that. I also told her while we didn’t yet have the experience the other agency had, we clearly saw how this product was going to change the industry and we would love the opportunity to make the world take notice. She gave us a chance. And we made it happen—putting them on the map to eventually being sold for $700 million. Dad was right. Being ‘who you are’ works.