Going to America

When I alighted from the flight at Baltimore airport I walked straight into the salesman's dreamland. that is The United States of America. For me, it was a bit like Alice must have felt, falling down that rabbit hole.

Maryland Cup's Marketing Director - with his wife - met me at the airport. "Mr Bryan Islip please go to Information," bellowed the public address; "Dick Folkoff is waiting." The word Folkoff sounded somewhat like I wasn't too welcome! Nonetheless Dick and his lady were perfect business hosts. I remembered they took me straight out of the airport to a swanky kind of restaurant. The starter (seemingly without the option) was the local delicacy - a bucket of steaming clams. Lovely but about three parts of a bucket too much for me. 'What kinds steak would you like?' , they then asked. Already full to bursting but for politeness, 'I'll have the filet, please,' said I. (The smallest on offer by weight). Visibly worried by this, Dick whispered, 'Hey, Bryan, the filet steak's for ladies. Take the rump if you can't handle the T-bone, yeah?'That then was my first lesson in American business life; the bigger the appetite the better. Nobody - definitely no salesperson ate filet steak! Which must explain the average size of the guys with whom I was to attend the College of Product Knowledge.

Actually it was misnamed because the College of Product Knowledge was really a sales school, and a very good one. i.e. It was twenty percent what the product actually is and eighty percent what the product will do for you, Mr/Mrs customer. That is in terms of good old US dollars; more of them for you and of course for we successful salesmen!

At first I felt a bit out of place - or should that be out of rank? My 'learner class' consisted of young males, newly recruited from all over the States. I was thirty six and had already worked my way up the career sales ladder. I thought I knew most of what there was to know about paper cups and selling the things. But to those Americans no Brit could be a serious contender - too polite with all their pleases and thankyous and always excusing themselves. Plus many of my new compatriots knew little about Great Britain and, frankly my dear, cared less. In the States, competition is totally what life and especially business life  is all about. All our sessions were both serious and competitive. To illustrate, with the first session assembled and seated, in walked the course tutor whereupon he stilled all conversation by pulling out what appeared to be a cowboy six-shooter and firing a shot (blank, I hope!)  into the ceiling. Silence!

But individually these Yanks proved to be great fun. To me they were excessively welcoming but -  just don't get in between me and my next buck, buddy, was the subliminal message.A guy called Maury Fiterman was the lead sales manager. From his sales territory in New York State Maury was said to have earned a million dollars, plus, each year for the past several years. Yes, the salesman was king of the heap there, and I was just a little bit impressed! One instance of their drive for the next sale will give you the picture. I should first explain that one of the less prominent Sweetheart USA products was a toothpick made from a very small-bore plastic 'straw'. Our class was seated in a hotel restaurant for the end of course dinner when our leader at head of table jumped up to inform us that there are no toothpicks in here! Two hundred bucks to the first of you guys getting an order for a case of toothpicks, he announced. It was like the Yukon gold rush, everyone vacating the table to find a manager with ordering authority. I went straight to hotel reception, explained the situation and presented the guy with enough dollars - say, one hundred - to buy a case of toothpicks, asking him just to give me a handwritten order for same. Now, please!!! Hey, no problem, Bryan. Consequently I was first back at the table, handed in my 'order' and, when all were re-assembled, received two hundred dollars plus fulsome praise from Mr Fiterman. When in Rome do as the Romans do, right?.

It was by no means all work and no play. I and my band of learner brothers got to know downtown Baltimore pretty well of an evening. It was, for me, all larger than life. I recall one night when several of us repaired to a bar with the memorable name of Queenie Macsteve's. You sat up on high stools to a large horseshoe shaped bar whilst one of the barmaids, clad in little more than her high heels, stepped around on top of it in time with the rock music. The fellow seated beside me (not one of us) was making very rude comments and issuing invitations of a most ungentlemanly nature to the lady, so she 'accidentally' trod on the back of his hand. When she withdrew her spiky heel I swear blood jumped two inches into the air. Everyone except him thought it hilarious.

I have mentioned before that the joint founders of  Sweetheart UK were Sir Julian Salmon of the UK's J Lyons family and Henry Shapiro, multi-millionaire lead shareholder of Maryland Ciup / Sweetheart Cup in the USA. Fortunately I got on well with them both, especially the latter. Henry ran his section of the American business from an office situated slap bang in the middle of a million square foot factory in Chicago. It was really wierd, walking out of the high decibel clatter of that massive array of machinery and bustle of people into the quiet of a soundproofed, oak panelled, coal fire heated 'study'. (To see this huge expanse of factory roof from the outside, with just the one smoking chimney in the middle of it, was quite surreal). Not a piece of paper in sight. After the College I was invited to visit him. He showed me around the factory in his golf buggy. I remember at one point he stopped and pointed to a machine belching out at high speed a certain paper cup. "What's that, Bryan?" he asked. "That's a hot cup 2107," said I, proud of my newly acquired product knowledge. Henry shook his head, looked at me intently; "That machine," he announced, "Is making nothing but money."

It seems odd, looking back, how a relatively young English gentile could get on so well with an elderly  Jewish-American multi-millionaire. And with his beautiful lady wife, Sorretta. Their apartment in Chicago's prestigious Lakeshore Drive was something to behold: original works by Degas and Picasso, the very finest of wines, discreet security all over the building, etcetera.

Over the next seventeen years whenever Henry came over he would stay at The Connaught hotel in London. Often I would be invited to breakfast with him; (Oh those quails egg dishes, with asparagus and bits of bacon!) Or for lunch at nearby La Gavroche. Of course he would question me about the health and the prospects for his UK investment, and he was as hard bitten a businessman as you might expect, but right up to the time when he and his brothers sold out, whilst the UK's four successive managing directors, three production directors and three finance directors came and went, I remained in place as sales director. In between MD's I once asked Mort Gilden, another US director, why I hadn't been invited to occupy the top chair. 'Because you're great at turning on the lights,' came the answer; 'We need someone to turn out the lights after you'. Mort was the man who never carried papersAt one Board meeting he interrupted the discussion by announcing, 'You guys are just shuffling smoke,'  before wandering away, puffing on his usual aromatic cigar..

My first exposure to business life int he USA culminated with two weeks out in some of the midwest sales territories with the resident salesmen, then two memorable days and nights in New York City before flying home. I was allowed a whole weekend off before driving down in my new Ford Zodiac to spend my weekdays planning the business with my new colleagues in Sir Julian's Jermyn Street, London offices. But that first weekend home was one of the best of my life. We picnicked in the sunshine on the sand dunes between the red squirrel populated woodland and Formby's huge sandy beach. All the kids were doing OK at home and at school. One lovely wife very happy, if understandably nervous at what could lie ahead for us all.

How lucky can you get? I asked myself, but how relatively soon can contentment threaten to sink beneath a sea of troubles; the slings and arrows of (William Shakespeare's) outrageous fortune.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.