end of the line.

Of course the dayjob hadn’t gotten any better at all.  I had been reduced to being a gofer.  What made it worse was that the company had officially decided that the title of “Senior Product Manager” was worthwhile for all the company’s divisions, and promoted both the other product managers into those roles.

So of the three of us, I was, essentially, demoted into a position that enabled the company to hire someone above me, and then my peers were promoted into that position.

I was humiliated.  And what’s more, I was doing the work of the Senior Product Manager, since my boss wasn’t taking the time to learn the products, the industry, or our own company procedures.

Eventually I called her on it, and she said “When you’re a true product manager, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the product manager of cellular products, typewriters, frozen foods, or hammers.  A product manager is a product manager.”

I worked my ass off to learn my industry.  I knew every product, every company in the business, every retailer.  I made it my business to know who the buyers were at each retailer, and what products they carried.  I knew which of my competitors supplied products to which retailers.  And if one of my competitors was having a problem delivering a certain type of product, or if they were having a quality problem with a certain item in their line, I made it my business to know about it.  It was an accident, but I actually cared about my job, and I was really good at it.

But none of this was ever recognized by the new management of my company.

Finally, I’d had enough.  I decided to start looking for a new job – but I was going to do it in my industry.  I’d established a reputation for knowing what I was doing – even if I didn’t have that reputation in my own company, I definitely had it in the industry in general.

So in January of 1996 I went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with one goal in mind: get a new job.

Sandy and I spent a week or so re-tooling my resume, getting it updated to include all my most recent work.  I printed out copies on nice-looking parchment paper at Staples, making 100 copies.  And when it came time to head out to the show, I had the 100 resumes with me in my briefcase.

The excitement of it was almost enough for me to overcome the crushing fear of flying that I had developed in just a few short months.

My colleague in the engineering department, Danny, had become my best friend at the company.  He was equally miserable; the new regime had de-emphasized quality to the point where his opinions were overruled virtually every time.

At the time, to obtain a new account, we bought back all their existing inventory.  This was standard practice in the industry, I’d learned – buyers were incented upon the total number of inventory turns in a year.  It didn’t matter how they got there, just that the inventory turned the requisite number of times.  So it was not uncommon for a buyer to look at an underperforming category and bring in a new vendor.  One of the requirements of the new vendor would be to buy back all the inventory currently in stock at the retailer.  Then, they could re-fill the “pipeline” by restocking every store with the new inventory.  It was a win-win: the new vendor would get all the sales of a massive pipeline fill, and the buyer would get credit for successfully turning all the inventory.

We conducted an absolutely massive inventory buyback at the end of 1995, to get our products into one of the leading nationwide chains of office supply stores.  When the inventory came in – thousands and thousands of products – Danny and I went through it all, item-by-item.  Danny tested each of the different electronic components and advised which ones measured up to our technical specifications.  Those that did, could be brought into our existing inventory.  Those that did not would need to be liquidated elsewhere: overseas, to bulk distributors, or into the trash.

Many of our recommendations were overruled, and products that didn’t come close to our technical specs were accepted into our inventory.  This pissed me off, but it absolutely infuriated Danny, and he was ready to walk out every single day.

When I went out to the show, I made sure that Danny understood that my #1 objective was to come back with a new job.

On the plane, I began to worry: what happened when my resume started to circulate at the show, and fell into the hands of my company? Surely, as soon as they found out what I was doing, I’d be fired.  I’d come back to New Jersey on my own dime, with no job, a new house, and a baby.  Sandy was on unpaid maternity leave, which meant that we’d have absolutely no income, except the short-term disability checks that Sandy was collecting.

By the time the plane touched down, my nerves were shot.  I arrived at the Mirage hotel and casino desperate for a drink, shaky from the combination of the flight and the worry of my resume falling into the wrong hands at the show.  Our company was the biggest of its kind in the industry, and the VP of my division was a tyrant – everyone wanted his business, and anyone would throw me under the bus if they thought it might help get them into his good graces.

On the first day of the show, we saw a former employee who had gone to work for a competitor.  He was someone that the VP and I had both spent a lot of time with and, I thought, generally liked.  When I saw him I stopped, gave him a warm handshake, and talked to him for five or ten minutes about his new job, his family, and how he’d been since we last spoke.  After the discussion was over, I looked around, and my VP was gone.  He hadn’t stayed around for the conversation at all.

I found him quickly, and said “Didn’t you see Warren?  I was just talking to him.”

He looked at me and said “I saw him.”

“Why didn’t you stop and say hello?” I asked.

“Say hello?  He doesn’t work for us anymore.”

“I understand that,” I said.  “But he’s still the same guy.”

The VP put one hand on each of my shoulders and squared me to him, looking me right in the eye so that I wouldn’t have any trouble understanding what he was about to say.  Then, he began “When you work for me, I’m your friend.  I want you to be comfortable and happy.  I ask about your family.  I take you out to dinner.  I make you think I like you, so you’ll work hard for me.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  He continued:

“But when you leave, you don’t work for me anymore.  I no longer care about you.  I have no reason to say hello to you.  And if you work for a competitor?  If you work for a competitor, I hate you.  That’s what competition is.  If you work for a competitor, I don’t give a fuck how you’re doing.  I don’t care about your family, your job, nothing.  If you work for a competitor, it’s not enough for me to not care.  It’s not enough for me to want you to fail.

“If you work for a competitor, I want you to die.

I was literally quivering.  I’m a big guy.  Six-foot-three, over 200 pounds.  This guy was five-foot-something.  I could have flattened him with one punch.  But he affixed me in his gaze, looking at me hard, so that there was no misunderstanding him – he just told me that he wanted his competitors to die.

Die, I thought.  I just spent a couple of minutes catching up with an old friend, and the VP wants him to DIE.

“That is why you won’t last two weeks in business,” he said.  “You’re too naive.  You’re too nice.”

I walked right the fuck out of the booth, and began walking the floor of the show, determined not to go back to my hotel room without a new job.

And after half a day of walking, I’d given up.  Nobody wanted to even discuss it with me.  My VP, it seemed, had ears everywhere, and nobody wanted to risk having him on their bad side.  Nobody wanted to have him wishing death on them.

We had a vendor who made a certain type of product for us, right in the United States.  We didn’t use them as a primary vendor.  Their quality was absolutely outstanding, but their prices were just too high – they could not compete with the Asian manufacturers that we used for this product.  But when we had a quality problem with an Asian manufacturer, and needed to fill an order quickly, we would call this particular company and pay a premium for their product.  We’d never order a large amount – maybe a thousand or two thousand pieces – but they always, always met the order deadline with time to spare, sending their own truck to our warehouse with the products.  And they always met our specs.

After three years of having this company bail us out of trouble again and again, I had never met the owner.  On my way out of the show, dejected and miserable, I decided to stop in at the company’s booth and introduce myself to him.

I’ll call him Fred.  There’s no reason for me to use his real name.

“Hi, Fred,” I said as I shook his hand, introducing myself.

We chatted for a few minutes about the business, and about our respective companies.  I explained to him that I just wanted to introduce myself, since we’d done business together for so long and never formally met.

Then, he said the most curious thing.

He said “Maybe you can help me.  I’m trying to grow my company, but I’m having trouble finding the right sort of people.  What I’m looking for is a knowledgeable Product Manager, who can help me grow my cellular business.  Someone young and aggressive, just like yourself.  And I’m also looking for a Senior Engineer, who understands the products.  Someone just like that young man you work with.”

I gazed at him for a second, and sputtered “I’ll keep that in mind, and let you know if I come across anyone.”

Then I excused myself and walked out of the show.

When I got back to the hotel room, it was only 6:00 on the East Coast.  So I picked up the phone and dialed the office, then dialed Danny’s extension.  When he picked up, I said “You’re not going to believe this.”

“What?” he asked.

“I just went over to XYZ Company’s booth (it doesn’t make sense for me to name the company, either) and talked to Fred.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  And he told me he was looking for a Product Manager and a Senior Engineer.  Someone just like me, and someone just like you.”

“Let’s go!” he said.  Just like that.  With no time to even think about what I had just said.

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll go back in the morning and talk to him.”

~ by Al on October 9, 2009.

3 Responses to “end of the line.”

  1. Wow – talk about serendipity. Nice timing.

    I’m sure that “want them do die” VP is dead himself now. He sounds sweet.

  2. It seemed too good to be true.

    The VP is still with us. He wasn’t a bad guy, just a bad manager and a ruthless competitor. I learned a lot from him (both good and bad), and, like just about any other dayjob, in hindsight it’s never as bad as it seemed when you were there. The stories from the next place will curl your hair. 🙂

  3. That’s surprising. I know a few guys like that, and a few like the sales guy with all the personal info at his fingertips, from your post yesterday.

    It’s good to like your job, but I’ll take happiness (and no death-wishing) any day.

    Looking forward to the next job stories.

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