see ya.

In 1996, if you’re a product manager in the electronics industry with your name in the trade rags all the time, you become accustomed to getting phone calls from headhunters.

Most of the time I would humor them; I never wanted to burn any bridges.  But the jobs always wound up being National Sales Manager for some company based in South Korea that was “trying to break into the American market,” had no American office or employees, and wanted me to work out of my house, traveling around the country trying to sell their widgets to AT&T, making no salary and straight commission.  Not the kind of job that interested me.

But I took the calls anyway, and they often turned into telephone interviews with the headhunter, during which I was always on my very best behavior but would also get increasingly frustrated by the headhunter’s unwillingness to disclose to me A) what the job was, and B) what company was offering it.

In one of these phone interviews, midway through I became frustrated and just blurted out “Look, Greg.  I have these phone interviews every week.  For all I know, I’m interviewing for the same job with you that I interviewed for last week with someone else.  I’m busy.  Would you please just tell me the company you’re talking about?”

“Philips Electronics,” he said.

Philips was (and still is, obviously) an enormous company, which immediately made the opportunity he was talking about exciting, instead of another South Korean or Indian dead end.  We talked further about the job and I became absolutely sold on it – it was a joint venture between Philips and another mega-sized global conglomerate, working on a new line of cellular and PCS phones.  My job would be to build accessories for the phones, and work with retailers on point of sale systems that would help sell the products through to the end user.

It was a dream job – no selling, very little travel, a nice-sized staff to supervise.  The company’s office was in Parsippany, maybe 10 minutes from my house.

I went on the interview and immediately hit it off with the woman from HR that was interviewing me.  I spent probably two hours with her, discussing the industry, the things I’d done in the industry, how I would approach the job, what the company was like.  At the end of the interview, she said “It’s almost as if this position was created for you.  I can’t imagine how we could possibly find somebody who’s better for this job.  I’m going to recommend that we hire you immediately, even before the paperwork is completed for the joint venture, so that you can start putting your staff together.”

Putting my staff together, I thought.  This is a brand new thing.  I’m going to get to build it from scratch.

Of course it never happened.  I came home thrilled, and spent a week or two after the interview on Cloud 9, knowing that I had a brand new job with a brand new division of an enormous company.  And then the joint venture never wound up happening, and Philips didn’t need me.

But the headhunter felt bad about it, and he told me about another job for which he was recruiting, outside the wireless industry – outside the electronics industry altogether – for a company that I had always thought was a small, local store.  When he told me their name, I actually laughed at him.

“Don’t laugh; they’re bigger than you think,” he said.  “They’re listed on the New York Stock Exchange.  They’re a billion dollar company.  They have an excellent website, check it out and then let me know if you want to interview for the job.”

So I checked out the website and it turned out that they were most definitely not a small, local store.

At my company, sick and personal days were meted out monthly, so on the day of the interview I took my very last personal day and drove to the company’s headquarters, which was also conveniently located about ten minutes from my house.  I interviewed with a woman from HR, and it turned out that her husband and I had worked together at a previous job.  He vouched for me to her (she had talked to him about me before the interview), and so we met for only a half hour or so, and then she brought me down to the Marketing Director who would be my supervisor.

He and I hit it off very well – he was a recent hire also, from the packaged goods industry, and the two of us discussed the differences between product and service marketing for a good hour or so.  He had been a product manager with Warner Lambert, and we discussed the dramatic differences in the term “product manager” between my industry and his.

After an hour or so, he told me he’d like me to come back for a second interview.  It would be an entire day long, broken up into one-hour segments with various other people in the company.

On that day, I had to take a sick day I didn’t have.  When I called into the office in the morning, I got one of the secretaries on the phone, and told her I needed to take a sick day.

“Al,” she said, “You don’t have any sick days left.”

“Look,” I explained.  “I have a job interview.”

“I’ll cover for you.”

I remember sitting in the parking lot the morning of the interview, listening to the Counting Crows.  I had become infatuated with the emotion in the song “Children In Bloom,” sometimes listening to it three or four times in a row. That’s what I did that morning – sat in the parking lot, playing “Children In Bloom” over and over, giving myself a pep talk about how unlikely it was that I would progress this far in the interview process this quickly with another company.  The weather was already getting warm outside, baseball season was just around the corner, and I could not imagine having to wait into the summertime to get a new job.  I’d go insane.

I knocked it out of the park.  I met with five or six different people, then met with the Marketing Director again.  He was all smiles.

The next morning he called me on my cellphone.  “I know you’re at work and you can’t talk,” he said.  “I’d like to make you an offer.  Is there a time you’d be able to talk today?”

I practically sprinted out of the office and into the parking lot.  “I can talk to you now,” I told him as I ran down the steps.  “Just let me get out of the building.”

“I’d like to offer you the marketing manager position,” he said.  “I can pay you $57,000.  Plus you’ll be eligible for a 10% bonus, depending on how the company performs during the year.  In your first year, your bonus would be pro-rated, because you wouldn’t have worked a full year.”

Fifty-seven thousand dollars, I thought.  That was a ten thousand dollar raise.  Plus I’d be working in New Jersey.  No more crazy commute – ten minutes to work, fifteen minutes tops.  No more eating at the gas station – this company had a cafeteria, with a catering service and a broad menu.  Plus, the corporate HQ was surrounded by restaurants and fast food joints.  And it was fifteen minutes from my house – I could actually go home for lunch if I wanted.

And then I thought of Fred, promising me the world.  Six-figure salary.  Equity position in the company.

“I hope this doesn’t sound too forward,” I explained, “but in order for me to accept, I’ll need to see your offer in writing.”

“In writing?” he asked.  “I’m really not in the habit of doing that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, lying.  “It’s very important to me.  I’ve had trouble in the past with an employer that did not meet the terms of their own offer, and I had nothing in writing.  Ever since then, it’s something I’ve insisted on.”

“Okay,” he said, “but anything I send you will need to be approved by Human Resources.  It might take a day or two.”

It took longer.  By the time it came, I was frantic, thinking I had blown it by asking for a letter.  But when it came, it was all there in black and white – all the details.  Salary, benefits, bonus structure, the whole thing.

I signed the letter and faxed it back from the fax machine at work.  Smiling the whole time.  And as soon as I sent the fax, I walked down to Fred’s office.

Of course he wasn’t at work that day.

So I told his wife.  Two weeks’ notice.  I’m leaving, going to work for a company outside the industry.  I’m sorry it didn’t work out.  I wish you all the best.  This just isn’t for me.

Two weeks went by, and Fred didn’t say a word to me.  Once, I actually rode in the elevator with him – just the two of us – and he didn’t acknowledge that I was there.  And on my next-to-last day, his secretary finally called me down to his office.  He was waiting in the conference room, smoking a cigarette.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Tell me about this job.”

So I did.  And after I got done, he said the funniest thing, something like it was from out of a movie – a bad, made-for-TV movie.  Something you would never expect.

“You were like a son to me.”

I had to bite my tongue.  “Fred,” I said, “this was never going to work.  You and I had completely different ideas of what this job was.  I thought we were pretty clear on it when I started, but eventually I could tell that we were just not on the same page at all.”

“You could have come and talked it out with me.”

“No,” I said.  “There’s no talking to you.”

“How could you possibly go to work outside the wireless industry?” he asked, pleadingly.  “You were made for this industry.  You love this industry.”

“Trust me,” I lied, “it was a really difficult decision.”

“If it was such a difficult decision, then why make it?”

“Why make it?  What you just said?  That’s exactly why I made it.  I made it because I can make difficult decisions.  I’m not afraid to make a decision.  I’m not afraid of leaving fifty cents on the table, or of telling someone that I’m confident in our decision to add a new product line.  I’m not afraid to make a decision that I don’t second guess.  I’m going to a company in a different industry where I can actually learn something, instead of getting lectured to all the time about what’s wrong with me.”

I don’t remember what he said after that.  I was sitting there, self-satisfied, staring off into space.  As soon as we were done talking, he packed his shit and went home, and so did his wife.  They didn’t want to be polite and wish me luck, and neither of them had the balls to kick me out.  So they just left.  And for once, I felt like I had the upper hand.

On my actual last day, neither of them bothered to come into the office.  I spent the day wandering around the building, wishing people luck, giving away my office trinkets, hugging people.  The company “HR person” explained to me some bullshit reason why I wouldn’t be receiving my vacation pay, but I was about to get a 20% pay raise, so I didn’t really care.  “It’s just more nickel and dime shit,” I told him.  “That’s why I’m leaving here.”

Several times during the day I went down to Fred’s office to say goodbye.  He never came into work.  The secretaries said that he had called to apologize for not coming in, that there was some sort of emergency repair at the house, but to wish me luck.  We all knew it was bullshit.  They were laughing when they told me.

Danny was pissed.  He and I never really spoke again after my last day – the only time I ever saw him again was on his last day there, years later, when someone called me and told me that they were having a going-away party for him.  I showed up, we talked about how great it was to see each other again, we hugged and got drunk together, and then never saw each other again.

I know that some of the people who have been following this blog have been rooting for Fred to get what was coming to him.  I was, too.  I guess it doesn’t always work that way, and at 27 years old, it was a good life lesson for me to learn that sometimes the bad guys don’t get what’s coming to them.

To my best recollection, Fred is the only person who’s name I’ve changed in this story, and his story is the only one where I’ve changed some of the specifics, left out some details, refrained from disclosing everything.  I’ve done that so that he won’t read it and find anything worth initiating a lawsuit over.  Can you believe that?

I was there for a year and it changed my life.  I was miserable for 12 whole months, and it took me a few years to recover from it.  I often said that I felt like a dog that had been beaten by its owner and then was given to a new owner – every time the new owner raised his hand, I’d flinch, like I was going to get hit.  It took a few years and one exceptional boss who has no idea how much he did for me before I was able to work with confidence and piece that bit of my life together.

Fred continued to own the company until he finally got a strong enough offer to sell.  Then he took his car collection (I forgot to mention he collected cars, many of which he stored at the office, and he used to make the factory workers wash and wax them for him) and rode off into the sunset.  Since I left the wireless industry and never went back, the day before my last day, when we met in the conference room, was the last time I ever saw him.

~ by Al on November 27, 2009.

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