Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Avoiding pressure while traveling

By Dick Hirsch

Sometimes I wonder whether I still enjoy travel. It has become very stressful. Flying? Arrive at the airport two hours in advance, pack your teeny tube of toothpaste and your deodorant in a little plastic baggy. Take off your shoes for the security screening. Scan the monitor and don’t be surprised if the flight is delayed. So wait. Don’t pace. Did you take a good book?

What about driving? My frequent destinations are either Boston or New York, and typically it is leave before sunrise and push push push all the way, wondering whether I’ll be able to match or surpass my previous times for the trip. Meanwhile, remember the route. Boston is simple, but New York requires careful navigating as you hurtle through New Jersey. Aah, New Jersey; for a state relatively small in area, it seems to have a profusion of highway patrol cars stationed in strategic locations on the road. So, all the way, not only must you be alert for the antics of unpredictable drivers, it also makes sense to watch for the state police, just in case you should inadvertently stray over the speed limit. You may have experienced the feeling of glancing in the rear view mirror and seeing a car with red lights flashing, a car that has suddenly appeared and whose driver is seeking some private time with you. No, officer, I couldn’t possibly have been going that fast...

See what I mean? I hope you agree: travel is stressful. If you seek relaxation, stay home. Or consider an alternative: take a train.

We took the train to New York. Train 284 was scheduled to leave the Amtrak Station on Dick Road at 7:50 on Friday morning. We arrived about 20 minutes early, in the middle of a disconcerting snow shower. There were eight other persons in the waiting room. We sat down and I immediately looked at my watch. I looked at my watch several more times before I heard the whistle as the train arrived about 10 minutes late. Everyone boarded quickly, 284 moved out, and once we were underway I decided that constant watch-checking is for airline passengers and motorists.

It’s a smooth ride and a stress-free experience. The seats are comfortable, the cars clean. There is a lounge serving drinks and a limited menu. Passengers walk about, moving from one side to the other, in order to better observe the passing landscape. As we headed east toward Rochester, Syracuse, Rome, Utica and Albany, it became quickly apparent that in many locations train passengers see a totally different panorama.

We saw industrial and commercial backyards as we rolled slowly through the cities before stopping at the local stations. The businesses face the roads, with their posteriors along the tracks. In rural areas, the train goes through woods thick with trees and undergrowth, as well as snow-covered farm fields, some with rolls of hay that will eventually be hauled to the barn. At a top speed of 75 to 80 mph, there are many grade crossings and the engineer sounds his whistle repeatedly as he approaches each. There is still a haunting and romantic sound to that whistle, a sound that will probably never become obsolete.

One woman, late for a meeting in Albany, created a conference call. She was on her cell phone from Utica to Albany---a marathon conversation---before she said goodbye, reminding her listeners she planned to hail a cab and join them at the meeting in a few minutes.

I read a book, enjoyed the passing scene, looking for familiar landmarks. I saw the Beech-Nut sign towering over the baby food factory in Canajoharie, but 284 sped through many small towns so quickly it was difficult to decipher the station signs. There were a few periods of delay along the way, when the train was slowed because of traffic ahead, slower-moving freight trains.

Other brief stops were in Amsterdam, Saratoga Springs, and Schenectady before we reached Albany. The train then crossed to the east side of the Hudson River and turned south, closely hugging the shoreline, stopping in towns and cities like Hudson, Rhinecliff, Poughkeepsie, Croton-on-Hudson, Harmon and Yonkers.

The schedule calls for 284 to make that Buffalo-Penn Station trip in 7 hours and 45 minutes, arriving at 3:35 PM. That day, we were about an hour late, but no one seemed to mind. We were stress free.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

The value of a college degree

By Dick Hirsch

I attended one of those small Liberal Arts colleges where some people majored in Classics, studying Greek and Latin. I never studied a word of either, but I mention it only to provide some insight into the kind of traditional academic program to which we were all exposed.

I never understood exactly why a person would major in Greek and Latin, but I really admired those who did. Others majored in subjects like Philosophy or Biology, Religion or Government, Physics or History, Mathematics or Chemistry. You get the idea. It was then a very typical approach at small colleges where the goal was to produce well-rounded, enlightened graduates who would appreciate the value of a curriculum that dated back generations. Such studies, they claimed, were excellent ways to prepare for the real world.

Me? I was an English major. I decided I would have a head start on the program since I already spoke the language, had once won a spelling bee, and had read some books such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Huckleberry Finn. There were no journalism courses, just as there were no what you might describe as “trade” courses designed to train a person for a certain skill in a particular occupation.

This has all been provided as background.

The point of the story is that I recently participated in a somewhat selective telephone survey of classmates aimed at discovering what the graduates are doing today, whether they are working or retired, whether they have moved to Florida or North Carolina, or are still living in the northeast, midwest, or wherever else they chose to settle.

Since I would always prefer to ask questions rather than answer them, I volunteered to be one of those giving the survey. I have always told people that you never know when or where you will happen upon a good story; they just present themselves, usually unexpectedly, and often in the damnedest places.

Among a number of others, I called Johnny Roberts to seek some answers about his life and how his Liberal Arts education had impacted his career. Roberts isn’t his real name. He is not doing anything illegal or immoral, but I just decided I’d identify him with an alias because I don’t know whether he wants the world to know what he is doing for a living.

He is a professional poker player, participating in games where the entry fees start at $10,000, and he plays in places as obvious as Las Vegas and the Caribbean and as remote as Australia and New Zealand.

As you might expect, he earns money playing poker. I don’t think he would take the risk if the rewards weren’t within his grasp. He hinted that at times the rewards have been and continue to be substantial, but he was understandably vague about that phase of the interview. I asked him if any winnings were taxable and he said: “Could be,” not a very satisfying answer, but I didn’t press him.

The story is that along with the various required courses and electives that Roberts adopted for his schedule, he began to play poker on a regular basis, first casually and then more seriously.

“We played in the Delta Phi house where I was a member and a small group of the guys enjoyed the game,” he recalled. “There were many nights when we played very late.”

Each fraternity had its reputation: there were houses for jocks, houses for the wealthy preppies, houses with diverse members, and houses for scholars. My memory insists that Delta Phi was for the serious students, guys who would stay up late studying. Roberts said that perception was only partly true. Gambling was a popular activity, he said. It was there he learned the importance of the impassive poker face, concealing his reaction, whether glee or pain.

“I learned to play the game in that house and I liked the excitement of the competition, the mixture of skill and temperament with the luck of the draw, and I liked winning. I won my spending money playing poker.”

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Roberts majored in math and spent years working in various positions for a major manufacturer of computer hardware. After a period of employment, he resigned and became a computer consultant, however, he still was playing poker in his off hours, sometimes traveling to tournament sites. Eventually he quit to devote his work life to poker, becoming another successful alumnus who extolls the benefits of a liberal education.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Must reading for every salesperson

By Dick Hirsch

The newspapers are struggling but each still has legions of loyal subscribers, and among the most diligent readers are the sales persons. As you certainly must know, those people usually masquerade under all sorts of titles. Often they are described as account executives, special representatives or sales engineers, among other descriptions. But the basic mission has never changed: write orders for business, either by finding new customers or seeking ways to develop additional business from existing customers.

With that as an assignment, being well-informed is essential. Thus, it is easy to see why reading a newspaper is a real advantage since its business section is filled with news and feature stories about companies that might be prospects. In addition, there are the weekly columns of personnel items regarding new appointments and promotions, which provide invaluable intelligence information for sales people. The dedicated ones comb through the paper regularly, looking for potential leads on sales opportunities.

I occasionally feel a touch of melancholia since this column offers little, if any, of such actionable information for salespersons. I sympathize with them and support their assignment, since production stops in any organization when the sales force falters. I have always hoped that group of readers derived enjoyment and perhaps sustenance from these pieces, but I wished for a way to encourage them in their work.

I found a way in the airport last week, as I looked around, trying to spot the travelers with luggage that had no wheels. There is a story in those suitcases that every sales manager should clip and save to show to the members of his or her team of salespersons, or whatever else they are called.

It’s the story of Marvin Sandow, whose company, U.S. Luggage Co., manufactured and sold suitcases. They were traditional in construction and style, probably the kind that I once had, sturdy, covered with leather, and somewhat heavy, even when empty. Although he owned the company, Sandow was a salesman at heart. The legend is that, while returning from vacation in the early 1970s, he noticed a man taking a heavy piece of machinery through an airport. It was sitting on a dolly and the man just pulled it along, in an action that struck Sandow as almost effortless.

He wondered whether there wasn’t a way to apply that approach to a suitcase, and at his factory the following week, he had a pair of casters removed from a trunk and screwed into the bottom edge of a suitcase. He then attached a strap to the handle and experimented with it, pulling it around in his office. He was at first delighted with, and then inspired by the concept, so inspired that he immediately phoned the luggage buyer at Macy’s in New York, one of his best customers. He made an appointment to show his prototype.

We’re getting to the important part for all the sales people.

Sandow arrived at the meeting, demonstrated his invention for the buyer, and the result was dreadful.

“No one is ever going to pull a suitcase around at the end of a strap,” he reportedly told Sandow, who was shocked at the hostility of the response. However, salespersons learn to deal with rejection, so although he was surely disconsolate, he was not discouraged. After simmering for a few days, he decided to call a Macy’s vice president, a risky strategy since it involves jumping to a high management level. Sandow made an appointment to show his experimental model.

The VP was immediately entranced with the idea of a rolling suitcase. He pulled it around his office and called for the luggage buyer, one of his subordinates. “How do you like my idea for a suitcase that rolls around?” he reportedly asked, knowing well that the man had already rejected the product. It is impossible to know exactly what the buyer’s opinion really was, but his response was predictable.

“That’s a great idea,” he said.

Bingo! Macy’s gave Sandow a huge order for all of its stores. That was in 1972, and the rolling suitcase became a major hit, changing travel practices worldwide. Actions variously described as lugging, toting or schlepping were replaced by rolling. Sandow licensed other manufacturers to use his patented approach and became a wealthy man.

There is an obvious lesson here. Salespersons please note: Marvin Sandow may not be famous but he didn’t give up; he persevered, found success and changed the world.