Funny you should ask ... Tim Gamble

What is the best job you've ever had?

I’ve essentially only had two jobs worth mentioning, spanning a working life of more than 50 years. Both enterprises were uniquely  rewarding in their own way. I’ve also had a few side hustles which didn’t pan out but were as equally enthralling. It’s never really about the job, it’s about the people you encounter along the way. Of everything I’ve ever done the only common denominator was me and I was tested early and often. The lesson I learned over and over again was “If it is to be, it is up to me.” These ten 2-letter words rang true in every endeavor, somebody had to get the job done and that somebody was me.

Through a chance encounter I was given the opportunity to join a fledgling furniture corporation in Phoenix with big expansion plans. I had no experience in the furniture business or retail for that matter. I’d been studying architectural design for the past 3 years which included some interior design work. Two months after I was hired, I was given the job of logistical rebuyer and merchandiser. All I had to do was keep track of the inventory and purchase replacements for the items being sold. That seems easy enough. As I delved into my new job and asked a few questions, I was somewhat baffled by the answers. They didn’t make any sense to me. I quickly learned that the folks up the food chain had no idea why they were doing what they were doing, yet the company was wildly successful. It looked like an opportunity for me to learn from their mistakes and become a “mover and shaker” if I could successfully test and improve the system. The company motto was “The system works. Follow the system.” Even though it didn’t. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. My motto was, however, “A job worth doing is worth doing right.” Let the contest begin.

Through the next six months I learned the company systems and operations. I also learned how the underlings were exploiting the loopholes in the system for their own personal advantage, and by personal advantage I mean stealing from the company by inflating the profits on the P&L. I learned how they would zero out the cost on certain items to inflate the profit margins and thereby their bonuses. I’m sure management had no idea and had no incentive to find out. It affected their bonuses too. The scheme was simple. The company kept their inventory on an IBM 401 computer with an 80-column punch card for each item in a tub file. When an item was sold a corresponding inventory punch card was attached to the sales order after the sale was completed. The cards would become part of nexus for determining the P&L statement. No one ever checked the cost on individual items sold, only the totals. All you had to do was replace the actual inventory card with a lower cost inventory card. It was easy to do by just changing one connection on the IBM program plug board. The shortage wouldn’t show up until the annual inventory and was always attributed to “shrinkage.” I never participated.

By the summer of 1971 I was sent to the Huntington Beach store for further training. The company was going to open two more stores in the Bay Area, and I was the token contribution from the Phoenix store. I sat down for an interview with the West Coast Vice President who was putting together his teams and trying to evaluate where I would best fit into the new organizations. He was a no-nonsense guy, a straight shooter, one of a very few I’d met so far. We haggled a bit over my salary, he gave me a raise and determined I would be a better fit for the San Leandro team.

While the showrooms were being built, I was working in the new warehouse in South San Francisco grabbing floor samples for the new store in San Leandro. The new Metro Operations Manager walked up to me and asked me if I’d found a place to live. I told him I was still living at the Airport Marriott and hadn’t even started looking yet. All my time was spent on my project in the warehouse. He called a couple of fellows over to join us and said, “I want you three to get an apartment together this afternoon and report back to me at the warehouse in the morning.” That was my first encounter with management by “wand waving.” Malley was about 19 years old, and Scooter was in his early twenties. They were both from the Bay area and knew the lay of the land, so I was at their mercy as to where we would live. They picked out a nice three-bedroom apartment at the Commodore Club in Foster City. Malley and Scooter would be about fifteen minutes from the South San Francisco store where they were working, and I would be about twenty minutes from the San Leandro store where I would be working, perfect. I’m not sure what I would have done without this serendipitous start. I had nothing in the way of creature comforts. I slept on the floor under an old blanket. Every nickel I made was spent on food, rent, and gas for my car. I was a long way from home and, for the first time, without a desire or a way back. There was no quitting and failure was not an option. Your mind gets very focused on the task at hand.

The group in the San Leandro store was a lot sharper than the Phoenix group. I was expected to be proficient at my job. This was not a training exercise. That’s a two-edged sword I used to my advantage. When no one knows you, you can be anyone you want to be. I was a buyer and merchandising expert. I did things the way I thought they should be done. I learned a lot about myself. In Phoenix I learned the basics, the workflow, and the vernacular of the business. In San Leandro I learned to take risks and make huge bets with company funds. If you’re right you’re a hero, if you’re wrong, you’re gone. No guts, no glory. I learned a lot about people and their tolerance for uncertainty, how hard to push against resistance to get what you want. In the two years I spent in that store honing my skills I learned to see the entire system working as a unit and where the weak spots were, who was helping and who was hurting.

There were only two kinds of people, those who tried to raise the standards and those who tried to lower them. The General Manager was a recently promoted Sales Manager from the San Jose store. He was tough and exacting. My boss, the Merchandise Manager was a transfer from the Los Angeles area. He was fresh out of the Marine Corps and like me was thrown into a do or die situation. I quickly learned that “shit rolls downhill.” It did make me angry at first, taking the blame for every misstep, but it also taught me just to “grin and bear it” and make sure that whatever it was that they were exercised about didn’t happen again. I learned that if I presented any plans for approval first, the gutless wonders would always take a more conservative approach and blame me for the more conservative results. I figured out ways to work around them and let them take the bows. The store was the most profitable of the three in the metro and the General Manager was promoted to Metro GM and oversaw all three stores in the Bay Area.

The San Leandro and South San Francisco stores had only been open for two years. One store was very successful, and the other was failing. The Metro Manager came to me and asked me if I would like to take over as the Merchandise Manager of the San Francisco store. I was young and dumb and all of 23 years old and I said yes without a second thought. I asked him what the job paid. He told me that he instructed the new General Manager to only give me a $25 a week raise. He told me that I still had to go through an interview process with the GM and if he tells me that he can only give me a $25 a week raise, tell him you’re making $50 a week more than you are making now and he’ll probably give it to you without checking. I asked, “What if he does check?” He replied, “Well then he’ll think you’re dishonest and probably won’t hire you.” I gave it a shot and wound up with a new job and a $75 a week raise. More importantly I was an Assistant Store Manager with a nice bonus plan. The downside of course was the complete mess the store was in.

I had moved out of the Commodore Club a few years earlier and hadn’t seen much of Malley and Scooter since; But now they both worked for me in the South San Francisco store. Malley worked directly under me in the merchandising department and Scooter oversaw the receiving dock. Old home week didn’t last long. The store had real problems. The new GM was clueless and afraid to make a move without checking with the Metro Manager first. He had no ability to manage his way out of the disaster he inherited. To set the stage, the store had a 70,000 square foot showroom attached to a massive 100,000 square foot warehouse with storage racks layered 7 levels high that held about 1.2 million dollars in merchandise at wholesale. The store sold about $600,000 a month in furniture and accessories at a cost of about $350,000. The store after expenses made about 2% profit.

So, by the numbers all you have to do is increase the sales, hold down the costs, improve the margins, and improve the number of inventory turns in the warehouse. Basically, improve your GMROI (gross margin return on investment). That seems easy enough, but no, the problems weren’t just in the numbers, they were imbedded in the employees. The merchandise was being intentionally sabotaged. The receiving crew was mislabeling and hiding the inventory all over the warehouse. Out of the 1.2 million dollars worth of goods there was only 50% in the proper locations. Every sale was compromised when it came time to pick up or deliver the goods. Of the furniture that was successfully located in the warehouse, it was being intentionally damaged before it could be delivered. Seems crazy but the employees were trying to form a union and the work sabotage was their way of getting some attention.

The ring leaders were identified and disciplined for their destructive behavior, some quit out of frustration, the others kept up their secret meetings outside the store working with local union organizers, trying to get ready to take a serious run at establishing a union. The new GM stepped down and a no-nonsense guy from the LA area took his place. Scooter resigned from the receiving dock. The warehouse was re-inventoried, and several new warehousemen were hired. The inventory was a disaster. It took me a year to straighten it out. During that time Malley resigned as a rebuyer, and I hired all new merchandisers and decorators. Because of all the turmoil our reputation in the market had been severely damaged. I learned a very important lesson. You get no credit for doing your job right. In other words, your customers expect you to do it right the first time every time, after all they’re paying the bill. Nobody’s going to compliment you for meeting their expectations. On the other hand, if you don’t meet their expectations, they have a story to tell and they tell everyone. Statistically if you do a good job, your customer will tell 3 other people about their experience as opposed to the 40 people they’ll tell their horror story to if you don’t do a good job.

The company too was going through a great deal of turmoil. The stock was listed on the NYSE and there was an SEC fraud investigation of the owners. They were accused of manipulating the stock with fraudulent financial statements, something I’d seen in the Phoenix store. The compromise with the SEC was to have the family who owned the company, step down from running the day-to-day business and appoint a new President. That started a fierce political fight within the rank and file. Some supported the family, while others saw their chance to take over the company. I learned to keep my head down. I watched as people destroyed their careers by taking sides in a pointless battle. I learned the difference between those who rode coattails to power and those who were behind the scenes getting the job done. You could move up faster on a coattail but there is no security. As soon as your regime was disfavored you were fired with the lot of them. I watched regimes come and go for years.

As we climbed out of the hole in San Francisco I needed to make some changes in our customer service department. I called the West Coast Vice President, the fellow I first interviewed with in Huntington Beach, and asked him for some advice. I told him the customers who needed service had a predisposition to fight. They came in ready to do battle because of our reputation for poor service and are still angry even after I solve the problem. He said, “Tell you what I want you to do. For the next 30 days I want you to give away at least a thousand dollars day in customer service. Then call me back.” I told him, “That’s 30 grand. We don’t make 30 grand in a month. How am I going to do that?” He said, “Just do it and call me back.” I went to the Customer Service Manager and told him to keep a journal on every interaction and he was authorized to spend up to a thousand dollars a day placating the customers. He gave me an odd look and said, “Okay.” I checked with him at the end of the first week to review his progress in giving the store away. He hadn’t gotten very far. His placation fund had barely spent a third of his daily allotment. I told him he had to spend at least a thousand dollars a day. He thought I told him he could spend up to a thousand dollars a day. I told him I probably did say that and then clarified the instructions. I told him of my conversation with the VP. At the end of the second week, he really tried to buy off the customers but was still having difficulty spending all the money. At the end of the month, he spent less than half the allotment. He told me he really tried but the funniest thing happened. When I tried to give away the store the customers became more reasonable, they didn’t want the money, they only wanted what they bargained for.

I called back the VP and reported the results. His comments back to me were fascinating. Most of the problems with customer relations is the body language of the service person. When I told you to give them money, I was telling you there was no reason to be defensive you already lost the argument and your unspoken demeanor is what disarms the customer, not the money. If they know in the beginning, you’re going to give them whatever they want, they want less. And conversely, if you don’t see it from their point of view, they will beat you to death just for the principle of it. He then asked me how much I spend each month on advertising. I told him about sixty thousand dollars. He then pointed out, “If you’re willing to spend sixty thousand to get them to come into the store in the first place, shouldn’t you be willing to spend another twenty to keep them coming back in? You should consider your service budget as part of your ad budget. Now stay out of trouble.”

Over the next several months the employees had gotten enough signatures to demand a union vote. It was ugly. The inmates were running the asylum. The organizers and the new shop stewards were trying to demonstrate their new authority had more weight than the management of the organization while they debated the details of their first contract. Neither side could let the other win. The corporate office sent in their best team to negotiate and offered less than what the associates were already making.

One of the new shop stewards was a young man who worked directly for me as the warehouseman responsible for maintaining the showroom floor. He was a subversive influence on his fellow associates. He had to go. He came to me and asked if he could have an extra day off. He wanted off on the Friday before the weekend. I asked him, “Why?” He told me that on the weekends he was a beer vendor at Candlestick Park. The Dodgers were coming to town for a 3-game stand against the Giants and the stadium would be packed and this is when he could make the most money. I told him, “No.” Not because I couldn’t get along without him but because he was trying to manage the store from his steward’s position. There was no way to make a deal like, “Stop being a pain in the ass, and I’ll let you go.” Friday rolled around and he called in sick. My boss looked at me and asked, “Would you like to catch a game today? I hear the Dodgers are in town and the beer’s cold.” I said, “Sure.” We surveyed the stands and found where our nemesis was hawking his beer. We moved to his section and took a seat. He spotted us as he came up the aisle. He knew he was busted. He asked if he was fired. My boss said not yet, we’ll discuss it on Tuesday. Tuesday came around and so did the shop steward and several of the heavies from the local. They dared us to try and fire him for calling in sick. My boss looked at them and said, “I would never fire anyone for calling in sick, lying to me is a different story. He asked for the time off and was refused.” The young man was terminated.

As the contract negotiations went on, the corporate office and senior management were going through some serious changes. The President stepped down and was replaced by an old friend. The new President was a furniture rep from the Bay Area. I bought merchandise from him when I was at the San Leandro store. He is the person who taught me the most of what I knew about how the furniture business really works, not so much the mechanics of it but more about the all-important politics of the business. He was the compromise candidate between the family and the West Coast VP who made his play for the position. The new corporate office changed the entire management structure. My job was combined with the Sales Manager position. Each store had to decide whether they keep the Merchandise Manager or the Sales Manager. In my store they gave the Sales Manager the new position. I wasn’t exactly out in the cold. I still did everything I was doing before; I just didn’t have the title or the money that went with it. I’d been with the company for five years and it seems I was right back where I started.

The new union contract was ratified and signed. My job, even though I was a salaried employee now fell under union rules. I had to start paying $40 a month in union dues and, to add insult to injury, I had to pay a one-time $400 fee to join the union to keep my job and report to the shop steward who worked for me, the fellow I fired. In the negotiations he got his job back with all his back pay. He had been working in the Local 777 Retail Clerks Union office learning all the ins and outs of how to use his power more effectively. After the contract was signed the corporate office gave all the other branches in the company substantial raises just to frustrate the union efforts in the other stores. The union members in the San Francisco store were incensed and demanded that they be compensated at least as well. The corporate managers had a meeting with the members and explained that they signed a three-year contract and were expected to honor it. The new contract was passed with only the votes of the salesman and none of the warehousemen. Already frustrated by their new contract, about half of the warehouse members quit on the spot. They had been secretly promised a great deal more money than what the union settled for.

The union didn’t care. They got their dues. The local sent in an observer from Local 777 to monitor the interpersonal dynamics between management and labor. In the beginning they spent hours a day in the Operations Manager’s office with the new Merchandise/Sales Manager beating them both to death over small slights. The Operations Manager would pull out the contract and say, “Point that out in the contract.” Nothing was ever in the contract, but the heavies would use their annoying tactics to waste everyone’s time until they got their way. Even though I was back to square one in my career, after seeing what they went through to try and get their jobs done, I don’t think I could have put up with the nonsense for very long. Luckily, I wouldn’t have to.

My old boss, the Merchandise Manager from San Leandro was promoted to the Group 5 office in Dallas, Texas as the new Group 5 Merchandise Manager. The group included all the stores in Texas and Colorado. The president of the company called me and asked me if I could work my magic in the Denver store as a consultant for a month or so. I said, “Sure.” This wasn’t the first time he’d asked. I had just gotten back from a month long stay in the Portland store. Minutes before I was to depart for the airport, the President called me up. He changed his mind. He had something else he wanted me to do. Stay packed I’ll call you back. The phone call never came. He passed away from a massive coronary.

A few months later I got a call from the Group 5 Merchandise Manager, my old boss from San Leandro. He asked me if I wanted to transfer to the Denver store as the Merchandise/Sales Manager. I said, “Sure.” He asked if I could be there tomorrow for an interview with the Group VP. I said, “I’ll take the next flight.” After a successful interview with the VP, I was offered the job. I told him I needed to let my boss know and get a few things straightened out first. He replied, “We need you yesterday.” I asked him, “What about all the stuff in my apartment?” He said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get you packed up and have everything shipped to Denver. I flew back to San Francisco, cleaned out my desk, threw my clothes in the car and headed for Denver. I asked Sandy, who had moved out some months earlier, if she wanted to go with me. She said no, and I sped off to a new adventure. After all the pressures from those two years of constant turmoil in San Francisco I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I hadn’t realized how oppressive an experience that was until I was driving out of town without a care in the world.

The Lakewood store had been opened with great fanfare some five years earlier. The company pulled together its best and brightest to operate the store when it first opened but each year the sales and profits dwindled until the store was barely breaking even. The know-it-alls had long since left. The store was a stand-alone unit. In other words, it was the only location within the Denver advertising area. It had a 75,000 square foot showroom with a huge warehouse attached. I was introduced to the GM and sat with him and the Group VP and his assistant, my old boss from San Leandro, for a little get-to-know-you meeting and to review the status of the store. They told me their expectations. I was asked what I thought. I told them, “It sounds like a plan,” reassuring them that they were leaving the store in good hands. What I was thinking was completely different. This wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before. Their plan had no chance of success. What they were conveying to me was in fact they had no idea what the problems really were or how to fix them. It would take me a few days to do a deep dive into all the reports before I could outline an exact plan for moving forward but I had every confidence that the problems were all solvable. Of course they were, after San Francisco this should be a cakewalk.

After the Group 5 folks headed back to Dallas, I sat down with my new GM for a one-on-one, heart-to-heart talk. I listened to him speak about the situation he was in and what he expected from me. After he was finished, I told him, “I think your plan is too timid. I’m not into slow death.” I gave him a general idea of what I was thinking. He said, “You can’t do that; we’ll both get fired.” I told him, “The company just spent a fortune to get me here. I even convinced them to give you a raise. Not because your worth it but the VP couldn’t pay me more than you, so I told him to raise your salary as well.” The GM replied in disbelief, “Really, that was because of you?” He confessed that he thought he was going to be fired when I got there. I said, “Look, we have a small window to pull this off before they try and stop me, but by then it will be too late. If we win, we win big! You just can’t know about it. You have to be able to say you didn’t know what I was doing. If it goes bad, you have to say it looks like you sent me a lunatic. You need to fix this. I’ll take all the blame and if it goes well, you can take all the credit.” I told him the only thing I was going to need his help with was the sales crew. I won’t have a lot of time to baby sit. He said that was his strong suit and agreed to take over as Sales Manager.

When I was in San Leandro the company asked me what reports I thought I needed to do my job better. The one report I insisted on would have to include a 6-month rate of sales and the ratio of sales for every inventory item in correlation with their companion pieces. I also needed to see the incoming open purchase orders and the dates of their arrivals on the same line. By the time I got to Denver this report, The Merchandise Condition Report, was a well refined tool which if used properly could give you a complete mental picture of the merchandise moving through your system. The report was printed on IBM green bar continuous paper about once a week and was between 200 to 300 pages long. It took a data department associate about an hour or so to print the report, tying up both the machine and the tech at a cost of about $30. The secret of my success was knowledge, not once a week knowledge but daily knowledge. In San Francisco I convinced the Operations Manager that I needed a fresh report every morning. I would get to work early enough to be there before the printing started so I could read the report as it was coming off the printer. Your attention and focus must be completely fixed on the paper flying off the top of the printer. You can barely blink, or you’ll miss a line or two. It prints at a fast, steady cadence, both mesmerizing, and hypnotic. A funny thing happens when you read a report this way, after a while you memorize the entire inventory and the status of every piece of furniture you own and where it was in the process from purchase to delivery. What jumps out at you the most is the daily changes. You see what was sold, what came in, what needs to be ordered. Hopefully you see what you expected to see but also It showed you every red flag, everything that needed immediate attention. It gives you time to act, time to head off potential problems before they become disasters.

Under the current management structure, the Operations Manager and I were on equal footing, both reporting to the GM as Assistant Store Managers, but each with our own individual areas of responsibility. To pull off my marketing plan I’d have to get him to go along with my ideas. I sat down with him in his office and quizzed him about what he thought of the store’s current situation and what he thought we should do about it. He lamented about how he had to scramble each month cutting costs, pushing off payables, delaying maintenance just to break even. It was an untenable situation. I asked him what he thought he needed to fix it. He said in no uncertain terms, “Money!” I responded, “Only a significant increase in sales will generate the kind of resources you’re describing. I asked him, “If I can generate the sales can your operation handle the increased load?” He said he could and asked me what my plan was. I told him from what I see the store had been operated down to a loss. The quality of the inventory had been sacrificed. He was a little irritated. What I said directly insulted him. “I’ve been through the Merchandise Condition Report, and I see a lot of damaged merchandise. I’ve observed the customer service department and have interviewed the manager. There is no customer service being given here. I’ve watched the operation on the delivery dock and how the warehousemen abuse the furniture. There is no respect for the value of the merchandise they’re handling. They damage more in a day than we can possibly recover through any increase in sales.” The Operations Manager was visibly angry. “Are you saying this is all my fault?” I said, “It is if you let it continue. It’s just a matter of standards. You get whatever you put up with, whatever you tolerate. I went through your shop and spoke with your techs. They don’t even go near the inexpensive merchandise, let alone try to make repairs. They tell me it takes too much of their time and the end result is not worth it. In the warehouse you have rack after rack of busted up furniture just waiting for the merchandising department to try and liquidate it. The first part of my plan is to stop the bleeding or at least make you aware of the fact that you’re a large part of the solution If you can clean up the handling, I’ll work with your customer service manager and train her on what I want. Of what I can see, her job is to say no. I’m going to teach her how to say yes.” “Yes, to what?” he asked. “I’m going to teach her how to be an effective advocate for the customer. I’m going to teach her that it’s a lot easier to do business from the customers point of view than it is to teach every customer what it takes to do business with you. I’m going to teach her that we get what we want when the customer gets what they want. I am going to instruct her to take back every piece of furniture we aren’t able to service to the customers’ complete satisfaction, no matter what’s wrong with it, no matter how long they’ve owned it, even if they didn’t buy it from us but think they did, and I’ll issue them a 100% credit toward another item.” He was, to say the least, hesitant but agreed that he could at least try to impress on his people the importance of properly handling the merchandise. I told him to stay tuned. We were about to get a flood of goods to sell.

I then had a meeting with my new merchandising department. The merchandising office secretary was a very sharp lady, a former legal secretary, now retired, and working to fill time in her life without the kind of pressure she was subjected to in her former profession. She was obviously holding everything in that department together and I was glad to have her. I had two merchandisers, one for buying and displaying soft goods and one for case goods. We walked the floor and discussed the merchandise and the displays. I asked them what they thought about the business, what their plans were, trying to get a sense of what they were about. I asked them what happened to the Merchandise Manager that I replaced. The consensus was that he was just tired of the BS and moved on. I could tell they weren’t at all thrilled with the idea of me being their new boss. One of the merchandisers had been there since the store opened and believed with all his heart that he should have been the new Merchandise Manager, after all If you put in all that hard work for so many years with no payoff, what’s the point of busting your ass for a company that doesn’t appreciate you? I knew what he was feeling, I’d been there myself.

The hardest job in any business is to be a disrupter. People hate you. You can drag them across the finish line kicking and screaming, but they’ll still hate you. I learned from my time in San Francisco that the last man hired had a much easier time learning his job, he didn’t have to learn it twice. He wasn’t conflicted with his knowledge of the old ways of doing things. He would be starting his career where his predecessors left off, who quit out of frustration, eager to meet the standards of his new job. The last man hired only saw the future with optimism and a chance to excel. I learned that it was always easier to train someone new than it was to try and retrain someone. I knew I was probably going to leave a trail of bodies in my wake.

Over the weekend I camped out in the merchandising office with a condition report and a box of purchase orders. The inventory, as it existed, was 40% odds and ends and damaged goods, the balance was discontinued and slow sellers. The store was basically out of business. There was no hope of success without blowing a big hole in the budget. I had authorization to spend up to $200,000 from my initial meeting with the Group VP. It wasn’t enough to make a difference. I canceled  what had already been purchased and wrote a slew of new POs to ship immediately. I bought an entirely new inventory for the warehouse, spending nearly a $1,000,000.

When I came in on Monday the merchandising office was trashed. The POs that I’d written were strewn all over the office and there was coffee splashed on the walls. The GM came in and sat down and said the merchandisers were a little upset with me. They gave him an ultimatum. Either you get rid of that SOB, or we quit. “So, what did you do,” I asked him. “Nothing yet. They’re still sitting in my office,” he replied. He then asked, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “This is a power play, just wish them good luck and say goodbye. If they capitulate, I’ll talk with them. If not, send them on their way, it’s not a problem.” We did talk. They laid down the law. They told me how it was going to be if I wanted them to stay. When it was my turn to speak, I told them that I heard what they were telling me, that there probably wasn’t a scenario where we could work together, and that I indeed thought it was best if they did move on.

The new merchandise started rolling in. I upped the advertising budget and started blowing out the old and damaged merchandise. The Operations Manager came through with his commitment to keep up with the increase in business. The Customer Service Manager couldn’t do what I’d asked her to do so I put her in the Front Office and trained a new manager. We took back over a hundred thousand dollars worth of defective goods, no questions asked. At this point I had a bigger mess on my hands than I did when I started. I was overbought, the warehouse was busting at the seams, and I had more unsellable inventory from all the returns. On the plus side, however, the showroom was gorgeous with all the new merchandise, sales were improving, the salesmen were engaged and making money, the GM was happy, and the customers were giving us a second chance.

The first P&Ls were not good. Although we weren’t losing any money, we weren’t making any either. I knew that “the powers that be” wouldn’t bother me for a few months but if things didn’t improve quickly there would be a day of reckoning. That day did come. The Senior VP from the corporate office and the Group VP from Dallas flew into Denver to assess the situation. The Senior VP was none other than the former West Coast VP who I first interviewed with in Huntington Beach some five years earlier. The same VP that challenged me to spend a thousand a day in customer service. The four of us sat down at the conference table. I sat next to the GM across from the two VPs. The Senior VP started his interrogation while the Group VP and the GM sat quietly and listened. The first question out of his mouth was “Who’s your competition?” I said, “We are.” “What do you mean by that?” he asked. I explained that this store used to do a million a month in sales and accounted for about six percent of the business being done in the market. The market has grown substantially, but our sales are less than half of what they used to be. The problem isn’t external, It’s internal. We are our own competition. We have to get our own house in order before we worry about what other retailers are doing. He asked me what I was doing about it. I told him after I determined there was sufficient room to increase our market share, I went to the Operations Manager and discussed what I thought the problems and opportunities were to expand and what we’d have to do to support an increase in sales, I then bought a new inventory, reset the showroom, increased the advertising expenditures, and added salesman to meet the new demand. He then said, “Let’s say you were right. What gave you the authority to make such moves?” I replied, “Here’s where we might think differently. I came from a store that was doing a million a month in sales to a store that used to do a million a month in sales but is now only doing four hundred thousand a month. I had a choice. I could either slowly cleanup the inventory and claw my way back to sales and profitability, or I could duplicate exactly what I already knew how to do. I knew more about running a big store than I knew about running a small store. I could have learned but why bother. If I did what I would do in a big store, I would be a big store. If I continued doing what a small store does, I’d always be a small store. It’s that simple. As it is with the higher volume, we’ll be able to liquidate the old inventory faster and increase profitability. You know the old saying, Volume cures all ills. We have the volume. Now we’re curing the ills. So, to answer your question, who gave me the authority? I thought you sent me here to fix the problems, so I did.” The Senior VP closed his attaché case and as the locks were snapping shut he looked over at the Group VP and said, “Let’s go, I don’t see a problem here.” After they left the GM and I sat down in his office. He was surprised and relieved that we still had jobs. Frankly, so was I. I knew I’d gone too far this time.

Things went well. After ten months, we went from worst to first in our group of 12 stores, not only in sales but in bottom line profit. Nothing good lasts forever though. The GM had a bizarre episode. He was single, dating one of the sales associates, when something happened between them that set him into a drunken rage. He was living alone in an apartment nearby. He took out one of his golf clubs and began to smash every wall in his apartment. After completely destroying the place, he got into the tub and slashed his wrists. He woke up in the morning and called his brother in Phoenix for help. His brother clued us in on what was happening. He stayed with his brother for a couple of months while he repaired the drywall in his apartment. The GM was under a psychiatrist’s care and getting better, but it might be months before he could return to work. I called the Group VP and told him what was going on and he asked me if I thought he should be temporarily replaced. I said, “No, we can handle this easy enough. We’ll just need a third person with a key to cover some nights and weekends and I know just the fellow.” He said, “Fine, do what you need to do, just keep me posted.”

I told the Group VP that the GM was better and coming back to work. He specifically asked me if I thought he was alright. I told him from what I could tell he looked like his old self. The VP was dubious, but I assured him if I thought anything was wrong, I’d let him know. The GM had been gone for six months. He’d patched up whatever it was with his girlfriend. They got married, bought a house, and didn’t live happily ever after. The GM was in his early forties, a skirt chasing womanizer if there ever was one. We had a switchboard operator whose job it was to screen all the calls and then connect them to the right department. The position was currently occupied by a beautiful young eighteen-year-old blonde girl, tall statuesque and too much for the GM to ignore.

I came into the office and was immediately ambushed by the Customer Service Manager and the Front Office Manager. They told me they had a serious situation and to follow them into the employee lounge. There were six women in there all consoling the switchboard operator. They told me that the GM had accosted her and that I better do something about it right now or there will be hell to pay. I said wait here and I’ll go talk with the GM. They said, “No, you have to fire him.” I said, “I can’t do that, he’s my boss. I don’t have the authority.” They said you better figure it out. I went into the GM’s office. He was quite nervous. I told him the ladies have made a complaint about you. He immediately got hostile and started yelling at me to get out of his office. I stood up and said, “You need to leave. I’ll try to get to the bottom of this, but you need to go now.” The GM left. I went straight to the Operations Manager and said I think we’re screwed. The GM just assaulted one of the girls. We both went over to the employee lounge. I explained that I sent the GM on vacation. They reeled, “We don’t want him on vacation. We want him gone.” I said, “It’s the best I can do for now.” I turned and asked the Front Office Manager to take statements from everyone while we figure this out. I went back to the Operations Manager’s office and said, “We need to be on the next plane to Dallas if we want to keep our jobs. We told the VP that the GM was okay to come back to work. He’s going to be furious when he hears what happened and I’d rather be sitting right in front of him telling him what happened before he hears it from someone else. We flew into Dallas early the next morning and beat the VP to his office. When he came in, he looked at both of us and said, “Uh-oh, what’s going on?” I told him straight away that the GM accosted one of the office girls. The VP reacted harshly. “I trusted you. You said he was fine. I never should have listened to you two knuckleheads. I should fire you both.” He told us both to get out and that we’d see him in the morning in Denver. On the way back to the airport I looked at the Ops Manager and said, “Well that went better than I expected.” He looked at me and asked, “How do you figure? I’ve never seen him that angry.” I said, “If he was going to fire us, he would have done it already. He’s plenty pissed but he’ll have some time to think about it before tomorrow. Anyway, here’s hoping we made the right call coming down here. We’ll know if he shows up with our replacements.”

The next morning the VP called and asked if we could meet him at the coffee shop down the street from the store. He’d never done that before. When we met him, he explained that he wanted as much information as he could have before he confronted the GM. I told him that I sent the GM home and that he wouldn’t be in today, but the women would be more than happy to speak with him. I had them all write statements yesterday so the stories wouldn’t evolve. When we got back to the store, I gave him all the witness statements. After reviewing them, the VP spoke with the ladies one at a time. When he was done, he told us that he was satisfied that he knew what had happened and that he would be meeting the GM at the coffee shop in the morning. He did and the GM resigned. He never brought up his tirade in Dallas again and neither did we.

The company was changing fast. The Senior VP who was acting President while they searched for a new one was sent back to the west coast as the new Group 6 VP, a step down from his previous position. The new President was the former senior VP of Montgomery Wards. He was also the former commanding officer of the current Group 5 VP. The company had suffered greatly from its rapid expansion and the new President was there to establish some discipline and order to a fragmented free-wheeling group of disparate stores. This didn’t bode well for me. The new GM transferred in from one of our smaller stores on the east coast and with him came a flood of new rules, policies, and procedures. I sat down with him in his office, and he outlined his plans for the store. When he was done, he asked me what I thought. I told him, “I think my new job is to try and train you while you’re trying to train me.” He didn’t quite know how to digest that. The next morning, he came in dressed ready to start moving furniture around. As he bent over to grab the first piece of furniture, I said, “Don’t do that.” He looked at me and asked, “Why not?” I said, “We have people to do that. If they see you doing their job, they’ll think you don’t have any confidence in them. Let them try to impress you first. They’re very proud of what they’ve accomplished here. If they need your help, they’ll ask for it, otherwise you’ll make them feel very insecure.” He never touched another piece of furniture.

As things became more and more restrictive and centralized and run from the corporate office in Florida, I still found ways to make myself useful. We became a training center. The merchandisers in my unit were barely trained before they were sent to other stores, some found opportunities with other companies. My department was in a constant state of flux for eight years. During that time, we successfully opened two more locations in the area without a hitch. The Group VP sent me on a couple of side trips. First was to Chicago. We were closing the three stores we operated there. Mind you this was the second largest city in America, and we couldn’t figure out a way to operate them at a profit. The corporate office was in charge of running the GOB sale. They had planned on running the sale for 90 days. It was the fervent belief of the President of the company that they could make money from this event. After all the two strongest sales you can run are a Grand Opening Sale and a Going Out of Business Sale. The corporate team asked the Group 5 VP to supply the merchandisers needed to run one of the liquidations. The VP sent his best and brightest. After two months of sub-par sales from the GOB in all three stores, the Group VPs were asked to send more help. The Group 5 VP called me up and said, “I need you in Chicago.” I asked him, “Wasn’t that a job for the merchandisers?” He said, “I don’t want to discuss it, just get your ass up there.”

I walked into the store and saw a lot of familiar faces. I asked them to bring me up to speed on what was going on. The showroom was torn up from one end to the other. All that was left to sell were parts and pieces of sets. The merchandisers were tired and frustrated. The store was selling about $12,000 a day at retail, about what they did when the store was normally operated but nowhere near what the sales should have been during a GOB. The margins were in the mid-thirties, and they were getting their heads handed to them by the corporate office. I went in to see the corporate Ops Manager who was overseeing the liquidation for the three stores. I asked him for his assessment and how long he planned on running the event. He told me they had about $250,000 left in each store. He bought ad space for the next 30 days but could adjust that amount depending on the circumstances. I asked him how much it cost per week to run this store? He told me about $100,000. I asked him, “At your current margins wouldn’t you be better off putting the merchandise in the parking lot with a free take me sign and just close the doors.” He responded saying, “That’s not possible. We’re committed to the program for at least the next 30 days.” I thanked him for his time and went back to the showroom.

The corporate Ops Manager that I spoke with changed the newspaper ads for the 3-day weekend coming up to “Save 50-80%” and then left town with his fellow associates from Florida. I think he just wanted out of there knowing that the margins were going to be bad. He left this poor kid from Fort Worth in charge until he came back. The kid was thrilled to have an opportunity to run the store in his absence. The merchandisers who I had previously spoken with asked me what I thought of the situation and what I thought they should do. I said, “I’m not in charge here but it looks like a no-win situation to me. They’re looking for margins where there aren’t any. Here’s what I think we should do. I’ll get together with the warehouse manager and see if I can get his guys to stay late and pull as much merchandise as he could out of the warehouse so we can stage it and get it ready for the sale tomorrow. We’ll stuff this showroom to the rafters, so it looks like were having a real sale. You guys mark all the merchandise for what you think it will sell for and I’ll take the hit when the phone rings.”

It was getting late in the afternoon when I went out to the warehouse to speak with the manager, and he told me that his crew was all from a temp agency and that they leave at 5 pm. I asked him if he would ask them to stay anyway. He said he didn’t speak Spanish. I told him, “That’s not going to work. Who’s in charge of the temps? Who speaks English?” Out of the dozen or so warehousemen only one spoke English. I explained the situation to him, and he told me, “There is a bus in the parking lot that takes everyone back to the agency and no one will stay late. If you miss the bus, you can’t get home.” I asked him if he’d like to make an extra $200. He said, “Yes I would,” as I handed him the money I said, “Here’s another hundred. All you have to do is go out there and pay off the bus driver. Tell him to get lost until around midnight and then explain to the other warehousemen that they’re working late tonight. Can you do that?” He said he could. The plan worked. The bus driver left, the warehousemen worked late, and the merchandisers staged and tagged a significant portion of what was left in the warehouse. We were ready for the big sale.

The next morning there was a crowd outside ready to come in when the doors opened. The advertising that the corporate Ops Manager had placed in the local newspaper was stimulating new business. The frenzy wouldn’t last long if we didn’t meet their expectations. They snapped up the goods as fast as the salesmen could write the tickets. The merchandisers were quickly filling the holes and redisplaying everything we had left trying to keep up with the demand. At the end of the day, we had moved more than $100,000 worth of merchandise out of the building.

Saturday morning the phone did ring. The store was already quite busy. The merchandiser from Fort Worth handed me the phone and said, “They want to speak with you.” It was the corporate Operations Manager. Before he could speak, I congratulated him on the effectiveness of the newspaper ad. I told him, “Wow, the ad really worked like a charm, it looks like you’re finally heading in the right direction.” It was all BS of course, I just wanted to take the power position away from him before he tore my head off. He replied, “I’m not happy with the results. The store only managed to get a 21% margin of profit. That’s unacceptable.” I said, “You think that’s bad, wait ‘til tomorrow. All we have left to sell is odds and ends.” The line went dead.

Over the next two days we sold nearly everything. The inventory was down to about $50,000. I came into the store around 9 am on Monday morning. The showroom was almost empty. I could see the corporate Operations Manager talking to the merchandisers in the recliner section across the room. The kid from the Fort Worth store stood up and pointed at me and loudly proclaimed, “It’s all his fault.” From about twenty feet away I looked at the Ops Manager who was staring back at me with a ruthless scowl on his face, shaking his head and I said, “Well, I know where I’m not wanted. See you later.”  And I turned around and left and went back to Denver.

The Group VP called me and asked me how it went. I could tell he was trying not to laugh. I told him, “Well we sure sold a bunch of stuff.” Then he burst out laughing, “Gamble you are so predictable.” “Alright what’s the deal? What’s so funny?” I asked. The VP explained to me that he and the Group 4 VP weren’t exactly on the same page when it came to closing the Chicago stores. He didn’t mind helping but was tired of sending so many Group 5 merchandisers to Chicago when Group 4 had plenty of their own. He told me, “After your performance, I don’t think they’ll be asking me to send any more help anytime soon.” I didn’t know what to say and that’s unusual.

They did continue the GOB for the next four weeks. The advertising included all 3 locations in the Chicago area. The corporate Operations Manager had the other two stores, that hadn’t fared as well during the big sale, send part of their inventory to the store I had just liquidated so they could keep the sale going there, too. The Operations Manager, some years later, acknowledged that my numbers were correct, but I had absolutely over stepped my authority. I agreed.

While the new President was slashing budgets and cutting inventories, he was also acquiring new stores. One such acquisition was the purchase of the J. Homestock stores from the Macy’s Corporation. Their flagship store was in Roosevelt Field, New York. I was asked by the Group 5 VP to help in the transition. I flew to New York and met with the team that had been working on the transition for the last month. The store was another warehouse/showroom set up only on a much larger scale than what I was used to. My tasks were to complete the liquidation of about a million dollars worth of old J. Homestock inventory, set the floor with our new line up, set up the merchandising office and train the new Merchandise Manager and a new sales staff.

The computer runoffs I had to work with were already over a month old and not that useful. The new GM just sat in his office hoping to emerge one day like a butterfly from a cocoon and be handed a perfectly running store. He was an amiable fellow but wanted no more than to sit and chat. Not much help there. The Merchandise Manager was new and eager to learn but not that helpful. The salesmen were all part-time and all losing their jobs after the transition, the warehousemen were supplied by a temp agency and were filthy and drunk, the only bright spot was the Warehouse Manager. I sat down and quizzed him a bit about the transition and then told him what I was there to accomplish. The warehousemen from the temp agency had to go. They were there only to unwrap and stage the furniture for the sales floor. I posited the idea of having the salesmen replace the warehousemen. From talking with them they seemed pretty sharp. The new company only employs full-time salesmen and most of them will be leaving when this is over. If you could pay them what you were paying the temp agency, I think I could get them to do the work as well as sell. The Warehouse Manager said he’d give it a go. I then went to the salesmen and explained my plan. I told them that if they help me in the warehouse staging the furniture, I will let them price out the merchandise and let them sell it for what they thought it was worth. I told them that would not only get their commissions from selling but an hourly rate on top of that. They jumped at the chance. The Warehouse Manager immediately started training them on the equipment and we were off to the races.

The salesmen were completely energized. They performed better than any crew I’d ever been with. The warehouse was being emptied at a dizzying pace. The sales were through the roof. I put out forty folding chairs in front of the office so the customers could sit comfortably while they were waiting to pay. I told the salesmen that as we started making room on the showroom floor, we’d put the new line-up down the center aisles and move the old merchandise to the perimeters until all the old stuff was gone and all we were left with were the new goods.

I spent a lot of time with the new Merchandise Manager. Together we set up her new office, put together all her catalogs, and briefly went over some of the paperwork. She was completely overwhelmed. I told her not to fret. I reassured her that her Group 1 Merchandise Manager would instruct her on everything she needed to know.

After 30 days I received a call from the Group 5 VP telling me it was time to go back to Denver. I explained that I wasn’t quite done with everything yet. He told me that whatever was left undone would be handled by the Group 1 people and that my time on the project was over.

A few months later the President of the company flew into Denver, a very rare occasion. He asked to meet with me. I assumed he probably wasn’t too pleased with my effort in New York, especially since they pulled me from the project halfway through. I was sitting across from him in the front office. After some small talk, he congratulated me on the J. Homestock transition. I couldn’t leave well enough alone and asked him what the margins were. He told me I had a 39% margin of profit on the liquidated items. I said, “That’s not possible.” He said, “Here’s what you don’t know. Macy’s and I couldn’t come to an agreement on the value of their old inventory. They finally agreed to let us liquidate the merchandise for 30 days and whatever was sold would be discounted to a cost that would produce a 39% margin of profit. The only caveat was that I couldn’t disclose that fact until after the liquidation. I couldn’t even tell you that you only had 30 days to work your magic. What you did was brilliant. I knew you’d find a way to blow that stuff out.” I wasn’t sure if I was being insulted or not, but a win is a win and I said, “You’re welcome.” He then asked me if I would consider joining his staff in the corporate office. The corporate Operations Manager was standing behind him shaking his head and mouthing the words “no” while he ran his index finger across his throat. I thanked him for his generous offer, but explained I still had a lot left to do here. The truth is, despite the Ops Manager’s gestures, I’m not the corporate type. I have difficulty with process over results. The company was already being ratcheted down so tight I knew I wouldn’t last long in such a restricted environment.

I spent over nine years in Denver. During that time, I made a lot of money for the company. The systems I had put in place produced the highest gross margin return on investment in the organization, the industry standard gauge for the measure of success, even though I didn’t have the highest markup percentages, not by a long shot. My approach to making money was with high volume and low margins. The way the founders had set up the company in the first place. The new President was all about low operating expenses and high margins, operating to a profit at any volume. The pressure to change that was coming straight down from the top and their number one target was me. The President of the company had successfully out maneuvered the founding family and replaced them with his own like-minded people on the Board of Directors and then was appointed to the Board as the new CEO. The Group 5 VP became the new President, and I had a new Group VP to contend with. The CEO, the President, and the new Group 5 VP all worked for each other at Montgomery Wards and had known each other since their days in the military together. The GM, who had transferred in from a small store in Massachusetts, used to work for his old boss, now his new boss the Group 5 VP. It was all very incestuous.

My GM was instructed to break me of my bad habits. After laying down the law, I told him, “If I do what you want, we’ll both get terminated.” He asked, “How do you figure?” I told him, “Both the sales and the profits will suffer. They’re not going to hold themselves responsible. Who do you think it’s going to fall on? The way I see it, we can either get fired for doing a good job or a bad job, you decide. Either way we’re going to be fired.” He replied, “I can’t afford to get fired. Can you at least make an attempt, can you at least try to meet them halfway?” I said, “Sure,” knowing things would not turn out well. The sales did slip. They blamed it on the economy. I learned in San Francisco that a bad economy was the best time to increase market share, while the other retailers were cutting back, I could grab a bigger slice of the pie. But no, we let our sales slip along with the rest of the stores in the company. The inventories started aging, something I’d cleaned up years ago, and the store was looking dated, not something you want in a fashion business.

The company in their fit to control expenses decided to try a new approach to sales. They were going to pioneer a self-service operation in the Oklahoma City store called Club 4 Furniture. The idea was to eliminate the sales staffs and all their attendant commissions, costs, and personnel problems. The upper management believed that the salesmen by and large were over paid, under worked, and the source of most of the labor problems they had in the company. If it was successful, they were going to take the worst performing locations and either close the stores or convert them to self-service operations. No one was safe.

I was paged to come to the GM’s office. He said, “I just got off the phone with the Group 5 VP. He wanted to know if you would consider a transfer to Houston as the new GM. I told him that I didn’t think you would, but I’d ask.” I said, “Sure, I’ll go.” My boss was surprised at my answer. He said, “You know those two stores are on the chopping block. They’re either going to close them or turn them into one of their furniture club operations. Are you sure? That’s not a smart move.” I told him, “Yeah, I’m sure.” I’d been with the company for 15 years. The company was headed in, what I thought to be, the wrong direction. They were trying to make margins; I was trying to make money. I didn’t know that “the  powers that be” at the time were secretly trying to acquire the company. All that mattered to them was to show their perfect P&L discipline to the potential backers so they could borrow enough money to take the company private. Making money was never the goal. Their real objective was to take the company private, close or sell off all the unproductive stores and then do a public offering, sell their interest, and make millions. They were working on their own retirement plan. I saw Houston as my last and best chance to prove my way was better. The stores had been opened for thirteen years and had never made more than one or two percent profit. If I could change that then I’d have an argument to make.

I had an interview with the President and the Group VP. It was obvious that the Group VP was buoyed by the thought that he wouldn’t have to put up with me for that much longer and just sat there with a wry smile while the President did all the talking. The President, the same person who interviewed me the first time for the job in Denver, was more supportive. He said, “It’s a tough deal down there. I don’t hold out much hope for your success, but I promise you that I won’t let your career end in Houston. Do the best you can and let us know what we can do to help you.” The President when he was the Group VP had moved his office from Dallas to Houston for almost two years in order to get a handle on the stores as acting GM. He abandoned the project and went back to Dallas after Hurricane Alicia had damaged his office. Two other GMs had since tried their hand but were less than successful in solving the problems plaguing the stores. I told him, “There’s five million people in the Houston area. They all need furniture. I sell furniture. I think I can figure it out.” The Group VP shook his head and chuckled. The President leaned back in his chair, rolled his eyes a bit, took a breath and said, “Good news. You’re on your way to Houston.”

The following week I met the Group VP at the main Houston store on the west side of town. He introduced me to the Operations Manager and the three of us walked the property. The Ops manager introduced me to his department heads. Everything was very cordial. While I was engaged with the Office Manager the Group VP slipped away to have a private conversation with the Ops Manager. I then went out to the sales floor. I sat down where the sales associates usually congregate while they’re waiting for customers to arrive. I struck up a light conversation with the group that was beginning to gather there. After a time, my boss appeared at the front door some 30 or 40 feet away and motioned for me to come over. I put up my hand so I could finish hearing what one of the fellows had to say. The group VP just turned around and walked out the door. We had planned to drive across town to the other store and walk that property, but I guess he changed his mind. Welcome to Houston.

I visited the other store on the south loop and introduced myself to the manager. This store had, at one time, been a free-standing unit with its own warehouse operation but had since closed off its warehouse and became a showroom only satellite of the other store across town. All the deliveries were made from the other warehouse. The store was huge. I walked the property with the Satellite Manager, and I can safely say that was the biggest mess I’d ever seen any time anywhere. Wow, just wow. The whole thing was foreign to me. I couldn’t believe it was part of the same company. There had been a hurricane two years earlier but there was no excuse for this kind of neglect. The parking lot was full of trash. There were giant sunflowers growing along the side of the building. There was an old service van in one of the warehouse delivery wells left abandoned with flat tires. As you come through the front entrance, the warehouse office and some storage racks were on the left, the old warehouse was on the right and in the center was a 20-foot-wide walkway through a canyon of drywall 30 feet high covering the old warehouse storage racks.

Half of the walkway was cordoned off with orange safety cones along a path of standing water on the right. There was mold growing up the drywall from the standing water all the way to the ceiling. As you make a left turn to enter the showroom there were dense cobwebs draped down like Spanish moss over the old welcome sign above the doors. In fact, there were cobwebs covering the walls of the entire warehouse. As you went through the doors to the showroom, all the flood lights had been replaced with “spot cans” and the ceilings were painted black, and the store was so dimly lit you couldn’t see the back walls walking down the display aisles. It looked like some haunted back alley. I’m thinking, “Where am I?” A sales lady came out of the shadows and asked, “You’re not going to make any changes, are you?” I said, “We’ll see. I might turn on the lights.” As I walked to the back of the showroom through the open recliner section, I noticed small mounds in the carpet. I asked, “What are those? What am I walking on here?” The answer was ant mounds. Along the back walls there was ivy growing. As I pointed, I asked, “Can you explain what that is?” The Satellite Manager replied, “It started growing after the hurricane. We liked how it looked so we left it alone and let it grow.” I went out to the abandoned warehouse. The smell was awful. There was a two-inch layer of wet mud covering the concrete floor There were snake tracks everywhere carved into the sludge. There were lift trucks left rusted and abandoned where they died with acid still leaking from the batteries. The old advertising photo equipment was left there to rust. I asked the Satellite Manager, “Why was this condition allowed to continue?” He told me he had strict instructions not to spend any money or manpower to clean it up. I told him that once I get settled, we’ll tackle all these problems together.

I did my deep dive into the numbers and all the personnel files and observed the interactions of the staff with each other and with the customers. I casually solicited all the information I could get from brief informal conversations with anyone who would stop by to chat. When it came to the quality of the inventory and the look of the showrooms, it was the same old story just like it had been in San Francisco and Denver. I knew how to handle that. How the store operated was a different story and not so easy to fix.

Over the past decade the Houston area had an explosive growth spurt. The area was the direct beneficiary of the “oil embargo” of the seventies and became ground zero for the American oil boom. Houston grew from a sleepy population of 300,000 to a bustling 5,000,000 residents in the metro area and the surface infrastructure was a disaster. Interstates 10 and 45 were clogged with continuous morning and evening traffic jams. There were very few “through” streets making furniture deliveries nearly impossible. Delivery areas were divided into small sections on the map and each section was delivered to once a month. If a customer came in to buy, they’d be stuck with finding a way to pick it up themselves or wait a month for delivery. The business had been sustained over the past two years with Red Cross vouchers from the hurricane relief funds but that was now over, and sales were cratering, and the stores were losing money.

I worked with the Merchandise Manager and his department, buying a new inventory, reorganizing the displays in both stores, and marking down the old inventory for immediate sale. Within 90 days we were turning a profit. The Merchandise Manager was overwhelmed by my expectations and his new workload, said he wasn’t enjoying the experience, and threw in the towel. I sought the help of a Merchandise Manager from the Dallas area. She had worked for me several years earlier and had by far the best fashion sense in the group. The store she was at was one of the new “small stores.” I asked her if she wanted to take on a bigger challenge. She was hesitant at first, but I told her she’d have “carte blanche” to run the department as she saw fit, the bonus potential was unlimited, and if she pulled off the impossible, she’d be noticed by everyone that mattered in the company. She made the move, trained a new buying and accessory staff, turned those worn-out showroom displays into beautiful fashion-forward vignettes. I never worried about that aspect of the business again. I turned my attention to the day-to-day operation and the advertising. The operation was the limiting factor impeding the growth of the business. As sales grew the warehouse and delivery people along with the customer service associates couldn’t keep up. The data department whose job it was to guarantee the accuracy of the inventory was careless and sloppy. None of these problems were insurmountable with a willing staff but these folks were careless by design. As a group they were stealing from the company and by keeping the operation in constant chaos they were trying to conceal their actions.

I hadn’t been in Houston for very long when I opened the store early on a Sunday morning, hoping to get caught up on some paperwork. I noticed that the alarms had already been shut off. As I walked the showroom and warehouse to see who else was there, I found that a set of double doors on the far side of the warehouse were wide open. The grass on the ground outside was all matted down as if something had been dragged across it. I called the Operations Manager and asked him to meet me at the store. I showed him what I’d found and asked him to contact the alarm company and find out whose code was used to shut the alarm off. It was the Assistant Warehouse Manager. He was the last one out of the building the night before and was scheduled to open the following morning. When the Assistant Warehouse Manager came in the Ops Manager asked him if he’d been there earlier and had shut off the alarms. He said, “No.” I then asked if anyone else had his code. He said he didn’t think so, but he had it written down on a piece of paper in his desk drawer. “Maybe somebody found it.” I didn’t believe him, of course, and asked the Ops Manager to change his code and keep an eye on him.

The next week the Office Manager walked into my office and informed me that someone had taken the deposit off her desk. I immediately gathered all the office personnel and asked them if anyone had any idea who took the bag. Everyone denied knowing anything about it. I told them that this had happened to me once before in Denver and here’s what we’re going to do to ameliorate the loss. I told them to reconstruct the days business and call everyone who had paid by check, explain that we had been robbed, and ask them to stop payment and issue us a new check. The ladies groaned, “Do we have to?” I said, “yes and quickly!” They started making their phone calls with limited success. A customer came in and stopped at the front counter and said she found this taped to the front door. What she was holding was a manila folder with a note saying, “I don’t need the checks, I only wanted the cash.” I said, “Wow, that’s a lucky break.” I called the group office and relayed the incident. The group office called the corporate office to send out our polygraph expert, standard procedure for this type of occurrence. I had the Operations Manager inform all the associates that they would be polygraphed the following day.

In the morning, out of a staff of 65 people, 12 employees didn’t show up for the polygraph test and never showed up again, not even to pick up their final paychecks. The Front Office Manager was terrified. She didn’t know who took the deposit but was afraid the polygrapher would want to know about other things. I asked her, “What other things?” She told me that the Assistant Warehouse Manager and one of the customer service personnel were stealing merchandise out of the warehouse using phony paperwork. I asked her why she hadn’t mentioned this earlier, and she told me she was too scared. The customer service person’s boyfriend was a local gang member and if she ratted on them, she’d be killed. I asked her how much had they taken? She said she didn’t know but when she was at their house, the place was stacked to the ceiling with merchandise they were trying to sell. I explained the situation to the polygrapher and told him we should probably suspend the interviews and call the police. He was having none of it and continued wiring the associates up to his machine one at a time. I called the police, and they had the Office Manager show them the location of the stolen merchandise. The police waited until there was activity at the house, broke down the door, and arrested everyone there including the Assistant Warehouse Manager. There was about $50,000 worth of merchandise recovered with another $50,000 or so estimated that they’d already sold. The customer service person wasn’t caught in the raid, and we never heard from her again. I let the Office Manager keep her job.

I was sitting in the Operations Manager’s office when he got a call from the Assistant Warehouse Manager. He was asking whether he could get an advance on his next check so he could make bail. The Operations Manager asked him to repeat that and handed me the phone. I told him, “Under the circumstances, I didn’t think that would be a very good idea.” He then asked me if this was going to hurt his chances for a promotion. I told him I didn’t think he realized how much trouble he was in and if it was up to me, he’d be going to prison. He served two years in the Texas Department of Corrections facility in Huntsville. With everyone who had passed the polygraph and a lot of new staff we started rebuilding the organization. We still had a mess in the other store, but we’d eventually get to that too.

We had a huge parking lot in front of the store. Even if there were 50 cars parked there, it would still look empty. I had the architectural department at the corporate office design a series of large planters to encompass the light stanchions in the parking lot to both beautify and reduce the number of available spots. I hired a contractor to build the planters. He had a crew of 12 workers pouring cement and laying decorative block. A customer came in complaining that his hubcaps had been stolen while he was in the store shopping. I went out to the parking lot and asked the contractor if he had seen anything. The contractor went nuts, “Are you accusing me of stealing hubcaps?” I said, “No, I just wanted to know if you’d seen anything.” The workers were looking down, giggling, as they continued to work. I told the customer to purchase another set of hubcaps and bring me the bill. I also assigned a warehouseman to watch the contractors each day until they were finished.

Off in the southwest corner of the parking lot was an old sky-blue truck nosed down in a drainage ditch. It had been sitting there ever since I’d arrived in Houston. I asked the Operations Manager whose it was. He said it had been there since the hurricane and he didn’t know who owned it. I asked him, “Is that truck on our property or the indoor flea market property next door?” He said he didn’t know. I asked him to call the Architectural Office at corporate and see if they could secure a site plan showing our property lines and if it’s on our property have it towed off. The architectural department sent the original site drawings. The truck was half on our property and half on the property next door. I told the Ops Manager to tow it off. When the tow truck operators got there, they opened the doors of the truck and found a stash of steal stands loaded in the back. I went next door and spoke with the flea market manager, and she told me that she had been renting the space to a Christmas tree lot operator and those were his tree stands. I remarked, “And have you been splitting the rent with us?” She said, “No but I could start.” I told her I wasn’t interested, that I was trying to clean up the property and gave her time to let the owner of the Christmas tree stands know he had to remove them, or I’d throw them out.

I looked to the north to see where our property line went according to the site plan. The property veered off in a wedge-shaped configuration. In the middle of that wedge was a cyclone fence gate that had been overgrown with brush and small trees. I pried the gate open and stepped into the middle of an abandoned oil pipe threading factory. There were two 37-foot house trailers and a small warehouse shack. There were pipes and pieces strewn everywhere. I went through the abandoned office and looked for anything with a name and address on it. After finding some old mail I went back to my office and made a call to our legal department at the Corporate Office. I asked the lawyer to look into the records for this location and see if she could find any leases or agreements with this pipe company. She found a ten-year-old lease but had received no lease payments in over a year. I asked her to send a demand letter for payment or we’d terminate the lease. She did and I quickly received a call from a gentleman claiming that the property was leased to him. I told him he was over $10,000 in arrears and he needed to get caught up on the payments or I was going to cancel his lease. He said he would need several month to come up with the payment. I told him that wasn’t good enough and to remove the trailers and pipes from the property or I would sell them for payment. He capitulated and brought a large pickup truck and tried to remove as much of his property as he could, making several trips. All that was left were the two trailers and a gas pump. The trailers couldn’t be removed without extensive repairs. I called around looking for anyone who could help me repair and remove the trailers. Finally, a couple of fellows from a local church said they could use them as temporary housing for some of their charity wards and would be glad to tow them off. After reconstructing the rusted-out axles and wheels they were hauled away.

The gas pump and storage tank were all that remained. I called a company to give me a bid on the cost of removing it. There were still a few hundred gallons of gas in the tank. Before it could be dug up and removed the tank would have to be drained and dried, and of course, that took a special hazmat team. Once that was accomplished all that was left was to grade the property and plant some grass or so I thought. The newly planted area became a favorite spot to park for the flea market patrons and they also began using it as a shortcut to another road. The newly graded and sewn area was destroyed by the heavy traffic. I cordoned it off with concrete bumpers, put up a no parking tow away sign, and pulled up the culvert so they couldn’t use their new shortcut. I was the most hated guy on the planet.

Looking south toward Interstate 10, the view of my store was obstructed by a jungle of overgrown vegetation. I contacted the city to see who was responsible for maintaining the area which included the apron on the side of the interstate, a set of railroad tracks, a frontage road, and a drainage ditch all layered one after the other in front of my store. The city told me they could help me with the drainage ditch and the frontage road, but I’d have to contact the state and the railroad for the rest. I thanked them and hired a landscape company to remove the trees and cut back the overgrown vegetation. The landscaper said he didn’t feel comfortable going on to someone else’s property. I asked him how much it would take to make him feel more comfortable. We agreed on a number and for the first time you could see my store from the interstate. I updated the look of the front entrance and replaced the old revolving neon sign with the more contemporary graphics the company had switched to years earlier.

The next big problem to tackle was the advertising. It didn’t make any sense for me to continue to advertise in the newspaper. I needed a more direct approach. Once a month the company would insert a 24-page color flyer in the newspaper and then follow it up with weekly black and white ads in the paper. If any customers were enticed to come into the store, they were still confronted with the negative aspects of our limited delivery schedule. I switched to direct mail. It was more expensive, but I could saturate a portion of the market so that most of our deliveries were concentrated into a smaller area. Each month I would pick another section. As the business grew I could add more delivery trucks, market to more areas each month, and still minimize the time my delivery drivers would be stuck in traffic.

The project to widen Interstate 10 to four lanes and an elevated HOV lane wasn’t scheduled for completion for another 2 years. The morning traffic jams would last nearly to 11 am. I decided to buy drivetime radio spots to reach as many people as possible. A normal flight would include spots being distributed across the entire radio spectrum for a certain period of time. In other words, the radio buy would be a couple of ads on each station each morning. I asked the media buyer in our corporate office to purchase all the spots on one radio station. I told her what I wanted was for people to be sick of hearing my name. Then after a month switch to another radio station and do the same thing but not abandon the first station altogether. She asked me, “How does that help you?” I told her, “I want all the people stuck in their cars to remember my name. I can’t afford to buy all the stations at once. After I saturate one station, I can cut back on the ads and they will have the same effect. The audience won’t realize they are hearing the spots less frequently, but they’ll still groan every time they hear the jingle.” She asked me, “Is your objective just to annoy them? I don’t see how that helps you.” I told her, “In a sense it will annoy them but in a larger context they will also think of me when they think of furniture. My goal is just to get on their list of places to shop when they’re ready to buy.” It worked like a charm.

While all that was happening, I was also working to save the unit across town. It had its own set of unique problems. The company had shuttered one of the Houston stores a year earlier. They also anticipated closing the store on the south loop as well. I asked them to put a halt on their plans. The stores were no longer hemorrhaging cash, but were turning a small profit, and we were well on our way to a successful turnaround. I still needed to make a substantial investment in cleaning up the property. There was disagreement between the officers of the company about letting me continue my efforts. The President and the Group 5 VP were in the “it’s not worth the investment” camp and the CEO who was in the “let’s see what he can do” camp. The CEO told them, “Tim could hardly do worse than either of you two did,” referring to both of their efforts when they personally oversaw the stores. That set up an unusual situation for me. At that point I was, what the company called, a “Protected Species.” I had the backing of the CEO, the same CEO who came to Denver to personally thank me for my effort in the J. Homestock conversion. I could either try to placate my boss and the President of the company or just go for it. I didn’t give a wit about my boss, but the President of the company was the same person who first gave me a free hand in Denver. If I pulled it off, I’d be biting that hand. I decided to go for it.

The cosmetic changes were easy. We cut down all the wild sunflowers growing in the parking lot, removed the abandoned service van, cleaned up the mud on the floor of the warehouse, sold off the rusted lifts, replaced the moldy drywall, removed all the spider webs, removed the old graphics packages, painted the visible areas of the warehouse white. We then doubled the lighting in the showroom, painted the walls and ceilings white, cut down the vines growing along the inside walls, pulled up the carpet and filled the cracks in the concrete where the ants were making their home. We then discounted and sold all the old furniture and brought in a new lineup. The only thing left was to do something about the foul smell permeating the warehouse and showroom. I thought it was from the stagnant water and mud on the old warehouse floor. After it was cleaned up the smell was still there. I called an HVAC engineer to see if it was an air circulation problem. He determined that it was the old heating and air conditioning unit. Of course he did, that’s the business he was in. After spending twenty thousand dollars on a new unit the air was improved but the smell was still there.

With the increase in traffic, the toilets in the restrooms were constantly clogged. I was spending a fortune on 24-hour emergency plumbing services, so I called a contractor to come out and investigate the problem. They used their equipment to follow the plumbing some 200 feet from the restrooms in the customer waiting area at the warehouse office, down the side wall separating the warehouse and showroom, and along the back wall of the warehouse, to the sewer connection some 12 feet down in the far corner of the old building. What he found was the sewer pipe was never connected to the city sewer system and the pipes running from the restrooms to the sewer hookup weren’t joined together properly. They were just laid end to end without completing the sealing process. All the waste had been going under the warehouse through the pipes and leaching out from the improper connections. The toilets were backed up because, after 13 years, there was no more room in the pipes for the solid waste. The contractor cut a 3-foot-wide path through the concrete slab the length of the sewer line, then started digging along the pipe, piling up the excavated dirt on the warehouse floor until he reached the city hook up. The smell was overwhelming. We had to get another hazardous waste permit to remove the dirt before we could install a new sewer line and fix the plumbing issue. Finally, the smell was gone.

The business was growing rapidly. I received a call from the satellite manager that there was a potential problem brewing that needed my immediate attention and he couldn’t really discuss it over the phone. I told him I’d be right over. I drove across town and sat down with him in his office. He called in one of the office cashiers and instructed her to tell me what she had relayed to him earlier. She said that her boyfriend and one other warehouseman were planning on robbing the store after it opened on Sunday. She said that she was terrified because her boyfriend said he was going to “pop” the manager on the way out. I asked her, “What do mean by ‘pop’?” She said they planned on killing the manager. I asked her if she would be willing to speak with the police. She said she couldn’t get involved; she just wanted to give us a heads up so we could do something about it before it happened. I thanked her for the information and called the police and asked if I could speak to a Detective. I told the Detective what had transpired, and he told me there wasn’t much he could do if there was no crime. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea to wait until someone was murdered. He agreed to come over to the store and interview the cashier. She gave the Detective a lot more information than she’d given to me previously. The two warehousemen were living with the cashier’s mother and her mother’s boyfriend. The three men led by the older fellow were going to do the job. The older fellow, mom’s boyfriend, was well known to the police. The Detective started taking it more seriously. He asked if the cashier could call her boyfriend while he listened on an extension and tell him that she’d been trying to change her schedule so she wouldn’t be working when the robbery and murder went down. The boyfriend assured her on the phone she wouldn’t be blamed for anything, just don’t be standing anywhere near the manager.

The police agreed to be at the store that Sunday morning and try to catch the trio in the act. I called the Group VP and let him know of the plot. He told me he didn’t want the manager anywhere near the store on that day and instructed me to open the store instead. I called the Detective and told him of the change in plans and that I would be the manager on Sunday morning. When I drove into the parking lot, I was the only one there. I unlocked the big loading door next to the warehouse office, turned on the lights, and waited for the police to show up. The only people to arrive were the employees who were scheduled to work. I called the Detective and asked him where he was. He said that they had arrested the older gentleman earlier that morning on another charge. I asked, “What about the two kids?” He said, “I don’t think they’ll be a problem with their ringleader gone.” I had a very uneasy feeling. Only one of the two warehousemen showed up for work that day. The warehouse manager was well aware of the plot. What I didn’t know at the time was he always had a loaded revolver at his fingertips. He kept his gun on the shelf under his desk, ready for anything. I was more uneasy now than before. I told him if they decided to rob us, give them the money. I don’t want a shootout in the store. He asked, “What happens if they threaten us?” I said, “God willing, I hope it doesn’t come to that, but you don’t need my permission to defend yourself.” The day went on without any incidents.

On Monday morning I told the manager to fire both warehousemen. “Tell them were cutting back on staff and have their final checks ready.” I contacted the Detective and asked if he knew any retired policeman that might want some part-time security work. He said he might. I was contacted by a retired Detective who said he could supply a few uniformed officers working on their own time. We set up a schedule and made sure that the store had armed police officers patrolling the property during store hours, 7 days a week. I called the Group VP and relayed the account of the weekend’s events. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea of spending $240 a day for security. I asked, “Would you rather I got shot?” He said, “Let me think about that and I’ll get back to you.”

Things seemed to settle down after that. At least for a time. Several months after the foiled robbery attempt the President of the company called me and asked me to “get rid of the guns,” having armed protection on the property was against company policy not to mention a huge liability exposure if anything went awry. I contacted the Detective, who was running the security team, and thanked him for all his efforts and informed him we would be discontinuing the service at the end of the week. One of the security guards, a young man who was particularly well liked by the staff, was despondent over the decision. He argued that the job he was doing was critical to the safety of the store, that he’d seen things that we weren’t aware of, nor could we handle them without him. I offered him a job working in the warehouse. The warehouse job paid less than half of what he was making as a security guard, and he declined my offer. I extended his tenure for an extra week, so he’d have time to find other employment.

I was working one evening at the store on the west side when I received a call from the Satellite Manager that there was a fire at the showroom across town. I asked him, “How bad was it?” He replied, “It’s still burning. The fire department was on site and trying to put it out.” I asked, “Is everyone accounted for? Was anyone hurt?” He told me that everyone was fine. When the security guard had discovered the fire, he quickly evacuated the building and called the fire department. I told him, “I’ll be right there.” When I pulled into the parking lot there was a little smoke and water coming out from the emergency exits. The fire had been extinguished and the firemen were in the process of mitigating the damage. They were squeegeeing the water out of the showroom that covered the floor when the fire suppression system was activated. They also set up a series of large fans to blow out the last of the smoke and begin the effort to dry the wet carpet and furniture. I spoke with the Fire Captain. He showed me where the fire had started in three separate places. He pointed out the black squiggly lines in the carpet where the fire had followed the accelerant. He told me it was an obvious case of arson and asked if I knew of anyone who might want to light these fires. I told the captain, “Given the history of this store, it’s probably a long list.” The police interviewed everyone who was at the store at the time when the fire started. The arsonist turned out to be the security guard. He didn’t want his employment to end so he concocted a scheme to save his job. He thought he would be exalted as a hero who’s quick thinking and actions saved the lives of our customers and the store from certain destruction. After a week of cleanup, we were back in business. I thought to myself, “This place must have been built on some ancient burial ground to be so cursed.”

After I’d been in Houston for about eight months, the fiscal year ended, both properties were cleaned up and running smoothly and we turned a small profit. The Club 4 Furniture experiment in Oklahoma City was failing. It looked like the company wouldn’t be closing or converting the Houston stores to self-serve any time soon. The Group 5 Operations Manager informed me that they wouldn’t be paying me my bonus. The company had finally settled a million-dollar lawsuit from an accident involving one of our delivery trucks some 10 years earlier. There was a $100,000 deductible to pay and that would show up on my year-end statement. I asked him, “Don’t those kinds of charges normally go below the profit line on the P&L?” He said, “Yes, they do, but I was instructed to deduct it from the bottom-line profit on your statement.” He apologized for wiping out my bonus and told me if I had any questions, I should speak with the Group 5 VP. I told him, “There’s no need, above the line is fine.” The statements came out and I showed a huge operating loss for the year. The Group 5 VP asked me, “Why didn’t you let me know about this? I don’t think I can get this changed now that the statements are out.” I told him, “I don’t want it changed. I can make 10 times as much on loss improvement. What the company did by charging that $100,000 to the bottom line was put me in the loss improvement bonus pool. If I make so much as one dollar next year, the company will be writing me a check for at least $40,000. For that kind of money, I think I can wait.”

Over the next year, our stores in Houston became the top selling units in all of Group 5, surpassing even the Denver operation in the last few months of the year. The Group 5 VP came to the Houston store to hand out the bonus checks personally to my two Assistant Managers and me. He was sitting across from me in the Merchandise Manager’s office and handed me an envelope containing the check. I thanked him and laid the envelope on the desk. He asked me, “Aren’t you going to open it?” I said, “Maybe later.” He then picked up the envelope and opened it himself. He looked at the check, crinkled it up and bounced it off my nose, saying, “You’re making more than I am.” I chuckled, picked up the check, smoothed out the wrinkles and said, “Wow, lookie there. You can’t even get all the zeros in that little box.”

The business continued to grow. The surface roads were becoming more passable with the widening of the interstates, and we were able to extend our reach in the marketplace. The company, under its new management, was slowly centralizing all the critical marketing decisions to the corporate office. I was incrementally losing my influence over the advertising and pricing. My recipe for success, to first determine my position in the marketplace, hire and train a staff that could expand to meet increased demands, followed by steadily adding more inventory, more advertising, and more salesmen in that order, was being thwarted. I was getting a lot of push back from the Group 5 VP. He explained that my success was causing him problems. He was “getting it from both ends.” The other 11 store managers in Group 5 were telling the VP that they could increase their sales and profits too, if they were allowed to do what I was doing. At the same time the President and the CEO were telling the VP to reign me in, that the clean-up was over, and that I should be strictly running the corporate program.

I was getting it from both ends too. At the same time the VP was trying to hobble me, I was getting more and more pushback from my own people, especially the salesmen. They resented the increased competition every time I added someone new to the sales staff. They would simply run them off as fast as I could hire them. They’d complain, “Can’t you just let us make some money for a change? We don’t need these new people.” I explained, “You’re already making more money than you were when we started, a lot more. I need the expanded coverage.” If I capitulated, the salesman would become less productive by just “picking off” the easy deals, and letting the hard ones walk. My market share expansion would be severely hampered. I would never be able to just sit there and watch all my hard work go for naught.

The President and the Group 5 VP paid me a visit and offered me a new position outside of Group 5. My VP had had enough of me, and he wanted me to move on. The President promised me 3 years earlier that if I took the job in Houston, my career wouldn’t end there. This was him fulfilling that pledge. I had another huge bonus due at the end of the year and I didn’t want to walk away from it, so I declined their offer. I was also mentally exhausted from the more than eighteen years of doing battle and didn’t feel up to the new challenge they were offering to me. In hindsight I should have gotten out of Houston while the “getting was good.”

I received a call from the Satellite Manager. He informed me that he put out a small fire in the restroom. I drove over to the store and determined that it was the handiwork of one of the salesmen. He said he was in the restroom and the lights went out so he burned a bunch of paper towels in the sink so he could see what he was doing, and the fire got a little out of hand. I sent him home and called the VP, relayed the incident, and asked him what I should do. He told me in no uncertain terms to terminate the salesman’s employment. I did. The rest of the sales crew had a visceral reaction and insisted that I hire him back. I called up the VP and explained where we were on the subject, that the rest of the sales crew was ready to fight for his job and asked him what he thought. I was verbally admonished for my equivocation, but he said if I thought it would help settle things down, I could conditionally offer the salesperson his job back. I called the sales associate and discussed the situation. After agreeing that he would permanently refrain from lighting fires in the showroom I let him come back to work. No good deed ever goes unpunished. The salesmen decided to seek the advice of a union organizer. They felt they could no longer trust me with their livelihoods and needed protection against my authoritarian rule.

I was confronted by the entire sales staff at the south loop location. They demanded my resignation, or they would form a union. They wanted to speak with the VP immediately. I called the VP, gave him a brief heads up, handed the phone to the salesman and left the room. After a short period of time, they called me back into the office and I was handed the phone. The VP said, “Go back to the other store and await further instructions.” The next day the VP showed up with a team from the corporate office and began to investigate the seriousness of their demands. The VP called me and said you’re on administrative leave for the next 30 days. After 30 days I was asked to meet with the President and the Group 5 VP at a hotel downtown. I knew it wouldn’t be good news. The President told me my time in Houston was over. They were sending me to a small store in Westminster, Colorado and gave me another 30 days to report. I never stepped foot in the store again.

I always believed that I could expand the business by identifying the weak spots in the system, make the necessary adjustments, and overcome the natural resistance to change of the employees by training. My approach created many capable associates, who went on to populate the company, but I also pushed others past their limits. I now had a whole new set of problems, problems that I would never solve.

The Westminster store had been open for a few years. It was one of the new “small stores” envisioned by the CEO. Instead of the 65 to 70 thousand square foot showrooms of the past, this one was the new 40 thousand square foot size with a small warehouse attached. The operation did about 15 percent of what I was used to in Houston. The store had been losing money since the day it opened. They had trashed their inventory in an attempt to make margins by not liquidating the odds and ends and slow sellers on a timely basis. It was only a matter of time before the inventory would be so completely clogged with old goods and the operation would collapse. There wasn’t much I could do about it. It wasn’t a free-standing store. It was just one of three in the metro area. I no longer had any control over the merchandise, the pricing, or the advertising. That responsibility was given to the GM in the Lakewood store. The Operations Manager was worth her weight in gold. She was a master at controlling expenses. I didn’t have to worry at all about that part of the business. The Merchandising and Sales Department was another story. The staff were the castoffs from the Lakewood operation. I knew some of them from my previous time in Lakewood. How do you get rid of your problems? It’s a rhetorical question. Obviously, you send them to Westminster.

I started by retraining the merchandising department. Our only hope was to identify the best sellers and concentrate what little inventory dollars we had into those few items. I made a deal with the Merchandise Manager in the Lakewood store to support the inventory on the balance of my lineup by letting me draw from his inventory if I had a sale. I spent the first two years slowly moving out the old goods until we finally managed to get the inventory back in shape. I instructed the Merchandise Manager not to support anything he didn’t have a high degree of confidence in selling.

The sales crew was the limiting factor. The business wouldn’t grow without their commitment to make a better effort. They weren’t interested. They knew the company policy was to add more salesmen as the business grew. They knew if they worked harder to make more money their reward would be more salesman to compete with. I was boxed in. the Group VP was getting impatient. The store was a big drain on the Group’s profits. He told me to fix it and for the first time in my career I said, “No, I’m going to concentrate my efforts on making margins. I’m going to concentrate my efforts on growing the number of inventory turns in the warehouse. My only goal is to improve the GMROI, just like I’m supposed to. I’m tired of you handing me my head every time I try to boost the sales, for sacrificing margins to make more money.” He reminded me that I also had a budget that could only be supported by hitting the sales goals. I told him, “Those are your budgets. I could easily hit those sales figures if I had control over the merchandise, the advertising, and the pricing, but I don’t. You’ve been telling me since I’ve known you, my job is to execute the program as it’s designed. I’m going to do just that. I’m now all about process over results. We may not hit the goal but we’re going to make damn sure all the i’s are dotted, and the t’s are crossed as we go down the drain.” The Group VP looked at me with disbelief and confided, “I don’t want you to stop trying. I don’t want you to stop bending the rules. The only reason I, as you say, hand you your head is because I report to someone too. I have to be able to truthfully tell them that I’ve discussed these issues with you. He concluded the conversation by saying he’d have the Group 5 Merchandise Manager do an analysis of the Denver market and see if he could come up with any ideas. The Group MM came up and asked me what I thought I needed to compete more successfully. The Group MM was the old GM from my Lakewood days. He was quite familiar with the Denver market and asked me what I thought I needed to get the sales going again. I told him, “My job is to “run the program” your job is to figure out what this market needs. I have no idea how to fix this.” He said, “Yes you do, now tell me what you need.” I told him, “Yes I know what I would do but that would cause a lot of trouble in the Lakewood store.” He asked, “How so?” I told him, “I would essentially be competing with the other stores including Lakewood. You know the GM would never put up with that. It would start a war.” “What do you want me to tell the VP?” he asked. “Tell him if he wants to make any money here that your recommendation would be to make it a satellite operation run out of the Lakewood store,” I replied. He looked at me and said, “That’s not in the cards.”

The margins went up. The inventory went down. The showroom was beautiful. The staff was professional and well trained. I accomplished everything I set out to do. The VP was ready to kill me. The store was losing twice as much money as it was before. I no longer thought about all the dragons I’d slain over the years. I settled into my absolutely boring job. As the sales continued to dwindle, the sales crew was becoming upset. They weren’t making anywhere near the money they were used to. They wanted to discuss it. I gave one of them twenty dollars and told him to go next door and pick up a couple of six-packs and a cooler with ice. When the store closed, we went out to the showroom, made ourselves comfortable, and started a conversation over a cold beer. I listened to what they had to say but couldn’t offer them much in the way of encouragement. What they were asking for was an increase in their commission percentage. Their compensation wasn’t up to me. I told them the best I could do was not increase the size of the sales staff if they were able to grow the business. No one was happy with that. The meeting ended.

The next day I got a call from the Group VP, and he told me I was to meet with him the following day at the Lakewood store, that we had something urgent to discuss. It was all very cryptic. I couldn’t imagine what it was about, but the tone of his voice left me with a bad feeling. The next day I met with the Group VP and the Group Merchandise Manager in my old office in the Lakewood store. He asked me about the meeting that I had with the salesmen. I told him what they were concerned about and relayed what I told them. He asked me if there was alcohol on the premises. I told him there was. He said you’re aware that alcohol of any type is not allowed in the stores. I told him I was aware of the company policy. He told me that he received a call from one of the salesmen and that I made him drink a beer. He didn’t drink but was afraid not to drink it. I told him I was unaware of that, but I have no reason to doubt what the salesman told you. The VP then told me he wanted my resignation. I told him, “That’s not happening. If you want me gone, you’ll have to fire me.” He looked at me and said, “Okay, your fired.” He told me that I was done, and they would have someone pack up my desk and send me the contents. I called the President to negotiate a few details of my surrender. He chuckled and said, “You sure loaded him up a bullet he could finally shoot you with. I won’t be able to save you this time. It’s too bad you weren’t able to pull that store out of the fire. I might have been able to help you.” I told him, “Thanks anyway but I’m ready to move on.” I’d been with that company for 23 years. I was tired, burned out, and ready to leave. I no longer believed in the mission. The company topped out at a billion a year in sales. The wild, “anything goes” early years had given way to a stifling top-down structure that I had no confidence in. The “powers that be” seemed to forget that for the company to be successful somebody had to sell something.

After a less than successful IPO, I saw in the trade papers that the CEO had retired, and the President and his VPs were forced to step down. I called the President at his home. All I got was the answering machine. As I was leaving my message, “Hey George, you can’t just sit around waiting for another job, answer the phone,” he picked up the receiver and curtly asked, “Who is this?” I said, “It’s me, Tim.” He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was selling on the floor for the competition. He asked me how I liked it. I told him it was a great way to retire without a care in the world. I told him I had a new motto inscribed on my business cards, ‘Job free since 93.’ I asked him how he was doing. He lamented, “You have no idea how much money it took to run this company. I just couldn’t keep it afloat.” I asked him what he thought he would do next. He said he wasn’t sure and asked me if I thought he was too young to retire. I thought that a strange question and replied, “I don’t know. Maybe take a little time off and think it through. You’d be a great business consultant or maybe a factory representative. I’m sure you have all the right connections you’ll need to get going again.”

The reason the company went under was obvious. The principals had lavished themselves with millions of dollars in stock by issuing debt to the company. Debt they could never repay. After all the lawsuits, I’m not sure who ended up with what. I sold my stock at $17.50 a share. Within a few years the stock price had fallen to $2.50 a share and the company went bankrupt.

To answer the question, what is the best job you ever had? I’m now associated with a small group of people, collaborating on a local newspaper. It takes a lot of time but it’s not a job. It’s a labor of love. I enjoy every minute of it, particularly my friend and founder of the organization. She came into my life at exactly the right time, and I could not be more appreciative. I love her to pieces. So, I guess I’ve only had one job. It was the best and worst I’ve ever had, a thrill ride for sure but I’m glad it’s in the past.

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