A New Career
1962 - 1968
"Well good morning, Eleanor, is your handsome husband and boss around?"
"No Mr. Oelfke, I'm afraid he is not—he's gone for the day."
"Well that's all right, I'd rather see you anyway—you're looking as beautiful as ever on this fine day."
"Boy, Mr. Oelfke, I see you carried it with you again today," she replied attempting to discount Ken's blatant flattery. Still, I could tell she was not displeased. Then Ken Oelfke, my new employer, obviously from the old school of sales, introduced me as the new man in the field for Ken-Mar Company.
Ken and his wife, Margaret were owners of the Ken-Mar Company that since 1957 was a franchised distributor of chemical admixtures for concrete sold by the Dewey & Almy Chemical Company. Ken-Mar also marketed Onolite Corporation's lightweight aggregate for concrete, the product I had used at Ludington's. Onolite was owned by D. W. Winkleman Company, my former employer at the Syracuse Army Air Base in 1941. Like professional sports people, construction people often work within the network.
Red-headed Ken, and dark-haired Margaret, with their two children, had years before migrated from Kansas to Syracuse. At one time they owned and operated the Syracuse Ready-Mix Company. Ken was now fifty-five, a boisterous, happy-go-lucky good-natured man who laughed at both adversity or triumph. We got on quite well.
People were bemused when we worked together: I, the technician, worrying about a mix design problem, or perhaps the customer's cost, while Ken, the charmer, discussed the rewards of owning poodles, two of which he often had with him.
Sometimes he embarrassed me. He was not above using the outdated trick of having his name paged by loud-voiced page boys just to draw attention to himself in the lobby, bar, or dining room of a hotel that was hosting a trade convention.
He also held the notion that while we were traveling, by air or auto, we were not working—just joy riding. "What a wonderful way to make a living," he advised me.
My job was selling chemical admixtures to transit-mix concrete producers, pre-cast concrete manufacturers, and highway construction contractors in western New York, an area that had not been worked much. In fact I inherited but one existing account.
Knowing that I had recently been a fierce competitor, the Rochester producers at first were doubtful of the seriousness of my intent to continue as a salesman. They were cordial enough, but speculated that my new venture might be of passing interest; that I might become a competitor again. Two of them even made me tentative job offers.
I headed for the Southern Tier where prospective customers did take me seriously. Soon I had a string of accounts from Elmira to Jamestown.
Within a year the skeptical Rochester buyers began to call for our services. We set up a bulk distribution facility and were able to reduce our prices. Soon I was busy answering telephone calls from 6:30 in the morning, in telephone booths and motel rooms. Weekends were spent on reports, and often on Sunday afternoons I assembled dispenser systems to be installed in customer's concrete batch plants.
I screamed to Ken for help and in 1966 he told me to find some. I found Mike Weber, an assistant manager at a Buffalo concrete plant. Mike likes to tell of my impassioned pitch that convinced him to leave his job and come with us. I remember little except telling him something like "climb out of your bushel-basket world and explore the world of limitless opportunity," and that Ken-Mar would furnish him with a new automobile. Mike says he took the job because rejecting it sounded foolhardy. We are still close friends.
Dewey & Almy had been bargaining for several years to buy out Ken-Mar. Our new prosperity seemed to shake D & A into action; it also made the purchase more expensive for them. When the deal was completed in 1966, they probably paid Ken and Margaret about double what their price would have been a year earlier.
Managers flew in from Cambridge, Massachusetts, anxious to get Mike and me under contract, they wined and dined me while they explained that my employment contract included medical, life, and travel insurance, savings and investment plans, a pension, vacations, and a new auto every 55,000 miles. Pretty heady stuff for one who until now worked for small firms that offered meager salaries. When they showed me how to budget my own expense account, I, now giddy, vowed to never quit this job. Mike became District Manager for six states.
© 1992, Edwin N. Harris