March 1993

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

Chapter Index

Working with Grace

The new division status made for exciting times for management and employees of the Construction Materials Division of Dewey & Almy Chemical Company. Stressful times, too, with general confusion as the search for adaptable management brought a parade of succeeding vice presidents and managers. Some of the old timers who had started with Dewey & Almy were shunted into tech-service jobs, and mistakes long ago discovered were re-made and re-discovered.

During these changes, we in the field were often without managers, which was about the way I liked it—free to innovate and more or less run my own business as long as I could get funding from the head office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, something I soon learned to do. Confusion in Cambridge brought almost sole reliance on my reports for current information on purchases, inventory, some capital expenditures, and sales. In fourteen years I had several vice presidents, national sales managers, and thirteen Northeast Region sales managers.

Once a memo from the current VP announced the hiring of my new manager and suggested I make him a courtesy call to welcome him aboard. When I made the call I learned he had resigned his post two hours before. Despite such problems the division prospered. In 1973 the W. R. Grace Directors in New York elected to split the fast-growing Dewey & Almy Division to make a new Division of W. R. Grace & Company called the Construction Products Division. Robert M. Vinning was made Vice President, and Robert P. Turner was made sales manager of the Dar-ex admixture business where I labored. With this change I found myself employed by a multi-national conglomerate, my first job in such an environment. As I adapted I became curious about the company's history.

William Russell Grace came to Peru at age 13, an immigrant from Ireland fleeing the potato famine of 1846. He worked for a ship's chandler at age 19, and eventually he found himself on a ship that hauled guano from the islands off the coast of Peru. It is said that he had the good sense to marry the captain's daughter, and became wealthy selling fertilizer made from guano deposits formed from the droppings of sea birds. Guano, found especially on islands off the coast of Peru, is rich in nitrogen and phophates. At age 33 he established a trading firm in New York and was later elected mayor of the city for two terms.

When his son, Joseph P. Grace, took the helm, emphasis shifted from international trade to industry in South America, and the Grace Line Fleet was developed to carry passengers and cargo between North and South America. Joseph passed along to son Peter the philosophy that business was a game to play.

Peter Grace feels a tremendous responsibility providing security for the 88,000 employees worldwide, more than 70,000 shareholders and thousands of pensioners. He is also committed to supporting Grace Institute, which was founded by his grandfather in 1897. This tuition-free school was intended to provide deserving New York women, especially immigrants, with practical skills.

During my 18 year's effort for the company I never met Peter Grace, but stories abound about his toughness on himself, working prodigious hours and days. Although he doesn't impose those hours on employees below the top level, there is what one calls "an atmosphere in the company that makes you want to get in early and work until a job is finished."

Regional Managers

For almost a year I had been without benefit of a manager when the next new one, David Wightman, flew in from Cambridge. Most of the first day was spent in Dave's motel room plotting strategy for my territory, which at the time was about 26 counties in western New York. Either he missed some of the things I explained or he was faking for Cambridge consumption, for a few days after his return to his office, his memo ordered me to stop whatever I was doing to work on a list of rather large paper projects.

Well, managers are forever saying "Stop whatever you are doing." This time it was easy and I ignored it, safe in the knowledge that the work David ordered had been completed months before I met him. After a decent period of time I reported that the new 13,000 gallon tank for WRDA was installed, and that enclosed he would find the new market survey for Western New York—as directed.

His reply memo was enthusiastic, complimenting me on my speedy action, and indicated he was copying the memo to send to his superiors. More interesting was an immediate salary increase of $1000. Thus I learned the role of an organization man: Anticipate your boss's needs for his promotion. After several promotions, David, a fine gentleman and a caring boss, would become vice president of administration for the division. He was most kind to me some years later when I lay in a hospital at Sarasota, Florida, after breaking my right ankle during a regional meeting there.

One manager of particular interest was John Paul Jones, a Brooklyn Irishman who had sold many things, including medical devices for heart-by-pass surgery. He was usually out of cash when he arrived in my town, and sought my help to cash his personal check. He alway followed me into my local bank and seemed unusually interested in the transaction. He was as impressive at a sales call as he must have been when Lenny Rosenblatt interviewed him for hire, but we lost John Paul when he was convicted of armed robbery after heisting a bank with a gun in the New York area.

Tom O'Leary, my first manager, a short, blue-eyed, red-headed leprechaun, liked to play professional Irishman with his Boston accent to charm a room full of customers for hours with his merry wit. Lenny Rosenblatt, his boss, called Tom a "compulsive liar" when his glowing reports of our accomplishments failed to materialize. It may have been a bit unfair of Lenny, as it was obvious that Tom believed every word in those imaginative reports. Tom shared his many years of experience with me a neophyte in sales, for which I remain grateful.

A Long Day in the Field

New Manager David Abbott, was more of a class act. This refined descendant of the New England Abbotts was a well-educated man of forty who often talked about sailing the Down-East coasts. He was well versed in the technical aspects of the admixtures for concrete business, and I sought other ways to use his talents during his periodic visits. So I arranged a sailing afternoon with Bob Walker, manager of the third largest customer in Rochester. The idea was well received by both parties, and Walker suggested a sail from the Rochester Yacht Club to Hedges Nine Mile Point Hotel for dinner, which would be followed by an evening return sail. Bob is slender, sandy-haired, and of Scottish descent. Though a hard worker, he is always ready for an afternoon's fun and a free dinner.

About noon on the chosen August day, we threw a case of beer in the blue-hulled, twenty-one-foot Corinthian and cast off from the Yacht Club to head nine miles east for Hedges.

After we cleared the breakwall at Charlotte a fair westerly breeze pushed us along at a good clip. Abbott readily accepted Captain Bob's offer of the tiller, and Bob was impressed with his sailing ability. I, the landlubber, was given the most menial tasks and suffered abuse because of my ineptitude. The two sailors happiness increased as the breeze freshened, kicking up seas that encouraged them to line on Lake Ontario to "reach and beat" in and away from shore, show off their skills, and laugh at my discomfort. I prefer boats that remain reasonably upright over those with one rail in the water most of the time.

About six pm. we approached Hedges's dock, and of course the two purists scorned the "stink pot" (little outboard motor) and docked under sail. After a few rounds at the bar Bob and Dave became old shipmates, exulting in the weather, the sunset, the camaraderie, and I anticipated increased business. At sundown, the mannerly Abbott inquired of Bob whether his wife Marjorie could be invited to join us at dinner.

Bob: "Why, I don't know—I suppose I could call and find out if she's interested. Of course it's over a half hour drive out here, and allowing for women's preparation time it will be over an hour before she arrives; perhaps a bit long for you two."

"That's no problem for us, please do call her. We are in no particular hurry, are we Ed?" Of course I wasn't.

While we waited I left the two men to stroll alone on the beach and fretted when in the world we would get home. Darkness covered the now calm lake. With only a whisper of a breeze it would require hours to sail back to Charlotte Harbor some ten miles up wind. I remembered the 9 am. appointment Dave and I had the next day some forty miles east of Rochester, with a potential new account that I believed was about ready to deal with us. I had rashly boasted to Abbott that I would show him how it was done, and had wagered lunch that the deal would close during the meeting.

Marjorie Walker, a tall handsome woman of about fifty, was happy at her post as Librarian at the Titus Avenue Branch. Her good humor and lively conversation also made her a fine dinner companion. She had a liking for good Scotch whiskey; "about a quart a week" Bob said, and childless, her primary devotion was to her husband. Our little party was enjoyed by all, and time flew by unnoticed. It was about midnight when Bob drew me aside to ask:

"Ed, I would like to ask a big favor of you, but I don't want you to feel pressure in any way—just say no if you don't wish to do it."

"For you, I can't imagine refusing. What would you like?"

"I don't like to see Marjorie drive home alone. You know she's had a few and if you drive her I would feel better. Abbott and I will sail and meet you at my house."

After the two men cast off we watched their bobbing lights as they sailed west into a very light breeze. The narrow twisting East Lake Road from Nine Mile Point to Irondequoit is hazardous at best, and I drove very carefully until we reached the Yacht Club where I picked up my car. At the Walker house Marjorie said, "Ed, those two won't get here until four am. or later. I'm beat and am going to bed. Why don't you take the cot on the back breezeway to get some sleep?" She disappeared, and I promptly fell asleep.

With one long day's work completed, I started another when about 4:30 am. Bob and Dave arrived, quiet and sleepy, muttering about their beautiful but slow sail. As I drove Dave to his room at the old Sheraton, he asked: "Are you really going to keep that appointment this morning?"

"Of course. I'll pick you up at 7:30 for breakfast. The customer is expecting us—if you dance all night you have to settle with the fiddler who in this case is my customer to be."

Never back away from work while with your manager. Of course I had the advantage of the three hours of sleep at the Walker house. We kept the appointment, opened the new account, and Dave bought lunch. When I dropped him at the airport, he shook my hand, thanked me for everything, shook his head, and in a melancholy voice, muttered, "I don't know just when I'll see you again."

He never did. A short time later he left Grace to manage a small factory in Massachusetts. He was a good guy. My days were not always like the two with Abbott. Many days and sometimes nights were spent in a customer's concrete batch plant installing dispensers, testing concrete for quality, nursing automated liquid admix dispensers through New York D. O. T. inspections, or climbing around highway bridge projects.

Management at Cambridge gradually settled down and shed at least some of its earlier confusion. I was impressed and delighted with the openness regarding financial performance, short and long-term goals, the freedom to work in one's own way, and the personal concern for the employee's welfare. It was a welcome change from small business, where semi-secrecy clouded most of these issues. Not conspirator secrecy, mangement simply did not have the vital information regarding costs or profit and loss until months after it was useful. In short I liked my job with this giant corporation.

Business grew, so did the plague of all corporate people, the endless stream of paper work flowing to headquarters. Cambridge required: consigned stock reports, requisitions for supplies, approval for payment of local purchases, weekly expense reports, monthly reports to managers, dispenser installation reports, new customer set ups, collection of past due accounts, and releases for returning empty rail cars and truck transports. July brought the annual budget with sales and expense projections, the last requiring follow up revision next January.

With this accomplished you were allowed to keep your job and go about your primary responsibility—selling the product. A mitigatory factor was that the pay was generous. In the first five years my salary doubled. Like me, most of my peers assumed the role of owner and manager of their assigned territory. I believe they still do.

Of course time has improved the lot of branch managers. For most of us pioneers who midwived the birth of the division's market in our respective territories, their office existed in their homes. Mine started in the basement with a potato crate for a chair and a piece of plywood supported by a few concrete blocks for a desk. We designed, assembled, and installed liquid chemical admixture dispensers at customers' concrete batch plants, while our wives manned the phones and, in some cases, did secretarial duties.

My successors operate from a suite of offices manned by two administrative assistants armed with computer stations, fax machines, and cellular phones. From the warehouse, drivers use a fleet of new 18-wheel road tankers while technicians in fancy green and white service vehicles roam the countryside, tending elaborate automated dispenser systems, all supporting a sales staff of a half dozen or more.

I am happy for them, and they show appreciation for the pioneering of my early years on the job by buying a lunch once in a while.

© 1993, Edwin N. Harris
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