Always Be the One they are Asking For

If you have ever seen the program “Breaking Bad”, you know that sometimes people make difficult decisions, and not all of them good ones. In that show Walter White, a chemistry teacher, “broke bad” and began producing illegal drugs in order to make a lot of money to cover his future medical bills and provide for his family after his death.

It isn’t a stretch, especially these days, to say that people do some extraordinary things to try to make ends meet. I, as a father of three young children, was in that position back in the late 1980’s. However, even in the worst of times, I remembered what my father-in-law told me one day. He said,” Son, always be the one that people are asking for.” I took that thought and ran with it, and I believe it actually saved my job once. First, some background…

In July of 1987, I left the active duty army after 11 years of service to become a stockbroker at the investment firm of Smith Barney. Our family had significant debt at the time, and I saw a job as a broker as the ticket to providing financial security for my family. My initial assignment was to study and pass the Series 7 exam, which would legally allow me to sell stocks and bonds. Failure to pass that exam, which was scheduled for mid-September 1987, would mean my dismissal from the firm.  Like those singers in the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line” would sing, “I really need this job!”

My only son was born in August 1987, the month after I left the army. To our shock at the time, he was born with Down’s Syndrome with many health issues. My wife and I were emotional wrecks having been expecting a “healthy” baby, but your baby is your baby, you love them.

Baby Ian 1987

We loved Ian, but my “job one” till mid-September was to focus on preparation for the Series 7 Exam. And focus I did, and passed, ensuring an opportunity to sell stocks and bonds for the investment firm of Smith Barney where their motto was , “They make money the old-fashioned way, they earn it.” Passing that exam seemed like a cause for celebration and felt like the break I needed to launch my new career in financial services!

The next month I headed to New York City for a month of “sales training”.  My first day of training was Monday, October 19, 1987. Thirty-two other brokers, all recent college graduates who lived at their home with their parents,  and I (33 years old) were members of what was referred to as Smith Barney’s  “Crash Class of 1987”.  Our first day was “Black Monday” a day in which the stock market tanked. The crash of 1987 triggered today’s mechanisms which are in place to stop trading when a crash appears to be happening. Over half of the Crash Class of 1987 left the business within the first four months. I was not one of them. Even though my son required open heart surgery (successful) in February 1988, I was able to focus enough to stay in the business despite the bear stock market. Cold calling six days a week, 200 calls a day, I faced rejection I hadn’t experienced before. I credit plebe year experience at West Point for getting me through those long days.   

I survived at Smith Barney for nine months before realizing that I wasn’t making enough for my family to survive. I gave it my best but had to find stable work. I was fortunate to land an engineering job at NJ Bell in May of 1988.

NJ Bell became Bell Atlantic-NJ, and finally Verizon

Within a few months at NJ Bell, I realized that our “income vs outgo” was still requiring me to find additional employment. Luckily, my job at Bell began at 8:30am and went to 4:30pm, giving me time before and after work to earn additional income. I started a job delivering newspapers for the Newark Star Ledger which got me up at 4:30am and took on some contract work as an instructor teaching basic skills to AT&T employees in the evening.

My days were full, but the stress was much less than the stockbroker job where I felt like I was drowning.

The Newark Star Ledger

The secure job at Bell, along with the daily (7 days a week) newspaper delivery paid most of the bills, but it wasn’t enough. That is when I “broke bad” (nothing illegal). I went over to the New York Times depot and signed up to be a daily newspaper delivery person for the New York Times. Both the Times and the Ledger made me sign papers stating that I would not deliver for any other carrier while working for them. That was understandable given that each paper required their papers be delivered by 6:00am, which is a challenge even just doing one route, let alone both. I quickly realized that to pull this off, I would need to be extremely focused and organized. Accurately delivering almost three hundred papers in the morning by 6:00am was a serious challenge.  I needed to be perfect. Oh, and yes, if either company found out that I was delivering for their competitor, I was subject to immediate dismissal. “here we go again, “I really need these jobs!!!”

I delivered over 800,000 newspapers over seven years for both companies combined. But, there was a day in the fourth year when my luck almost ran out. And now, the rest of the story….

I was out on a routine weekday, had completed my NY Times route and was in the middle of delivering to my Star Ledger customers. A buddy of mine usually delivered the Times in the same neighborhoods where I delivered the Ledger. On this one morning, I noticed ahead of me an unusual car that was delivering the Times. The person was going slower than me and it was obvious to me that he didn’t know the route well. As I passed his car, I realized that the person delivering the Times was my depot supervisor from the Times, the man who had made me sign a contract stating that I understood that working for a competitor (like the Star Ledger) would mean immediate dismissal. I drove on by quickly, but knew I was a dead duck. I expected to be fired the next day when I showed up at the NY Times depot.

And show up I did, and the boss man approached me and asked me to come into his office, which I did. He asked me point blank, “Did I see you delivering the Star Ledger yesterday morning?” I would never lie, but I didn’t have to answer his question directly either. Thinking about what my father-in-law had told me about being the one that everybody asked for, I responded, “Boss, have you EVER had any complaints about my service?”…..He paused, and said, “No, and I better not get any, do you understand?”. I replied in the affirmative and marched out quickly to begin that morning’s delivery.

It’s not that rules are made to be broken, but they are there to help the business succeed. Luckily, I had become the person that both the NY Times and Star Ledger had asked for, and I was able to keep my employment with both companies.

Still dressed like a broker years later

I was able to drop both paper routes when Rutgers University decided that I was the one they wanted to run their Telecommunications department.

Thanks Bob Wild for some great advice!

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