My Dad was the quintessential businessman of the 60s … a salesman when sales meant being on the road in a car weeks at a time covering “territories.” He would often be gone all week, or even two, driving from our home in Iowa to South or North Dakota or Minnesota and back. That was when I was little. As I grew, so did his success and his mode of transportation. He then took airplanes wherever he went as then Vice President of Sales, and finally ended his career as President of that company doing business internationally. When he would come home from work through all the years I was growing up, he would “hold court” at the dinner table, telling his five children (and probably tired wife) stories of his day at work and how he handled things. I didn’t realize it then, but they were also lessons on how to handle certain situations you might come across in life as well.
Before Dad passed away, we hired a writer to come in and record his memories. I am so glad we did that. I now not only have in my mind those stories, I have them straight from him. When we were editing the copy, he would stop me often and in his gravelly voice say,”blog” – knowing that I was looking for material to write about. So my blogs will be Dad’s stories, with my own lesson today from them. Here is the first one:
Frank Alter’s scrap metal business is where Dad started his career: Alter Company. At 30 years old and just out of college after serving in the Navy in World War II, Dad was ready to ‘dig into’ something permanent that had potential to expand his income and give our family stability for the long term. At that moment in time, I imagine he had no idea it would be a long-term commitment of 39 years and lead to the management position which would “alter” his life—and the company he worked for.
He had observed the scrap metal business from working at the small scrap yard in Bettendorf, Iowa during his college years and watching the traders that came around from other companies, including the Alter Company. He liked what he saw from the people at Alter, so when he graduated from college, he went to see Frank Alter. It was the logical choice as Mr. Alter had the largest scrap and steel company in the area. Dad remembered standing in front of Frank Alter’s desk as the man gave him a penetrating look.
He seemed to have sized him up before he spoke. “I can’t open your shirt and see what you know, but I can find out,” he said. Mr. Alter offered Dad a job in order processing. Dad spoke up, “This isn’t really what I want to do. I’d like to get into the trading and marketing.”
“We don’t have an opening right now in that area,” Mr. Alter explained, “but when we have an opening, I’ll see about giving you a shot at it.” Dad said he just had to get his foot in the door and then be sure he had proven himself so he could be chosen for the opportunity to get into sales. He took the job.
He had only been on it for about three weeks when Mr. Alter had called him into his office. “I have to ask you, Chuck, do you really think that this is a two-man job?”
It was one of those pivotal moments all of us will experience sometime in our career. The time when we are asked a question and we have to debate whether to answer honestly or not. If we do, how will it affect us? How will it affect the relationship or whether we get the business or the job? Dad knew one person could handle the job he was doing and the honest answer to the question might be the prelude to letting him go. A rush of thoughts went through his mind, including how in the world he would find another job in a small town still reeling from the effects of the war.
He had the choice to be honest, or not, with Mr. Alter. However, for him, it really wasn’t’ a choice. Honesty was one of his core values—and one he drilled into us as children. “To give you an honest answer, sir, no I don’t.” “That’s what I thought Chuck,” said Mr. Alter. “We’re going to let Ted go.”
Dad always said he felt like he had just dodged a bullet. He could have lost his job. However, what he did was tell the truth. And in doing so, he opened his shirt to Mr. Alter who trusted him from that day forward.
Honesty in business is not a given. Not all business people are honest about money, time or what they really can deliver. We have all dealt with the issue of honesty in our careers, and that pivotal moment when we have a choice to answer one way or another. When people know you are truthful, you win whether you get the business or the job. In the end, our word is really all we have to say who we are under that shirt we wear.