Russ, May 2012
I heard they had let Russ go when I was out with some contractor friends. It just came up in the conversation and that was that. The company had been bought by another company some years back and the owners of the original company had done their time and moved on. Russ stayed because no one could imagine him anywhere else. And I say that because of the way the guy worked.
About 20 years ago, back when our business was still learning to walk, Russ took The Lovely Marianne and me out to dinner. We went to a French restaurant in Greenwich Village and he ordered for us. I can’t pass that place without thinking of him. At the dinner, Russ talked me into doing a series of seminars, which his company would sponsor. I was reluctant because I value my independence in this industry and didn’t want to stand too closely to any one manufacturer. Russ explained that I could talk about anything I wanted, be as generic as I wanted, and never mention their product. I liked that and so did Marianne, so we all did some good work together.
And this is when I saw what that man could do. I live on Long Island. Russ lives in the Midwest. He came to my house one night and stayed over. At 5:30 in the morning, we left Long Island to drive to New England where we were to meet with his rep and plan the series of seminars. We drove for a few hours and as we got closer to the rep, Russ told me to pull over at this bakery. He went in and came out a few minutes later with a big box of pastries. When we got to the rep’s office, Russ entered and greeted each person by name. He had in that box the exact pastry that each person in that room loved. They greeted him like a favorite uncle.
I learned years later that Russ kept handwritten maps of every office he had ever visited. He knew the name of each person at each desk, along with all sorts of personal details, including his or her pastry preference. There wasn’t a thing you could tell this guy that he wouldn’t remember.
We had our meeting, which lasted all day, and then started back to Long Island. Along the way, Russ asked me to stop at this liquor store he knew of that was just off the highway. They specialized in fine wines and he wanted to buy a particular bottle of wine for a customer who had had a problem with his company’s product. Russ had resolved the problem, but wanted to drop off the wine since we were in their neighborhood. So we did that.
Then he asked if I wanted some dinner and I said sure, so he told me to take the next exit. I did and we drove down the street a bit. Russ spotted a couple walking. He grabbed my arm and told me to pull over. He hopped from the car and engaged the couple in conversation. This went on for about ten minutes. I thought he knew these people. They were gesturing and laughing like old friends.
Russ got back in the car and told me where we were going for dinner. I asked him how he knew the couple and he explained that he didn’t know them (at this point, he was calling them by name). He had just asked them where we should have dinner. He said they looked like the sort of people who would know a good place. They did.
After dinner, we finished the drive back to my house on Long Island, arriving around 11. I asked Russ if he was going to spend the night. He said that he couldn’t because he had a meeting the next morning. I asked where the meeting was and he said, “In Washington D.C.”
He got in the car and drove from Long Island to D.C. It takes about four hours to do that.
I asked my contractor friends why the company had let Russ go and none of them knew the reason for sure. “Probably just the slowness of business,” one said. We all nodded.
We’ve gotten so used to people losing their jobs these days that we don’t even get that surprised. It happens and people look around to see who’s left, and then say a quiet prayer that they’re still left. Some go and the rest move on and after a few months, hardly anyone talks about the ones who are gone.
I was in a suburb of Philadelphia, finishing up a full-day seminar on steam heating, a topic that has nothing to do with what Russ sold. I looked up as I was packing and he was standing in the back of the room, chatting with a bunch of the people who had been at the seminar. He was in the neighborhood so he just stopped by.
I joined the group and we sat and chatted for a while. It was so good to see him and I asked him where he was going from there. He told me he had to get to the airport.
“That’s not far from here,” I said.
“Not the Philly airport,” he said. “I have to drop the car at O’Hare.”
The company Russ worked for was a family-owned business in those days, and the employees worked like were all members of that family. They had this one car that the sales guys shared. One would drive it around the East for a week, and then arrange to leave it on Friday evening at some airport. Another of the sales guys would pick up the car the following Monday morning. It was the car’s turn to be in the Midwest that week. This went on for years.
“You’re driving to Chicago now?” I said. “That’s thirteen hours from here.”
“I have some great books on tape,” Russ laughed, and then he was off.
Who works like that?
People who are building a business work like that. You never hear them complain. They work like that when they are young and strong and these are the people who build this industry.
But this is the nature of the times in which we now live: Construction is slow and companies look for ways to trim costs. Some do this by letting go of people who have been with the company for a long time. It could be that these people make a lot of money. It could be that these people are getting older. It could be that the company just wants to try something different. I understand this. It’s rarely personal. It’s just business. I’ve watched a lot of this happen during the past few years. It’s business.
But then there are people, who often buy from companies because they really like the people who work for those companies. They buy from their friends. I’ve watched a lot of that happen during the past 42 years. It, too, is business.
Russ wanted to buy this special bottle of wine for a customer who had had a problem with his company’s product. Russ had resolved the problem, but wanted to drop off the wine that evening. It wouldn’t take long. We were in their neighborhood.
So we did that.
In this age of Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and impersonal robocalls, it’s good to remember a guy who kept handwritten maps showing the people at every desk in every office he ever visited. Russ was good with names. Few have ever worked as hard or cared as much. And when it came to exploring for new ways to please a client, this guy was Magellan.