First thing to mention: get a useful degree. Advertising was fun, but practically of so little value, I could have skipped college.
Big yellow taxi
I graduated in December 1982. My timing, as ever in my life, was pitiful. The U.S. was just finishing up with a nearly two-year recession and everyone was looking for a job. In the cannibalistic world of advertising, that meant trouble for a fuzzy-faced, no experience youngster from South Florida.
I had one thing going for me. My uncle worked in an ad agency up in New York, on famed Madison Avenue. So Dad (his brother) sent me up there to meet with him and hopefully get a foot in the door.
Speaking of feet, remember when I said I graduated? Well, it was January when this Miami born and raised boy got up to the Big Apple. It was freezing. And I was dressed in a suit. With nice dress shoes and nylon socks that were about as thick as a wheat thin cracker. The cold ran up through my feet and froze my brain.
It must have frozen Dad’s brain, too, since he never suggested an overcoat or winter coat (thanks, Dad). Whatever. I would have been excited to be in New York if the synapses in my brain weren’t in cryostasis.
The most memorable part of that ultimately pointless trip was that every car in New York city was yellow. Or, at least that’s what it seemed like to me, especially when a light changed and a wave of yellow cars turned down the street I was on.
My uncle was no help (Dad is still a little miffed about that…it’s only been 40 years, though, so he may get over it soon). The recession had caused massive layoffs at the big advertising firms and there were plenty of experienced pros available to be picked up for cheap.
Nobody loves me
Upon returning to South Florida, it became rapidly apparent how useless my Advertising degree was (although, I have to say, when you get a diploma that says “B.S. in Advertising, you have to smile every time you think about it).
In those days, the way you found jobs was by walking around everywhere or checking the classified ads. I sent out typed letter after letter (it was the 80’s, so dot matrix printers were still the norm, which meant typewriters for resumes).
Over and over, I received rejections. It was not an ego building period. I actually have about 30 or 40 of those letters stashed away someplace. When I’m feeling too proud about something, I know I can always pull those out to remind me to be humble.
Finally, I got a response. It was pitiful, a whopping $11,500 per year for an Assistant Manager Trainee job in retail, but it was a job offer. I took it before they could realize why they shouldn’t hire me.
Toying with my future
So it was that I began my time with Toys R Us. From that measly $11,500 trainee job I zoomed up to a $12,500 Assistant Manager job. And all I had to work was 65 hours a week! This is where I first developed my now well-honed lack of a personal life.
This was an interesting time to be in a Toys R Us store, though, and the memories are vivid.
First, it was the dawn of the video game era. First, Colecovision (Donkey Kong!) and Atari 5200 (Pole Position!) had just been released and the phenomenon that now mesmerizes young people into having no real life sprang into being.
More importantly, an ugly-looking doll was turning America on its collective ear…Cabbage Patch Kid dolls had arrived!
Or, nearly arrived. As in not nearly enough.
Waiting lists started and customers got frantic, angry, cajoling, crazy. We began storing the dolls, in their cases, in our “security room”, the area where we kept the video games (to prevent the games from being stolen).
When dolls arrived, we had lines of people come to the “cage” (as we called it) and get a random doll. No one got to request a color of hair or skin. It was the most tolerant dispersal of interracial unity in history.
There were problems, of course, as in the time a woman received a black CPK doll and wanted a white one (as if her daughter would care). There was the time a man wanted a black one instead of a white one (he started pounding on the plexiglass of the “cage” and we worried we might have to call the police).
In fact, in time, the store manager actually had a police officer stationed near the cage when dolls arrived. It was entirely nuts!
Ultimately, I was moved to the office to take control of the inventory for the state, buying and allotting. My analytical talents proved beneficial and we set records for the next four years.
Then a new General Manager came in and fired me. Put to lie in a single instant was all my Grandparents and parents had taught me. You don’t get rewarded for doing a good job. Or, at least, doing a good job isn’t always enough.
I was devastated.
As bad as I had felt in that first quarter of college, this was exponentially worse. I was so naive and idealistic, I was totally unprepared emotionally for the totally baseless firing. I just couldn’t understand how someone could “get away” with that sort of thing.
It took me a couple of decades before I realized that was my first taste of “Corporate America”. Now, I can look back and see that the new GM wanted to install his own people in the jobs. It wasn’t “personal”, he could care less about me one way or another.
But back then, in the moment, I was lost. I spent the next several months moping and wallowing and bemoaning the unfairness of life. In retrospect, it was all quite silly and melodramatic.
Finally, slowly but surely, my pragmatic nature reasserted itself. During the time that I was at TRU, I had moved into my own apartment. Practicality alone demanded I get a new job, for I had bills to pay.
I made a critical (and somewhat scary decision) to go back to school. Now, I viewed the business world with a little less rose-tinted eyes. I decided that I would be unlikely to find a job or workplace I enjoyed, so I might as well go for one that would pay well.
I went back to accounting, staying local at Florida Atlantic University. For some inexplicable reason, they thought I already completed calculus and I saw no reason to dispute their certainty. As such, I got to go straight to the core classes.
For money, I first worked as a telemarketer for a medical products firm. They were a bit shady and the “pitch” I was told to make to the doctors’ offices I called was that the machine they were selling was fully reimbursable through Medicare, netting the doctors a nice return in less than a year.
Ultimately, a friend I made at that location led me to a security guard job at a beachfront condo. On the 4 pm to midnight shift, I got to do lots of studying down in the garage. When I had to man the desk up top, I spent time drawing in my sketchpad.
My art skills had improved and I was occasionally asked by a resident or guest for a drawing. I enjoyed doing it and it tended to endear me to the extremely wealthy people who lived there. I favorably impressed them with my studies to become an accountant.
One resident took a particular interest in me. She was about 20 years older than me and quite attractive. We took in a movie or two, an art show and chatted frequently.
It’s important to make a point here for knowing readers. I didn’t get what was going on at all. Whatever “antenna” that men and women are supposed to possess to notice things like this, mine was, at best, defective and at worst, never installed.
Finally, perhaps frustrated by my oblivious reaction to her overtures, she laid out the level of her interest. I still can’t believe she actually used the term “I want you to manage my properties.” At the time, I only took it to mean her real estate holdings in several states and overseas. Later in life, I wondered if it was a double entendre.
Flattered, but terrified, I turned her down as politely as I could. Looking back now, I could have had the easy life of a boy toy, but I didn’t think of her in that way, so I still believe I made the right decision.
Dad takes charge
Remember my timing problems? Well, I graduated from FAU in 1991. Right in the middle of another recession. Honestly, it’s amazing I’ve been able to retire at all!
This time, Dad took the reins himself. After the underwhelming work of his brother, he decided to get me a job, or at least an interview.
Having worked for W.R. Grace for nearly 30 years, he called on an ex-salesman of his who was now in the Finance department and I got an interview with the accounting manager.
Joining as an accounting temp, I was making, unbelievably, $12,500 per year. Ten years had passed since my first job and I had a second degree and I was making the exact same money. Sheesh. More PB&J’s and hamburger helper for me.
I spent several years with the company, with my work considered so valuable by the accounting manager that I eventually became his #2. During that time, my salary finally got back to my previous job’s ending salary, about $25K.
Also during that time, several internal issues at the company were causing major turmoil and many of the people were leaving. My supervisor (the former #2) left for another job along with many of the Finance and Accounting people.
One day, I received a call from someone asking me when I would like to come in for my interview. She named a company I had never heard of. I politely told her I had not sent out any resumes. She asked me if I knew someone, who turned out to be my ex-supervisor. Apparently, he worked there now and thought I would be a great addition.
I told my boss I didn’t want to leave him in the lurch. Loyalty meant more to me than money. He told me to at least go to the interview.
It turned out there were two interviews. In one, the woman told me no men worked in the department with her. I asked her if that was a warning or an invitation. That didn’t seem to please her.
In the other, I interviewed first with the accounting manager, who spent our time together telling me of his vacation to the Midwest and then with the head of the accounting area.
By this time, I made the decision not to join the company, so I told him I didn’t like to work. He looked at me funny and asked me how that reconciled with my previous comment that I wanted to move up the ladder quickly (in response to that insipid “where do you see yourself…” question).
I told him, entirely straight-faced, that it was because I didn’t like to work that I wanted to move up the ladder quickly and retire young. Little did I know how things would ultimately work out.
He just stared at me. I would later come to discover that he had no sense of humor and so could not decide if I was joking or serious. He asked me if I had any questions for him and I said no. I left, thankful that uncomfortable time was over.
On my way out I saw two of the people I used to work with, one of them my ex. He asked how it went and I smiled and said I doubted I’d be joining him. I asked why he submitted my resume and he said he knew I would be valuable. I thanked him but told him I didn’t want to leave my boss empty-handed.
I went back to work and about a week later I got a call from the HR woman. She had an offer and a dollar number. With bonus and profit sharing, it came to $9,000 more than my current salary.
Shaking my head, I sat with my boss and told him I didn’t want to leave him and if he could even get me $1,000 more, I would prefer to stay (I told you I valued loyalty highly). He told me to hang tight while he checked.
He came back and told me take the job. Apparently, HR had told him I must be lying; that no one would offer me that much money. He told them that not only was I working far in excess of the salary I was being paid, but that in order to replace me, they were going to have to offer much more than my current salary.
And they still wouldn’t even give me $1,000 more. So he told me to leave and I left.
To go work for the guy with no sense of humor.
The new company was a private organization. I had never heard of it before but it was apparently very big and its owner and founder was a self-made billionaire.
However he had made his money, and there were tales it was not always selflessly, he had grown during the years and was now a beneficent and genial man. Suffused with charm and ingenuity, he was an inspiring figure to work for.
Buried as I was in the accounting and finance departments, I didn’t get to meet him that much, but I was happy to work for someone whose primary goals included more than simply making a profit (although, as part of the accounting and finance departments, I can confirm he fared quite well in that area without doubt).
I began to attain a reputation. For good or ill, I was considered a Microsoft savant, especially Excel. I built complex spreadsheet and workbook models, including a company-wide budgeting program that linked through the local network.
It was a massive undertaking, done entirely by taking home the Excel manuals and experimenting on my home computer. It saved the company from buying a quarter of a million dollar budget software program and earned me $500. Heh.
During this time, I felt the Accounting and Finance area was missing something. Generally treated as second class citizens (bean counters), I decided to do something for “us” only.
So, I started a monthly periodical I called The Financial Statement. In it I included all sorts of stories, articles, cartoons, puzzles and oddments. None of it about Finance. I intended it to be a respite from the tedium and repetitiveness of Finance.
I started two regular features, Miss Communication and Out on a Limb. These proved immensely popular and I added them to my blog years ago out of affection.
My “wit and wisdom” was also on display during my monthly financial summaries for upper management. Though it was supposed to be a succinct bullet point recap of the operating departments, I turned it into an expositional adventure, salting each section with at least one “25¢” word.
The ensuing dictionary crush eventually caused the president of the company to call me and thank me for my vocabulary challenge but say he wished me to stop because his VP’s were spending more time discussing my memo than working on their jobs. Needless to say, I stopped.
As I look back on my time there (nearly 15 years), I created a number of legacies, beyond the spreadsheets and memos.
There was Halloween, where I started a process where the associates would decorate their offices and cubicles and then, on Halloween, invite their kids up an hour before close for a safe and happy Halloween. As you might expect, I had a pretty impressive office.
There was Valentine’s Day, where I secretly placed roses on the desks of all the women in the building. That’s a blog all in itself.
Eventually, I moved out of Finance and into Operations, where, in an ironic twist, I ended up doing advertising. Talk about full circle.
During my time in Ops, I was required to go to an annual convention that was held in Las Vegas. The company would put us up in one of the posh strip hotels (The Venetian was my personal favorite) and we would be “wooed” by manufacturers trying to get us to buy their stuff.
On my first year up there, I was off wandering in the super large convention center and my boss got upset he couldn’t find me. Shortly after that was the first time I ever owned a cell phone (company furnished).
Despite it being in another time zone, my habit of waking up early continued. But, 5 am in Florida is 2 am in Vegas. Getting a bit of cabin fever, I went out to walk the casinos.
Staying out of the gambling area at 2 am, though, means no one else is around. Fine with me, since I’d not been to the casinos before. While walking through the shops at the Forum in Caesar’s, I heard some tapping.
Turns out, it was a woman striding across the marble floor, her heels echoing in the empty area. She was striking. Tall, with what seemed like improbably long legs encased in tight pants, or possibly simply painted on. Chiseled face. Quite attractive and certainly nothing I would ever attempt to engage in conversation.
Walking in the circle and she startled me with a greeting. What ensued was what I thought was a genial conversation. When she asked me my plans, I mentioned I had a business breakfast and then the convention, but I was just restless.
When I asked her about her own plans, she replied she had none. “Yet,” she added and it suddenly dawned on me why this remarkably attractive woman was out this early in the morning and talking to me about my plans. Like I said, no antenna, but not entirely without wit.
I smiled and wished her a good day and she smiled back and we walked in separate directions. The guys at breakfast really enjoyed the story…at my expense. The general consensus was that I missed my opportunity to truly experience Vegas. I kept my counsel and we eventually got past the ribbing.
A few years later, during yet another recession, I was fired. Or let go. Or laid off. Depends on who you talk to.
And then my life got even more interesting.