Chapter Excerpt

Chapter 2
I Try Retailing. Macy's Loves Me, Montgomery Ward Can't Understand Me

Five Traits Necessary to Have a Successful Career

1. Persistence.
2. Optimism.
3. Foolish optimism.
4. Impatience with the conventional.
5. Just the right amount of arrogance.


David Granger, Editor-in-Chief,
Esquire magazine

Summer was over. Reality was setting in. I had to get a real job.  I just didn't know exactly what kind of real job I wanted. 

            I'd always been impressed with what my dad had done in business.  He was one of four brothers and they were in the suit manufacturing business during the Depression.  They made blue suits and gray suits, and everything was done on borrowed money. My father was the head salesperson. He'd go out on the road for three or four months at a time, with a big trunk full of suits. One time, when he got back, the suits were all mixed up: blue jackets with gray slacks; gray jackets with blue slacks.  His three brothers looked at the mess and said, "we're finished."

But my father was undaunted.  Rather than accept failure he re-invented the whole business. He took the mismatched suits and brought them to his customers at some of the major clothing and department stores and asked if they'd take these sporty clothes as a favor to him.

They did.  And three months later when my father returned with his normal array of blue suits and gray suits, his customers said, "no, no, no, we want those sporty clothes." 

So, my father and his brothers went into the sporty clothing business and created a company called, Blacker Brothers, which soon grew to be the largest sport coat manufacturer. My father never went to college, but he understood how to create an opportunity out of a mistake.  While he relied on his sales skills and the relationships he had established, he came up with a term, "sporty clothes," that helped retailers create a brand new category.

But right now, I didn't have any adversity.  And I certainly had no opportunity.  In fact, I had nothing.  But I did know one thing for sure: I did not want to go into my father's business.  For one thing, I'm color blind, which meant that my eye for fashion was severely limited in that I couldn't tell the difference between charcoal gray and midnight blue.  For another, I had no affinity or passion for that kind of work.  I'd worked in the business on and off as a kid, folding jackets, packing coats, things like that.  And I knew every major retailer in the country, from reading the labels on the boxes.  But the clothing business just didn't interest me.  And even if I had considered following in my dad's footsteps, my father had an opportunity to sell the business and that's just what he did. Which meant that even if I changed my mind and wanted to go into the family business, there was no family business to go into.  

The only thing I thought of possibly doing, even though I knew it wasn't a career, was writing a book.  But I didn't think of that as a job. Especially since I had no idea what I'd write about. And no training as a writer.

As I thrashed about trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself, I heard through the grapevine that Bloomingdale's department store had a trainee program and so I figured I'd give that a try.  Why Bloomingdale's?  Simple. Bloomingdale's was only three blocks from where I was living with my parents, on 63rd Street off Third Avenue and that meant travel time was under five minutes.

But in addition to the very desirable location, the phrase "training program" made it sound like they actually trained you to do something, which at that point was something I sorely needed.  As to what that training might be or what it might lead to, I hadn't a clue. It didn't matter, though.  It would get me out of the house, something I'm sure my parents appreciated as much as I did, put a little cash in my pocket, and perhaps I would enjoy retail sales.

I was accepted into the program and I'd been in it only two weeks when my aunt, whose son had gone to Harvard and had been in Macy's training program, casually mentioned to my mother, "what a shame.  If Steve had gone to Harvard he could have gotten into the Macy's training program." 

When my mother related that conversation to me, I bristled.  I had nothing against Bloomingdale's.  In fact, I actually liked the people in the program.  But what I didn't like was somebody telling me that I couldn't get into something or do something because I didn't go to a particular school.

So, I immediately marched myself over to Macy's, got an interview, and, despite my lack of a Harvard degree, was hired for their training program, just a few months before Thanksgiving, 1959.

They said they were looking for whomever was the best and the brightest to put into an elite training program and so they took all the trainees, there were about two hundred of us in the program, and gave us physicals and IQ tests. When it came to one of the tests, I had a little trouble, due to my color blindness.  We had to pick out a number from a colored background and when the woman asked, "what number do you see?" I said, "I can't see any number," and smiled, which I always do when I'm nervous.

"Stop kidding around," she said. "You see a 7, don't you?"

And suddenly, like magic that's exactly what I saw.  A big, fat, 7.  "Yes," I said, quickly putting that test behind me.

I must have done well on the tests, because I was assigned to the "elite" training group.  What happened to the others who "failed," I haven't the foggiest idea.  Perhaps they were relegated to bargain basement duty.  As for me, I was assigned to the toy department and given a salary of $90 a week.

In those days, Macy's had a pretty extensive toy department, the largest in the city, in fact, and it opened up right after the Thanksgiving Day parade, the official start to the Christmas buying season. Since we were considered "executive trainees," we were not part of the union, which meant that during this hectic season we were expected to come into work at 7 a.m. and we got out well after midnight.  If there was a bar open at 3 a.m., you were thrilled.  Otherwise, day in and day out was spent inside the store or sleeping in your tiny room at McAlpin Hotel, across the street, where Macy's put us up, not out of any concern for our well-being but rather to make sure that we arrived at work on time.

Those long, hard hours taught me a great deal about myself and gave me a great deal of confidence.  If I could work around the clock functioning under pressure, learning how to multi-task and prioritize as I went along, no future job would ever phase me.  Retailing is an excellent first job experience.  You get to see firsthand why consumers buy different products, learn all about advertising and merchandising and acquire lifelong people and management skills. 

My primary responsibility was to sell these little statues of prehistoric animals.  They were horrible looking things.  The buyer had gone to Japan and, I imagined, partied, gotten drunk and wound up buying hundreds of thousands of these hideous prehistoric figures, as well as a load of battery operated tugboats, which we were selling for $2.79.

In those days, Japan had a very negative reputation in terms of quality. The label, "Made in Japan," did not inspire confidence.  And this tugboat was no exception.  When you lifted the box up, the packaging was so flimsy and poorly constructed that the boat tumbled out, which certainly did not make a good impression on any prospective customer.

Your work evaluation was dependent upon how well you could move merchandise, but having to sell not only the ugly prehistoric animals but also these tugboats that couldn't even be contained in their own box, did not bode well for any future promotion.

The tugboats just sat there. And sat there. I don't think in a week we sold a single one. But I had an idea.  I got a hold of a few of the stockmen and we took all the tugboats out of the packaging, put them in bins, then put up a sign that said, "Specially priced at $2.79."  Of course, there was nothing at all special about that price, since that's exactly the price we were asking before I removed them from the box and put them in the bin. 

Almost immediately, something wonderful happened.  Now people could actually pick up the toy and it didn't have the stigma that came when it free fell out of the box.  And the idea of getting something at a "special" price seemed irresistible.  As a result, we sold a ton of tugboats. Re-inventing can easily apply to marketing.  By changing the normal display practice, we suddenly created tremendous purchase appeal for a product that had languished. Of course, there was absolutely nothing I could do for those prehistoric figures, except dump them in the furnace late one night, in hopes that I would never get caught, which I wasn't.

I learned several lessons about marketing, the importance of packaging, the need to make consumers feel they were getting a special price, and that sometimes the only solution was to just get rid of the damn things.

            Macy's brought in a lot of part-time help, especially during the holiday, and some of them didn't always work out that well.  For instance, we had one item, a battery operated car, large enough for a kid to ride in.  It sold for about $150, which was a lot of money in those days.  The guy in charge of selling them was very conscientious and would come in at 7:30 in the morning and stay late.  So, to reward him for his loyalty to Macy's, I wrote him up for a recommendation and a promotion.

            A couple of days later I noticed a couple wheeling a baby carriage back and forth through our department. Nothing particularly strange about that.  But suddenly, the "baby" jumped out of the carriage and I saw that it was a midget.  He ran over to the guy I'd recently written up for a promotion and yelled, "hold it," and then the couple grabbed the guy and took him away.  It turned out he was ripping off the store by not ringing up all the sales.  The reason they were suspicious of him was that any time they noticed part-time help coming in early and staying late, they knew something was up.

***

As a result of the successful sale of all those tugboats, I wound up getting an outstanding review and I was promoted to assistant buyer of small electrical appliances, getting a raise to $100 a week. There were certain items that you lost money on, so I would hide these items.  One day, a woman came in and asked for the T-83 toaster, which we bought for $19.83 and were selling for $16.99.  She couldn't find one, so she went to a clerk and he said, "Oh, Mr. Blacker put that under the counter."

            She got annoyed and she went to see Jack Strauss, who was the president of Macy's.  He came down to the floor and I thought for sure I was going to get fired, but instead, he just gave me a lecture about following procedure. I was quite taken aback and impressed that the president of Macy's was so accessible to a customer's complaint, and that he took the time to explain to a young, junior buyer how important it was for Macy's to always offer the widest assortment of products at the lowest prices, even if it meant losing money on a sale.  I never forgot this and have always made myself accessible and try to clearly communicate the policy of whatever company I work for to every person who works for me.

            Working in the small appliance department was interesting, in part because it gave me the opportunity to see the power of advertising. It also made me understand something that's stayed with me over the years, and that is that the people who buy things often make far less money than the people who sell things. After all, here I was, a kid making a hundred bucks a week, and I'm buying stuff.  But the people who were selling me this stuff were coming in wearing vicuna coats, smoking their Cuban cigars, taking me to lunch at expensive restaurants.

            Another thing I finally realized was that I had to take stock of what I really wanted in life, what I wanted my future to be.  This struck home after I'd been at Macy's two years.  I came in early one morning and I saw my boss's boss unloading flats of merchandise.  I started to think, "if that's what my boss's boss has to do, do I really want to wind up doing that?"  As a result, I started to have second thoughts about whether I wanted to stay at Macy's long term.  And even more important, did I really want to stay in the retail business? 

            Before I could give that too much thought an opportunity came my way--the chance to manage a store for Montgomery Ward.  It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up, so it was goodbye Macy's, hello Montgomery Ward.

Montgomery Ward, which began primarily as a mail order business based in Chicago, was a strange company. They had all these very specific policies in terms of how their stores were laid out.  Belts had to go here, shirts had to go there. Slacks somewhere else.  Overall, it was a pretty dull, boring and uncreative presentation.

            I got to thinking, what would happen if you flooded the store with men's shirts, or at least had a lot of merchandise in one area, so that it would look special.  So, that's what I did.  I piled shirts up high in one corner of the store, so that they practically spilled over the counter. And suddenly, we were selling more men's shirts than stores that were far larger than mine.  Again, by re-inventing the way things were traditionally done, I increased sales.

            When the figures came out, I was visited by someone from headquarters.  Naturally, I thought I was going to be complimented.  Instead, he balled me out for not following policy, which resulted in my deciding to look for another job because I couldn't see myself working in an environment where creativity and initiative were discouraged.

***

In each of those early jobs I had I learned things I tucked away, hoping I could put them to good use later on.  Even at Bloomingdale's where I spent less than two weeks, I picked up something useful.  For instance, the salespeople on the floor wore either a white flower or a red flower.  For some reason, people just assumed that if you wore a white flower you knew more than if you were wearing a red flower.  In reality, it was just the opposite: the white flowers were worn by the training squad, people who knew very little about what was going on in the store.  On the other hand, the red flowers were worn by people who'd been employed by Bloomingdale's for twenty or thirty years and they were extremely well-versed in the ins and outs of the store.  It was all about perception.  I saw pretty quickly that if you were perceived to know something, even if you didn't, you were treated with more respect. 

            My experience at Montgomery Ward also taught me a couple of important lessons.  First, I found that if you change what people are used to seeing you're going to attract their attention.  It's pretty much the same thing I learned with those tugboats.  Take them out of the box and call attention to them in a way that was new, and people bought them.  Here, people thought, "this must be something very special, because there are so many shirts piled up in one place." 

            The other thing I learned is that big companies can be very bureaucratic and they often discourage creativity and innovation.  What Montgomery Ward wound up doing was counter-intuitive.  Instead of saying, "what Steve Blacker did worked in this small store so let's try it in other stores and see if it works there."  Instead, they did just the opposite.  They stuck with the formula they already had in place.

By the way, Montgomery Ward is no longer in business

Lessons Learned

  1. Often adversity can create new opportunities, if you don't give up. The mismatched blue and grey suits rather than lead to bankruptcy created the world's largest sport coat business because my father created a brand new category.  He wasn't planning to do so, but when you have no other choices you must figure out a way to re-invent the way you do business.
  2. Creativity, innovation and a willingness to try new ways of doing business are the key assets required to re-invent yourself. Along with not falling for bureaucratic guide lines that no longer work.  As the poet Fra Lippo Lippi said, "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."
  3. Look for a good learning experience regardless of what field you go into. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do ,but I realized I needed to acquire some management and marketing skills. And back then Macy's had a reputation for having the best training program
  4. Never let anyone tell you that you're not qualified to do something just because you didn't go to Harvard or majored in economics. You never know what you're qualified to do unless you try it. There are more CEOs in America today who have graduated from small colleges no one has ever heard of.
  5. Perception is often more important than reality. Take the case of the white flower trainees being perceived to know more than the really experienced red flower sales people.  This was due to the fact that the white flowers all wore suits and the sales people dressed casually  So, regardless of the culture or environment you're in, always look sharp and dress well. Until your skills are recognized, a too casual look can generate a too casual impression.
  6. Don't be scared to work hard and push yourself to the limit. You must work long, hard hours to develop confidence, multi-tasking skills and the ability to prioritize. Later on, you will be able to do all these things far more effectively with less time spent on doing them.
  7. Packaging can change the way a products is perceived and value.  The flimsy, poor packaging of the tug boats caused consumers to think they were cheaply made. By taking the boat out of the flimsy packaging, they sold themselves.
  8. Consumers need to feel as if they are getting a special price.  Even back in 1958, shoppers were attracted by a sign that said "specially priced" when indeed all I did was create a mystique. The actual price of the tug  boat was not lowered and I never said it was.
  9. Adhere to company policy regardless of how stupid you may think it is.  I hid those T-83 toasters because we were losing money on each sale and I didn't want my sales and eventual job performance rating to suffer.  Ironically, I almost got fired for doing this because this was the backbone of Macy's brand structure: "The widest assortment at the lowest prices."
  10. Advertising does work.  Each time we ran a newspaper ad the following day our sales spiked for the featured items. More importantly, without advertising all you had to sell with was a commodity price.
  11. People who sell products and services usually make a great deal more than people who buy those goods and services.  Sales also brings a great deal of satisfaction.
  12. Innovation can often lead to increased sales.  The increased emphasis on placement with men's shirts at Montgomery Ward made people believe that something special was happening. At the very worst, innovation helps you learn what works and what doesn't work.  Today, those who stand still will eventually go out of business.
  13. If your creativity is successful but not appreciated due to an overly bureaucratic, corporate structure, it probably makes sense to move on.

Five Traits Necessary to Have a Successful Career

1. Nimbleness: you've got to be able to move, be flexible, react, all at lightning speed.

2. Strategic thinking: can you see around a corner, vision, do you know understand your customer?

3. Leadership: can you motivate, lead, challenge, prod, get the group moving in one direction?  

4. Think on your feet: walk, talk and chew gum; speak to the issue; handle a matter efficiently.

5. Humor: can you relax, breathe, not take yourself so seriously, have some fun? 

Deanna Brown, President Scripps-Howard, Networks