It was early Friday afternoon just before Father’s Day in 2001.
I just got a call from my daughter’s school. The nurse told me that Julia was not feeling well after lunch and needed to be picked up. Because my wife was a principal at a school herself, she couldn’t leave and I was the only obvious choice. I was a general manager of an industrial supply about 45 minutes away and knew I had to leave ASAP.
Since 1992, I worked for a former client and friend of mine. I was the outside programmer for the company and he was their executive VP. We first met in March of 1982 and installed their first company computer system. Back then, it was a big deal. I was only 22 years old and looked younger. Business cred was hard to come by in you looked like Mark Zuckerberg in the early ’80s.
From the time the computer was installed, my friend and I enjoyed a wonderful working relationship. He was 20 years my senior and was polished like a Don Draper character. I considered him a mentor and confidant for the next 20 years. As our business relationship grew, so did our personal relationship. He saw me get married, we had many dinners and was a friend to me in good and bad times throughout.
My friend encouraged me to start my own computer software company and he was one of my first clients. He watched my little group grow from 1 to 4 people and revenue of a whopping $125,000. (Hey, I was just a kid!).
Then came 1987. The stock market plunged, housing crashed and the good economic times came to an abrupt end – well, for me, specifically. My little company was reduced to me and my part-time bookkeeper, Patty. Clients trimmed their computing budgets and my invoices were paid after everything else. In the later 80’s, computing was still a bit of a luxury to small businesses.
I hobbled along until late 1991. My core business clients had dwindled to a scant few and I was looking for some safe harbor. Coincidentally, in November that year, the majority owner of the industrial supply company passed away and my friend was given the opportunity to buy out the heirs. Knowing that my friend was a solid #2 behind his partner, I suggested that we talk about our ‘options’.
We had a meeting in January just after the New Year. I asked my friend for a job, for lack of a better word. I was still able to do some consulting on the side to supplement my income but my main focus was going to be my ‘job’. It didn’t take more than a few months to see that my consulting was only providing me 5-10 hours a week and I was spending 40-50 at my job. I asked my friend if I could go full time. After some convincing, he agreed.
I saw the company grow under his leadership from a $15 million to a $26 million company. Personally, I moved up into the #5 spot as the general manager of administration and accounting. The big turning point for me was 1994.
My friend and I usually had an early breakfast meeting once a week at a local New Jersey diner. The topics were wide-ranging from personal to business. Later in the year, I had a frank conversation with him. It had to do with the technological vision I had for the company. Since 1982, I had been the programmer of all apllications. I was starting to see a shift in the computing landscape.
‘We need to consider hiring an outside programming company. I can’t effectively do this anymore.’
My friend said that I was a great programmer and if I was sure that’s what I wanted to do.
‘In the not-too-distant future, kids half my age will be programming with pictures. We need something that’s more comprehensive to run the business.’
I didn’t realize it then but this was the dawn of networked computing. (One morning, we were reading the papers at the front counter and I saw an advertisement. It was for Sony. At the bottom in large letters was “http://www.sony.com”. I picked up the full-page ad, turned it to him and pointed out the URL and said “This is going to replace toll-free numbers.)
My friend said, ‘Mike, I trust you. Find some companies that program for supply houses and we’ll evaluate them.’
12 years earlier, I was the software vendor for the company. Now, I was the employee shopping for the next software vendor.
Over the next several months and into early 1995, we saw many demos, went to vendor’s meetings and even dropped in on clients of the select vendors. We chose to work with a company who had a great deal of supply house technology experience.
After months of conversion, preparation, training, installation of hardware and the headaches the come along with a new software system, we were ready to go live. It was Monday, July 3 1995. In all candor, it wasn’t the smoothest or most perfect scene, but we all hung in and made the conversion to the new system. I survived the onslaught of criticism and profanity hurled at me and even picked up a convert or two along the way. Nothing tests your mettle like adversity.
Months had passed and the new system was humming along and my native co-workers were fairly calm. I succeeded in this year-long odyssey of moving the entire company over to a new way of doing things that put more responsibility in the hands of the user rather than a top-down hierarchy.
I also did something less-apparent: I obsolesced my position.
On December 22, 1995, I walked in my friend’s office. It was his tradition to call the company employees in one-by-one and give them their bonus checks. I was the last one.
After he gave me my check and I thanked him, he stated:
‘Well Mike, now I suppose you will be leaving to get a job with [our new software vendor]?’
‘No, I was looking for something more challenging. I want YOUR job.’
He was startled.
‘What would I do?’
‘You own the company. You could do whatever you want.’
He thought I was crazy, or kidding – maybe both. The wasn’t any response.
‘I will let you think about it. I have no intentions of leaving – just looking to take on a greater role.’
We shook hands and I wished he and his family a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
This brief meeting set the tone for the next several years to follow. I found out that my friend, while well-intentioned, was an autocrat. Always a gentleman, but every decision stopped with him. He’d ask every person he met for their opinion but always chose his own in the end.
In summer of 1998, he was diagnosed with a case of double pneumonia that nearly killed him. As he convalesced in the hospital in our town, I visited him with paperwork, reports or just to say ‘hi’. More than just a boss, he was my friend and long-time confidant. About a month after he left the hospital, we were having a light dinner in town.
As a person with a strong Germanic background, he was not one to get all wishy-washy about anything – ever.
After dinner, we took a short walk.
‘Mike, throughout all this ordeal, you have been my one true friend. I know that I cannot continue forever, and you will have a greater role in the company when it’s your turn at bat.’ I thanked him but said that given our long-term business and personal relationship, I felt it was incumbent of me to to the best I could for him and the company.
In the following months, his health improved and strength increased. His words to me became platitudes and he reverted back to the same person he was before being afflicted. I found my interest in doing better starting to wane; I felt like an ’employee’ rather than an ‘entrepreneur within a company’ for the first time. Morale slipped and sales declined. Personally, I had high blood pressure for the first and only time in my life.
With all the new challenges to the business, my friend exerted greater control of the business and decisions lingered on his desk for months without resolution. I made a plea to take some of the burden. So did his VP’s, seeing that the business was lagging.
Knowing that it had been 15 minutes since the school called, I waited nervously in front of my friend’s desk. He was on a business call that did not show signs of ending. Because only he could ‘dismiss’ me, I continued to wait. My friend’s desk was in the center of the sales office and my presence before him was noticed by all the salespersons there.
At the 30 minute mark, his #2 man came to me and asked what was wrong, so I told him. ‘When he gets off the phone, can you tell him I had to get Julia?’. My co-worker agreed, but I knew it was an awkward request to come late on a Friday afternoon. I quickly hopped in my car and took off for my daughter’s school.
16 years ago, mobile cell signal was patchy in some areas. I came out of an underpass and my voicemail indicator went off. I knew what it was about even before I pressed the voicemail button.
‘MICHAEL! I AM HERE AND YOU ARE NOT. CALL ME IMMEDIATELY!’
I have rarely ever hear him this angry. The traffic was building quickly like most Friday afternoons in the summer, so while stuck in traffic, I called the office.
His secretary picked up. ‘It’s Mike, can you put me through to him?’
‘He’s on the phone. Do you want to hold?’
His secretary checked back with me after 5 minutes and said ‘He’s still on the phone. Do you want want to hold?’
My cellular plan included 30 minutes for $49 per month.
‘I’ll call him back in a few.’
I was in standstill traffic and realized that I may be late to pick up Jules for regular dismissal.
Less than ten minutes passed and I redialed the office.
‘Is he off the phone yet?’, I asked his secretary.
‘Yes, I’ll put you right through.’
My heart was pounding through my chest.
‘WHERE are YOU!?’
‘I was waiting for you to finish your call. Julia is sick and the school called me to pick her up.’
‘BUT I DIDN’T LET YOU LEAVE! YOU SHOULD HAVE WAITED. WE WILL TALK ABOUT THIS ON MONDAY!!’
He slammed the phone down.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In almost 20 years, he had never been that angry at me. I was shaken, not so much by the yelling, but by how he treated me. I felt that all of my heart and soul poured into my work for him and the company meant nothing. What made it worse was that he couldn’t see my point of view as the father of a sick daughter.
My next two days were awful as I was consumed with doubt, depression and disbelief. On Sunday, Father’s Day, I went outside to take care of the lawn. It gave me time to think and reflect on the events of Friday.
I was raking up small piles of cut grass, cursing under my breath. And then it happened – I just plain snapped. I took the rake and flung it with all my might across the lawn, like a golfer that duffed a shot.
“BY THE TIME JULIA GRADUATES MIDDLE SCHOOL, I WILL NO LONGER BE WORKING AT [the company]!!!”
I remember it like it was yesterday. I had one of those Tony Robbins moments. I decided to take massive actions.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that my inner entrepreneur was being pushed around like an employee. That was completely unacceptable. It put in motion the events that led to my resignation on January 6, 2003.
From the first fling of the rake to that day, every decision I made was for me and in my best interest and that of my family. If my inner resolve were not enough, working 1 mile across the river from Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 changes your life like few other events.
I was on the road to re-becoming an entrepreneur, a fighter, an independent…