In driving around my new hometown, I am struck by the grandeur of some of the older homes and buildings. Oil City, Pennsylvania was once home to giant oil companies and Verango County had more millionaires than Pittsburgh — back when a million dollars was a lot of money. The corporate headquarters are long gone and the refineries closed in 2001. But oil still gets pumped and still gets processed into high-grade Pennsylvania motor oil; however, the processing is done many miles away.
Yesterday, while traveling on a previously unfamiliar street, I saw a marker touting the former location of a pioneering oil field equipment company. A light went on: I had been to Oil City before! Just before the successor firm to the one on the marker moved to Texas in the 1980s, I attended a meeting with our Pittsburgh-based salesman. No wonder the downtown hotel seemed so familiar.
Bob was an old-school traveling salesman. He loved being on the road, meeting new people, and reconnecting with friends made along the way. His trunk was overflowing with catalogs and trinkets of the “lines” he represented. And boy did he represent them! If it was in one of those catalogs, Bob knew what page to look at. From memory he could recall what he had sold and to whom. Current inventory status, prices, lead times, and potential upgrades were always in his thoughts.
I learned many things traveling with seasoned “road warriors” like Bob. They seldom went into a meeting unprepared. They anticipated customer needs. Honest communication was their livelihood and they made lots of money for the company — and themselves. Ultimately, it was their high levels of compensation that ended the “super salesman” days for us. A new company president decreed that no one would make more than him.
The sales crew responded as you would expect; once they were “capped out” with us they shifted their efforts to other lines and got customers to defer big orders until the next year. The president was livid and his anger prompted several of our best guys to go to work for the competition. Only a few of them retired though; being a salesman was not just a job to them, it was their calling in life. It was not the reduction in pay so much as the lack of respect that drove them away.