Excerpt from Memoirs of a Fortune 500 Executive

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a successful business executive for a Fortune 500 company? Meet Robert, an ordinary man with an extraordinary work ethic, who served as President and Chief Executive Officer of one of the largest manufacturing companies in the United States. With only a high-school education, he climbed his way from a humble retail clerk to a prominent corporate leader. Walk with him as he describes an ordinary day in his extraordinary life.

The alarm blares at 4 a.m., signaling Robert to wake up and start his day. He quickly catches up on business news while drinking his trademark half cup of coffee. “Why only a half cup?” Robert chuckles, “I like my coffee hot, and a full cup gets cold before I finish it.” Then it’s off to the racquetball club for a 5 a.m. match with colleagues. Working up an intense sweat, Robert plays racquetball to win, just like he plays to win in business.

Arriving at the office at 7 a.m. before any of his coworkers, Robert takes advantage of the quiet time before phone calls, meetings and plant tours consume his day. In a mere hour, he reviews a stack of resumes for hiring a new vice president, outlines a proposal for reducing production costs on a core product, and prepares an agenda for a business acquisition meeting.

As his coworkers arrive at work, Robert walks the halls of the corporate office and makes a point to greet everyone by name. Upon his return to his office, he promptly addresses a half dozen phone calls and over a dozen internal memos. Then he discusses ideas for reducing production costs with the plant manager and corporate engineers. Later, he attends a service awards recognition ceremony and shakes hands with all production personnel as they walk to the cafeteria for a celebration with cake and coffee.

Lunch never appears on Robert’s agenda; instead, he nibbles on cookies and crackers all day. Along with his engineering team, Robert travels to a vendor’s plant to view new equipment that they determined will reduce production costs. Back at the office, he meets with his senior sales and marketing team to discuss the company’s display booth at the next corporate trade show. Having a little fun with creative ideas adds some lightness to their day.

In the early afternoon, Robert attends the monthly purchasing committee meeting to review conditions affecting the prices of raw materials. Robert then meets with the chief financial officer (CFO) to discuss financial results, cash projections and manufacturing efficiencies. Robert ends his day with a briefing with his administrative assistant to summarize that day’s events and his schedule for the next day.

Robert’s day doesn’t end at work. That evening, he and his wife enjoy dinner out with a few senior managers and their spouses to promote team spirit and camaraderie, mixing a little bit of business with pleasure. Robert feels it’s critical to know his senior staff and their spouses to foster good personal relationships.

If he’s lucky, Robert will grab a few winks of sleep before his 7 a.m. flight to the West Coast. As he sums up himself, “The pace is always fast. The work is always demanding. The hours are always long. The vacations are always short. The challenges are always motivating, and positive results are always celebrated. Yet, I always find time for my family and fun. It is quite a balancing act that requires extraordinary time and energy. Most people think I am a nut job, but I love every minute of it.”

Robert’s First Job

At the age of 14, Robert landed his first job at Fashion’s, a small department store a few blocks away from his family’s home. During the economic boom time of the summer in 1959, when the American dream was attainable for the “ordinary guy,” Robert launched his extraordinary career. 

A neighborhood friend who held the job for a few years before graduating high school told Robert, “I’m going to be leaving my job at Fashion’s, so there will be an opening soon. Go speak to the owner about getting that job.” So, Robert went in and spoke to the owner, along with the store manager. Robert impressed them so much in the interview that they hired him on the spot.

While Robert’s friends hung out listening to radio hits like “Mack the Knife,” “Stagger Lee” and “Sixteen Candles,” Robert worked six days a week while attending high school. At the humble starting pay of 75 cents an hour, he clocked 20 hours a week after school on Monday through Thursdays, Friday nights until 9 p.m. and all day on Saturdays. Knowing that Robert chomped at the bit to go out with his friends on Friday nights, the store manager often let him leave work early at 7:30 p.m. That gave Robert more time to hang out with his friends before he had to be home in time for his curfew.

Fashion’s, a full-line department store that sold men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, including shoes, served a loyal following of regular customers in the days before shopping malls. It also served as an authorized dealer for local high school sweaters and jackets. About 6,000 square feet in size, Fashion’s sold branded products and recognized names like Arrow shirts and Levi’s jeans, all high-quality, somewhat pricey clothing in the latest fashions.

For the first six months at his job, Robert served as the “cleanup guy” tending to “Mickey-Mouse kind of things” like sweeping floors, emptying trash, maintaining light fixtures and cleaning dressing rooms. Bored with these grunt-work tasks, he quickly learned the tricks of the cleaning trade to make more time for more exciting challenges like selling merchandise. Later, Robert added stocking and maintaining the shelves in the men’s clothing and shoe departments to his workload. Since he stocked these departments, he knew the inventory like the back of his hand – such as what sizes were in stock and what new styles were available. Over time, he became a fixture in the store, a highly valued source of knowledge.

By the end of his first year, Robert spent a little less than an hour a day doing cleanup chores at the store, so he could spend most of his time selling. His in-depth knowledge of the inventory led him to become a top salesman in the store. Young, eager, honest, and customer-service oriented, Robert earned the reputation as a top salesman. When a young customer came into the store with his or her mother, Robert knew the exact merchandise to show them, usually resulting in a plum sale. So, Robert worked up the courage to ask for a raise to $1 an hour, a competitive wage in those days, which his bosses granted.

Robert displayed a maturity way beyond his years. Fashion’s owner always drove a new, big Oldsmobile, and sent Robert periodically to get it washed at a local car wash. After he gave Robert the car keys, Robert would pull away ever so carefully. But as soon as the owner was out of sight, Robert seized the opportunity to “really burn rubber in that fast car.”

Speaking of cars, when Robert got his driver’s license, his older brother promised to give him his 1956 Ford, a fast, hot, red car that was known by everyone (especially the cops) in their hometown. Robert’s brother drove that car 90 mph down Main Street when the speed limit was only 35 mph. Sadly, Robert’s brother’s hot-rodding days screeched to a halt in March of 1961, when his first child was born. Naïve to the expenses of a newborn baby, Robert’s brother miscalculated his ability to give his old car to Robert. Instead, he traded it in to reduce the cost of his new car, a boring four-door family sedan. Robert, eagerly awaiting his promised gift from his brother, told all his friends about it. They all waited in anticipation for wild Friday-night joy rides in that fiery hot rod.

One summer day, when Robert was at work, his brother pulled up in his new car. Unbelievably excited, Robert ran out to find out where the red Ford was. Then his brother broke the bad news that he “traded it in” for the new car. Truly heartbroken, Robert called his brother every name in the book and gave him the silent treatment for a year. Although Robert took his disappointment with true grit, his brother’s broken promise served a source of good-natured razzing for 55 years. 

At the mere age of 16, Robert earned the honor of accompanying Fashion’s owner and general manager to the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago each season to help select the store’s inventory. They made appointments with various clothing-line representatives and went from one small showroom to the next in search of the new fashions for the upcoming season. They bought bathing suits in winter and heavy coats in summer.

In choosing the styles of clothes he would like to wear himself, Robert had a knack for selecting fashions that appealed to his peers, a talent highly valued by his bosses. After buying trips, the owner and manager treated Robert to dinners at an expensive Italian restaurant, making him feel like a “big shot.” That was a special treat for Robert because most people he knew, especially high school students, rarely ventured downtown at that time. Years later, Robert would say, “Fashion’s valued their employees who performed.”

“All work and no play,” was NOT Robert’s philosophy. Next store to Fashion’s stood a smoky pool hall where Robert’s parents didn’t allow him to go. Of course, that didn’t stop Robert from taking his breaks from work there. At first, he didn’t know how to shoot pool well, but he soon grew proficient. 

Robert and his friends, who hung around the pool hall, would seek out a “fish,” or someone they knew they could beat because the loser had to pay for the cost of the time renting the pool table. These tournaments featured the hustlers versus the “fish” to win two out of three games. About 80% of the time, Robert won these tournaments so that he could play pool for free. The other 20% of the time, his “fish” turned out to be “hustlers” in disguise, so he would have to fork up the money on those occasions.

“When I was 17, my Dad brought home an old beat-up, regulation-size Brunswick pool table from some guy in the city, which was too big to get down into our finished basement,” Robert said. “My oldest brother, a talented carpenter, used a rip saw to cut it into pieces so that we could maneuver it into the basement. Then he put it back together and reworked the wood. My Dad commissioned a guy named Sam, a pool-table expert and fixture at the local pool hall, to install new rubber rails and a brand-new green felt top for the table. Looking absolutely brand new, it was a gorgeous piece of functional furniture!”

Thrilled at the opportunity to perfect his game in the comfort of his basement, Robert faced a dilemma – keep his well-guarded secret about his time spent at the pool hall (which his parents forbade) or beat his Dad at pool. At first, he decided to keep his secret, but the temptation to play competitively got the best of him. His Dad expressed surprise at how good he was and how did he learn to play so well so quickly.

Little did his Dad know that Robert had been racking them up and shooting pool for two and a half years. Eventually, the truth came out. Robert’s parents learned that when Robert was not at home, work or school, he hung out at the forbidden pool hall. With a bit of nostalgia, Robert reminisced, “We got loads of good use and fun out of that pool table, and it allowed me to pick up some extra pocket change.”

Robert spent roughly 80 percent of his pocket change and his job earnings on clothes he bought at Fashions. As one of the best-dressed kids at his high school, he became a virtual walking advertisement for the store. His peers would shop at Fashion’s, often with their mothers, to buy clothes. Since Robert knew a lot of these kids, he had a keen sense of what they liked, and the customer service skills to satisfy their mothers.

One of the perks of working at Fashion was the social connections he made, which were quite cool for a high school freshman or sophomore. “The girls who worked there were upperclassmen at my school. Since I worked with them at my job, I knew these cute, popular girls very well, so I was connected at school as well. As I walked the school hallways, I would often hear, ‘Hey Robbie’ coming from one of these little dolls and their friends. I was popular by association.”

Like most adolescents, Robert sometimes got into trouble. Once, he and three friends were picked up by the police for drinking beer in a nearby forest preserve. They had persuaded a man to buy a couple of six-packs for them. As they sipped their beers, they saw a car pull into the forest preserve. So they quickly hid behind a tree with their beers. Then they saw it was a squad car, which pulled up to the tree where they were hiding. When the cop spotted them and questioned them about the beer, they told him that they had found the beer behind the tree.

After the cop hauled them to the police station, Robert called his older brother to take him home. However, the police would not release him to his brother, only to his parents. Robert’s mother was called to pick him up. Astonishingly, his mother believed their story that they found the beer in the forest preserve, so he managed to avoid being punished by his parents. “It was one of my lucky days,” Robert said.

Robert never excelled at school because academics ranked low on his priority list. Many days he told his mom he was sick, so he could stay home and take off from school. But he still went to work. Since his teachers shopped at Fashion’s, a teacher would often come in on a day he played hooky and say, “Robert. I see you had a miracle recovery.”

As a freshman, he took Spanish I. He passed the first semester but failed the second semester. In his senior year, he made sure he had a “soft schedule” because his objective was to graduate with his class. He took a freshman Robert class taught by a teacher who was a knockout. Serving as her protector, he reprimanded students who misbehaved in her class. In senior year Spanish class, Robert acted as the teacher’s sergeant-at-arms, making sure kids didn’t get rowdy in his classroom. Because of his assistance to both teachers, Robert earned passing grades in both classes, which enabled him to graduate with his class.

One sweltering, humid day in summer school, Robert sat in a crowded class, totally bored out of his mind. His attention drifted to the open classroom windows as the students spent most of the time passing notes to each other just for laughs and giggles. He sent one note to a friend, saying, “I am thinking about jumping out the window, and taking the rest of the day off.” The friend said, “I dare you.”

Boom! Robert was out the window in a heartbeat, gone for the day. The next day, the students were full of laughs because there were no repercussions for Robert’s going missing — the teacher never even knew. “I was Mr. Cool for the balance of the summer school class,” boasted Robert. “At our 20-year reunion, a book of class memories contained a trivia quiz. One of the questions asked, ‘Who jumped out of the window in Mr. Johnson’s summer school class?’”

Although Robert missed quite a few days at school, he never missed a day of work at Fashions. There, he became the shoe sales expert. At the time, Converse ranked as the best brand for tennis shoes and sneakers. Robert found it extremely rewarding to sell a new pair of shoes, especially the high-end inventory. Often a mother would come in looking for a pair of shoes for her child. Robert could tell the child’s size just by looking at his or her feet, but often the mom would insist he use the measuring device. Being adept at customer service, Robert always accommodated the mother’s wishes. Time and again, the measuring device showed Robert was right in the first place. Indeed, Robert was the master of “sizing up the customer.” 

Looking back, Robert found his first work experience at Fashion’s to be a foundation for forming the grit that he continued to develop throughout his career. He matured a lot in his high school years by interacting with adults each day. He learned the work ethics of dependability, hard work, displaying energy and treating customers, coworkers and bosses the way he wanted to be treated. In sum, Robert’s advice was “Always be early, never miss work, always learn more, never slack off.”

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