Doug Slocum

Special Contributor

Bosses: can’t live with ’em… can’t kill ’em.” Or perhaps, even more appropriate: “You can’t choose your relatives, but you can sure as hell choose your boss!” 

I got the news some three years after the fact of the death of my very first boss and mentor, Jack Manning.

Shortly after college, I got my first real job as an inside salesman/customer service representative for Baystate Abrasives in Chicago. Jack Manning was the boss. In those days Inside Sales Representative was nothing more than a glorified order taker. In fact, they had a fancy name for us: we were “Order Editors.”  Since I was a “college man,” I was made Senior Order Editor, and was paid six dollars more per week. Baystate Abrasives was in the business of manufacturing grinding wheels. They made everything from little cup wheels and mounted points to giant abrasive wheels three feet in diameter and over a foot thick. In addition, Baystate made diamond grinding wheels in every conceivable shape and size. Remember, this was the pre-fax days, when everything was handled by telephone and teletype. Orders came into the office via telephone and were then sent on to the home office via teletype.

Front and center of the desk of every order taker was a price book. That, I kid you not, was well over 1000 pages and two feet thick. It was our Bible. From this book you would have to build the order. You would figure the price by a complex set of formulas that included blueprint number, materials, and lead time.

Some of the diamond wheels cost thousands of dollars and would take up to sixteen weeks to make. All this was done while an impatient customer was on the other end of the line, waiting for your answer.

The pressure at times was intense. A phone quote was considered a contract between Baystate and the customer, and a mistake could have big consequences. Use the wrong blueprint and the wrong wheel was manufactured. Spec the wrong materials and the product was useless. Promise the wrong lead time and the customer might have to wait weeks longer than anticipated. Use the wrong pricing formula and the customer would pay too much or too little and the product was produced at a loss. A mistake could shut down the production line at Chrysler, Boeing, or any other of thousands of customers, both big and small.

Jack Manning was a calm influence in the eye of the daily storm. Nothing seemed to surprise him or shake his cool demeanor. Jack had the ability to immediately recognize the problem and chart the most direct course to a solution. He knew how to handle both employees and difficult customers. But most of all, Jack knew how to teach and how to lead by example. He also recognized that a boss was more than just the man who gave the orders; he was also a friend.

On one particularly hectic day about four months into my tenure at Baystate, I got a call from the purchasing agent for a large steel fabricating firm. He requested a quote on 500 metal cut-off wheels. This guy was in a hurry, and he didn’t try to hide his impatience with my methodical approach to producing a quote. After a certain amount of badgering, I figured up the math and quoted him a price. He placed the order, gave me a purchase order number, and hung up on me without saying goodbye.

As soon as he hung up, I started to get an uneasy feeling about the whole thing, and decided to overt the formula and math. Sure enough, I had made a mistake. I remember it well to this day.  My quote was off by 29 cents per wheel: $145 on a $2,900 order, a small fortune in 1973. 

I immediately picked up the phone and called the guy back. I explained to him that I had made a mistake and gave him the corrected price. 

His reaction was predictable. He ranted and raved, and then asked, “What kind of a company is this? Do you stand by your phone quotes or don’t you?” I said that we did, and with that, he said,” Then I will expect delivery at the price quoted,” then slammed down the phone. I was screwed.

Now I had a new problem. I would have to take this to my boss, Jack Manning. I swallowed hard and marched into Jack’s office, laid the order on his desk, and began to tell my tale of woe. 

Jack listened quietly, reached over, picked up the order and began rewriting it, word for word, number by number, including my rookie mistake. When he completed the order, he handed it back to me with his signature. 

“Put it through,” he said, “and relax, you’re doing a fine job.” 

I came out of his office with a whole new outlook on life and a new respect for my boss. I decided then and there that wherever this man wanted to lead, I would follow.

Another example of this man’s wisdom was his ability to recognize when to draw the line. In my youth, every situation that came up was a crisis that demanded immediate and drastic response. No matter what the request or need of my customer, it was handled like a national emergency. 

In my position as Senior Order Editor I called the shots for the warehouse foreman and his seven-man crew. I made these guys jump through hoops in order to satisfy my customer’s every whim. This made me a hero with my customers, and a royal pain in the butt to the warehouse crew.

One day, Jack happened to be walking by my desk as I was giving some ridiculous and unreasonable order to the warehouse crew. I don’t remember the exact situation, but I’m sure that on a scale of one to ten, this ranked in the range of negative three. 

After I hung up, Jack leaned over the back of my chair and whispered in my ear, “You know, Doug, the easiest thing in the world is to sell another man’s sweat.” 

Bingo! The light came on. After that, before issuing orders, I would think to myself, “Is this a reasonable request?” And if the answer came back yes, I would ask myself, given the time allowed, “Is this a reasonable request from a reasonable supervisor?” After that, my relationship with the warehouse crew improved dramatically, and my relationship with my customers suffered not at all.

Almost 45 years have passed now since those lessons were learned. I have worked for many a boss since then, and been one myself. Some were talented men; some were dumb as a mud post. I have learned valuable lessons from all of them. What to do, and more importantly, what not to do. But no one has ever taught me more. I remember Jack Manning with great fondness.

Reprinted from Slippery Rock Gazette, Volume 3, Number 6,  June 1997