True Stories from the 20th Century at Pacificorp
By J. Charles Cheek
© June 2004
A Handshake to Riches – The Story of Charley James
Charley James was a little man that smoked big Cuban cigars and always drove a new Cadillac automobile. He worked out regularly and looked good in his silk suits. I would have been a nervous wreck smoking cigars while wearing a very expensive silk suit. Charley was very careful and tidy though. His car was always showroom clean and shiny. Tom Edwards, a substation designer during that era, told me that he once witnessed how proud Charley was of his Cadillac. Someone on the street struck a stick match on his car and Charley read him the riot act. The offender responded with a finger gesture so Charley knocked him out with one punch, climbed into his car and drove away.
Charley was the exclusive sales representative in the Northwest States for the Lapp Insulator Company. Charley was the first sales representative to buy me lunch after I went to work as a design engineer for Pacific Power & Light Company (PP&L) in February of 1961. Unlike the other sales representative who took the managers and supervisors to lunch, Charley bought lunch for up to six of us at the same time. Also unlike most of the other reps, he never talked business before, during or after lunch. Business talk took place back at the office one on one with each person.
I met Charley after my supervisor, Ken Stevens, gave me the assignment of designing the first transmission line using a brand new insulator being peddled by Charley – the post insulator. I told the story of that design experience in a short story titled, 16th Floor Engineering Design. I won’t repeat it here but suffice to say that it was my first introduction to an on the job training course that could have been titled, Management Reality 101.
Charley and I became working associates and business friends. One day I did something unique, I asked Charley to allow me to take him to lunch. He accepted and we met in the dinning room of the Hilton Hotel located directly across the street from the Public Service Building at 920 SW 5th Avenue. My motive was greed. I wanted to earn more money. I wanted to find out about the business of being a successful manufacturing representative like Charley. After regular working hours I had obtained a part-time job selling Cutco Cutlery. I had also completed the Dale Carnegie Sales Course. I forced myself to discuss other things for a few minutes but finally gave in and asked, “Charley, you are obviously very successful at what you do. How did you get into the business of being a sales representative?”
“You’re the first person who ever ask me that question,” he replied with obvious pleasure. He then proceeded to tell me a fascinating story of his ambition, effort and risk taking toward becoming a successful manufacturing sales representative.
Just out of the army after WWII, Charley went to work as a inside salesman for General Electric in their office in Seattle, Washington. “I was just a glorified clerk,” said Charley, “but I worked hard and after a few years I was promoted to a sales representative position. After learning the basics of that job from my boss and the other sales representatives I worked my butt off and did well in sales. Since my pay was mostly salary based there was not much reward for working extra hard. I complained to my wife about not being rewarded enough for getting much better sales that the other sales representatives working out of the Seattle office. She kept reminding me that my income was sufficient to support the two of us and our new baby plus save some money.”
Charley explained to me, in a serious tone, his feelings of being torn between settling for a comfortable salary as compared to working for a commission only where the monetary reward is totally dependent on results. He knew that General Electric would not change their large sales operation just so one salesman out of hundreds in the country could work on straight commission. “Okay, I’ll just have to bide my time until I can get a supervisory job that pays more,” he said he kept telling himself.” He was depressed when he began to look at that possibility. Both his boss and the Northwest Manager was just a couple of years older than he was. GE’s Vice President of Sales was also just a few years older.
“Then one day,” he said smiling, “my depression turned to excitement when I read about a new insulator called a post insulator. It was being manufactured by a company called Lapp back on the East Coast.” I could feel the excitement in Charley’s voice, “I told my wife I was going to change jobs and sell those insulators in the Northwest. I’ll make a lot more money.” His wife was not enthusiastic but went along with it since she knew he was not happy in his present job.
Charley took some vacation time off, bought a round-trip train ticket and headed for the Lapp Company office on the East Coast. He walked in the door and asked to see the National Sales Manager. “I want to sell those new kind of insulators out in the Northwest,” he told the Manager.
“Do you live in the Northwest?” asked the Manager.
“Seattle,” replied Charley.
“Did you come all the way from Seattle just to ask me about that?”
“Sure did. Right now I’m a real good salesman for GE and I want to get out on my own. I’m sure I’ll sell a lot of those insulators.”
“Wish you would have called. I would have told you that I have already looked at the Northwest and decided that it would not provide enough business for us to afford to pay a salesman to cover that area.”
“I’ll sell on a straight commission,” replied Charley. “If I don’t sell anything you don’t owe me anything.”
The startled Sales Manager was speechless for a few seconds. Then he said, “I guess I can’t turn down an offer like that so let’s see if we can agree on an appropriate commission. What do you suggest?”
How about a straight 10% commission on the dollar amount of all the Lapp products I sell in Washington, Oregon and Alaska?” The Sales Manager agreed and they shook hands to seal the deal. Charley returned to Seattle with a suitcase full of literature on the post insulators and other Lapp products. He went directly to his General Electric boss and turned in his two-week resignation notice. Then he went home and told his wife.
“How much will you get paid?” asked his wife.
“It depends on how much I sell,” replied Charley. “I get a ten-percent commission on everything I sell for the Lapp Company. Don’t worry honey. We have enough saved to live on until I get my first commission check.”
Within a couple of years Charley was selling more post insulators than any Lapp sales representative elsewhere in the country. In fact, income from his commissions exceeded the salary being paid to Lapp Sales Managers in other parts of the country. After a few more years he was making more that the new National Sales Manager at Lapp who, jealously, tried to cut Charley’s sales territory in half. The man Charley had made the deal with was now President of the Lapp Company and he refused to allow Charley’s territory to be cut. He said, “Charley and I made a handshake deal and that is the way it’s going to stay.”
After several more years Charley was making more in commissions than the President of Lapp was being paid in salary and bonuses. Another effort was made to cut Charley’s income by lowering his commission. “No way,” said the man Charley had made the deal with who was now Chairman of the Board of the Lapp Company. “Charley and I made that deal and shook on it and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”
And, as long as Charley lived, that’s the way it stayed.
Post script: I never became a sales representative but I used Charley’s information and that of the my sales study for my personal benefit on the job and beyond.
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