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Pushing the Envelope All the Way to the Top
By Harvey MacKay
Ballantine Books Copyright © 2000 Harvey MacKay
All right reserved.
MAY I HAVE THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE?
I get all my best lines from the movies, which is where I learned to quote Michael Corleone, supposedly quoting Machiavelli, saying "Hold your friends close and your enemies closer."
Well, my enemies -- those low rent hounds who are always underbidding me -- must have seen the same movie, because they are wise to my ways. I try to buddy up to them at all the envelope conventions, but they aren't having any.
How can you rat-a-tat-tat them if they always keep their distance?
So, I make it my business to concentrate on the first part of Michael's homily, and stay close, very close, to my friends.
When Ingemar Johanson fought Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title in Miami four thousand years ago, I was still wet behind the ears and the only guy at ringside without a six dollar cigar in my mouth and a blonde on my arm. I took a machine supplier, so I could be the first kid on my block to get my hands on their new high speed envelope machine.
I also took care of my buyers. I entertained. I gifted. I schmoozed. I laughed in all the right places.
There are lots of reasons why. When the buyer likes you:
* If you mess up, and I do occasionally, as do we all, you have a deposit of goodwill to draw against. You will get a second chance.
* When your buyer's company has some big new policy change, the buyer will try to find some way to keep on doing business with you even though he has to cover his backside to show conformity to the big new policy change.
Here's what happened to me at a Fortune 500 company in Minneapolis some years ago. If it happens to you, you might consider employing the fabled "envelope trick."
The policy change: Cut costs. Slash prices. Squeeze those greedy vendors till their stony little hearts bleed and their squeaky little voices cry out for mercy.
The directive to the buyer: All paper, packaging and printing contracts had to be bid out. No renewing of any contracts whatsoever. Freeze 'em. Tweeze 'em. Tease 'em. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze 'em.
There were four bidders. I had had the business for 10 years. Ed, the buyer, and I were friends.
And, being the sole supplier every year, I had made it a point to know everyone up and down the ladder, from the vice president of purchasing to secretaries to mail room personnel. I was Good Old Harvey, spreading good old goodwill and cheer to one and all.
So, not having put all my eggs in the buyer's basket, I had a network throughout the company. I worked it to find out who the other three bidders were.
I was able to make some very constructive suggestions on how the specs should be drawn up.
This also helped.
Keep in mind, there were still limits. Even though the buyer wanted me to wind up with the business, this had to be an arm's length transaction. My competitors were no fools. Any hint of collusion and they would cry foul. And they, too, had their pals within the organization.
There were eyes everywhere to see to it that the big new policy change was observed.
Rule. There would be no second looks.
Rule. No chance to change my price.
Rule. No seeing the competition's bids.
Ed was not about to jeopardize his job for me. I didn't expect him to.
But he gave me one other edge, a very big one. I was to be the last bidder in.
I prepared four envelopes. Each contained a bid.
A. A down and dirty bid, leaving the gunnels of the good ship Mackay about one-fourth of one inch above the waterline. If I had underestimated my costs by one extra pot of glue, I'd be sunk. I prayed I would not have to use it.
B. A modest down and dirty bid, about three inches above the waterline. A couple of good waves would swamp me, but at least I could make it to shore on calm seas.
C. The same price as last year's contract with no price increase. Business as usual.
D. A 6 percent increase, which reflected two paper price increases in the past 12 months. The America's Cup winner. This was still a fair price, given the boost in the cost of my raw materials, and the buyer would have given it to me if he had not had to get four bidders, but ...
As we in the bidness world all know, competitors have this nasty habit of trying to buy their way into a new big account one year and worry about keeping it the next. So I was a realist. There was a good chance one of those three bums would underbid me.
So, now I am armed with four bids, not knowing which one I will play.
I put bid A in the top of my briefcase. Bid B in the bottom of my briefcase. Bid C in the left inside pocket of my suit coat. Bid D in the right outside pocket of my suit coat.
Time for my summit meeting with Ed. My goal, of course, is information.
We reminisced about 10 years together, years of fun and fellowship, service and self-sacrifice ... How in the early days, before I could afford a truck, I used to put his envelopes in the trunk of my car and deliver them to him personally ... How we opened the plant on Saturdays and Sundays to fill his orders ... how we waived overtime charges when his budget was tight.
Keep in mind, that as I do this jolly reprise, I am running a catscan over every inch of Ed.
My main focus is to try and read his tone of voice and his body language to detect any hint as to whether and how much the competition has chopped me up.
Though Ed knows exactly what I'm up to, Ed is his usual warm friendly self. Nothing has changed in his manner. No better. No worse. NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
In Ed's mind, he is not helping me that much, just schmoozing and batting the ball around. Ed discloses kind of harmlessly that the competitors aren't including the paper price increase in their bids, but on the other hand, didn't attempt to slash their way in either.
So now I know that there will be no price increase. D is dead in the water. Even though my competitors were hit with the same exact paper price increase I was, they decided to eat it in hopes of underbidding me. I know which bid to submit. It's C. I reach for my left inside pocket and turn in my bid. I get the order. Ed's integrity is intact. So is my account.
Someday maybe I'll be skillful enough to apply the second half of Michael's aphorism about keeping close to your enemies. But in the meantime, I'm going to continue to concentrate on staying as close as I can to my friends. They sure can help you if they want to.
Mackay's Moral: The reason you always dance with the one who brung you, is 'cause when the party's over, you may need a ride home.
NOW THAT IT'S FEBRUARY,
HAPPY NEW YEAR
If you ask the attendant at your health club what the busiest day of the year is, he'll tell you it's the day after New Year's. That's when all the New Year's resolution types pour in. By February only a handful are left. Now that New Year's is over, tell me, how many of those resolutions have you kept? How many can you even remember?
Maybe you could use a new set. This time, you won't have to fight the crowds.
1. I will improve my listening skills. I will remind myself that I can't learn anything when I'm doing the talking. I will abandon my phony "open door" policy and establish specific meetings and set aside specific times so that others can have real access to me. I will break down barriers. I will try to end the "not invented here" syndrome and encourage the free flow of information across departmental and hierarchical lines. I will answer my own phone ... well, I will answer it more often.
2. I will improve my professional skills. I will cease to be a pothole on the information highway. I will not allow myself to become one of these old fuddy-duddies who brags about their inability to operate modern business equipment. I will get up to speed in computers and communications equipment. Nobody should come into the 21st century without being computer literate.
3. I will improve my reading skills, Unfortunately, my reading ability has slowed down over the years and it is taking me longer to absorb less. I will take a speed-reading course. Instead of reading what merely confirms my existing prejudices, I will search out material that introduces me to new ideas and new ways of thinking.
4. I will waste less time. I will use my commuter time to read more or to listen to audio tapes that can help me improve my skills and broaden my understanding.
5. I will exercise regularly. I will exercise regularly to the point where I will become "positively addicted." I know exercise not only improves my health but helps me maintain a high level of performance on the job.
6. I will encourage risk-taking. I know that many businesses fail from lack of boldness rather than from trying something new. I will not punish or ridicule-honest mistakes. I love my work. I want others to feel the same about theirs, so I will try to make my workplace a fun and exciting place to be, not just a paycheck.
7. I will put into practice a plan to become the sole source of supply to my largest customers. The most important element of my plan is to treat my customers as though I were their most dedicated employee and consultant, ready to serve them in every way so they feel my company is practically a division of their company.
8. I will be committed to growing and improving every facet of our business. I want every employee in my company to know we are open for hire eight days a week, 13 months a year. I want them constantly to be on the lookout for good people to become part of our team.
9. I will contribute to my community. I will be a giver. I will give money. I will give time. I will try to make a difference. I want to help make the place I live become a better place for everyone.
10. I will not neglect my family in pursuit of the almighty dollar. I will never forget that they do more to keep me on an even keel and bring more genuine happiness into my life than any business success I can ever achieve. So Carol Ann, David and Virginia, Mimi and Larry, Jojo and Michael, make room for me. I'm on my way home.
Mackay's Moral: Start your new year today. And remember, anyone can make a resolution. Very few people can keep one.
Excerpted from Pushing the Envelope All the Way to the Top by Harvey MacKay Copyright © 2000 by Harvey MacKay. Excerpted by permission.
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