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The HorsemanA Travel Memoir
By Bart Reitter
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Bart Reitter
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Chapter OneRising in the East
The 737 pushed back from the gate and began the slow taxi out to the runway. We took our place in line, fifteenth for takeoff. I looked out the window at the low clouds that hung over the airport. It was a busy Tuesday evening rush hour and hundreds of planes jockeyed for position. The pilot came on and informed us that we would be delayed approximately thirty minutes and a faint but palpable groan rose from the weary passengers. The conditioned response of exasperation would probably have been appropriate, but I was unable to summon that reaction. I was too energized to be annoyed.
It was May of 1997, I was on my first real business trip, and I was ecstatic. I was flying from Philadelphia to Greensboro, North Carolina and had a week's worth of client visits and distributor meetings scheduled in both North and South Carolina. It was my first trip in my new role as Eastern Regional Manager with Phrygian Technologies and I was anxious to get off to a good start.
In April, I had resigned from Plectrum Automation after almost four years of employment. By 1997 I felt a longing for more responsibility and began to explore other opportunities. Phrygian offered me the job of Eastern Regional Manager, and I accepted the position.
The longing for more responsibility went hand-in-hand with the desire for more geography. Very early in my career I felt that, if I aspired for a position as a Vice President or CEO, I would need to have experience managing not only increasingly valuable regions, but also more physical territory. My theory was that it would be easier to move into a senior role someday if I'd had more experience with a bigger region, ideally global. Acumen in sales, marketing, and finance were important as well, but I felt that if I was learning those anyway, I may as well cover a large geographic area and remove another obstacle to a future promotion.
The territory for which I was responsible in my new role extended from Montréal to Miami and went as far west as Ohio. It encompassed the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec, as well as the Maritime provinces. That territory was a massive upgrade from what I had previously handled in both revenue and geography. I had gone from managing roughly $2 million in revenue at Plectrum to almost $15 million at Phrygian and went from covering two states to covering 17 along the entire eastern seaboard of the United States as well as the eastern half of Canada.
I also had the responsibility of managing 22 distribution partners. My new position moved me from direct sales, where I had owned the relationships with individual customers, to indirect sales, where I managed the distributors who in turn managed the customers. That type of regional position was very appealing to me and was also a role with which I was familiar. In my previous outside sales role I'd had many occasions to travel with individual company representatives who wanted to visit customers in my territory, and I had always liked that type of position.
When I accepted the job with Phrygian, I got my wish for a larger territory, more responsibility, and more travel. I could not have been happier, and I felt full of confidence and energy. In the end, I only worked for Phrygian for one year.
After my first trip to Greensboro, I got settled into the new role, did some internal training and had the opportunity to meet the other distribution partners who I would be managing. The first memorable trip I took was in June of 1997 when I went to visit a small distributor in Midlothian, Virginia. The purpose of the trip was to meet the owner of the business, discuss our plans for increasing sales in their territory, and to visit customers with two of their salespeople.
I elected to drive to Midlothian and not deal with the hassle of flying the short distance to Richmond. I drove down the night before and stayed at a Days Inn. I remember parking my car in the lot in the early evening and walking in the June heat to the lobby of the hotel with a big smile on my face. In my mind, I had made it.
I arrived early the next morning for my meeting and felt some of my excitement fade as I approached the small, non-descript white-brick office building off of Midlothian Turnpike. I had expected a larger business. They occupied one of the four offices in the small complex. I parked directly in front of the wooden door with the brass number three on it. Setting any judgment aside, I went to the door.
I knocked and almost immediately was greeted by Betty, the company's administrative assistant. She was an affable woman in her early fifties and she welcomed me excitedly, inviting me inside. I was as unimpressed with the inside of the building as I'd been with the exterior. There were boxes strewn around the office and pieces of electronic equipment piled in corners. I decided not to judge too quickly, though, and Betty made it difficult to be too harsh.
The owner, Stan, arrived around 8:30. We greeted each other and exchanged pleasantries. He was in his early fifties and was slightly disheveled himself with uncombed hair and his tie askew. My first thought was that a business is a reflection of its owner. It had me slightly concerned and he may have felt that. If the owner and the office were that disorganized, I wondered, what was the state of the business? I sensed detachment in him, and he eyed me with some suspicion. I attributed that more to my being a representative of Phrygian than anything personal and he was very cordial and sincere. But he was keeping me at a distance.
After my meeting with Stan, I met his two salesmen, Brian and Jerry. Brian was in his late twenties and a nice person but a little goofy. We were roughly the same age and I thought we could find something in common. That proved to be difficult. Jerry was in his late forties and more stoic. He was friendly as well but furtive and aloof.
The three of us spent the afternoon together in the conference room discussing our products and their plans for their territories. The product training went well and I felt a quiet sense of relief after the first day of being the "expert" on our products. Just a few weeks before, I didn't even know those products existed.
I met Brian the next morning at the office. He had booked meetings for the day in Williamsburg so we had about an hour drive. He was married with no children and he and his wife were heavily involved in their local church group. He wore a pair of sunglasses that he was overly excited about and kept telling me how cool they were (pronouncing "cool" as "kewl"). It wasn't difficult to get him talking, and I was pleased to avoid a long, uncomfortably-silent drive.
We had barely pulled out of the lot and he started talking and talking and talking. He was energetic, animated, and sincere but he lacked substance. It was as if he slid across every subject about which he spoke and didn't linger on any topic for too long. He liked to talk big ideas and not spend too much time on details.
He told me a story about a friend of his who had created a new way to market restaurants in Richmond. It was in the early days of the internet explosion and he claimed his friend had made a good deal of money from the idea. I listened to the story, expressed genuine interest, and asked if his friend planned to duplicate the idea in other nearby cities like Washington D.C. or Raleigh or Philadelphia. I suggested that applying the same formula would likely work in those cities as well. People had to eat no matter where they lived.
He gave me a slightly condescending smile and said no. His friend had shut down the operation and moved on to a "bigger opportunity." I looked at him incredulous and asked why his friend would do that. What could be the bigger opportunity? He seemed to have hit on a winning initiative, and I didn't understand why he wouldn't stay with it. I questioned him more about it and, like the other subjects we had discussed, he didn't have many answers.
The bigger opportunity his friend had pursued was multi-level marketing and he asked me if I knew anything about it. I lied and told him that I didn't and, for a minute, I got the feeling that I was being played. It didn't seem right, though. Brian wasn't that calculating. I had trouble believing that I was the unsuspecting moth headed blissfully for the spider's web.
Then it occurred to me: I wasn't being played. I was being recruited. I gave myself a knowing smile and settled in for the sales pitch I knew was imminent.
I knew MLM well enough. During the months of interviewing after I graduated from college I had the opportunity to "interview" with a few MLM operations including a Saturday morning recruitment meeting. Even in 1997, I knew the fallacy of the MLM game and I asked many questions during the group meeting that Saturday. The conclusion I arrived at was that the only thing they were "selling" was managerial positions. That is, the goal of the managers was to recruit new managers and that's a pyramid scheme.
Approached by a fellow church member, Brian and his wife were given the opportunity to own a "business" that sold health and beauty products. Owning the business meant that they were required to buy a specified amount of inventory every month. That was their investment. The business offered high quality products at competitive prices. According to Brian, it was also secretly known that those products were superior to the ones offered by Johnson and Johnson and Proctor and Gamble. He went on to say that those companies spent millions of dollars annually trying to combat the MLM style of marketing because it was so successful. I continued to ask questions and eventually said, "Is this Amway?" He avoided the question and continued on to how the operation worked and then went into full recruitment mode. He explained how much money could be made and about the other people up-line from him who had made a fortune. Thankfully, our meeting with the client intervened, and I was off the hook for a short time.
When we got back to the car he continued with his sales pitch until we reached the next meeting. Later, over lunch, he revisited the subject again and kept up his onslaught all the way back to Midlothian. By that time, I think he recognized that his pitch was falling on deaf ears and that he wouldn't be successful with me. He dropped me at the office and I drove back to the hotel, relieved to be free from the recruitment.
My introduction to Brian was eye-opening. There was something about him that I didn't get. He was a nice person superficially but he was arrogant when it came to the MLM discussions. His condescension was grating, and I remember thinking that I must be missing something. I couldn't figure it out. He talked with the confidence and panache of a billionaire tycoon dispensing financial advice, but he was a marginally successful salesman driving a Dodge Colt.
In addition to the arrogance was the persistent nature of the MLM discussion. That was all he spoke about. Whenever I tried to move the subject along, it eventually returned to MLM. He didn't want to talk about anything else and he spoke feverishly. He was cult-like in his zeal.
Traveling with Brian was a learning experience and an exercise in restraint. I wanted to drill into him a few times during his tirades, but I thought that would be unprofessional and counter to what I was trying to accomplish from a work point of view. I didn't see it as a lesson at the time but it is one of the earliest travel memories I have of how people, no matter how strange, shaped my view of the world. I could not have disagreed with Brian more and I wanted to express that very clearly when I was with him. However, he, like many others, broadened my perspective and taught me a better way to approach the world.
On day two we headed west to Lynchburg, Virginia. I was spending the day with Jerry and we were visiting customers in the western part of the state. I had only met Jerry the day before, and despite the previous day's adventure with Brian, I looked forward to having some time to get to know him and see some of his customers. The drive to Lynchburg was longer than the previous day's ride so we had ample time to talk. Jerry was married with three children and I sensed immediately that he was a deeply religious man. Religion permeated all of his conversations, and he found every opportunity he could to bring the subject around to God.
I had the feeling early in our drive that I was about to undergo another round of recruitment and I wasn't looking forward to it. As we spoke further, I got a little bit more comfortable because I didn't feel that he was recruiting me, but it still made me uneasy. He was delving deeply into Biblical verses and New Testament passages. Even without the recruitment, I resisted any attempt at proselytizing, even in an indirect way.
During our drive back from the afternoon visits he spoke to me at length about his church and about all the things the Lord had blessed him with. He and his wife were deeply spiritual and tried to impart their faith to their children as well. They did not own a TV and they held daily Bible readings.
He explained all of the things that were wrong with the world and how religion was the solution. It was interesting that he made that particular point because as he rambled along with his sermon I was considering how much ill was caused by religious fervor and fanatics who are content in the knowledge that they are right and everyone outside of their belief system is wrong.
Despite my incongruity with Jerry's beliefs, I let him continue and listened quietly. Like Brian the day before, he spoke with conviction but with less fever. He talked calmly and devotedly, but almost as if he was in a mechanical trance and he recited passages by rote.
He continued in that fashion for much of our drive, at some point making reference to the validity of the teachings of Bishop Ussher, and that took the conversation in an entirely different direction.
In 1650, Bishop James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh in the Church of Ireland, published a work titled The Annals of the Old Testament. In this work, he calculated the moment of creation to the night before October 23, 4004 BCE. I was familiar with Ussher's famous chronology at that time and its unequivocal acceptance by many Christian fundamentalists. King James Bibles contained the chronology into the 1970s, and it was also admitted as evidence during the famous Scopes Monkey trial in 1925.
Jerry's reference to Bishop Ussher signaled that he was a serious fundamentalist and I definitely proceeded in the conversation with caution. I did not want to offend him, but I also didn't want to discuss religion any further. His belief in Bishop Ussher's teachings meant he did not believe in evolution or the true age of the Earth and, instead, took scripture to be literal and immutable and I knew that Jerry was not alone.
A Gallup poll in 2009 (just in time for Darwin's 200th birthday) found that only 39% of Americans believed in evolution, an alarming number compared with other industrialized nations—and a blatant refusal to hear any facts that contradicted faith.
In similar fashion, the Vatican famously banned Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Great Systems of the World, published in 1632, until 1822 because it discussed the heliocentric model of the solar system. It took until 1992 for the Vatican to apologize to Galileo for imprisoning him for heresy until his death in 1642. After he was forced to recant his belief in the heliocentric model before the Inquisition in 1633, Galileo allegedly (although it is almost certainly apocryphal) whispered, "Eppur si muove" ("And yet it moves," referring to the Earth's revolution around the Sun). And his response is an apt and a fitting rejoinder to the notion that faith supersedes scientific fact.
Even in the discussions surrounding the very origin of the universe, many scientists leave room for the presence of a divine entity. Recent scientific data have allowed physicists to see further back into the beginning of the universe than ever before, to just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang. But, as far back as scientists have gone, no one has yet answered the question of what started it all. So science often leaves room for God. But not so with religious fanatics who hold dogma as absolute and unassailable fact and claim the moral high ground, dismissing science and ostracizing people like Copernicus, Darwin, and Galileo.
Excerpted from The Horseman by Bart Reitter Copyright © 2011 by Bart Reitter. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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