The first time I met him, I worried that he was a Richard Cory. I’m not sure what it was behind his open disposition and his ever scrutinizing eyes, but I worried about him. Funny to think of that now — that I worried. I did not even know the man. Yet, he was of that rare class who upon meeting anyone new seemed to drop every mask, every bit of armor, every stitch of clothing and invite one into his soul.
You see, I’m a salesman, and a terrible one at that. But Zeek Heymsworth is not. He is a messiah of sales. In meeting him, I realized something radical about sales and in writing about Zeek I learned something profound about life.
Since he had no office, we met at a cafe. I cannot now recall his first words to me. All that I do remember is being swept up in his charm. I always get very nervous before interviews. Perhaps this is why I was once told that I couldn’t sell water to a man dying of dehydration.
When I first spotted Zeek it was through the empty space between his table and the waitress bent over it as she listened to him tell a story. For a moment I worried that I was late. Looking at my watch I learned I was five minutes early — and that’s when I bumped into a customer. Both Zeek and the waitress stopped talking and gazed at me.
I walked over to his table as the waitress left. For some reason I immediately explained my situation to him. I told him without a hint of my normal bashfulness that I had been fired from my last sales position for not reaching my numbers.
“Numbers numbers numbers. The mediocre can only see numbers.” He told me, and I brightened. He continued and his voice chimed melodically in my ears, “john,” (for that is my name) “I would like to hire you. You’re a much better writer than I, and it is time I share with people exactly what it is I do.”
“And what is that?” I asked. I had been contemplating the job ad ever since I ran across it.
“I am a generator of clarity.”
“Oh.” I said, feigning comprehension.
He leaned in close. “What are you, John Dakota?”
“What am I? I’m a man?”
“Indeed I can see that. And then what are you?”
“Is that the case?”
“Well. I suppose at heart I’m a writer. It’s what I spend my free time doing, anyway.”
Zeek leaned back in the metal chair, “clarity my friend.”
Then, like a jack-in-the-box, he sprang to his feet. Before I knew it we both were outside the cafe and in the backseat of a rideshare.
“Never be late,” he said in reference to I know not what. After uttering this declaration, he sat silently. I thought he was brooding over something. His eyebrows scrunched together like an eagle’s. Then suddenly, in a start, he shut his eyes and steadied his breathing. He remained such for the remainder of the ride. When I looked at him I was not certain that he was awake. At least not until we were almost at our destination, for he whipped out a notebook and scribbled indecipherable scrawls all over the pages.
Exiting, I looked up to see in big gold lettering a sign that read “GRAINGER.”
“This is our client.” Zeek said.
He smiled and motioned me into the building.
A woman at the front desk sat slouching in a high executive chair in the main lobby. She immediately straightened her back and threw back her shoulders when she saw Zeek. I had not thought of it before, but he must be well-liked by the opposite sex. He certainly was well groomed with short cropped thick black hair, and, in defiance to the current trend, not a hair on his chin. Indeed, his strong lined jaw belied the audacity of any hair to be grown there. His eyes were green, but not like a tropical forest, more like freshly mowed grass. It must be his tall frame and his easy demeanor that called attention to him. He entered the building with such bundled energy that everyone around him seemed to have perked up. He walked with the grace of a grandmaster martial artist, and the confidence too.
“Hello! Can I help you?” The woman exhaled in one long breath.
“Hello there,” he smiled. “We’re looking for the operations department. I have a meeting with Dominick.”
“Oh nick is expecting you.”
“Nick? Thanks for the tip,” and with a wink he was gone.
“Just up the stairs and to the left,” she said, while watching his frame glide around the corner.
There had never been a word spoken as to what I was supposed to be doing there. If I felt awkward before, nothing prepared me for what was ahead.
We walked around until we saw a room made entirely of glass. It appeared as though someone had taken an enormous cookie cutter and sliced straight down into the building and left a perfect octagonal room. The rest of the building consisted of rows of cubicles and open office doors along the outside walls.
Zeek opened the double glass doors and was greeted by a young man in a suit too big for his frame. He appeared out of place, like a son at his father’s workplace.
Zeek, I quickly discovered, had an unquenchable desire to make everyone around him feel comfortable.
“Nick?” Zeek asked, knowing full well that this was not the President of Marketing.
“Oh no no!” The boy smiled. And Zeek had won his second ally in the building.
“I’m his assistant,” he continued. “You must be Zeek Heymsworth. Your work with ADP is legendary. I’ve been eager to meet you. ”
“Not as eager as I am to learn from you.”
Oddly, I knew that he meant it.
At this point it was five till two. I assumed the meeting would start at promptly two. I realized that I was expecting a meeting but that I had never been told about one. I’d spent so much of my life in meetings I could sense their looming presence.
Zeek was sitting on a stool to the left of the table. He scrutinized the room as if sizing up an opponent before a fight. Then he asked the assistant, “What’s your name?”
“Stacy, like the girls’ name.”
Zeek nodded. “Stacy, what’s on the other side of this building? Opposite the street?”
“Not much. A few benches in front of the building. And there’s a park a bit further down the way.”
“Busy here aren’t you? Never time for a stroll.”
“Nope.” he said almost proudly.
Just then a bull necked man entered the room. He had the stamp of ambition upon his forehead and a bearing of one who demands getting to the point.
Zeek walked right up to him and grabbed his hand. “Hello. I’m Zeek Heymsworth and this is my colleague John Dakota.”
“He’s not extra is he?”
“Only to me,” Zeek said.
“Following Nick were two other men in suits, and then a woman with dark hair and a blue skirt.
“This is my marketing team for this project. Craig. Buchard. Amy…
“I’ve heard about you Mr. Heymsworth,” Nick said. “I admit I’m a bit skeptical. Clarity creator seems a bit…”
“Vague?” Zeek added.
Nick broke out into a smile, which turned into a guffaw.
“Yes. That’s it.”
“Give me fifteen minutes, Nick, and if you’re not getting anything from my methods, I will exit and I will ask only for one small payment.”
Zeek entered into a reverie at this. I thought at first it was an apoplectic fit. It was the most off-putting and strange fit I had ever seen. He just stood there, motionless as a tree! I shifted several times in my seat, but not knowing what I was doing there I remained silent.
The tension rose and Craig wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead.
Finally, Nick sputtered out “well. We called you here to help us with a problem that no one else seems to think is a problem.”
As though a Rodin had come to life, Zeek nodded and indicated Nick to go on.
“At Grainger we supply Maintenance, Repair and Operations products, what’s called MRO products. We have tens of thousands of supplies, which we sell through our three major channels: Retail outlets, our website, and of course our famous Grainger catalogue. We are a seven billion dollar company and our profits are quite good…” He paused for a moment.
“But recently, in the past few years or so, we’ve noticed an alarming trend. Our customers have relegated us to their procurement departments. We now spend all our time haggling with clients over price.”
Zeek was pacing around the room now, then, abruptly, he stopped and faced Nick. “They are treating you purely transactionally, like going to a normal retail outlet. But you believe Grainger is more than a retail company like Target.”
“I imagine this can be ultimately bad for your customers, no?”
“For some companies, MRO spend can be in the tens of millions. Over years of tracking buying behavior, we have learned that our customers are spending their money inefficiently. We believe it’s costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions.”
“Who cares? They’re buying from you, right?”
Nick searched Zeek’s face for any hint of mockery. “We care. It’s bad business and if you must know, they don’t always buy from us when they spend inefficiently. Nevertheless, we have identified the problem as you have. Our customers think of us as a transactional part of their business. Need a hammer? Go to Grainger. Need a pump? Grainger. The problem for them is as worse or more then for us. They are buying products that just sit on their shelves in what we call ‘parts orphanage.’ Most are never utilized.”
Zeek stopped at the outside of the glass office, where he could see the park in the distance. “My time is almost up. I will leave you with this to contemplate. It sounds to me as though the core problem is not how your customers view Grainger, but how your customers view themselves. Specifically, how they view their own MRO spending.” And with that he walked up to Nick and with a smile held out his hand.
“Wait. wait. Explain yourself.”
“What is this a shakedown?”
“No. my fifteen minutes is up.”
“Ok you got me. I want to hear more.”
“Not here you won’t.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“If you want to continue,” Zeek said and he stretched out his arm to point to the park on the other side of some lonely benches, “we will continue there.”
Nick hesitated. His silver hair sparkled as the drooping sun cut through the glass room.
The moment we all entered the green verdure of the park, we ceased being client and customer and started being humans. Nick had left his jacket and now he removed his tie. Craig and Buchard followed suit.
Amy had completely altered. She had removed her heels and taken the pin from her hair. Her blue blouse fluttered to distraction.
Only Stacy had remained be-coated as well as beguiled.
Nick found a bench and sprawled out like a lion claiming his territory. Zeek obeyed by submitting the territory, but chose to stand casually while basking in the open air.
Suddenly he spoke. And as always his voice dripped like honey.
“Nick. It is my intent today to push you and your team beyond your limits. I like you. You have the proper conception of the purpose of doing sound business. And I like this team. You all have come this far in understanding what is happening to the marketplace today.”
He spoke slowly and with intent.
“You see, the market is changing because people are scared. Your customers are vastly more risk averse than they were before our most recent economic crash. In the past a single decision maker could confidently green-light a major purchase with no problems. Not too many people were burned. Too many people watched their colleagues lose their positions over purchasing decisions that went south with the downturn. What has replaced the old model is consensus purchasing and customization. An executive wants her entire team to be on-board just like you want Buchard, Amy, Craig and Stacy on-board with your marketing decisions. Purchasers expect that whatever they buy will be customized just for them. After all, we are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single deal.
“Then there’s the rise of third party consultants just like me. Your customers, too, have hired consultants. And it is the job of these consultants — or so they see it — to show your customers how to save money on every deal. This is how a consultant can justify their fee. So, while you are strategizing on how to charge more money in order to be treated like a strategic partner rather than a transactional garage sale, your customers are learning how to haggle for every dime.”
After he spoke, a bee buzzed by my ear. There was no one within sight of the park. The seven of us were motionless as we listened.
It was Amy who broke the silence. “That is exactly what we’ve been wanting to understand. But we’ve never been able to grasp it quite like that.”
“Do you think you can solve our little problem?” Nick asked eagerly.
“No? Are you turning us down?”
Zeek gazed intently at Nick and said “I do not solve problems, my friend, I clear the thrush so that you may solve them.”
At first what I had thought was a sign of timidity I discovered was a tendency of searching for certainty. Amy was no weak-willed lady. Her skirt moved up her leg a few inches above her knee, but she did not take notice enough to fix it. Instead, she stared directly into Zeek’s eyes and said, “you mentioned pushing us beyond our limits. Did you mean it or was that just a catchy phrase?”
Zeek paced for a moment. Then he stopped in front of Buchard.
“Why should your customers buy from you?” Zeek made it clear he was not talking to anyone else.
Buchard had a shaved head and a sloped jaw with a scratchy stubble. His eyes were brown and his smile came easily. In this moment, he scratched the back of his neck and then realizing what his hesitation indicated, he said, “People should buy from Grainger because we know our business.”
“What, no one else knows about mops and hammers and AC coils?”
Though he was standing, Buchard crossed his feet and leaned to one side, resembling a mangled pogo stick.
“Buchard,” Zeek said, “Why did you choose to work for Grainger?”
“The opportunity to work with a reputable company that I respected.” He said as if asked why he chose to follow a commander to war.
“Excellent. So one reason people do buy from you is your reputation. There is much to be said about reputation, and I know yours is well earned. The question is, should people buy from you just because of your reputation?”
Craig broke in. It was obvious from the way his eyes would shift over to Nick that he greatly respected his boss. “Reputation,” he started, “may be a large factor for people turning to us for large purchases of MRO products. For instance, when they make bulk purchases of mop heads or replace tools across their entire company. This is not our biggest area of concern. We are concerned when a part is required outside of their normal purchasing behavior. Let’s say a water heater in their office building breaks and our local store is out of the part they need. So, there is another carrier they call for these unplanned, emergency purchases.”
“Reputation will help our customers remember that they always buy from us at the beginning of the year, but it is in emergencies when they do not purchase from us and that is when they need us the most.” Amy chimed in.
Nick sat back patiently and watched his team work.
At a pause in the conversation, Zeek pushed, “Is there no one else with a reputation as strong as yours?”
“I’m not sure how to quantify that, but I believe there are competitors who have quite strong reps,” Buchard said.
“Again, why should anyone buy from you?”
Amy quickly added “we have an enormous array of convenient retail stores all over the country.”
“And no one else has that?”
“No. Others have that,” Craig confirmed.
As no one spoke for long moments, Nick said, “our product offering is immense. We’ve got it all.”
Rather than outright contradict his boss, Craig said, “I’ve heard it mentioned in our meetings that our tens of thousands of products can actually be overwhelming to customers.”
To his relief, Nick nodded in agreement.
“Also,” Amy added, “We’re not the only ones with a vast selection of MRO products.”
Zeek, now standing to the left of the group seemed intensely focused. His green eyes were bright in the afternoon sun.
There was a walking path around the park and at that moment a few ladies were taking an afternoon stroll. As they strode by, they attempted to mind their own business, yet could not resist a few glances at Zeek. He appeared particularly exotic in his black shoes with purple laces, v-neck shirt that clung tight to his sleek frame.
“Let us ask ourselves another question” Zeek said. “Grainger has a great reputation but so do our customers. You have competitive prices, though not the cheapest, you have conveniently placed stores, but you are not alone, you have a massive catalogue of products, as does the competition and the internet.
“Now we understand more about our own problem. What of the problems faced by our customers? So far we have discussed Grainger. We have come to say more clearly that the assumptions held about what makes Grainger successful were not fully complete. Let us seek to understand our customer’s problems now.”
It was impossible to detect if everyone was offended by the implication that they had not really understand their own company prior to Zeek’s arrival. Yet, the conversation that just ended belied any semblance of perceived clarity.
“Our customers don’t fully comprehend their own inefficiencies with MRO spend. Some of these guys spend tens of millions a year on maintaining their buildings, repairing broken machines, and everyday operations,” said Buchard like a man who had been contemplating this issue for months.
“Yeah,” Amy said, “It’s as you mentioned earlier. The issue is not so much how we view ourselves — though apparently there is much work to be done in that realm — the real issue is how our customers view MRO spend. They think about it as though it’s just a bunch of hammers and screwdrivers. But they don’t have our data. For years, we’ve been tracking tens of thousands of companies and how they buy MRO. They don’t realize that what they believed was a $17 dollar hammer was in fact a $117 hammer based on how they purchased the product.”
“As they treat Grainger like a purely transactional garage sale, so they treat their own MRO procurement like a messy garage,” Zeek concluded.
“Exactly,” Nick shouted. He too was becoming wrapped up in the discussion. “If companies would treat their MRO spend more strategically, they could save millions.”
“Elaborate.” Zeek demanded.
Nick stood up and paced along the center of their impromptu meeting room in the park. “Look at it this way. 40% of all MRO spend is done with what we call unplanned purchases. These are purchases done at the last minute, usually in response to some unforeseen need. The coil on an AC condenser goes out in your building, so you rush to get it fixed in the heat of summer. Those kind of repairs are not only unplanned, they’re infrequent. So when you make that purchase, you are only buying one rather than 50 and you have no leverage.
“Worse,” Craig said, “are all the associated costs. When that company needs a new coil, someone has to call a supplier to see if there is one available in the size they need. Since this is an emergency, they will need to send someone to pick it up now, rather than ordering it. Then they have to write up the paperwork, create an invoice, and then submit the paperwork for review and approval.”
Buchard added, “this is where a parts orphanage is created. Since this company is in an emergency for a coil, the purchaser will likely buy two or three of the same product in hopes of averting the crisis in the future. But the crisis never comes. Their AC system becomes obsolete in a few years, and requires complete system replacement. All those coils can no longer be used. So they just sit there in “Parts Orphanage.”
Zeek nodded along, “it seems that you have a profound insight to share with your customer. Assume you were them and you taught them to think different about their MRO spend. They now agree that they have a huge problem. What will they do next?”
“I suppose they can begin to adjust for those purchases by more carefully planning for unplanned purchases,” Amy said.
“That leads into our previous discussion. Why should anyone purchase from Grainger?” Zeek reiterated, by emphasizing “Grainger.”
Amy straightened. “Hey you know what? We aren’t the only ones with stores, we are not the only ones with a large selection, but we are the only ones with it all. Whatever a customer needs, whenever, or wherever, we can supply it.”
“Now that sounds like a tagline to me!” Nick said. Craig almost blushed.
“You have this profound insight — customers are wasting millions on unplanned purchases — and you can be the ones to supply it, but why should you be the ones?”
“Our deep expertise,” Buchard said. “We have so much data on exactly how these unplanned behaviors are happening. I mean, we could partner with our customers and… I don’t know, show them how to plan for the unplanned.”
“And that sounds like one hell of a sales pitch!.” Nick said.
“Now you can show customers how they are buying as well as how this is inefficient and then how to plan for it.”
“That’s what we call a slam dunk.” Nick added.
There was a new energy, as we made our way back to the glass cage. Amy was more the leader than I had suspected. She listened to the others with an intensity I rarely see in women. Then she would poke at an argument, prod a statement and tease out more insights. By the time the seven of us entered the building, they had a generalized outline for a possible pitch to customers.
Zeek’s silk shirt rustled slightly as he brushed past Amy and for the merest of moments her business like demeanor was shattered. Then as he walked up to Nick, it returned.
Zeek grabbed Nick’s hand. “It was a pleasure to work with such a phenomenal team. A team’s ability to be challenged is reflective of a leader’s capability of challenging. You built something special here.” With that, Zeek headed to the door. For a moment, I had forgotten that he was my boss and I should be following him.
As he opened the door, everyone stopped talking and turned as one. Zeek really was a gentleman from sole to crown. This was not the only reason he commanded such a presence before everyone he met. It was not merely his body that attracted.
“Zeek,” Nick said. “Will you send us a bill in person?”
“Oh,” Zeek said, “That was my free consultation.”
For the first time Amy brushed her skirt free of the wrinkles that had accumulated since she sat in the grass.
Zeek continued, “I will help guide you through the creation of your pitch. And I will add services to teach your sales reps to properly execute.”
“How much will that be?”
“A Lot.” Zeek smiled.
“Send us the proposal and let’s get to work.”
“You already have.”
And with that he was gone.
But I still stood awkwardly in the glass menagerie. Until, taking the hint from the silence
in the room, I bowed and left.
Bowed, Yes. I bowed!