Happy Saturday my friends. Last week, I told you about my mother getting her builder’s license and being one of the few women in the state to do so. When we left off with the story, I was a senior in HS, Dad had gone to California to work with his cockroach of a brother because the economy had puked on everyone in this part of the country. Mom had to once again turn to her former employer in her job hunt here. The job she found through that contact was selling home improvement.
This business works in one of two ways. One- A contractor does all of his/her own soliciting and selling. Two- A contractor hires other people to do it (is what it boils down to). The first, requires a builder’s license, the second does not. However, in the second case, a license must be involved somewhere. In both cases, there is money to be made if the business is handled properly. This job, for my mother, was option number two. She had the advantage in that she had a builder’s license so she wouldn’t have to have a general contractor to handle the jobs, she could do it herself. Not everyone in that office did. They were selling under the owner’s sales license. What the owner provided was office space, a phone room with solicitors, and client prospects. The owners price for that is a percentage, off of the sale price, of every job. In this case, it was 30%. The way it works is, the lead is provided, the salesperson sells the job, the owner takes his cut, everyone gets paid, and whatever is left, goes to the salesperson. In this case, that was mom. If the salesperson didn’t get enough to cover all the expenses, the job still had to be done, and the salesperson had to eat it if there wasn’t enough money. This owner wasn’t an ogre about that though. There were times, I’m sure he would take a less of a cut but only with his best salespeople.
This shop was definitely a man’s world, full of old time tin men. A tin man, in case you don’t know is a term from the 1950s and 1960s when everyone was putting aluminum siding on their houses. It’s quick work and fast money. That is the era many of these people came from. Mom was the new kid on the block as far as some of these people were concerned (even when she wasn’t the new kid) and horror of horrors, she was a woman. This didn’t make any difference to the owner mind you, as long as he was making money, she could have been a monkey with a tin cup and an organ grinder.
I had graduated from HS and had returned to California with dad to help with whatever he was doing out there. I also went hoping for an opportunity with Hughes Aircraft who a friend of my uncle’s worked for in personnel. I’ll hit you with the California experience some other time. Suffice it to say for now, I don’t think my mother ever cared for the idea. One- she didn’t want her husband so far away (not a trust issue, don’t go thinking that), Two- I don’t think she ever liked or trusted my uncle either and I would find out several years later, why she didn’t like him. You’re going to have to wait for that one.
During that summer she began to get herself established in this Tin Man’s world and began to become, the Tin Woman. Mom was always a soft sell. Either people wanted to do business with her or they didn’t. The owner of the company had a requirement or request if you will to ‘spike the job’. In Michigan, a home improvement customer has 3 days to back out of the contract unless work has begun. To Spike the job is to make sure, usually by beginning the required demolition before that 3 days expires. It gives the customer time to get other estimates among other things. Once work begins, regardless of time, the client is obligated to see it though. In most cases, this wasn’t really a problem. Many people will call for work and want it done right away anyway. In fact it wasn’t unusual for someone to call mom (later) a week before Thanksgiving and want a new kitchen installed by Turkey day. Depending on exactly what they wanted, sometimes she could do it, sometimes not. Anyway, there were a few in the office who were masters at spiking the job. Problem with that was, once the job was spiked, some took their sweet time getting it finished. This was a practice mom typically didn’t engage in. That isn’t to say she never spiked a job, dad and I did it a few times when we worked for her. However, the work always got done in a timely manner and it was unlikely the client could get a better price. Some of these salesmen were very good at what they did. They would even team up and in many cases, got 2 or 3 times what a job was actually worth. Problem with them was, they didn’t want to pay the bills when the contractors came looking for their money. While the boss handled all the bills, he wouldn’t disburse penny one beyond actual material cost without a completion statement from the sales people. Mom, was never that type of saleswoman.
The way this company worked, again, was the solicitors would make initial contact. If they said they would like an estimate for something a tentative appointment would be made. The salesperson would then set the appointment in stone for a time or day and it would go from there. These leads were divided up among the salespeople with no apparent rhyme or reason. That is, it wasn’t unusual for mom to put 200 miles per day running from one side of town to the other. In addition to the owner providing the leads, he also had bank as well as a pool of workers to draw from, If desired. That way, the bills always got paid and there were people to do the work. It was all on an as come basis with the workers however, they were independent contractors and most had to have a license in order to do the work, unless, they were working for mom who, had the builder’s license.
In a fair and balanced world, each person would have had a region to concentrate on. The way it Really was though, was the jobs the boss thought people could sell easily, were given to the men. Mom got most of the left over crap. This improved as mom proved herself but since the others in the company weren’t the only ones she had to prove herself with, it was always a march uphill. The Clients, some of which flat out refused to deal with a woman (usually Arabs), gave her no respect regardless of what she could show them with respect to being a building contractor. When she would be asked to train new sales people, usually men, the clients would direct their comments and questions to Them, rather than her. It was the nature of the beast and she had learned the hard way of how to play the game. What did she Do? Appealed to the Women. That’s right, regardless of what many men think in their homes, it is the Wife that runs the house. She didn’t treat either one differently but the house wives were thrilled to deal with her. She would tell them exactly what they would get, what it would cost, how it was going to happen, and when it would be done. If any issues came up along the way, she dealt with them. Through this, she gained the respect of not only the wives but also the husbands. She also built what turned out to be a very solid customer base. Many sales people in this business won’t even talk to you unless you’re willing to spend over a certain amount. There are costs to a job and those costs need to be covered and everyone involved has the right to earn a living. As long as everyone played by the rules, there was money to be made and enough to go around. By this time, the area was on an upswing in the economy and those who survived the early 1980s were making livable money. Mom had people calling her back as well as referring other people to her. That’s how you tell a straight shooter in this game. They called her back because even if the job was a $200 repair on something, she handled it, made her $20 on the ‘little’ job, and everyone went away happy. Many times, and this is what some of these old tin men types could never understand, that little job often turned into something much larger. Not the next day but perhaps the next year or two down the line. She replaced a slab of sidewalk for someone and from that contact alone, she eventually replaced 15-20 driveways in the same neighborhood. That’s what her customer base was made from.
In the early 1990s something happened that brought it all back to square one, almost. While mom as a new employee had to prove herself just like everyone else, she had done that. However, The boss dropped dead of a sudden heart attack while vacationing in Florida. I think he actually died on the golf course. Being Jewish, he had to be buried before the next sabbath so he was planted within 3 days, in Florida. He couldn’t even be brought back to Michigan. I guess he could have but for faith reasons he wasn’t. This left the business in limbo for a bit though things did continue. The owners son took over the business and brother, what a boob he was. I’m a big proponent of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Son changed up the way the operation ran and drove the business into the ground. Still demanding his 30% cut. Mom saw the writing on the wall and began to make her own moves. Since she was a general contractor already, she could write her own paper and didn’t need the ‘company’ for anything. This could be thought of as having a dry dock to jump to before abandoning ship. Let me tell you of a couple of the habits of this ‘son’. Instead of paying the bills and running the business, he spent his time in chat rooms and downloading porn. We’re talking still dialup times here when 56k was considered high speed internet access (even though the phone companies choked it to 30k unless you wanted to pay the big bucks for a T1 line). By 1995 this kid had run the business completely into the ground. Burned all the bridges that his father had built and since he was a privileged trust fund type, he didn’t give a shit. My father always hated that sniveling son of a bitch because of the way he treated my mother during this few years. You know, the woman in a man’s world type thing.
In 1995, dad helped mom set up her own office. He got the space, got the phone lines, furnature, etc. As the final FU to the former boss, he also took the company name. Turns out, the owner had never registered it or had let it lapse while downloading porn pictures. So, Dad took the name. Mom never used it as she had her own company paper by then but it was just a screw you to the old employer. Now, she can actually compete. She was the only one selling in her office. She had a secretary/solicitor working the phone (who I’ll tear apart next week), had her own financing options, and the whole bit. During her time at the former company she had made many lifetime customers just because of the way she treated them. They followed her, referrals and all, to Her company. These people in reality didn’t give a shit what company they were dealing with, as long as it was with her. With mom, it was money talks and bullshit walks but with a friendly soft sell. With her customers, it was here’s the money, let’s talk. There were always the assholes that didn’t want to do business with a woman of course. The poetic justice of that? Many of them often had to call her back because the jacklegs they hired, screwed them so bad that no one else would touch the job. What did she do? Charge them more than the original estimate because now she had to correct what someone else screwed up. There were also times that she would tell people how to do things. Give them a layout that would work for their kitchens and whatnot and they would take that info to someone else for a better price. Sometimes it worked for them, sometimes it didn’t but, it’s the nature of the beast.
I’m going to leave that here for the week. See you next time on The Saturday Special.