Week 7. Even now, it is difficult for me to believe. Time is both racing ahead and dragging on in this surreal situation.
I packed up my stuff and left Iowa on Sunday to spend some time in our Kansas City apartment. It’s not that I can visit people, but this has been a welcome oasis for a guy who has spent most of the past 25 years traveling for work. I will be here through Friday when I’ll head home for the weekend. Just a small refresher on what life ‘used to be’ for me.
Some good news – R/B Sales finished ‘above plan’ for April. Like so many businesses, our management team met to discuss the constraints we felt were coming and adjust proactively. April 2020 certainly wasn’t a great month by typical standards – but we safely exceeded our target minimum based on this current reality. I’m trying not to look too closely at May just yet. Like I noted in last week’s reflections – Don’t worry, things will bounce back stronger than ever because that’s what we do in America.
Which gives me a nice segue to this week’s topic – looking back. I was having a discussion with a distributor branch manager where the question arose, “How did you get into the electrical industry?” He shared that he was hired into the industry ‘by accident’ as a recent college graduate and has spent 25 years looking for a way to get out! Followed, of course, but the obligatory chuckle. We agreed this industry is a great place to be. Then he asked if I fell into the industry on accident as well.
The year 1970 was big for my mom and dad. First, dad opened his electrical contracting business, Devereaux Electric, in Pocahontas, IA. Secondly, they became first-time parents when I was born. As a boy, my brother and I were introduced to the electrical industry early. In one of the attached pictures, you can see our Christmas vacation tradition: sitting on milk crates at a plywood table sorting electrical hardware. We spent several days sorting the excess inventory from each job so dad could use it on upcoming projects.
In some of the other pictures, you can see how I was involved with Devereaux Electric. What I associate the most with my dad is the farm-related work we conducted: putting up lights in a barn, wiring up a grain dryer or even a hog house. Especially memorable when helping a farm-related project were the times we would be invited by the farmer to share in the family meal as part of our payment. That memory reminds me of a few important facts: I never did enjoy using the tools, I always enjoyed the people, and that you can still find that rural Midwest hospitality of the 80s alive today.
Even though school was never really my thing, I felt my parents wanted me to get a degree. I applied for work study in the theater department during my sophomore year of college. My background was quickly discovered when they could see I knew the proper way to screw in a lightbulb. From there, it was a quick descent towards a degree in theatrical lighting. However, that meant telling my dad that I was changing my degree from elementary education to (gulp) theater. I was a hot mess with how he would react, but eventually I spit the words out. After an eternity of waiting, he looked at me instead of the newspaper and said, “Just go get that piece of paper. I don’t care what it says as long as you are happy because I believe that one day you’ll be a salesman selling something to someone.”
I earned my degree in 1994 and I was headed to graduate school with full ride scholarship to get my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) from either USC or UCLA as a lighting designer. But it didn’t feel right. Again, I talked to my parents. That’s when dad told me about a college friend of mine – who had majored in physical education – who was now working for an electrical distributor in western Iowa. That set the path toward the electrical industry and I’ve never looked back.
As I was mailing out my resume, one destination was a manufacturers’ representative called R/B Sales. And it became my first job offer. After 10 months, I was sure there were greener pastures, and I moved to electrical distribution with a new opportunity. That job, also, proved not to last.
Searching for a new landing spot again landed me in an interview with Frank Hurtte (mentioned in last week’s letter.) Frank asked me what I thought about a 40-hour work week. It was truly one of the most interesting and unique questions ever posed to me in an interview. But I also didn’t hesitate to answer. “Where I’m from, a 40-hour week isn’t bad for Wednesday night.”
As a final anecdote, I will reference my work as a coach for high school Business Professionals of America contests (also known as BPA.) One student asked me, “What’s the best thing you learned from your parents?” After a short thought, I replied, “The greatest thing my parents gave my brother, my sister and me is a strong worth ethic. Any success I’ve had is due more to that than to any unique skill I could possess.” I don’t know if anything they ever said could have taught me as much as they demonstrated with how they lived their work. Honestly, intently, purposefully.
As I’ve indicated, the attached pictures are from my past as a child and young man. A childhood based in this industry. Some would say looking back is a sign of maturity. Others would say it is a mark of age. Frankly, it is usually both! I have looked back reverently on the process and the people that brought me where I am today. And I am thankful and happy to be in the electrical industry. Electricity is a growing, thriving, changing industry! Never forget, though, that more than any product or project, the people have always been what makes this industry so special.
Someday in the future we will look back on this pandemic and regale others with our unique experiences. We will look back on the worry and the waiting. We will look back on the losses and struggles. And we will think how we allowed this time to change us. But not yet. We are still in the moment and we must remain resilient to new requirements and restraints put upon us for the good of others. All of this is slowly and surely giving us new opportunities for growth – just like a boy sorting electrical parts with his butt parked on a milk crate.