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Is It the Journey, or the Destination?

March 3, 2016
Kim Tran, an American Success Story

Les had nothing on me.

My first job out of college was to work for AC Forms.  My Dad owned AC. He was the only full-time employee.   Business was good.  My dad was looking for help. I joined my Dad and his company, AC Forms as a sales rep in 1974. We were a force of two.  My Mom was the part time administrative support person and the mother of six.   I was the future.

It was a shaky start.  My job was to get new business.  I used the phone to solicit appointments.  I can remember my voice quaked and my message was ill-prepared.  After exhausting all legitimate leads I had by phone, I hit the road.

My first cold call, “cold “being the vernacular was for an unsolicited visit on an unsuspecting business to make a sales pitch.  That’s right. I am the reason you have the “No Solicitors” sign on our door! I have to admit there were days I could not face the next day ahead without becoming physically ill, cramps and vomiting, anticipating the rejection that inevitably lay ahead.

For better or worse, most of the businesses I “solicited” on the south side of Chicago, were unaccustomed to a 21 year old young man in a polyester suit and a “pleather” briefcase showing up at their door.  My first “sales call” and I use the term loosely, required considerable surveillance.  I drove around the block several times.  In the end, it was a relief to just to be dismissed.  To hear a simple “no thanks” was a victory, of sort.  I had broken the sound barrier.  I had made contact with the other side.

Soon, I was making 20 cold calls in a day.  Thankfully gas was 30 cents a gallon!  My father would get a call from someone I had visited and he would say, “Yes, that’s my son, he’s like manure, he’s spread all over the place.”  The message was loud and clear, I needed to take my presentation to the next level.

I needed to convince my prospects I wasn’t just another pretty face in plaid polyester.  My contacts were bewildered, annoyed, amused, indifferent or thankfully, on rare occasion, sympathetic to my pitch. I became accustomed to the word “no”.  I managed to solicit a cadre of variations on the theme to the extent I began to expect and anticipate the response.  I learned to take a “no” and solicit another.  As my skin thickened and the manure piled higher, I was able to garner a “maybe” here and there and occasionally a yes!  It was the “ying and the yang” thing, “Yes meant No” to the extent a Tibetan monk would have been proud.

Later, as a Regional Director at NCR Corp. at the sage age of 28 years, I managed more than 70 neophyte sales reps in 10 states. I became well known for the expression, “lose more orders”.  My mantra was the more orders you lose, the more opportunities you have to win.

Anyway, my dad fired me. I knew I was in trouble when I arrived at the house for breakfast one fine morning. Mom had made me blueberry pancakes. My favorite. My dad stated the obvious. I needed more experience. I was devastated.  I left town to seek employment near my fiancé, Terri in Racine, WI.  I stayed with the In-laws while looking for work.  I painted their house for $70 bucks, but I painted their windows shut, so we were even.  I found a job right before I was evicted.

NCR Corp. hired me because I willed them to do so.  Short of holding a gun to the head of my soon to be boss, Marshall, I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  Sound familiar? I had learned my lesson well, working for AC Forms and my Dad.  I needed that job and no other job would suffice.  I was 22.

Marshall, bless him, after 3 interviews and visits from his boss, the Regional Director and National Sales Manager, hired me at $157 per week.  I later learned my fellow sales reps were making a require minimum wage of $181 per week.  Marshall joked that I was a “minority hire” meaning I was unmarried and under their minimum age of 25.

At NCR Corp. at the ripe old age of 22, I went to my first sales trainee school in Dayton, OH.  This real gorilla of a man with a deep raspy voice and barrel chested came to our first day of training. He was towering over me. I was seated in the first row. Staring down at me, he decided to make an example of me.  He singled me out because I had broken my toe playing flag football with other trainees on the Sunday prior to class (I wasn’t wearing a shoe) in class. He said we weren’t there to enjoy ourselves.  He proceeded to tell us, if we left the company, “it would be like sticking your hand in a bucket of water and pulling my hand out. That’s how much I’d be missed.”

In any case, I think they discerned I was resilient enough to take on a sales territory no one else wanted and gave one to me, Waukesha County.  Waukesha County was a vast wasteland, a geographic no man’s wasteland for NCR.

I began to spread manure across the land. In so doing. I was able to plant the seeds for sales and Waukesha County became fruitful and multiplied.

In typical corporate comp. sales plan and design, in less than 18 months they turned us into specialists and split my territory into vertical markets.  My sales went vertical, as the new MEG salesperson (Medical, Educational and Government), another vast wasteland in NCR’s quadrant of markets.

Not to be denied, I began to call on IBM, Sperry-Univac, and Burroughs customers.  I learned to sell systems and designed sophisticated paper-flow systems. My prospective customers’ had a hard time saying no to someone who had learned to ignore the word.

My favorite sale was to WCTI, Waukesha County Technical Institute, a Burroughs customer.  I think the purchasing agent took pity on me. I called for an appointment and his secretary kept saying she would leave him a message. No response.

So I went there. I waited, for a break in between his appointments.  I was given five minutes.  A half-hour later, I was given a chance to quote on his purchase order forms.  He was having trouble with the design and the computer generated impression through four copies.  I redesigned and redesigned and tested and retested impressions and finally I was given the go ahead.

It was then I heard a resounding “NO”.  Alas, the purchasing manager had a boss and the boss ran the IT department. He wouldn’t allow a NCR forms into his Burroughs shop.  Fancy that.

I called him and left him messages, twice a day.  He finally called me back after a week to yell at me for annoying him.  He said his schedule was impossible and his rules were his rules – no NCR forms in his Burroughs shop.

I said he had to eat and asked him to lunch.  He said he ran 7 miles every day at lunch time.  I said I’d run with him.  After a 30 second pause in the conversation, he said OK but there was still no way he would order the forms from me.

I showed up at his office in some nasty sweats and sneakers with paint all over them (from painting my In-laws house).  A bunch of people in his outer office twittered and giggled.  I sweated the next 15 minutes.  He finally came out all smiles and kept saying “I can’t believe this guy!”

I was shuffled off to the locker room.  There were the seven guys who ran together.  They were like a pack of greyhounds.  I was the mutt.  After two miles he took pity on me and told me to go back and meet him in the cafeteria at 2 PM.  I walked back.  I was still in my nasty sweats and house-painted sneakers.  He gave me the order.

WCTI NCR Days begging for an order

WCTI NCR Days begging for an order.

Solidly entrenched in my job at NCR, I became engaged to Terri, now my wife of 40 years.  Terri’s Mom cried, but things were looking up for me.  The prettiest girl in Racine, WI was going to marry the mutt and business was good, what to do with me next?  Back to big corporate planning. As soon as you make it, they shake it. I was transferred, a promotion of sorts, to Wausau, WI, with a territorial radius of 200+ miles.

When the in-laws heard the good news, my fiancé’s parents, Al and Mary Jane started a direct marketing campaign directed towards contacting all her x-boyfriends. They stopped young men in the streets and solicited anyone in pants and past the age of puberty to date their daughter, all to no avail.  I exaggerate, a little.  Terri cried for six months and wore out the pavement between our small apartment in the beautiful Wausau suburb of Schofield, WI and Racine, her previous home of 23 blissful years.

My new boss, Clarence was in Green Bay, WI.  It was tough going at first, I being a Chicago Bears fan.  Whatta ya gonna do?  I became a cheesehead.

I continued the unorthodox sales approach of systems selling to NCR’s competitors. After two years and thousands of miles of travel across the northern tundra of WI, from Antigo to Medford, from Land O’ Lakes to Marshfield, I spread the wealth or manure, as Dad would say, successfully for two years, but it was time to shake it. Another a new corporate strategy.  They sent me “packing back to Milwaukee, to replace none other than my former boss, Marshall.

This was fun.  Here, out of desperation, I learned fortitude and a measure of wisdom.  At the ripe old age of 25, my youngest sales rep was almost twice my age. Most of my sales reps had helped me find the washroom when I first started their 3 ½ years prior.  They were order-takers, I needed order-makers to survive, but you can’t fire your former co-workers, the Aunt Mitzi’s and Uncle Larry’s.

There were days when the knot in my neck was replaced by a knot in my forehead, this from pounding it into the top of my desk.  I didn’t fire my aunts and uncles.  Instead, I used a page out of the corporate handbook and got a couple of them transferred.  I started recruiting new salespeople from the University of Wisconsin.  They came from Madison, Milwaukee and Whitewater.  They started spreading manure successfully around their territories, just like me.

Soon thereafter, Terri’s parent bought us a lot just a stone’s throw from Racine, to keep their family close and to keep me grounded.  A good plan, but only as good as its execution (a phrase that I coined myself).  We built a house.  My father-in-law was the contractor.  I was carrying 80 lb bales of shingles up 40 feet of ladder onto the roof Thanksgiving Day.  It was snowing. I didn’t see the Bears beat the Lions.

My entire family showed up one weekend from Chicago, bless them mightily and we all insulated. I feel like itching every time I think about it. Thanks to brother-in-law Uncle Bob, too.  He was the electrician.  He called me Vern. More about Vern later. I pulled wire.

The siding was rough cedar. It looked great au naturel.  Terri liked yellow.  So I painted and painted and painted.  An oil-based primer and two coats.  It was a two-story salt box New England style house. It looked like a barn, sans the goats, perfect for Franksville, WI.  I was often hanging from a ladder 40 ft. in the air or sitting on a pitch of the roof, holding onto a bucket, a brush and my family jewels. Somehow.  Thank God for my new sneakers, which were painted with an oil based primer and two coats.   It was cold.  It rained, it snowed.  So occasionally, I was allowed to come inside.

I wall-papered, I tiled, I stained, I varnished.  Then you mess up the varnish with steel wool and varnish again.  It adds luster.  There was lots of luster around our house.  I painted ceilings, walls, molding and floor boards, a primer then 2 coats.  I hate windows and doors, especially anything louvered.  We had 27 of them.  I didn’t paint them shut. I’m not sure I’m counting closets.  Closets and louver go together you know.  Inside and outside windows and doors and all the molding, twenty frigging 7 of them.

Spring sprung so I went back outside.  I dug trenches for a sprinkler system.  Uncle Bob was again the chief engineer on this project.  I was his faithful servant, Vern.  The real Vern was a mason who laid cement for the porch and sidewalk outside Uncle Bob’s house.  Vern couldn’t help stepping into the wet cement and left his footprints there time and time again.  So I inherited the nickname Vern because I stepped in it…I might have made a mistake here and there, but in my mind it was by marrying into the family.  I kid you, of course.

So I seeded, I spread hay, I planted trees and bushes.  I spread manure. I was good at it.

This was my nights and weekends.  At the same time, I was commuting to the north side of Milwaukee early every morning.  The new boss can’t be late. Only tired.

Once the house was done there was nothing to do so theiIn-laws and Aunt Chris pushed Uncle Bob to start a business in his basement.  Terri and I each owned an equal share and we were going to be rich!

Paybacks are a bitch.  Uncle Bob wired my house and put in a sprinkler system so I spent nights and weekends in his basement for over a year wire-wrapping circuit boards.  It was there I believe the first spore of black mold was spawned.  It formed on my teeth.

We had a small black and white TV down there.  Aunt Chris let us watch football, but only during the commercials.  The Bears beat the Packers, I’d read about it in the paper the next day, on the floor below another coat of varnish.  At the same time, I was commuting to the north side of Milwaukee early every morning.  The new boss can’t be late. Only really, really tired.

The best laid plans of mice, men and in-laws fell apart.  Uncle Bob’s business never really materialized and I was transferred by NCR to Minneapolis, MN, as a Regional Director.  I left the shadow of Vern behind.  So that Terri wouldn’t divorce me, we rented the home we had built in Racine, WI, then rented a small duplex in Bloomington, MN.  Terri cried for six months. We had a newborn baby girl, Stacy.  For no good reason, her dad developed cancer and died.  I never knew how hard it was for her.  I was on a plane for 12 months.  I have made fun, that Al was a slave driver, but he was really a great guy, who left a big hole in Terri’s life and for that matter all of those who were close to him.

As a Regional Director, I was in charge of 10 District Sales Managers, some of who were the likes of Aunt Mitzi’s and Uncle Larry’s. We had 70 sales reps in 7 states.  Now I knew the meaning of what goes around comes around.  I went around training each one of them how to lose more orders. Soon and par for the course,  I was getting job offers from the HQ.  Instead, I decided I needed to reintroduce myself to my wife and newborn daughter. I quit.

After eight years at NCR Corp., in 1983, I joined North American Financial Services (NAFS) as President and CEO of North American Business Supply, (NABS) a subsidiary with 2 employees and $80K in annual revenues.   Life, all of a sudden, got really, really hard.

We had to move to Davenport, IA, NAFS HQ.  It was NABS. I learned to deal with severely limited financial resources. No more Holiday Inns. Welcome to Motel 6.  We are talking used furniture, used office equipment and my office had two desks, one for me and one for my “employee”.

There was no room, so we faced each other like on the show Homicide, where the detectives shared a phone and a coffee cup.  At NAFS, if it was good enough for the goose (collectively, the owners – so geese); it was good enough for the gander (collectively, the employees – so ganders).  That meant long hours, low pay and a nagging lack of resources to get the job done.

Terri and I rented a house across from a cemetery.  Our house was popular on Halloween.  Terri cried for six months.  I was in simply in the state of culture shock.  I went from a Fortune 100 Corp. to an Unfortunate 500 privately held company.  I was trying to meet my responsibilities to family, but took on a job for less money and more risk.  What was the upside?  I made deal, if they liked what I was doing, I could move my end of the business to Racine, WI.  They did and we did.  What a coup!  We were back in Racine, WI!  I cried for six months.

I think some of the ghosts from the cemetery came with us.  The in-laws asked me again to paint their house.  I had since bought new sneakers.  I said no.  We moved back into our house in Franksville, our home once again.  Our second daughter, Alexis was born in January, 1984.  I painted our house, again.  Then I bought Nikes.

At NABS, it wasn’t just about “getting your fingernails dirty”. For lack of furniture, I remember nights, 2-3 AM, on my knees on the floor sorting invoices to be mailed the next day to customers.  In the early days many nights were spent, entering orders, packing goods for shipping and billing.  Then it was, write the checks, balance the books and start the cycle all over again.  Days were spent selling, so I could create more after hour’s paperwork.

Moving the business to Racine, I had rented a loft in a “business incubator”.  It was called the Racine Industrial Park (R.I.P). because many businesses died there.  It had no office resources to speak of, only a cafeteria we nicknamed the “Choke and Puke”.  The real name was “The Cafeteria.”  We splurged on Fridays and walked 2 blocks to the DQ for a Coney Dog and fries.

RIP was a place full of small businesses with limited resources but anchored by one relatively large business, that owned the building.  They made carpet cleaner that smelled like the puke they used to clean-up.  Or maybe I just associated the smell to my days in college when I would sometimes wake up to the smell.  The building was ancient.  The space I rented had wood floors, stained by years of machine oil and dirt.  Guess what? I sanded, I stained, I varnished and behold I had an office boutique that Google would die for, all for $4 per sq. ft. in the beautiful south-side Racine.

Kay, my youngest of sisters and Uncle Bob joined me at NABS. I also recruited employees from University of South Florida, including a young, sharp sales rep, Abby.

It was at NABS where I learned to deal with the financial services business, working with 10 NAFS subsidiaries, who processed the core business for banks. In the corresponding 5 years, with the revolution and evolution of the PC from the CPM/80 operating systems and 64K RAM, to the 386 processor and client-server; multi-user environment NABS grew to 17 employees and $3.5M in revenues.  We successfully delivered business forms, supplies, PCs, peripherals and terminal emulation software.  So naturally, what happened?  We were transferred!  The whole business, lock, stock and barrel, moved to St. Petersburg, FL. Before we moved to Florida with NABS, I bought the lot! I had the house built while we were still living in Racine.  No need for new sneakers!

Then the hammer dropped. One unique trait I have or had possessed at the time, was an unabashed sense of fair play.  If someone was to “wrong me” or I was to “wrong them”, I would expect to receive or give a sincere apology.  In this case, I was hearing for the first time, along with the other division presidents, my salary was to be cut in half.

What wasn’t stacking up as far as I was concerned was the equivity (this should be a word, so I’m inventing it because the word equity doesn’t cut it) of such a decision. Since there were others in the room, most others, making 30-50% more than I was making, and were contributing greatly to the problem at hand, there was no equivity. Even more disconcerting, my subsidiary, NABS was making money.

What not to do. My subsidiary had cash in the bank and a healthy business. Unfortunately, I was a minority stock holder in my business and I had no capital, so to speak up regarding the decisions that were made or were to be made were less than appreciated.

In addition, I wasn’t the guy in charge.  The guy in charge had far less at stake, granted he might have to sell his 4-5 quarter horses or cut back on his gambling habits.  Oh!  By the way, never suggest to the CFO of the company, that hates you, that he made some bad decisions or that the CEO needed to make some drastic cuts in his other cash draining ventures, before they cut my salary in half.  Better to stay quiet.

At least not before you have a new source of income equal or greater than one-half your currently proposed salary.  That is unless you have that unabashed sense of fair play and a really good back-up plan.  I was on the short end of the stick on the latter.

Lesson learned for a subsidiary. Being a source of cash, accounts receivable and inventory is a good thing when you are paying your suppliers.  It isn’t a good thing for you if your owners drain your cash, collect your accounts receivable, sell your inventory and leave your suppliers hanging unless the plan for you is to go out of business.  Once I was out of the way, they did just that.  My subsidiary, my company of five years and 17 employees was gone within 12 months.

I learned you can’t go to a board meeting of a company you don’t own or demonstrate a great deal of influence by speaking up on your subsidiary’s behalf, let alone on the behalf of others who should have, could have, but never would have, because they were either so much smarter than myself or cowards (probably both). In fact, a few days later I was fired.  I wonder, would I have felt half as bad at half the salary?

In fact, my most endearing quality at the time was ignorance.  Today I’m not sure I have any endearing qualities, although the quality of ignorance remains. As I get older, it hs become a less a dominating factor in my life..  The expression, “ignorance is bliss” is accurate to the point when the former expression meets another, which is “reality sinks or sets in”.

I remember one of the board members, who at the time made twice my salary, came out of the meeting, walk up to me and say, “Wiessner, you just shot yourself in the foot”.

I met the same individual on the sidelines of a soccer field several years later, each of us there to watch our daughter’s play and he said, he wished he had taken the same stand I had taken concerning the way the business was run and about the salary cuts. I noticed his sneakers had paint on them and yes, I made that up.

In the end, NABS, with a healthy cash position, was yet an ancillary and non-essential business, fell victim to NAFS, a cash-strapped and failing core business in 1987.  Again, what goes around comes around.  NAFS filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the early 1990’s.

Life, all of a sudden, got really, really, really tough.

Integra Business Systems, Inc. was born March, 07, 1988.  Looking back, it was, the most frightening, yet most enjoyable year, I had experienced personally and professionally for some time.  Funny, since I was unemployed and unemployable.

When I look back on how I survived and managed to squeak out a living those first few years, I have to say it had to do with integrity.  Hence the name Integra, a.k.a., integrity and integration, a convenient companion to how I was feeling at the time. There was a lack of both in the business. I don’t want you to think I’m bragging.  I have never done anything heroic or to be famous.  I have made sacrifices, but nothing in the same class of a policeman, fireman or soldier.  Tongue in cheek, I must have potential.  Maybe in a next life?

My experience at NCR and even NABS became invaluable, learning to make something from nothing at all; learning to trust my own instincts, even in the face of overwhelming opposition, well certainly worthy opposition.

One of the important things I have learned after 35 years in this business is “don’t burn bridges”.  Often times the organization you dislike the most is composed of people you might like the most.

Many of my business associates from my NCR and NABS days kept the faith and helped me build a line of products and services when I eventually formed Integra Business Systems, Inc.

So this is the grass roots story of Integra Business Systems, Inc..  For more than a year, my corporate headquarter occupied the guest bedroom in the same house we own today.

I had to liquidate all my savings, including my stocks, annuities; then borrow from friends and family to make ends meet.  I borrowed from credit cards, transferred funds from one card to the next, working the low percentage offers, playing a shell game with credit cards.  Yet, I never defaulted on a credit card or a loan.

It was the trappings.  I understand the word trappings more than most.  We came to Florida with a job filled with hope and got side-swiped.  It was a very stressful time for us as a family, as we worked hard to maintain the lifestyle for which we had become accustomed.

I sold NCR PCs and RAM when you could still squeak out a living.  I was able to buy RAM and resell it to a South American company and others for significant margins.  I had no idea I had become a commodities broker, only to realize what commodities brokers do.

Excluding the steady migration of family and friends from the frigid north, Integra had many visitors that first year.  Terri was none too happy about my new clientele. Thank Goodness Trump wasn’t President! They were Columbians and Ecuadorians and it was a must do cash business. I didn’t want to chase after my money. Rumor has it, they have a lot of problems with skin cancer.

Ted was my first employee, my sales guy.  What can I say about Ted?  He tried. One of the nicest guys on the planet.  I’m not a believer in the expression “nice guys finish last”, but in Ted’s case, at that time in his life, it was true.  He had baggage. I had no room at the inn.  He had to go.

Kay, rejoined me a year after the business started.  She became the inside salesperson, purchasing agent and helped me with invoicing, billing and collections. We turned to software to make a living and sold terminal emulation software with the PCs.  The software came from an English company. We called it VIEWNCR.

Uncle Bob built special serial cards called daisy chain boards, that were required to communicate with the software.  This was fortunate for us because South American companies had no qualms about copying software. It took the SA companies some time to dupe the boards, so we made money while the sun shined, especially on the equator.

Some landmarks. Abby left NABS/NAFS soon after I did, but came on board with Integra in 1991. Uncle Bob joined us in 1996.  We sold document origination software and then optical disk archival software, a business we built upon and we are still in today. We were still a business on the edge, full of ups and downs but we managed to be successful enough to survive.  Oddly enough, we turned the corner with the turn of the century.  In 2004 we acquired Tampa Bay Systems.

Today we are a successful and legitimate contender to any ECM vendor in business today. We are a market leader in web based enterprise document management business.

I sometimes ask myself, why are we still here? It’s because I always knew it was about you. My customers, my partners and my employees came first. I’m still learning when to say “no.” Still, I learned never to make make promises I couldn’t keep.  Life was simpler when I could say over the phone, “Your order for 64 MB RAM will be here by next Tuesday.  Meet me in my living room, take off your shoes.  Bring cash”.  Hard to believe, but sometimes I miss those days. So is it the journey or the destination?

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