October 29, 2007

Ode to Fred

I was desperate, working two part time jobs at just above minimum wage. My wife was pregnant with our first child. My college degree was not opening the doors of opportunity. Times were tough, I lost out one job because the other final candidate had nearly twenty years of experience. The early/mid eighties were hard times, economically. I saw the ad in the paper and zipped off a resume.

I am not sure why I was called for an interview. I was not qualified in any way to be a Quality Manager at an injection molding plant. It was clear to me ten minutes into the interview I was not qualified. For the plant manager, Fred, I am sure it was clear within two minutes. He spent considerable time talking to me anyway. Maybe he was looking for a respite from plant issues. As the discussions wrapped up he gently told me 'Thanks, but no thanks...lack of experience...blah, blah...' Dang, darn and double damn, I just had to get a real job. My wife was supporting us, thankfully she had good insurance.

I had nothing to lose at this point, and this guy had been very nice to me. I asked the question we have all wanted to ask. I said " Fred, I understand I am not qualified for this job. I agree I do not have the experience. I hear that all the time. Just how am I to get experience if no one will hire me?" Fred commiserated a bit, told me he got his start in the military and said I should keep trying, the right job would come around. I went home and circled more ads in the paper.

A few days later I got a call. It was Fred. He had a proposition for me. He had gone to corporate and got permission to create a position for me -- Management Trainee. He promised I would get experience. He said I would do a variety of work, running presses, driving a forklift, filing, scheduling, everything. He promised I would work hard, I might have to do shift work, and the pay would be low -- about the same hourly wage I was making at my part-time jobs. Taking that job remains today one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I did it all: every job in the plant except heavy maintenance and the plant manager's job. I ran presses, swept floors, did assembly, supervised every shift. I did payroll and served as the receptionist. Scheduling, inventory, driving a forklift were all in a day's work. There was no regular rotation. If someone was sick or needed a hand -- I was the man. I might run a press for a few hours. I would get called to the office and home I would go -- ready to be foreman for the second or third shift. I worked like a dog. Often I put in eighty hours a week. I would work twelve hours on Friday and come back to supervise the twelve hour weekend shifts we had hired. I would work from 3 am to 3 pm on Friday, return to work 12 am to 12 pm on Saturday and Sunday. Back to regular work at 7 am on Monday. Week after week. I learned about manufacturing. I watched Fred and learned how to manage people.

I cleaned the gutters at his house, washed his car and went to buy him concert tickets. I picked up his wife when her car broke down. I drove his daughter home from school when she missed the bus, all part of the training. And when Fred was promoted to the corporate office I drove his car to New York so it would not have to be shipped.

I was a valuable fill-in for the company. Given time, I might have had a bright future. Three years of working my ass off,and I now had experience. A recruiter called and I was offered a new job. The Company was not pleased, the President called to try and talk me into staying. The wage differential was just too much. Fred called and offered congratulations.

I have only seen him a few times since. He eventually moved back to Indiana. His slight drinking problem became a major drinking problem. He did some time in politics, a few stints as a plant manager. The last I heard he was running the street department in my home town.

Last week I got an email from a friend. She said that rumor has it Fred tried to kill himself. He was in the hospital. There was some shady dealings at the Street Department and Fred was implicated. The shame was too much.

Fred was one of the best three managers I have ever had. he taught me about manufacturing, about management and about people. Most of all he gave a wet behind the ears twenty-four year old kid a chance. Thank you, Fred. May God give you the strength to exercise your demons. You had a profound positive influence on my life.

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