Getting started in this new mall store was no different than any other store I took over. It all looked good at first, but once you started digging, you saw some things that weren’t right. I was assured I had a well-oiled machine on my hands, and it did look good on the surface, but there were some areas that needed work, so I dug in.
It was a pretty rough time for me. I was in a new town, far away from my closest friend or relative and had all new management above me, to whom I was an unknown, untested commodity.
Then I got some bad news from my old store… seems that some of my former employees were pilfering mass quantities of CDs from the store. The ringleader was a gregarious, glad-handing frat-boy type, and he got a couple more clerks in on it. That one really hurt, because he was my guy. He was one of the few guys that I felt I clicked with. We’d even gone out to see some blues shows together. Asshole… My old friend The Dragon Lady had succeeded me there and I felt horrible for leaving this steaming pile her lap. She deserved better.
It did make sense, in retrospect. I remember, not long before I began pursuing the New York job, I found a huge stash of CD cellophane wrappers stuffed under a stock bin in the back corner. The easiest way to defeat the alarm sticker, (back before they were placed inside the jewel case at the factory), was to unwrap the CD before taking it out of the store. I was so shocked and embarrassed at the find that I never told anyone. I just figured I’d get raked over when we got the results of the next physical inventory (where they determine losses.) But now I understood. There should have been no way that someone could unwrap and conceal that many CDs at once, without insider help.
So with that in mind, I couldn't really complain about anything I inherited at my new store.
The biggest change was the company politics. Because of our proximity to the home office, my store was the “guinea pig” for all new programs or displays. Sometimes I was told to come in early because the execs wanted to try out a new display system or design. I got to learn a lot about the office simply by watching the interplay.
It was especially interesting when the Big Boss, the founder and principle stockholder, attended. He was a real piece of work and was often very biting and sarcastic. It was then I realized how the whole company vibe worked. The Big Boss would upbraid his VPs, who would than berate the Regional Managers, who would dump on the District Managers, to in turn chew out the store Managers. It was the living example of shit rolling downhill. Everyone abuses the people below them until you get to my level at the bottom, where our only recourse was to drink heavily and curse our fate. (And hang out in strip clubs.)
Another problem was the plethora of people I had to answer to. Everyone that visited from the office seemed to feel like they could tell me what to do and how to do it. And spies were everywhere. It was bad enough to have to be on the lookout for the brass, but their wives and admins were also prone to stopping by and reporting back what they thought they saw.
It didn't matter what you were doing, how short-staffed you were or how busy things got… the only message that stuck was “I wasn't greeted when I came in.” It was maddening.
This was also the first time, during my tenure with the company, that I wasn't working for the original guy that hired me. The first DM in NY to whom I reported, was fine. We got along great. But then he quit within a month or two of my arrival. (No, I didn't have anything to do with it… I think he just got tired of getting shit on by his boss.) So they brought on a new DM from another industry; a woman, this time. (There were very few female DMs at the time; perhaps because they were too smart to take the job.)
She was given to me to train in the ways of our company. I showed her all of our systems and gave her a good grounding in what we were asked to do and how things got done. Still, it was weird when she started doing the job. I thought she was overly hard on me, more than she was with the other managers. I figured it might be because she knew that I knew more about running the stores than she did. We ended up butting heads on occasion, so it didn't surprise me when she bagged me on my annual evaluation.
She gave me a fair to middling evaluation, which was far below the level I was accustomed to earning. I know it’s hard when the evaluator changes, but I felt she should have taken prior evaluations into account. I certainly didn't become drastically less effective during the time period, yet if you went by my evaluation, it sure looked that way. I thought she was more concerned with looking like a tough, female manager than doing what was right by her people.
So after about a year, it didn't surprise me when they told me they wanted me to manage a different store out in the suburbs, one that needed a turnaround but was a far less visible or prestigious assignment. What could I say? I still needed the job and I still wanted to make the jump over the wall into the home office. I didn't like it but I was determined to show them that they were wrong about me.
There were some bumps… I had to shake up the staff a bit, as usual. But we brought the store around. Within a couple of months, we were actually making our sales projections. It was a little easier to operate without all the home office visitors getting in my way.
It was about that time that our company started piloting POS (point of sale) registers. We take them for granted now, but in 1991, it was a new thing to have a register system that would not only record the item price, but the title and quantity, and transmit it to the home office inventory system, which would in turn send you back another copy of that title. It also contained a crude emailing system, which would transmit messages from the office to the register and back. (It was years before the company ever moved to a stand-alone emailing system.) They piloted a handful of these registers and because of my strong background in store operations; they put one in mine.
I put the thing through its paces to see what it could do. I took copious notes and once a week, I got to attend a meeting at the office and report back to all the interested parties (from several departments.) This proved to be the “in” that I needed, as I could get some face time in front of the office people and drop some valuable observations and suggestions on how the register could be made better.
Through the course of these interactions, I learned that they were creating a job in the Merchandising Department that would be perfect for me. It was a position to monitor and reduce our stores’ use of One Stops (the independent record wholesalers that carry product from all record labels and would ship orders to any store by the following day). I had extensive experience in using the One Stops, so they must have figured I’d be good at trying to stop people from using them too much.
I interviewed with a couple of people and somehow or another, tricked them into hiring me. I think there was some resistance somewhere, but Dave, (my new boss and subject of my story about keeping one’s mouth shut under pressure) convinced everyone that I was the guy they needed.
So, roughly a year and a half after making the jump to New York, after getting bum rushed out of one store and succeeding in another, I was able to fulfill my goal of getting my first desk job and getting the hell out of a store. And I was finally able to say goodbye to freakin’ name tags!
My biggest problem now was how to dress. I was always so wary about making mistakes in my dress, like wearing colors that didn't “go together,” I tended to wear very plain colors, textures and patterns. Take ties, for example.
All of my ties were single color, so I didn't have to worry about stripes clashing with checks, and stuff like that. I had one single tie that had a few diagonal stripes; that was for when I wanted to go “bold.” But the stores were one thing; now I had to blend into an office.
Turned out, I spent way too much time worrying about it. Early in my time there, I saw my boss wearing a loud Mickey Mouse tie. That’s when I realized that I was totally over-thinking it. Everybody there seemed to revel in wearing bright, loud ties. So I dove in with both feet and spend the next several years buying the loudest, coolest ties I could find. I had ties with wild animals, dinosaurs, famous paintings, piano keys, guitars, and the Three Stooges. I still mean to do a post just about ties… maybe if I ever finish this story…
But next: in and out of office life.