The Iron Furnace
Don’t you agree it is odd how bad days can begin with blue skies and bright sunshine, not giving a hint of what will befall us later in the day?
On that Monday morning, I felt rejuvenated and ready to start my new career at Maxi Toyota. Rental furniture, a Mr. Coffee pot, toaster, groceries, and a few sundries decked out my one-bedroom apartment to look just like what it was – a bachelor’s pad. Other items would be added later.
Although the starting time for the class was 10 AM, I walked over to the dealership an hour early. It seemed like a waste of time to sit in front of my laptop when my mind wandered elsewhere.
As I walked in the door, a bronze-skinned man wearing a yellow Toyota golf shirt greeted me.
“Hi, newbie, my name is Levi Lopez.”
He stuck out his hand and I shook it.
“My name is Luke. How’d you know I was a new salesman?”
“A white shirt, blue tie, tan slacks, and a naive look on a face can mean only one thing around here – a newbie,” he said with a smile. “Follow me for a cup of fresh coffee. It’s the only free thing you will ever receive around here.”
I followed him through the car-filled showroom, down a picture lined hallway to a small cafeteria. He stopped in front of two coffee pots sitting on warmers.
“Help yourself to regular or decaf.”
I poured a cup and he did the same. He led me over to a round table and we sat down on white plastic chairs.
Both of us shared some basic tidbits of information about our backgrounds before I guided the conversation in a different direction.
“Levi, how long have you worked at Maxi Toyota?”
“Have you sold many cars?”
“On an average, fourteen vehicle sales per month which works out to about $5,000 in commissions and bonuses each month.”
“Not bad. It sounds like you like it here.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders.
“It’s not a bad place although the owner, Mr. Maxi, thinks all of us salesmen are worthless pieces of crap.”
“What? You’re joking with me, right?”
“No, it’s the truth.”
“Okay,” I said, “tell me about it. If I’m going to work here, I need to know the good, bad, and ugly about the place.”
After looking around first, Levi leaned across the table. His dark eyes looked down for a moment before he began by saying it happened six years earlier on a Saturday afternoon. A big Labor Day ad had lured hundreds of prospective customers to the dealership, swamping the sales staff.
“I had a tough customer who wanted a platinum colored Land Cruiser. We negotiated back and forth, but no matter what sales tactic I tried, he wanted to pay $2,000 under my best price. The frustration caused him to stand up and prepare to leave. I motioned for him to sit down while I summoned a decision maker. The man listened and sat back down.”
Levi explained that when he went to the sales desk, he discovered all of the sales managers were busy on the floor, trying to close deals with other sales people. Somehow, the owner, Mr. Maxi, overheard the conversation and said he would close the deal for Levi.
Maxi took a moment to check the costs and trade-in figures on the computer. He wrote something on the back of his name card and came around the front of the desk. The two headed for Levi’s office.
“Mr. Maxi looked like an English bulldog with his jaw set, ready to gnaw on the customer’s leg.”
Levi introduced Maxi to his customer and the two shook hands. Maxi sat down in Levi’s chair behind the desk while Levi stood off to the side. The two exchanged a few pleasantries and then Maxi flipped the name card over. It had a number written on the back.
“There it is,” said Maxi, “my take-it or leave-it bottom dollar price, good only for the next five minutes.”
The customer picked up the card and whistled.
“Sir, would you allow the few dollars difference between your offer and mine stand in the way of this fine salesman earning a commission today? He’s been working on this deal for a couple of hours,” said the customer.
Maxi scowled and stared at him.
“I don’t give a crap about the salesman. Do you want the deal or not?”
Levi stated Maxi’s words embarrassed the customer, but nevertheless he accepted the owner’s deal. The Land Cruiser sale resulted in a $350 commission for Levi, but the bitter taste haunted him afterward.
“At first, I thought he was a racist, biased against Latinos, but I happened to be looking up some info in the room next door to his office a month later. I overheard him arguing with his son, Eli, the dealership’s CFO, about sales commissions. Eli wanted to raise the percentages, but Maxi refused to even consider the idea. Maxi ended the discussion by saying, ‘Our salesmen are all pieces of crap that I can easily replace with one ad.’”
“Ouch!” I replied, uncomfortable with this knowledge.
“Yeah, right! Over the years, I’ve watched six to ten newbies arrive every month to replace six to ten expendable pieces of crap that either were fired or quit. If you do the math for our thirty man sales force, you’ll figure out we have a 350% turnover rate each year. It’s a tough business, my friend, and you are employed by one of the orneriest dealerships in Southern California,” Levi said, looking down at his watch. “Oops! I have to go.”
He left, but I continued sitting there with my untouched coffee.
Later, I learned Levi related this story to the other newbies. All of us knew what the owner thought about his sales force. And even later yet, I discovered Levi went out of his way to tell every new sales trainee over the last six years his story. Everyone in the dealership knew the story.
To me, Levi was a fox living in a chicken coop. The egg production certainly suffered because of his presence and his story. Yet he continued to work there.
What kind of company allows bitterness to fester and grow unchecked within its workers? I wondered, more than once in the months ahead.
(The above is the first part of Chapter 4 for a new novel I’m writing, The Day LA Died, © Larry Nevenhoven, 2012.)
(Continued in Part 10)