Bernard Olcott (my Dad). Bob Gerhardt. John Dennemeyer. Gerald Van Winter. Ray Chinnery. These are the founding fathers of the global Patent Annuity industry in the 1960s and 1970s. And beyond!
Most everyone credits my Dad with being the first to figure out how patent maintenance fees could be tracked and organized by a computer-managed and calendaring program.
All were known for their strong personalities. Some say you need to be somewhat difficult and egotistical to overcome the inertia of the status quo and take the business world by storm with a new idea. Certainly this was true for Steve Jobs but maybe not so much for Bill Gates. Perhaps personality isn’t everything.
Not to say that Bill lacked a strong character, just that he didn’t have the same reputation for going off the rails. Maybe his penchant for the pleasantries of networking and interpersonal skills of collaboration was truly the road ahead. I dunno. I just report. You decide.
Putting some of these guys together certainly was a recipe for making fireworks. Apparently, my Dad and Ray Chinnery didn’t mix so well. If I ever saw them together, it was during a two week period in London over the summer of 1969. And that was that. Never again.
Sometime in late 1984, I drove out with my Dad to Newark Airport in his clunky 10 year old Mercedes Benz, the engine duly defanged so as to economize on the high cost of gas. Dad wasn’t a great driver. Driving with him was like taking a safari through cannibal-infested badlands. His signature move was to pull out into highway traffic much too slowly to the taste of neighboring motorists, due either to the underpowered engine or his “hell-can-care” attitude — pick one. Invariably, this would provoke generous amounts of honking and obscene gestures. Massive flocks of New Jersey state birds (“boids”) arose quickly all around us, “wings” fluttering, taking flight quickly into the air.
In other words, New Jersey drivers set their alarms to 3AM so they can wake up and hate that kind of driving. Across the river in New York, you would likely hear howls of “yer driving be stank, yo!”
Dad loved gratuitous comments about his driving. NOT. He certainly wasn’t shy about responding in turn. Loudly. Often at those moments, I wished I could disappear. Or get beamed up.
But this trip to James Riddle Hoffa Memorial Airfield (a/k/a Newark Airport) was not a run-of-the-mill journey. We were on our way to meet and pick up one Robert B. Gerhardt, a founding father of Master Data Center (“MDC”)¹, a leading competitor to Olcott International. Bob was a veritable Giant in the Patent Annuity business space. He was flying in from Detroit to discuss joining up with us. A strategic spear to be thrust deep into the sides of our competitors, not just MDC, but also CPA and CPI.
As relayed in my previous post, “TWO RABBITS, ONE DEAD,” by the early to mid-1980s, the Patent Annuity payment business had evolved to the point where corporate patent owners had lost interest in a basic renewal service. (See my post, “THE BIGGER IDEA (AND ME AS WINGBOY)” for a basic explanation.) What they did clamor for, however, was software to manage their patent files and operations.
These patent departments were awash in paper! They desperately needed to computerize their operations. By converting paper to electronic files, they could junk their antiquated manual reminder systems. In other words, it was time for them to turn their operations into a modern computer-managed process.
A cheaper and more efficient renewal payment service just didn’t set any bridges on fire anymore. At least, not like it had in the 1960s. Disruption had moved on.
Dad was extremely resistant to extend the Olcott International brand to a marketable piece of software. That would have entailed restructuring his business to meet the emerging disruption (please review Rebecca Henderson and Clay Christensen, disruptive innovation experts at the Harvard Business School). Dad now confronted the same disruption challenge he had once imposed. To respond or not; to react incrementally or radically?
At the time, I was of limited help in addressing this existential threat as I was completely computer illiterate. We did have some kind of mini-computer in the basement that kept our clients’ patent data on big removable disk drives. (We had off-site storage facilities to prevent loss from fire, Bigfoot, or nuclear attack).
Astute readers will notice that, in the last few posts, I have been jumping back and forth from the 1980s to the 1990s and back again. At the core of these stories is my conflicted search to reconcile my Father with the very different man in front of me. After all, parents are our archetypes. They are part of us.
I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I started working in the 1980s. It was convenient to ignore or turn a blind eye to Dad’s episodic incongruent behavior, especially at first. Back then I was young and inexperienced with no idea of what happens in offices around the world. People can be strange sometimes and certainly this can be reflected in the workplace.
Now, in 2016, as an IT consultant, I can look back at my career. I have worked in more than 26 companies from Polo Ralph Lauren to Heineken to AmerisourceBergen to Mitsubishi. I have had my own desk in Ankara, Tokyo, Sydney, Prestwick, and Totowa (New Jersey). Without a doubt, what I witnessed in Weehawken during the 1980s and 1990s was truly staggering. And that’s leaving aside the emotional component that my bullying boss was my cherished parent! The man who took me to the heights of the heliport, England, and exclusivity.