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.
Of course, Bob’s presence, and his future potential role in Olcott International, was much more than that to me personally. He was a sorely needed additional executive presence in the leadership of the firm. Someone who would help stabilize the consistency of management at Olcott International. Perhaps to be the kind of mentor who could shield me from some of Dad’s behavioral excesses that rendered the company into an increasingly hostile workplace for me. A place where I worked hard for blood, family, and company, only to be scapegoated and disparaged constantly.
It was the dawning, I hoped, of a new era. One that would usher in security and growth on a variety of levels. It would be my last shot to make this work.
I had no idea what Bob looked like. Linkedin.com was still 19 years away. Hell, there was no internet at the time (except for University researchers). We walked to the gate for Bob’s inbound flight and waited expectantly.
Among the passengers coming off the plane was an older looking man in a pale suit with a shock of bright white hair. He was lugging a heavy beige plastic suitcase. His face was crinkled with age or exposure; his eyes in a sort of permanent squint. I was looking for a man known to be a few years younger than my Dad. But I knew better. Dad was very youthful looking for his age, even before he had work done.
The man with the weathered face walked up to Dad, set down his heavy burden, and said with a hint of a Michigan lilt, “Hello, Bern!” (A notable feature of this accent is the interchangeability of the words “lunch” and “launch.” Such as “Let’s go get some launch and a pop!”) Dad shook his hand with reverence, placing his left hand on top of the joined hands.
I saw my role on that day was as “supporting actor.” It was essential for me that they get off on the right foot. After shaking Bob’s hand, I instinctively grabbed his suitcase to carry it for him. The damn thing weighed almost 30 pounds. There was a Compaq logo on the side so I knew I was carefully carrying one of the most advanced personal computers of its time right there in my hand.
Today by contrast, I am typing this story onto the keyboard of my portable Samsung laptop weighing about a tenth as much. Consider also that Bob’s Compaq had no internal hard disk storage, only two 5¼” floppy drives, each disk holding a whopping 320 KB in data!!! No networking, just a parallel port for your dot-matrix printer.
I carefully laid Bob’s PC in the trunk of the Benz and Dad set course for the Binghamton, an old kitschy ferry boat turned restaurant moored off Edgewater, New Jersey in the Hudson River not far from Weehawken. It was Dad’s favorite go-to place close to the office, naturally featuring sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline beyond arm’s reach to the East. (It didn’t survive Dad’s passing as a business in 2006 and then sank during Hurricane Sandy in 2012).
Dad and Bob exchanged pleasantries over launch — er, I mean, lunch — while I purposefully stayed in the background. We came triumphantly back to the office and set Bob up at his new desk.
Bob’s arrival coincided with the new age of the PC at Olcott International. While IBM-branded Personal Computers set the standard for 100% compatibility, they were, of course, too expensive for my Dad. For us, it was more precisely the start of the clone age. As you remember, clones were mostly compatible with the OEM IBM boxes. They ran the same beloved MS-DOS operating system on green or orange text screens, depending on the monitor manufacturer.
Bob’s claim to fame was not only being a kindred patent annuity payment pioneer, like my Dad (albeit a few years afterwards). By 1984, he was part of la nouvelle vague to promote stand-alone Patent Management System (“PMS”; regrettable initials, I know) software packages. MDC had leveraged these to steal away several large clients from Olcott International. Specifically, the business model was to develop (write) the program and then market it as an adjunct to your basic annuity payment service. The software on a stand-alone basis would sell for upwards of $50,000.
However, a deal was available!!! Engage the annuity payment service and get the software free!!! Jeez, don’t knock anybody over in your rush to sign up!
My Dad, as explained in past posts, was initially very resistant to the entire idea. But time had worn his aversion down. Yoshi² our in-house programmer regaled him in a twofold manner. He continuously drafted some mock-up screens showing how patent data might look in a PMS format. As Rimbaud found evil to be irresistible, Dad likewise could not pull himself away from those screen designs. Then Yoshi showed him how he could buy separate PC parts for cheap and assemble an IBM-compatible computer at a fraction of the cost.
Slowly, like a light snowfall, PC odds and ends started accumulating in the office. Gradually, they became assembled into steel frames. Some of which even worked as anticipated.
Bob’s new mandate was to midwife a brand new Olcott International-branded PMS to take the market by storm! The anticipated pitch was brilliant and undeniable! Bernard Olcott and Robert Gerhardt had joined forces to together design and assemble the best PMS ever! Now, finally, my hopes to find a new Giant had been realized!!! And not only found, but to be installed in-house! Hopefully, Bob could positively refocus Dad’s energy on business (instead of on weird stuff).
As I mentioned, I was completely computer illiterate at the time. The activities of the new PC department were a bit outside my wheelhouse. But Bob was friendly and engaging. I asked him to tutor me on PC usage and he graciously spent some of his precious time with me. I still remember his explanations as he sketched a folder and file cabinet for me on a pad of paper. I puzzled over how computer programs could be represented by these objects. Since I did not have a PC on my desk (too expensive!), the lessons went nowhere. (I would have to wait until later before I boldly went where I had not been before!)
There was only one itsy bitsy problem with the PMS joint development concept between Bob and my Dad. That will have to wait until next week.
¹ – MDC was purchased by Thomson Reuters more than 10 years ago and no longer exists under its original business name.
² – not his real name.