GREEN EGGS AND HAM

In April 1992, I had one foot in two worlds.

One foot was planted in the familiar lush flagship Polo Ralph Lauren store on Madison Avenue, a marvel of seductive, dazzling, stylish, and pricey eye-candy.  The other was a run-down office precariously hugging a cliff on the anus-side¹ of the Lincoln Tunnel, overlooking the double helix resounding with the roar of vehicular traffic.  I dubbed that sound in my post “THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS,” as the ‘soul grinder.’

The first was glamorous, but offered me little future career growth.  The second was pretty much its antithesis on both counts (except, sometimes, for the travel).

To aspire to my greatest future potential, I had to risk the crushing of my essence.

ALL MY ROADS LEAD TO ROME

Ahhh! April flowers. The trees are budding. Boids are choiping psychotically.

Springtime, it’s often said, brings together hopes and promises. Well, why not? April’s the month of my birthday. Sometimes, when the weather is right, the trees bud and bloom in the latter part of the month, right around when I appeared at Mount Sinai Hospital, 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue some 50 (or so) years ago.

Spring in 1992 was an exceptionally golden era for me, especially at Polo Ralph Lauren, a company I never expected to end up in after leaving the family business and graduating from Business School. It was survival by wit, guile, charm, and, to speak plainly, a shitload of style. Ralph made sure of that!  And it was often a lot of effortless fun as well!

In addition to my triumph at Polo, several other things were going very well in my life in early 1992.

DATE OF RECORD

In the run up to August 18th, 1986, the date of record for me, a typical training session that summer with my replacement Paul Campo went down something like this:

“OK, Paul, this is the computer inventory of all trademarks owned by The Wellcome Foundation.”  I put my hand down softly on a large green binder by my side.  Inside were hundreds of pages of green tractor-feed paper held together with white plastic paper ties.

Getting very little on the way of a reaction, I flipped through the pages making a ruffling noise.  “You see, the marks are organized by country.”

Again, no reaction.

Continuing to flip through the sheets, I stopped at one page.  “Here, this page is for Sudan.”

Paul looked lively all of a sudden.  “Dan who?” he asked.  “And I don’t know anyone named Sue,” he added.  A real comedian.

MURPHY AND HIS LAW

This week’s post is dedicated to Carrie Fischer, who was a tremendous advocate for victims of mental illness.  Despite tremendous hardship and emotional neglect, she became the sole caretaker of her father Eddie Fischer during the last years of his troubled life (divorced 5 times!) in a completely selfless manner.

carrie_fisher_2013

Brown Brothers Harriman.  Manny Hanny.  Cantor Fitzgerald.  First Morgan Sachs Fifth Avenue.  Taco Bell.  If Michael Lewis wrote about them, I interviewed there in my search to get out of a destructive work and family situation.  Like Horatio Alger‘s characters, I needed a powerful mentor to groom the trail ahead.  Lacking such, my quest was doomed to heartache.

Nevertheless, I did find many helpful folks along the way; it was just they were never in the right place to clear an obstacle for me.  Even though somewhat underpowered, I tried to compensate by being as thorough and complete as possible.  For example, an unusual source for job leads was to be found in the salmon pink colored folds of the Financial Times of London.  I knew this paper from my frequent trips to England.  There was a recruitment section on the back pages.  I answered lots of postings and bought sheets of international air mail stamps to send out my resume.

Occasionally, I received a courteous reply thanking me for my application.  Invariably, they promised to contact me promptly if “a suitable match were found.”

I watched the backs of pigs anxiously for any signs of wing buds.  But like watched pots that never boil, I couldn’t get my bacon to fly.

GRAZING

Above: beautiful Charolais cows in France.  Livestock photo by the author.

During my furtive job search in 1985, Brown Brothers Harriman was obviously not the place where yours truly got closest to the Finest Escape from an injurious job situation.  That distinction belongs to an interesting entity called the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company (“MHT”), otherwise known as “Manny Hanny.”  A storied bank that had grown on the back of multiple acquisitions, by the mid-1980s it was one of the largest in New York City (and the world, for that matter).

However come 1992, it was no more.  Kaput.

But in its day, one of its core strengths lay in its international banking operations, which was my particular interest.  Plunging my contact list, I came to visit the headquarters numerous times at 270 Park Avenue.  Astute readers may recognize that very same address from previous posts as Manny Hanny had purchased it from none other than Union Carbide.  This was the very same building that Dad had dragged me to when he went trolling for secretaries in the 1960s, see my post “THE BIGGER IDEA (AND ME AS WINGBOY).”

It was the locale of the big score in my family, in other words, hallowed ground.  Maybe it would be the same for me, personally.

PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY

Most people think that working in a family business is a privileged position.  I can’t blame them for thinking that.  I have the impression myself that many are.

I wish that mine had truly been of that fortunate variety.

But it wasn’t.  My Dad just wasn’t the kind of person that you would want to work with, ever.

It was not solely because he was a nitpicker of the nth degree.  Or a micromanager who would agonizingly complete the job poorer than you.  Generally, such kind of people are insufferable to work with and are to be avoided like the plague.

Sadly, it went beyond that.

Maybe it was all due to his childhood experience of being second-place to an over-bearing older brother.  Or his troll of a father.  A mother who was overwhelmed by trying to shelter that older brother from the fault-finding excesses of her Stalin-duped husband.  Accordingly, one Sunday morning in 1943, she got up out of bed, had a cup of coffee, and expired, all by 11AM!

Could have been just a character flaw, plain and simple.

KANGAROO COURT

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.

HIS NAME WAS BOB GERHARDT

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.

MAYBE THERE WAS HOPE!

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?

disruptive-innovation

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).