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.

MAN-KILLER!!!

In my post last week named after Salvador Dali’s surrealistic masterpiece, “PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY,” I ended the story, “I dusted off my resume and …”

… sent it off to the HR departments at all of my favorite potential employers!  With, as previously noted, many misgivings.  But I had to do it.  It was time.

Not long after, some initial feedback trickled back to me and it was a little unsettling.

Turns out that I was no longer what you would consider to be a new graduate.  Technically speaking, this meant that I was trying to make a prospective “career change.”  In the job market, that’s a no-no and often a no-go.  You see, if you’re skilled in one thing, you are automatically presumed to be no good for anything else.  The job market is very simple-minded that way.

Look, I don’t write the rules.  Just a silly blog.  I’m merely reporting here.  You decide.

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).

MY FRIEND IN JERSEY

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.

BUSINESS PARTNERS

The events in my last post, “TWO RABBITS, ONE DEAD,” recount the events of one bleak day in January 1995.

Everyone is entitled to a bad day once in a while.  If those events of 21 years ago had represented just one isolated blip in the story of a triumphal family saga, it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.

Sadly, it wasn’t just a one-off but was part of a frequently distressing pattern.

It didn’t start off that way, of course, when I began my career at Olcott International a different January a dozen years before that, in 1983.

As I have written in various posts like “SOMETHING ABOUT DAD, PARTS 1 AND 2” and “HEARTBREAKER,” Dad wanted me to join the family business even though various warning signs made me ambivalent toward the idea.  After all, you should always know who your business partners are.  If they’re your parents, you don’t need to do a background check to find out.

As an example, I can perform due diligence in my case by asking a few questions:

MR. SWAGGER’S PUMP AND DUMP

Although my office was on the lowest of three levels, during that first year on the job, I would occasionally hear strange noises filtering down from the top floor. Often these indistinct sounds would mimic fanciful imagery like, I kid you not, cattle rustling with an occasional hoof stomp. Other times, the herd would be in full stampede. A cowboy could be heard running after them, shouting and hacking from a bad cough.

Quick reality check: the office was in Weehawken, New Jersey with a glorious view of the Manhattan skyline and the giant double helix of the Lincoln Tunnel. The latter emitted the roar of machinery, the giant soul crusher as featured in my post “THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS.” It was very far from Marlboro country, campfires, and cowboys yodeling ah-hee-ho!”

The bumps, shouts, and herd noises were discordant and weird.  What the fuck was going on up there? Sometimes, I would climb the stairs to snoop around. At first, doors would be closed as soon as I reached the top. Sometimes, I could see out of the corner of my eye,  through a partially open door, something resembling a nose, or maybe some wrinkled skin. It was as if the stable master had asked the illegal stallion to settle down in his stall so as to hide from a passerby.

Nose and wrinkled skin? Was Dad hiding an elephant from me? Wouldn’t it fall through the floor of our ramshackle building?

THE NIGHT IS DARK AND FULL OF TERRORS

“What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was already nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

-Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

In 1982, Dad was suing Gloria for divorce.  Or more accurately, he forced her to sue him.  As the defendant, he and his lawyers threatened her with an illegal prior divorce and effectively slaughtered her (see my post last week “IS YOUR MEXICAN DIVORCE LEGAL?”).

During that Fall, I started working at Olcott International part-time, one day a week, on Fridays, when I had no classes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International Affairs (SIA).  It was the last in a string of temporary or part-time jobs held down since my last year of college in 1980.

As a college senior, I created a job for myself as an organizer for Teddy Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1979 and 1980.  Teddy didn’t win, as you recall.  Then, I worked as the New York State College Coordinator for John Anderson’s Presidential campaign in the Fall of 1980.  John didn’t win either.  Later on, at SIA, I had summer jobs at Société Générale and the United Nations.  Great experiences all.

John Anderson

The highlight of my experience in John’s campaign was when he took the time to call me one day to thank me for my efforts.

But now Dad had offered me full-time employment at Olcott International starting January 1983.  This was to be my first time working in a job for a paycheck.  To be supporting myself like a real person.

As mentioned in previous posts, I had my reasons to be nervous.  The puffed-up title of Assistant Vice President did little to assuage my concerns.