Monday, March 16, 2015

Bill Sweeney


This will be the first of many posts based on people who have influenced my life.  These people are the reason I became me.

After graduate school, I went to Buffalo, New York to work in a LORT-B theatre named the Studio Arena Theatre.  In addition to that theatre, I also worked as a freelance artist in all of the other small community theatres in Buffalo.  Things were going really well and I was always working.  Then the carpet was yanked from under my feet.

It was about this time that Senator Jesse Helms went after the National Endowment for the Arts based on a few shows whose merit he questioned.  He was a powerful senator and successfully pulled the plug on the NEA.  The Endowment cut arts funding by 75%.  NYSCA (New York State Commission on the Arts) also cut funding, as did Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

I was doing a show for the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre and the Artistic Director came to me and said, "Gary, I'm sorry but all of our funding has been cut.  You will have to take a percentage of the gate for your salary."  I was working as a scene designer and a technical director for them and I worked on the show for about two weeks.  They didn't have a lot of money anyway, so when the budget was spent the show had to be completed with sweat equity.  My sweat equity.  Since they had been so reliant on the government grants for their entire existence, they had never bothered to develop an audience.  As the son of a theatre owner, I can tell you that the biggest asset a theatre has is it's audience.  When the show closed, the Artistic Director paid me $37.54.  It factored out to about thirty cents an hour.  It was time to do something else.

By this time, and for personal reasons I had resigned from the Studio Arena Theatre.  I have to say that the Studio Arena Theatre was the most dysfunctional theatre I have ever been a part of.  From the management to the staff.  They were so dysfunctional that they closed their doors forever a few short years after I resigned.  There was no more money for me in the local theatre scene due to funding cuts so I found work wherever I could.  I put tubes of toothpaste into boxes for one of my jobs.  One time I found myself out of work and decided to apply for unemployment.  The red tape I was going to have to wade through to get my benefits seemed like a full time job.  It was going to take so much time to get the benefits and so much effort that I just went out and got another job.  I have never drawn a cent of unemployment insurance.

I ended up as a salesman for Ed Taylor Lincoln Mercury.  I had never sold cars before, in fact I had sold very little in my life so it was a very new experience for me.  The dealer would see sales decline after December every year and would order his sales manager to "Hire more salesmen!"  He would hire a bunch of salesmen in January, train them, work with them and by April when the sales still hadn't picked up he would fire them.  Then the dealer would say, "Hire more salesmen!" but before the sales manager could do that, sales started to pick up and it was forgotten.  The dealer never seemed to figure out that car sales are down from January to April.  He thought hiring more salesmen would fix it.  It never did.

One of the salesmen he hired during this phase was a jolly Irishman named Bill Sweeney.  Bill wasn't from Ireland but his grandparents were.  Bill had made his whole living in car sales, even being a dealer out in the country.  Mainly, Bill sold trucks but I suspected he sold himself more.  Bill and I were assigned to share a cubicle on the sales floor.  I learned more about automobile sales from Bill Sweeney than I did from the sales manager.  I also learned from him that it is possible to be an honorable man and an automobile salesman.

Ed Taylor Lincoln Mercury was a track store, meaning there was a particular way sales were managed.  At the first sign of trouble, the sales manager would come out on the floor and take over the sale, which usually meant he would cut the price down to dealer invoice and keep the rebate for himself or the dealer.  That meant that everyone in the dealership made money except the salesman.  Every time he took over one of my sales, my gross went down to nearly nothing and I had to settle for what we called a skinny.  The bare minimum commission.  It was hard to make money that way.

The sales manager never interfered with Bill's sales.  Bill would fish his customers.  Take them on a test drive, negotiate the price, let them go home and think about it and eventually reel them in and make the sale.  Bill always grossed high on his sales.  That drove the sales manager absolutely crazy.  Bill had stacks of notebooks with the names, addresses, phone numbers and details of the sale on every person he had ever sold.  When he came to work at Ed Taylor Lincoln Mercury he sent a personal letter to all of his customers telling them where he was and what he was selling.

I was amazed at the number of people who came there to buy whatever it was that Bill Sweeney was selling.  Bill kept logs on every sale.  He also worked out a deal with the shop to get lube jobs done at a cheaper price.  Three months after he sold a car, Bill would call his customer and trade his car for theirs and take it to the shop to have a lube job on him.  He always paid for the first one.  They were on their own after that.  It really cost him very little but the loyalty he received in return made his customers come back for more.  I always got the sense that his customers were not Ed Taylor's.  They were there for Bill Sweeney.

I learned many things from Bill Sweeney.  Things I have used in other places in other contexts but they always work.  I ended up delivering pizza for awhile a few years after working with Bill.  Every time I walked out of the store with a delivery, I told myself that these were not Dominos Pizza's customers, they were my customers.  I got that from Bill.

The best thing I got from Bill Sweeney, though was this saying, "Perfect will be good enough."  Thank you Bill Sweeney.

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