My first big deal

There are two kinds of salesmen. There is the lonely, bespectacled, data-driven geek with the mathematical model that demonstrates the inevitable causal relationship between the promotional dollars invested and the widgets sold. Then there’s the Irishman.

The Irishman can walk into a room of strangers and by the time he leaves, every single one of them is his friend – and he has their wallets in his pocket. You don’t actually have to be Irish, of course. I’m a Kiwi. But I built a career selling like I was born in Dublin’s Maternity Hospital. It helped that I always had a sailboat – and the ability to make a damn good dry martini.

Funny thing is, I didn’t start off as a salesman. I began my career as a journalist with BBC Television in London. Like all careers, mine is simply the result of a series of fortuitous accidents and misadventures, dressed up to look like I planned it all.

At the BBC, I found myself on the labor beat. It was busy. England in the ’70s was riven with strikes and work stoppages. One evening I was stationed up at a British Leyland auto manufacturing plant near Birmingham. The senior labor correspondent took the train back to his comfortable home down in London, leaving me there in a cheap hotel for the night. I was having a quiet restorative in a pub near the plant when a door burst open. “It’s over, the strike’s over,” a man shouted. I ran to one of those red British callboxes, stuffed all the 10-pence pieces I had on me into the coin slot, and called the newsroom in London. Yes, that’s right, this is how we used to communicate. “It’s Peter Winter, I’m in Birmingham, the Leyland strike is over, I have all the details.”

“I’m sorry,” said the voice at the end of the line. “Who are you, again?” We worked that out and they told me I would be first in the running order for the BBC 1 evening news, coming up in just a few minutes, at 9 p.m. Asked me to stand by.

I stood there in that red call box amid the funky odor of cigarettes and stale urine, holding the gross and sticky phone with a handkerchief, the rain pouring down outside, and I didn’t notice any of it, for I was already transported into a glorious beckoning world of fame and fortune. I imagined a photograph of my face on 20 million television screens in homes around the United Kingdom. I had come a long, long way from my little country town in New Zealand. This was it. A star was about to be born.

A voice counted me in. As you would expect, my 60-second script was, in a word, magnificent. It was tight, it was focused, it was propelled by artful cadence and editorship through an irresistible arc to a conclusion guaranteed to leave the transfixed viewer breathless. On cue, I launched into it. “In a dramatic announcement just before we came on air, shop stewards here in Birmingham have announced an end to the strike which has crippled the British car industry for some seven months.”

Right at that moment I heard a series of loud, interruptive beeps. “Your time is up,” said an official voice. “Please insert another 10 pence piece or you will be disconnected.”

“Owing to transmission problems, we shall return to our correspondent later in the broadcast.”

“You idiot, Winter, why didn’t you call collect?”

I was not fired. But I did get a formal letter saying I had “acted in a manner which did not conform to the high standards of the British Broadcasting Corporation.” That told me everything I needed to know. Distance . . . that would be the answer. I fled to a television company in America.

In England my accent and personal operating style immediately pegged me as someone from the colonies. Good, but not quite good enough. But in the U.S.A. what had been a liability in England was now an asset. Overnight, I became an object of fascination. Instead of trying to disguise my Kiwiness, I found myself exaggerating it. I became a ridiculous caricature of the homespun New Zealand sheep farmer, though I had never ever set foot on a sheep farm. Or any farm for that matter. In the morning, workmates would say “hi.” I would reply “G’day mate, great day for it.” Men would clap me on the back and women would faint. I had the license of a clown and the respect of any prophet who moves a hundred miles from home. It did not take long for me to start believing my own press. After just a year I left that television company and founded my own start-up.

This could have been a disaster. I mean, all I had going for me was an accent and some old BBC research on “the behavior of the electronic consumers of the future.” I knew nothing about “strategic marketing” or “financial analysis” or for that matter how to actually run a business. But not knowing what I didn’t know, I was brazen and full of confidence.

One day I spoke at a conference in New York. Afterward a nice fellow from IBM came up to me and said his group was about to lead IBM into the personal computer business and would I be interested in helping them out? I told him I was really busy, but if he could give me a couple of days to move things around, I’d see what I could do.

Now, I had just figured out a very important fact about running a consulting business: You do the same amount of work for a client paying you $5,000 a month as you do for a client paying you $25,000 a month. So I sent him a proposal for a four-month, $100,000 project. What I didn’t realize was that a deal like that, offered to a company like IBM, would take 27 layers of approval and a minimum of three months to close. What can I do to accelerate that? I wondered. I was six credit cards maxed out and working hard on my seventh when then, right then, from desperation came inspiration. I thought of the two things that thereafter helped me close every deal I ever did: My sailboat. And a dry martini.

Of all the unkind things that people say about Millennials – that they’re snowflakes, that they have given up on sex, that they would rather rent a motorized scooter than walk, that they have ruined brunch with their ridiculous avocado toast – the fairest is that they have destroyed the dry martini by gussying it up with flavored liquors. This is criminal. With the dry martini, a plain old gin is mandatory. And one must always keep in mind that the key word in the phrase “dry martini” is the word “dry.” I like to follow the dictum of the late great Noel Coward, who once said that to make the perfect dry martini, one must “fill a glass to the brim with very good gin and wave it in the general direction of Italy.” Many a hesitant client has wavered, then surrendered, after a couple of my beauties, especially when lucky enough to have them served on my sailboat.

Back when I was dancing with the boys from IBM, I had an old wooden Cheoy Lee. When you have an old boat it is easy to hide from whatever else you’re supposed to be doing by working on her 24-hours a day, convincing yourself that it is essential labor. I could not afford to do that, but every now and then I’d touch up the brightwork or string a new line, nothing that would keep me off the water for too long. I lived in Rye, New York, and took her out on the Sound most weekends. To my amazement, the IBM boys also lived in Westchester County but THEY HAD NEVER SAILED ON LONG ISLAND SOUND. To a Kiwi like me, this was not just ridiculous, it was unpardonable. I cajoled, I entreated, I promised, and finally, they gave in. Late one Thursday afternoon, three of them arrived at the club. They were each wearing pin-striped suits, white shirts, red ties and polished black brogues.“ You can put your suitcoats and ties below,” I said, “your shoes and socks, too.”

Like all first-timers, they wanted to help. And I let them, instructing them firmly, but politely, as we made our way up to Greenwich, over to the North Shore and back to Rye. As we did, I observed a subtle change in the relationship between us. I had become their captain. I was in command. After a couple of hours of gentle sailing we came back in, moored up and I served a brace of dry martinis.

Look, I’m not saying that that was all there was to it, but I swear, the very next day I got a call from one of the nice gentlemen who had come along on the boat. “The contract is on Bob’s desk,” he said. “I think we’ve got it done. I’ll call you to confirm at 8 a.m. tomorrow.” Not bad, I thought, for a guy running his business from the spare bedroom in his house. I poured myself a dry martini to celebrate. I took the liberty of imbibing another one, too. Well, since it’s you, truth be told I had more than a couple.

When 8 a.m. rolled around I was still in the shower, trying to clear my head. It was cold outside. Fall was on the way. The phone went. I ran naked and wet across the apartment to answer it. It was the nice gentleman again . . . and Bob the boss. They were calling in their pin-striped suits from their well-appointed offices in Armonk. “We have just a couple of questions,” said Bob. We began to dicker. A couple of minutes later the lovely Guatemalan lady who cleaned the house once a week opened the door and walked in. She saw me standing there on the phone, naked and shivering. She screamed and ran to the kitchen.

When you get to my age you look back every now and then to those rare moments in your career when you achieved something truly significant. What I said at that moment caps them all. “What on earth was that?” said a startled Bob.

“Oh, I thought that was at your end of the line,” I said.

I was desperate to go to the bathroom. I grabbed a houseplant. And that’s how it came to be that at precisely the moment that I was peeing into that houseplant while my cleaning lady was sobbing in the kitchen, I closed my first six-figure deal. Quite a country we’ve got here.

I sold that little company in 1988.

I took a year off. I got married. Then, for just the second time in my life, I got a regular job. I ended up as divisional president of a big media company. I discovered, again, that there was no book I could read to prepare me for that. So, as always, I fell back on what I had learned all those years ago in Rye, New York. There are really only two other things you need if you’re blessed with the gift of the Irish gab: The ability to make an old-fashioned dry martini, and a sailboat.

If you have all three, the world really can be your oyster.

Take it from me.

Peter Winter writes from his home on Georgetown Island, Maine. His short stories and political commentary can be found on www.medium.com/@peterwinter.

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