THE BEGINNING OF MY CAREER
Notes & thoughts on food and wine
“Life is a heavy burden; take it one step at a time." – Eiyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan. (17the century).
By Don Merlot
[WC News Service]
Our daily office coffee break ritual started at 9 am. The department heads had two groups: sales and engineering. The directors would walk out of their offices into the office bays to collect us, and we would be joined by the rest of the departments and go to the company cafeteria where several dining tables would be full of office staff. We would take our morning coffee together. Our group consisted of the international division. Our directors would be in the center of the table and the staff would surround them.
On my first day I was thinking as I walked through my first business rite of passage to my first job that here I am with my new family. I recently graduated from Thunderbird (American Institute for Foreign Trade). I was newly married, and had just relocated to southwestern Michigan and my new job was in international advertising and sales promotion at Whirlpool Corporation.
This day was also the first day for a fellow graduate from Thunderbird, who was recruited at the same time as I. Not, that I was overwhelmed, but there were so many people coming over from other tables to meet us too. I knew I would never remember all the names and the roles they had, but I felt welcome to my new life.
For my first few years, this daily event would be a learning forum for me; the company history and culture and the role that I would play in the international business that was evolving. The environment was informal as we would talk about all current events, about everything really, but my role at first was to listen and learn to be part of the company culture.
My new business family was made up of a very cosmopolitan group of experienced executives and we worked for a family company that was emerging as one of the top 100 companies in the USA. Two brothers (the Upton family) founded it and employees were treated as kings and queens.
My primary boss, (supervisor) and marketing manager was Ralph. He was the one who started me off, nurtured me, and sculpted my mind into an international executive. There was also another boss, but when I arrived he was based in Puerto Rico. His name was Curt. He, too, was a graduate of Thunderbird and had worked at Whirlpool for several years in college in a summer program. He had many overseas assignments before Puerto Rico. It turned out Curt had been a classmate of my sister Susie at the American School of Mexico City. Both bosses had a tremendous influence on my development.
Most important was with assimilating into the American culture. When I went to prep school in Virginia, I had arrived from Mexico. I had an American passport because my mother was American. I had a Mexican passport because I was born in Mexico. To me, I was American, but to everybody I met, I was Mexican because I was born in Mexico City, MX. At Tulane, where I graduated in 1965, I was considered a foreign student, and even had an international student counselor. Originally, I was in ROTC (Army), and was scheduled to earn my officer gold bars.
Twice in my first years in the “States” did I experience any ethnic bias: A fraternity in college declined to take me because of my Mestizo blood. (When I left Mexico my father told me if that happened shake it off and do not force your way into a place you are not wanted). Another occasion was, when driving to graduate school (in 1967), my car went over the center lane, and an Arizona Highway patrolman stopped me. He saw my Louisiana plates and Louisiana driver's license and asked where I learned to drive. I told I was born in Mexico, but was American. He said in Arizona Mexicans are 'low lives' -- best to call yourself a Hispanic. He let me go with a warning.
Eventually Ralph told me is that Whirlpool was a U.S. Government supplier, and the company would consider me a minority and a Hispanic. It all went back to learning what you are and where you have been and where you are going. Ralph himself was Cuban/Spanish and Colombian. Born in New York City, Ralph was a New Yorker through and through, and so was his wife Marion.
Jerry was the director of sales (the big boss) and he had lived in Beirut, had traveled considerably overseas, and knew the company raison d’être. The Whirlpool brand sales manager was John. (When he left, Curt took his place). John, who had lived in Europe, was my introduction to Burgundy red wines. My other colleagues were Bordeaux leaning.
Alun and I came into Whirlpool at the same time, and he was a rookie, too He was a sales manager to the U.S. overseas Military PX and International Sears sales.
There was Doug, who had been the advertising and sales promotion manager, I was following his path. When he was promoted to a regional sales manager, he left the position that I took. He, too, was a Thunderbird graduate and a Stanford grad. A Mensa to boot. When Alun and I arrived, Doug became our preparer of probation to employee. He reminded me of a pledge master at a fraternity. Even though we went to sales training school, Doug was drilling us on product knowledge and company culture.
There was Don who was the international government sales and international sales liaison to Sears, our highest volume client. Alun worked for Don. And there was Claude, our service manager who took care of the finished product technical service needs of the distributors/customers.
The coffee break became our school of learning. I felt as if I were in a class of “Plato’s Republic” with “several Socrates (teachers/mentors)” and we discussed and defined the truth as we saw it every day. Everyone cautioned us before coming that when you come out of graduate school and you think you know everything. But by listening and not talking to this group I found out I did not know anything. Ralph was well read and could hold his own in a Socratic conversation. Jerry was the big boss and the Savant of our group. No one could intellectually arm wrestle him and beat him.
Early in my first steps I learned some valuable lessons that I have carried forever.
• Perception is Reality. For me, it can also be called “Cogito ergo sum. "I think, therefore I am." I was merrily coming along with my new job when Ralph called me over one day and pointed out that the staff (mostly women) thought I was arrogant and a little sullen. So I said, you know me, I am not like that. He said quite clearly that it did not matter what he thought, that it is how the staff perceives you. If you do not like how you are perceived, change your behavior. I did not argue, and I reasoned it out. So I worked at stopping at each work station and got to know the people, and they got to know me. Sure it took time, but was worth spending the time to get to know with whom you share the day. So know who you are and what people think you are. It is a lesson I took with me in my international travel and life. Do not let people define you, but be as open as possible and show as much of yourself in an open relationship.
• In expectation accountability I was shown the tools in management on how to deal with supervisors and colleagues. I was shown the “Johari Window,” which is a metric system based on a quadrants that you can plot. “What you know about you and are willing to share with others,” “what another knows about you but will share with you,” a third quadrant “that shows what you know about you but you do not share it with others; and finally 'what you do not know about you and others do not know about you.'
Another lesson: One day Ralph said to me, “Aloncito, if I send you on a trip to Paris for two weeks, you will come back and are able to write a book. If I send you to Paris for two months you will come back and be able to write ten pages. If I send you to Paris for two years when you come back you will not be able to write much, because there are many contradictions in the knowledge you accumulate, the more you know about the history and culture of Paris it becomes unclear.”
* Ralph said, “In initial communications never look for the similarities but look for the differences.” This is true when you start relationships because you will agree on the similarities and will not explore the differences. This will create conflicts because expectations will be impacted by what you assumed. Take for instance in languages. Different Englishes, in U.S.A., England, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Not just English, but differences also happens in Spanish. There is Spain, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
In my new life, friendships came within the international sales group. Friday nights and weekends developed into social and feasting events. There is no question that Ralph and his wife, Marion, became a big part of my life. The meals at their house were European and Spanish American with fine wine. Heavy discussions on current events and global events were great.
We discussed and analyzed wines which each person has his own individual taste, and I started going to the library to get tomes on wine. I found Ralph’s mind special: Self taught and never got to complete college He developed his intellectual patterns based on his own readings and places he lived and his bent was knowledge, European cultures, and the great philosophers and thinkers.
We would get in to loud discussions trying to making our points. One time he, his son Richard, and I got kicked out of a French bistro in New York because we were so loud. It was never personal, just an academic exchange. We all enjoyed the repartee. Always, whenever we met.
Jerry, the big boss, was not around socially on weekends. But he too helped me understand the global world. At coffee time he helped us define the Middle East Israel /Palestinian issues, and Asia. To me, without that understanding, I would not have been able to work through the political and monotheistic issues that I ran into throughout my career. This was 1968, and the country was at war, the youth was anti-war, the civil rights were causing racial issues to become violent, and the political scene was very tense. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were discussed and analyzed.
We were 90 miles from Chicago on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, and we were Chicago influenced.
Doug, Alun, and Curt (when he came back to Michigan) became close socially and very good friends. As we had children, their families became like cousins and uncles and aunts to our children. We prepared foods we picked up along the way in our youth and travels. Both Alun and I ended up working for Curt. Doug replaced Ralph’s marketing role when he left.
We played parlor games and the most popular was Jeopardy, which Doug and I favored. We spent weekends in Chicago exploring the big city. We shared a vacation to Mexico to show Mexico to our wives. My father had a big dairy farm in Central Mexico and we got to explore Central Mexico and went to Cuernavaca, Taxco, and Acapulco.
My food and wine journey began by finding wine shops on Chicago. In the late 60s and 70s, and the proximity of Chicago allowed me to drive to the city on a Saturday morning visit the big wine retailers, have lunch, and make it back to St. Joseph by sunset.
One place I loved was the House of Glunz, which was in a changing neighborhood on the north side (on North Wells), and it was surrounded by crumbling buildings that looked like bombed Dresden during the war. Old man Glunz would invite us in and give samplings of Spanish, Sherries, Ports, Italian and Spanish reds and German whites. There was an hour difference, as Michigan was on Eastern Time and Chicago was on Central time.So we left Michigan at 7 am, and would come in through the south side of Chicago off the Indiana Turnpike and find ourselves in center of Chicago by 8:30/0900 am.
We went first to Glunz, and then went over to Bragno’s (on Rush) which specialized in magnums (French Beaujolais that we would take to our football tailgate feast at Notre Dame and at Michigan in Ann Arbor); and to Zimmerman’s; where I found my Loire Valley Sancerre’s and Rose from Pinot Noir. We would have lunch at La Margarita, a Mexican restaurant that had an incredible carne asada plate which was as authentic to Mexico City (Juarez Loredo, the originator of carne asada a la tampiqueña in Mexico).
Food from other countries came to me through my colleagues and some of my initial travel. Spanish- American food, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian, and French. I bought many cookbooks. Once our children were eating our food, when I traveled, our son would not eat my wife Denise’s food because he really liked my cooking. His favorite (and mine) was linguine al pesto.
(Don Merlot is The PJ's food and drink columnist. Otherwise, he is Ron Alonzo, a writer based in New Orleans).