This is a guest series by Phil Cate. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on ‘Phil Cate’ under the Categories heading in the right panel. Watch for new installments every Friday.
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Let’s Stick Him in Sales
I answered an ad and applied for a sales job at a local retailer called R&R TV and Appliance. I walked into Billy Rose’s office, and it changed my life forever.
He said, “You’re cocky enough and young, and from the look of that car you drove up in, you’re hungry. Be here next Monday at 9:00 a.m., and we’ll get you started.”
It was 1984 and the age of the microwave oven and the VCR. Billy’s partner was Brad Rymer, and Brad was Skeet Rymer’s kid (a title I’m sure he’s sick of). The Rymer family founded and operated Magic Chef out of Cleveland, Tennessee. Magic Chef was one of the lead horses in the microwave business and had a very nice line of all kitchen appliances. Billy was the son of Harvey Rose. Harvey had been an executive in the appliance business with the huge retailer Kennedy and Cohen. At the age of nineteen, Billy was already buying millions each month for his dad.
With Billy and Brad both being “raised” in the business and the hot economy of the Reagan 1984 recovery and the white hot sales of microwaves and VCRs, they had lightning in a bottle.
When I met Brad, he said, “Phil, we have a philosophy here that we sell everyone that walks in the door.” I remember thinking, What an arrogant, ridiculous statement. Not everyone that walks in a store is there to make a major purchase. Then I got to know Billy Rose for a month or two, and I learned it wasn’t ridiculous or arrogant. It was what Billy insisted on.
Selling for this guy was like playing football for Bear Bryant. Mediocrity was just not an option that would leave you alive around Billy. We were scared to death of him, and yet we wanted so badly to please him. I’ve heard that Bum Phillips often said there was a big difference between coaching and bitching, and Billy coached. Don’t get me wrong; he’d be on you immediately if a customer walked out without buying. But it was always instructive, it was always firm, and it was always non-negotiable. You did it the right way or you packed your stuff and got out.
I learned more about closing business in the next two years than most guys learn in an entire career. Finally, something I was good at! And I loved it. I was always a top producer for the company. Ms. Menefee was right; I was going to be a salesman. I could tell time and count money…
Professionally, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got a PhD in sales and closing from a maestro and got paid very well to do it. I still pinch myself on this one. I walked into Billy’s office going nowhere, with a resume to prove it. I walked out with a strong professional future.
The upper end guys, including me, were making 50k or more per year in 1984 in Chattanooga! You could rent one of the best apartments in town for $350 per month. You could buy a really nice home for $45,000.
We lived like millionaires in our minds and played like them, too. The after-hours drinking and dining was off the charts. All we did was party and laugh and sell and play golf.
I was still married, but did not act like it. I was out with the boys. The vast majority of them were single, and we were all young and ready to party. I never cheated on my wife, though, and I’m not exactly sure why. I got close a few times, and probably wanted to. I guess maybe I feared the consequences.
While work was a party, I was miserably married; and I made my wife miserable as well. I treated her horribly and really didn’t want to spend any time with her. She was starting to nag me about all the boozing and coming in at all hours of the night. She also kept talking to me about wanting a child. A child sounded a lot like “responsibility” to me; and since I was completely allergic to responsibility, that idea was out.
My drinking eventually got so bad that Billy started to see the effects of it and talked to me a few times. Neither Billy nor any of the rest of us were light or even moderate drinkers back there, so Billy talking to you about your drinking would be about like Tiger Woods telling you you’re a little too intense at work.
I didn’t stop, though; I just slowed down in front of Billy. Even some of my buddies were telling me I was playing a little too hard.
I thought, “You guys must be kidding me. I haven’t seen any of you in a sober state in months, and I’m playing too hard?” I guess that could’ve been a helpful indicator, but indicators are really just wet blankets, aren’t they? I always believed in fixing the oil light by putting black tape over it. That solution had worked so well so far.
Then came a fateful night. I was sitting at my usual watering hole in Chattanooga, hammered. I got up to leave, and a policeman told me I had too many to drive. I walked right past him, got into my car, and drove off.
I was not headed where I ended up. I was starting to make a habit of that. I ended up downtown on Market Street, headed for the bridge, past a cop in his police car. He said I was doing 50 and was sound asleep. He turned around the first chance he got, but it was too late.
I hit a concrete pillar in the midsection of the bridge, totaling my car. The impact startled me awake enough to back the car up and head for home. No headlights, not much for brakes, radiator empty, hood crushed, and a lot of trim parts in the Tennessee River. It’s a wonder I made it the mile or so home.
Just as I pulled into my apartment, blue lights came at me from all directions. I remember being cuffed, but I don’t remember anything after that until I woke up on a steel floor with a screaming headache.
At first, I didn’t remember anything that had happened the night before; then it started coming back to me in bits and pieces. It was a foggy, unsettling feeling, and I had no idea how close I’d been to disaster for me or someone else. Remarkably, I didn’t get a scratch on me, at least not from the accident. The shoe that the little Mrs. threw at me left a nasty mark, but it would heal with time.
At this time in America, they were just starting to get really serious about DUI. Before that, it was just a traffic matter. The M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) group was starting to exert heat on the system, with good reason. I remember thinking to myself, Those mothers against drunk driving are right. I always thought I could drive fine while I was drunk, but they’re right — it’s dangerous. I can’t drink and drive . . . I’ve got to quit driving.
Now anyone that thinks about quitting driving instead of quitting drinking may want to look into a good rehab, but I didn’t.
I quit driving for months. I had my wife drive me to work, and we had an elaborate plan to conceal that I was not driving. Better sense finally prevailed, and I went back to drinking and driving like “normal people”. Oh, boy . . .
Well, when Billy found out I needed two days off to go serve my weekend in the pokey, he was furious. He really let me have it. He said, “Phil, you’re the best I’ve got, but I’ll fire you in a second!” And he meant it. I’d seen him fire others for less. “If you continue to drink like this, you’re history.”
So I went home and got drunk to think about it. My attitude started to change; I felt and acted like I owned the place — after all, I had helped build it. Well, that was a pretty gutsy play when dealing with Billy.
I finally got into a commissions scrape with one of the other top sales people, and Billy fired me. That sent me reeling as nothing before. Selling for R&R was the first thing I had ever really done well professionally, and it was over.
My timing was not great. My wife was quick to inform me that insurance might be an issue, as she was pregnant. I said the only words that would come out at the time, “I need a stiff drink.”
We got through the pregnancy in one piece; but without insurance, it about broke us financially. I was so into my fears at this point that I was really quite worthless to my wife, or anyone else for that matter. The miracle of childbirth almost flew past me, lost in my fears; but somehow God did give me a little clarity and some very nice people involved in the delivery, so I was able to witness the miracle with some peace.
I was exhausted when Sara arrived. I had played three sets of tennis, eighteen holes of golf, and gotten hammered playing a board game, when my wife went into labor and then we were up for twenty-four hours.
I piddled around with a few things in Chattanooga; but my first love, Atlanta, was just down the street a couple of hours and she was teeming with opportunity. I’d never forgotten my love affair with the city, and everyone that had ever lived there told me they loved it. Atlanta was an overgrown country town with a thriving pulse, and anyone with ambition in the south really thought about giving Atlanta a try.
I moved to Atlanta to work for one of the large TV and appliance chains. I was still drinking heavily, so that job didn’t last long either, even though I was a top revenue engine for them as well.
It had been difficult to get my wife to agree to move to Atlanta, but she had reluctantly come along. My marriage wouldn’t last long, though; I was really getting to be a mess. I could barely hold a job; I would work, go by the liquor store, and drink until I fell asleep. We fought constantly, and really had little or no relationship; but then again, we never really had any kind of relationship.
I woke up one Saturday when the doorbell rang, and it was my father- in-law. He asked, “What is going on?”
That’s what I wanted to know, and I soon found out.
My wife came out and said, “I’ll be right there, Dad,” and she was packed and had the baby loaded up. I looked at the end table next to the couch, and a large empty bottle of bourbon was there and had been consumed in one night.
I walked into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were swollen and bloodshot, and I looked 44 when I was only 24. I remember thinking, “Whether my marriage ends or not, I’ve got to quit this. It’s killing me.”
And I did quit. Not another drop. I still had fires burning all around me, but I wasn’t going to drink. I was done, completely done. I couldn’t take the craziness anymore. I stopped cold that day, and walked away from it.
As soon as I realized my marriage was done, I was looking around for a girlfriend. Makes great sense doesn’t it? Here I am, lost as a duck, in marital and professional ruin; and instead of pausing or thinking or contemplating how I ended up here, I’m thinking, Let’s go get involved. Or, more likely, entangled.
One big catch though; I was quickly finding out that my soon-to-be ex-wife and I were not going to get along well. I think when I got involved with someone about twenty minutes after she left, it didn’t sit well; can you believe that? Oh well, if she wants to walk around with the disposition of a cobra with an impacted fang, let her. And that’s how she was towards me.
The problem was, I had to keep going within the cobra’s striking range. I thought, This is just great. I have to drive to Chattanooga to see my own kid, pay money, be accountable to an ex, and get yanked around some trying to see my own daughter. What a horrible system. I’d never make that mistake again.
I quickly found a solution — a girl that was quite attractive, couldn’t have kids, and really didn’t want to get married. Great. And she had two kids that I liked, and we all got along quite well. True to myself, I would not marry her; but I raised her kids for seven years. Living with someone is clearly the way to go.
Then why was I getting depressed? After all, I’d outsmarted the whole system; we could play house without all those legal entanglements. I’ve got the best of both worlds, right? Not really. Looking back, I had all the accountability of a marriage, without the mutual security of commitment.
There was some good news during this time. I fell into the business of buying and selling used mainframe and mid-range computers and parts. I put to work my closing skills that Billy had taught me, and immediately excelled.
This job was perfect for me, and far more lucrative. I could close business and then go play, and I never had to really dig to make quite a nice living. That suited my personality nicely; I was a charming, worthless, lazy, hard-closing salesman.
I had beat the odds and the system, right? I hadn’t done anything educationally, yet I was making a very handsome income. I would handle relationships any way I wanted, and I didn’t have to play by some playbook on relationships or anything else for that matter. I hadn’t done anything that I was told to do; I was living contrary to what my upbringing had taught; I was completely disconnected from God, but yet had that Savior deal going on and knew at any moment I could call on God if I hit a big pothole. See how brilliant I was?
One problem. I was miserable.
The depression started to really ratchet up about the time I turned thirty. I found myself having very little contact with my daughter, due to the angst between my ex and me. I was quite displeased with where my life was, and where it was going or not going.
I had drifted into some pot smoking in my late twenties, at first lightly and then daily. Now anyone that smokes pot knows there’s no hangover per se, but there is a “fog” that sets in and a depressed confusion and lethargy. I had all of those, and as a result, I was suddenly struggling with the thing that I really thought I could hang my hat on — I could no longer sell effectively.
I didn’t know what was going on, so I left the home where I was living with my girlfriend and checked into a hotel, thinking I’d be there for a day or two. I ended up in the hotel for about four months. Not very cost effective, but it was all I could seem to process at the moment. I was really starting to lose my sharpness.
I finally had a friend find me a condo; I put a contract on it and moved in on a cold and damp December night after dark. I walked in with my golf clubs, a stereo and my clothes. Everything I owned fit in my car. I had left all the furnishings I owned with my ex-girlfriend, out of guilt for hurting her and her kids.
It got really dark at that moment; a wave of depression hit me like I had never before felt. I thought, Great, most guys my age are at the school, watching the Christmas carols sung by their kids; they’re standing next to their wives, both wearing red Santa sweaters; they live in furnished houses and are planning to go home to their folks’ for the holidays. I, on the other hand, am standing here with everything I own scattered on the floor. Alone. I miss my daughter Sara; my family of origin is broken up. I have a job, but I’m too depressed to sell. I guess I need to go buy a bed and some sheets tomorrow; but for tonight, the floor will have to do.
I laid on the floor, sobbing and alone; and I did something I hadn’t done in years, many years. I prayed. I prayed and prayed and said, “God, I don’t even know what I need, but send it. I hope you can hear me, and I need help . . . NOW.”
I knew I was in deep trouble.
Next: God Sent People
Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901
Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.