I’m fond of Swedish people and Stockholm. I spent a Thanksgiving there (the most properly served MacDonald’s experience of my life) as well as an unforgettable week in August amidst the Mercedes Fashion Show complete with a up-close sighting of Lady Gaga. I could add to the country’s and city’s reputation for fascinating design, kind people, healthy lifestyle and cultural sense of fair play. If only the dark of night did not arrive at 3:30pm on a November afternoon with the commentary of the populace being, “it gets worse until January!”
Destiny reveals itself in spurts and patches and singular moments. Our fate is spread over time; it’s not a path through time.
I needed work in the early 1990s. I was on a string of impressive positions that ended up as former positions. Note to self for application in the next life is to look at things for they are and not for what I’d like them to be. Good would be to drop the mantle of “if you will let me help you to do something that you’re not doing, than you’ll become something that you are not.” I believe that the syndrome is rescuing ourselves through others. Then again, it’s how I got a telemarketing gig thanks to a Nobel Prize recipient.
The rapid adoption of all things Internet persuaded me that the the planet’s shift from the physical world to a nearly virtual one would require and enable sales to be conducted in a similar way. I started Perrien Sales Group, Virtual Selling as if people didn’t think little enough of sales and salesman.
It struggled as either I was ahead of the game or too small to be taken seriously as I only received a handful of jobs. The negotiation normally entailed a plea by some small business owner, “the cash-flow next month looks not-so-good. Can you help me to find some customers over the next 30 days?” Budget? “$500.00.” Of course, they typically had neither a prospect list nor relevant marketing materials. I would throw myself onto their ramparts hoping that my sacrifice would result in an on-going stream of related business. The customary outcome was that ours was but a single blind date. Even when a good sales lead was uncovered, my client was too occupied usually to follow-up with the interested party. This is how I developed the point of view that the reasons that most businesses do not have more business is because they don’t want it (won’t do the necessary things to attract the available business).
The one interesting exception was the referral by the Washington office of the German state of Baden Wurttemburg, home to the headquarters of Porsche and Mercedes with Stuttgart as its major city. My Swabian contact suggested, ‘that I meet a Frenchman from Burgundy based in New York who needs help with a Swedish client who is interested in paying for a pharmaceutical market research project in the US.’ I’m your man, I acknowledged. Plus the fee was over 10x that of my usual barren projects.
I spoke by phone with the charming Frenchman and invited to New York City to meet with his pharmaceutical client at the Swedish Consulate. The second time that this happened to me is when I had just begun at IBM and was invited to the supreme hide-away in the woods of General Electric in Croton on Hudson, New York. I was to observe the results of a 6 month How to Use the Internet training program for the top 50 executives at GE. After 15 minutes, the young consultant suffered stage fright and sat down. The presiding senior executive from IBM’s Atlanta Enterprise Education Group asked if I would continue the discussion with the Top 50 which recalled General Custer’s actual last words of “Sergeant, take no prisoners.” I tried and I failed and promised myself to never again throw myself on the pyre of “they’ll love me if I do this desperate deed.”
Back to the Swabians, the French and the Swedes. I hopped aboard the regional Midway flight to LaGuardia Airport on a lovely spring day. Aisle seat with a free breakfast and coffee. Virtual Selling, indeed. The man or woman next to me said, apparently to no one, “there’s- I missed the name that was said – who won the Nobel Prize.” I saw an older woman meander down the aisle and into her seat. Her?!
Flight lands; taxi into Manhattan; I stay with a friend on 48th; wake-up early to be sure that I’m at the Hyatt Hotel adjacent to Grand Central Station in plenty of time to meet Mr. Frenchman and his (soon I’m to discover gorgeous, German) assistant.
As I searched through the lobby’s waiting area for my new colleagues, I saw on a sofa the woman from the flight who was identified as having “won the Nobel Prize.” She was alone, appearing to be waiting as well. I noted this sofa and chairs on every subsequent IBM visit to this Hyatt. Wistful was I when the Hyatt remodeled a few years ago and our meeting spot was renovated away.
I approached her- this is pre-Google so I have an excuse for not knowing – and inquired if she was the woman on the flight from Raleigh “who won the Nobel Prize.” “Yes,” she replied. I probably said, “I was on that flight also.” Amazing what virtual salesman have in common with Nobel Laureates. She was polite in receiving me, meaning that she did not try to catch the eye of the lobby security staff, and invited me to sit with her. She asked about my family and my reason for being in New York. Of course, she introduced herself explaining that she shared the prize with Dr. George Hitchings in 1988. Her name is Gertrude Elion and their work lead to the development of AZT for treating AIDS. After a few minutes, my French and German partners arrived in the lobby. Dr. Elion autographed a business card addressing it to my two sons and I said goodbye.
At my second meeting in the Hyatt lobby that morning, the kind Frenchman asked about my first meeting. I honestly informed him that ’She’s from North Carolina. She won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. We flew up here together.’ Sharp rise in the valuation of my virtual stock ensued.
Focusing on the matter at hand, we agreed on the order of our presentations at the Swedish Consulate. As I recall, my role was to be a small one as I was there to prove that I was an actual entity that could do something related to pharmaceutical market research.
In the era of Pre-Uber, we caught a taxi for the short ride to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. Into the impressive building near the East River (later I learned that there is a tennis court on top) and into the elevator for the entrance to the munificent offices and facilities of the Swedish government. This was a world of light-colored, wooden furniture staffed by tall, engaging, perfect English speaking, attractive and blonde Swedes. Our name tags awaited us and we were led to a massive conference room with a bowling alley of a conference table.
As we awaited the entrance of the Consular, we enjoyed perfect, ink black coffee and Swedish pastries. As I munched and sipped, the room began to fill with additional handsome and blonde people and these carried binders and folders and portfolios and plenty of note-taking items. This is getting serious, I thought to myself. In the end, about 15 sat around the table making polite conversation awaiting Mr. Big’s arrival.
With little fanfare, a secretary opened the door and in he came. All smiles with an apology for being a few minutes late, he shook hands with the Frenchman, greeted his staff and took his seat at the head of the lane.
I wondered how this would go and what role would I play, if any, in the discussion or negotiation or treaty signing. After his remarks, the Kind Frenchman was invited to describe the project’s ambition. After 2 to 3 minutes, I realized that I was to be the heart and soul of the endeavor given my extensive insight and experiences with the pharmaceutical industry in the United States. I tried to remain calm and to appear undaunted by the stares of professional interest from those around the table. Actually, I so wanted to be back in Raleigh talking with a two man software company about a $500 deal to find them a customer of any kind within the next month.
My French colleague concluded his warm-up act by suggesting that I describe my meeting with the Nobel Prize Laureate as my way of taking the floor. I thought, “maybe I’m overcharging those small companies and could increase my customer base if I lowered my prices to $300 or even $250.”
I related that tale of the Midway flight, the chance meeting at the Hyatt Hotel, the autograph and the coincidence of this meeting at the Swedish Consulate, the country which hosts the Nobel ceremonies. That’s All Folks.
Science is fraught with discoveries that are the unintended consequences of purposeful research. My own Eureka moment was provided by the Consular himself. As I told my Nobel tale, he nodded, then he smiled, then he nodded and smiled broadly. I finished and he shared with the table of experts, ‘how interesting. I had the pleasure of escorting Dr. Elion from New York to Stockholm for the ceremony with the King and the receipt of her prize.’ He continued by describing how pleasant of a person that she is and how very important is her work for combating the AIDS virus. I was now known by whom I hung-around with. Who would now dare question the Perrien Sales Group’s capacity to conduct effectively a mere pharmaceutical market research project across the United States of America?! In a virtual sort of way, of course.
Skipping further evaluation of my CV, we moved on to contract details such as start and end dates; the necessary format of the data to be provided and received; and a host of odds and ends that staff minions could handle given my recent exalted status.
The meeting concluded. The kind Frenchman took me to lunch. His German assistant was even nice to me after giving me the ‘you can’t be real’ vibe all morning.
In the end, the project didn’t go far as we tried to learn a lot from our contacts without telling them much about our purpose. I got the check and never saw the Swedish Consulate nor the Frenchman ever again.
Years later, now working with IBM in a physical way, I visited Stockholm regularly. I recommend the Nobel Museum. My favorite part of this beautiful space is the Bistro Nobel. If you will turn the Bistro’s chairs upside down, you’ll see the signatures of numerous Nobel Laureates as they visit the Museum after the Award Ceremony. I’ve never located Dr. Elion’s autograph (I know what it looks like, after all). But I once had a coffee in the Bistro, sitting on one of the simple and now priceless chairs, considering the casual poignancies of life where one may be amazed by what one can find even when one is not searching or researching.