Lessons learned

By John Christie | Jan 19, 2012

It's impossible to count the number of times in my life that I've been struck with the realization that virtually all of the decisions I've made and the actions I've taken in my life were influenced by lessons I learned in just one decade, the 1950s, growing up in Camden,

Many of those lessons I can trace back to the seventh grade, when I inherited my older brother's Maine Sunday Telegram delivery route. I was the beneficiary of his generosity when he made the leap to the more profitable daily Press Herald route. This meant, I realized after I started delivering Sunday papers in the entire eastern quadrant of town stretching from Elm Street to Bay View Street, that Mick's daily route was more profitable, and that the bag over his shoulders was a hell of a lot lighter than mine containing the, even back then, bulky Sunday edition.

Delivering papers for a large part of Sunday morning didn't prevent my having to be ready for church at 10 a.m., but it did severely interfere with my getting the first ride up the rope tow at the Snow Bowl. But I was buoyed by the knowledge that when my brother graduated from high school I'd get his shorter, easier, more profitable daily route. As long as we stayed on speaking terms and I didn't completely screw up my Sunday delivery job.

I was learning, way back then, that if you wanted to ultimately get easier jobs you had to start off doing the tougher ones well. And if you wanted to make sure that people who were in positions to bestow those better jobs on you did so, you'd better both get along with them and convince them of your competency.

Even more importantly, my paper routes constituted my first, and perhaps best, lessons in how to run a business. In fact, even classes at the B school didn't have the impact, or convey the important lessons of my on-the-job business training as delivering papers in Camden.

You see, on my daily route, every Saturday morning I'd have to collect the money due from every one of my customers for the six papers I'd delivered that week. I realized that I needed to make it as easy as possible for them to pay me everything that was due, so I worked with every one of them to agree on a cup, or a can, or an envelope in which they could leave their coins out on Friday night so I wouldn't have to wake them up early on Saturday.

I also realized that if they were satisfied with my performance, by getting the paper to them early enough so so they could read it with their morning coffee before going to work, and if I made sure on rainy and windy days that I left the paper in a dry, secure place, they'd be more inclined to pay me.

Collecting the money due was imperative, as on Tuesday afternoons J. Webster Mountfort... there's a name I'll never forget... would arrive at my house with his blackened, coin-soiled fingers to help me count out my nickels, dimes and quarters and roll them up. After counting the coins, he'd calculate how much I owed him for the papers for which I was responsible, and what was left over... my cut... was my profit. Simple enough, as long as as I had collected every cent due me. It only took a few recalcitrant non-payers to deprive me of any spending money for the next week. So, needless to say, keeping them happy, and collecting from them, was paramount. And a great lesson for my future decades in the business world.

Another lesson I learned with my paper route was about networking and the value of referrals. Periodically, Gannett Publishing (a scholarship from whom financed my later years at Bowdoin) would run contests to increase the number of subscribers and award premiums based on the number of new customers we could add to routes.

I'd always vigorously participate, and when a suspicious prospect would ask me if they could depend on my getting the paper to them early in the morning, regardless of the weather, week in and week out, I'd say, “Why don't you ask Mrs. Goodwin on Jacobs Avenue, she's been a customer of mine for years.” And to seal the deal, I'd have my mother ask her dear friend Evelyn Goodwin to call the skeptical customer-to-be.

Increasing my route meant a couple of things: First, a few cents more in my pocket per week per customer; and, second, the chance to collect valuable contest premiums. For example, one year I added enough new customers to win a hand held electric hobby set with a drill to which you could also add grinding wheels, tiny saw blades, buffers, and a bunch of other useful and useless attachments.

For several years, I made good use of that tool set in my little shop in the cellar in our house at 42 Harbor Hill, across the street from the library, and which my mother rented from the spinster Alden sisters, who lived next door (as an interesting aside, I vividly remember walking across the lawn on the first day of each month to delver our rent: $35!).

Every Christmas season for several years I manufactured little plywood sleighs that my school chum up on Central Street, Dinny Shea, would hand-paint and fill with spruce boughs and bobbles for table center pieces, which we'd sell.

Or rather, our mothers would sell to their friends in the Monday Club and Jess Hosmer, out of friendship with my mother and sympathy for me, would push at the Village Shop as well. Again, networking.

Watching Dean Fisher hammer away on and weld what looked something like snow plows in his garage three houses away; working after school at Brown's Market (the current site of Bill Dickey's Camden Embroidery); driving a taxi and the early morning route to pick up school kids on Howe Hill for Gilbert Hall all contributed to imparting to me enduring life lessons learned in those formative years growing up in such a close-knit community.

 

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