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It was a Monday afternoon in May when my life changed forever.
I was working away at my job as the Plant Manager for Dairy Cream, a regional ice cream company, when Reggie, one of our sales reps, came breezing through the door an hour earlier than I expected. He had a big appointment with Natural Foods, the booming national food chain that has had a branch here in town for ten years or so. I thought that perhaps he hadn’t made his sales call yet, until he shook his head, and with an easy-going shrug, gave me a “thumbs down” signal. He’d failed again to sell even a half-pint to Natural Foods. “Well get ‘em next time,” he said nonchalantly, with the faith of a Cubs fan.

It was no skin off his nose, I could tell. After all, no one really expected him to make the sale. We’d been trying for years. In fact, he seemed relieved. Going down there had become an annual chore I had made him perform, and he had completed it. It was one less thing he had to do.

Only this year I had really been counting on making that sale. We’d come up with three new flavors using natural ingredients that I thought would knock their socks off. That was the way we’d originally made a name for ourselves -- with radical new flavors that had gotten us not only local publicity and a surge in sales, but national attention. But my new flavors strategy seemed to have fizzled with Natural Foods.

What was worrying me most was something I couldn’t tell Reggie or anyone else. Our boss and founder, Malcolm Jones, had recently expressed his disappointment to me at our lack of sales growth. Our profit margins were shrinking. Malcolm had told me if things didn’t get better soon, he would have to make some serious changes. One solution, he said, would be to bring another management team on board. Or, he intimated, he might be forced to sell our factory outright to a national manufacturer, or scuttle the ice cream factory altogether by selling the land to a real estate developer. “I don’t care what you have to do to turn things around. But get it done. I’m putting this on your shoulders.” With suburban sprawl spreading past the highway belt encircling our city, I had no doubt Malcolm could make more money selling the land to a developer than he could running it with its current revenues. Either way, however, I would be out of a job. With a wife and two young kids, eight and six, Malcolm’s rebuke jolted me out of my complacency.

Although I had grown up in town, I had taken the job at Dairy Cream only two years ago, after spending ten years in a food manufacturing company in Denver. It seemed to me it was only recently that our family felt settled. My wife Jean had landed a new job at one of the local bank branches, and our son and daughter had a growing circle of friends in the neighborhood. But there was no way we could swing the mortgage and everything else on Jean’s salary alone.

And if I failed at Dairy Cream, what would I do? I wasn’t necessarily the smartest guy in the room but I worked hard at my job. I had come up with a number of management initiatives and employee morale programs to improve our manufacturing processes and increase our production.

But lately, nothing seemed to make a difference. Our ice cream appealed neither to the high-end, premium buyers, nor was it competitive with the lower priced budget brands. We were caught in the middle, and getting squeezed from both ends.

I’d never failed at my job before, but I’d begun to run out of answers. What could I do, I worried, to avoid this fate? What would happen to all the people under me if Malcolm sold the business – or the land?

That morning, I had held out hope that Natural Foods might be our savior. I knew that if we could sell our brand to just one branch of their chain, it would significantly boost our numbers. Their sales are so strong, they’d carry us with them. And then, of course, it would give us a foot in the door to try to land an account with the entire chain, multiplying our modest profits many times, overnight. And because Natural Foods has such a fabulous reputation for quality products and customer service, being picked up by them would signal to other retailers that we had earned the stamp of approval from the toughest judge in the food business, leading to more contracts.

So when Reggie returned to tell me we got another ‘no go’ from Natural Foods after an abbreviated ten-minute conversation with their buyer, my heart sank lower than my work boots. Reggie said he barely got his first sentence out when the buyer started asking questions he couldn’t really answer.

“Such as?”

“Such as the density of our ice cream, the percentage of ‘mix-ins,’ in weight and volume, the success rate of our packaging –“
“The success rate of our packaging?!?”

“That’s what I mean,” Reggie said. “I’d never heard such questions before.”

I was dumbfounded. How could Natural Foods make their decision on whether or not to carry our ice cream based on such arcane questions?
My disappointment, however, soon changed to determination. I couldn’t just let this account go. Years ago I knew one of the higher ups in the store. Darn it, I would go and make the pitch to them myself. Although I was scheduled to meet with our Director of Quality that day, I found myself taking off my safety goggles and lab coat, putting on my jacket and grabbing my keys before I was even aware of what I was doing. I’m not a sales rep – I have absolutely no sales experience – but I knew how crucial this sale was. I had to get it. I hopped into my car – a SUV we had just bought two months earlier to help trundle the kids around town, I reflected ruefully, thinking of the payments -- to go down to Natural Foods myself.

Although I had always refused to shop at Natural Foods -- because they had never bought our ice cream -- I had no trouble finding their store, a huge building located at one of our major intersections. Essentially a fancy grocery store, it looks nothing like the Biggie-Mart I frequent. The storefront consists of huge windows framed in brick, looking more like a bookstore than a grocery store. From across the parking lot you could see the 30-foot high rafters inside – the entire ceiling painted beige, not the depressing black or shocking white of most stores -- and the friendly banners hanging above each cash register. Whether you cared about the products or not, the store’s design had a way of drawing you in...

  The Ice Cream Maker is an intriguing story of Peter Delvecchio, the beleaguered Plant Manager of Dairy Cream, an ice cream manufacturing company.  
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