A BUCKET OF ICE WATER
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That was the way we’d originally made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
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
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
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
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
“Such as the density of our ice cream,
the percentage of ‘mix-ins,’ in
weight and volume, the success rate of our
“The success rate of our packaging?!?”
“That’s what I mean,” Reggie
said. “I’d never heard such questions
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