I hope the internet gods forgive me. When I read this story on Quora, there was no doubt it was the top five thing I had read on the internet IN MY LIFE. I was an early, early adopter of the internet so I thought to myself, wow, this is some inspirational, life-changing stuff here. Of course, I shared it with all my social media accounts, but then I thought I can not, CAN not let this disappear among thousands of other questions on Quora. Ten years from now I want to be able to read it. I want others to be able to read it. I do not intend to steal or plagiarize but I feel these words are that impactful, they should be free to become an idea virus in our society. Under fair use laws I suppose I can legally do so but I still feel grateful and humbled to share this.
“Send in the Polak.”
My father-in-law got used to this line, working for a big trucking company in the 60’s.
A first-generation immigrant from Poland, he was shy and his English was unrecognizable. He arrived in Chicago and was working two days later.
His family in America helped him find jobs initially. He couldn’t read or speak English, so he relied on other Polish business owners to hire him.
A candy shop.
A trucking company.
Often working two jobs at once, he went through ten different employers in six years. If a company offered him a nickel raise, he was gone.
Been there done that myself, not a fun way to live. But it is motivating. -Felix
He found a beautiful Polish girl from his hometown and married young. After a long day working two jobs, he would brag about running his own business one day.
Always happy to keep him on his toes, she would respond with, “Start by learning the language.”
Building His Brand
Chicago winters are bitterly cold.
Working as a mechanic for a large trucking company, he built a reputation as someone who wouldn’t turn down a job.
If a steel mill called with a broken down truck on the lake front, he took the job without complaint. While his peers turned those jobs down, he built a reputation as someone who always answered the bell.
“Send in the Polak.”
Pause a moment and consider this. If you have never been to Chicago, it is in the middle of the continent and on the shores of a large inland lake. The weather systems most years are nasty at best. Most the people who live there are born there, and are accustomed to it. People like that, would not go out in some weather still – but HE did. -Felix
He repeats that line fifty years later, with the same sense of pride he probably had as a young man.
“They knew I would take any job. Freezing weather in the middle of the night, in a bad neighborhood in Gary, Indiana? I took the job and I did it right. If a job took someone else eight hours, I did it in four.”
His self-confidence grew in this job and he decided he could do it on his own. With everything they had, he bought a used truck and a welding machine.
Now, he had a side business.
He worked during the day and made prospecting calls at night. The first problem was that most businesses didn’t answer phones after 5:00 in those days.
The other problem? No one understood him if they did pick up.
I cold called for three years right after college. I speak perfect English and still struggled with motivation when cold calling. I wanted to know, was he stressed out making those calls?
“I was pouring sweat before I even picked up the phone. It was awful. They hung up on me. Some yelled. Others couldn’t understand me.”
His English is still tough to decipher. He has to repeat the punch line to every joke at least twice and he only has 15 jokes that play on a repeating cycle. I love them all.
I can only imagine what it was like making those calls as a young man. I asked him what his pitch was.
“Do you have any work? I will do it better and cheaper.”
Technically, that pitch has it all. Call to action. Benefits clearly articulated. Sounds compelling.
Fortunately, he had a reputation as a guy who would do the tough jobs and do them quickly without complaint. His work was as efficient as his cold call pitch.
He landed his first customer. He worked several odd jobs over two weeks and felt good enough to quit his main job. He went all in.
The beautiful Polish bride of his played a major role in his success. With one baby at home and another on the way, she held down the house while he worked long hours, often on the road.
Her English was solid so she wore many hats in the company, from accounting to interacting with lawyers. They made quite the team.
That customer ran out of work but made a few calls on his behalf, knowing his English was so bad that he might scare them away on his own.
“Hey, I got this Polish kid who is really good. He’ll work hard and the price is right.”
One referral led to another and pretty soon he was getting steady business.
Some of those early customers took advantage of him. Some didn’t pay. Others paid him only a portion of what he was owed, knowing he needed them more than they needed him.
It didn’t faze him. His days of cold calling were over.
The pride he showed in taking care of customers was all the marketing he ever needed.
The quality of his work led to more business. He hasn’t strayed from that strategy once in the last 50 years.
He now runs one of the largest trucking service businesses in Chicago, employing 25 on the South side.
Giving Without Expectation
One story from just ten years ago describes his success perfectly.
On the way to the city for dinner with my mother-in-law, a semi truck pulled over at the side of the road. The truck was owned by one of his biggest customers.
He had some tools in his pickup truck so he pulled over to check. Dressed up for a nice dinner, he proceeded to slide under that truck and fix the brake line.
It was snowing and freezing cold. The job took a while because everything was frozen. He finished up, shook the driver’s hand and headed to dinner, smelling like diesel fuel.
This happened at a time when his business was firmly established. He was 60 years old and could have easily made a phone call to one of his mechanics to head over.
Recently, I asked him some questions about that night.
I wanted to know if his customer was appreciative that he pulled over to help.
“They never found out.”
Wait. What? You didn’t tell them?
“Why would I brag about that? The truck driver didn’t know who the hell I was. He probably just thought I was being nice. That company has been good to me for many years. I owed them, not the other way around.”
Think about that attitude for a minute.
How many people help others without expecting something in return? How many businesses are completely selfless?
In his view, telling the customer this story would defeat the point of doing something nice. It would look like he only did it to get more future business.
“You know Ian, what goes around, comes around.”
If you see a commercial touting some social cause, it is hard to see it as anything other than a profit-driven, calculated move by a big company.
People “like” each other’s posts on social media just to get a return “like”.
“Follow then Unfollow” is a strategy touted by the gurus.
If a customer sends in a complimentary letter to a big company, some manager will inevitably ask if they can write it again, but this time on their website. They want that ROG – Return On Gratitude.
When Winston Churchill was a young soldier, he wrote his mom from the front lines, complaining that no one had noticed when he’d dragged a wounded soldier to safety. “Given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble. Without the gallery things are different.”
That’s not my father-in-law.
He pulled over on the side of a busy highway in the freezing cold because that customer meant something to him.
He remembers where he came from and how hard it was to build his business. He hasn’t forgotten what it was like to not have customers.
He remembers all ten of those dead-end jobs. He remembers what it was like to cold call without speaking the language.
He appreciates every customer.
That, is how you become successful in business.
Me and my guy “Chief” on a recent trip where I learned more about business than any MBA course could teach.