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The Ugly Business of Firing

I was Peter Possum, and I was fired

November 19, 2013 By Denny Hatch
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As readers of this cranky enterprise know, I had nine jobs in my first 12 years in business and was fired from five of them.

In those days, a person was fired (if lucky) with two weeks pay. Unlike today, anyone who complained—or heaven forbid! sued—was blackballed. References were not forthcoming and neither was a new job.

Let Me Share With You the First Time I Was Fired
In the mid-1960s, Grolier Enterprises was run by four dynamos: Founder Elsworth Howell, whose real love was judging Westminster Kennel Club dog shows at Madison Square Garden; Vice President Bob Clarke, who started in the Grolier mail room; Vice President of Marketing Ed Bakal, a rough-hewn ex-paratrooper; and Creative Vice President Lew Smith, the low-key, creative genius who hired me.

Grolier's business at the time was selling Dr. Seuss books to kids. The competition was Weekly Reader Book Club and Scholastic's paperback book clubs. The business model was based on selling books to students in classrooms through the teacher. Her thank-you reward: sets of books (or other premiums) for the classroom.

With Grolier's Dr. Seuss hardcover club coining money, Howell's team decided to take on the Scholastic with a line of paperbacks to be called the Peter Possum Book Club.

I was Peter Possum.

The Totally Ignorant Entrepreneur
Brand new to direct marketing, I was handed the book club to start from scratch and run. The ground rules:

  • All titles had to be 64 pages.
  • Howell was not about to pay royalties. All books were to be from the 19th century and in public domain.
  • They could, however, be in full color.
  • Price to the students: 35 cents each.

I was expected to do everything: find royalty-free books, put them into production, write and design the mailing pieces, work with the list people, figure out keys with Grolier's production wizard Mike Chomko, count orders (if any), and tally up money.

A direct mail virgin, I charged forth. Every time I found myself in over my head, I would yell for help and one of the four partners would immediately clear his desk, sit me down and talk me off the ledge and through the problem. I can say it was the greatest job I ever had. I earned what had to be the equivalent of an MBA in book club management in three months.

 
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