• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

(It was early 1980s: I had my marketing degree, and a new job at an agency. Not long after my first day, I met Larry - a new client who was adding a security hardware business to his growing portfolio. I asked him how he started…)

Larry’s first venture was selling carpets. His office was a back bedroom at home, his logistics operation was a white van. He gave the impression that he ran a big company because his wife answered calls by saying “this is reception”, and he had two sets of panels that he attached to the side of his van: ‘Industrial Floor Coverings’ and ‘Residential Carpeting’ depending which type of customer he was visiting. After a couple of years Larry (and his two carpet fitters) had just enough business to keep their heads above water, mostly through other small traders, like local builders and estate agents. Cash-in-hand gratuity and an occasional lunch kept the wheels turning. But Larry was ambitious, and wondered how he might take his business to the next level. One lunchtime, the landlord at his local pub told Larry that his wife was on the ‘phone. (This was a long time before mobiles and texting.) She had an enquiry from a potential customer that sounded very important. “He said that he’s a First Lieutenant at the local US Air Force base. He wants to re-carpet all the offices and quarters. He told me that he’d like to see you tomorrow afternoon.” It was the best opportunity Larry had received since he started. The next day, Larry arrived at the base in his best suit (that he’d had cleaned), a white shirt (that he had pressed)and his black shoes (that he’d shined in the evening and again in the morning). And he still felt scruffy. The guards on the security gates looked like Action Men, the secretary who met him at the main building looked like she had come from the Pentagon. While all the people were immaculate, the carpet was a little threadbare. It was true of the First Lieutenant’s office too. Larry could see why USAF wanted to refit. “When we put up the new buildings, the contractors cut costs on carpet,” the First Lieutenant said, with disappointment in his voice. “And now it’s a joke for anyone in the Air Force. Dignitaries who visit, Chiefs from other bases, even people back home. I want us to change that. I want the highest quality that’s going to last.” Larry showed him squares from his best sample book, and told him that it was guaranteed for 20 years. “We’ve already been told that, by three other suppliers. Same carpet, same spiel. I don’t want to be *told* that it’s good enough to last 20 years. I want to see it. What can you *show* me?” “How about refitting the reception?” asked Larry. The First Lieutenant said it would get in the way of daily work. Larry suggested the mess room; the First Lieutenant said it was too busy. “Your office?” No - the First Lieutenant didn’t want to show personal preference. “OK, a quiet corridor.” What was the point of that? You might as well put it in the chapel. No one goes there at all. Larry looked out the window. A giant aircraft taxied past. “How about we carpet the runway?” Larry could feel the sweat trickle inside his collar and down his back. It was probably the most stupid idea he’d ever had, and certainly the most stupid he’d ever said out loud. “Not all of it” said Larry, “that’ll be too expensive - but just part of it. Have one of your ‘planes drive over it. Test the strength of the weave.” “Do you have an aircraft in mind?” asked the First Lieutenant, perhaps teasing, perhaps taking the hook of the bait. Larry pointed out of the window. “That one.” He didn’t know what it was, just that it was very big. (It was a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, the sort of ‘plane that carries tanks and artillery and juggernaut trucks.) As the First Lieutenant looked at the carpet, the ‘plane and Larry, the voice in Larry’s head kept repeating ‘stupid, stupid, stupid.’ "Let's try it," said the First Lieutenant. Larry wondered if it wasn't so stupid after all? A week later, he and his fitters were back at the base to demonstrate their high-grade floor covering. They had new ‘Military Division’ panels on their white van, and two rolls of heavy-duty carpet to spread on the turning circle at the end of the main runway. When it was all in place, the military guard who accompanied them called the First Lieutenant on his walkie-talkie. A few minutes later, Larry saw a flotilla of Jeeps and cars driving from the office buildings. As they got closer, Larry estimated that some 40 people - admin, engineers, aircrew - were coming to watch. Larry and his team were given ear mufflers and ushered away from the turning circle, as the Lockheed started its engines. Slowly it moved forward, directed by ground crew so that its front wheels moved onto the carpet. Then a pushback tug moved it back. Twice more, forwards and backwards. Then all engines were shut down. The First Lieutenant put his hand on Larry’s shoulder and ushered him to the centre of the circle. They inspected the handiwork for the day, as if they were looking at discovered archeology. The carpet was dirty, marked with tyre treads and oil spills, but it was in one piece. The First Lieutenant extended his arm to Larry. “You got the contract!” Larry beamed like a Cheshire cat, as they shook hands and the observing group burst into applause. The First Lieutenant continued: “You know that you were always going to get this, didn’t you?” Larry looked perplexed. “Even if the carpet had shredded, it would have proved that it wasn’t designed to carry a 700,000 lb aircraft. Actually, it didn’t do too badly. “What was more important to me is that you were willing to have a go. All anybody else thought of, or they willing to do, was show me a piece of paper from the manufacturer. “The samples you showed me were the same as the samples everyone else had shown me. But the moment that you suggested the runway, I knew that you were different.”

Coachaiku: 17-syllable reflections, in a 5-7-5 form, for personal and professional development.

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