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April 11, 2011

Quarterly Meeting Not Worth a Plugged Nickel


I was invited to the company’s quarterly meeting and it turned out to be not worth a plugged nickel!    I thought this would be a good opportunity to meet the sales team and get more insight into the business.  We were still working on the documents to clarify the new company’s structure, that is meeting the Women’s Business Enterprise Council’s (WBENC) requirements, but I had formed a new entity, registered the with the GS1 US for our bar codes, created a logo, and set up a business checking account.  I had secured placement with The Kroger Company for two flavors of the “heart healthy” frozen pizza. I had  completed the new item forms locking in our price and pack size.  This was a home run for the team.  I thought there would be some type of excitement over the opportunity at hand.  Instead, there was no mention of the new pizza product, or me for that matter.  I was shunned from the morning meeting left to sit in the communal area outside of the upper management’s office area. I introduced myself to the occasional straggler that walked by only to be met back with blank stares and a lukewarm greeting.   During the break for lunch, all the regional sales managers, the president, the vice presidents and two of the private equity partners came out and took a seat at the tables.  I wasn’t sure whether to use my powers of invisibility for good or evil.  The whole atmosphere was strange and disjointed.  The tension between the sales team and the management team was palpable.

I excused myself to use the facilities and to just walk away from the group.  On the way back to the office area I ran into one of the  regional sales manager and they introduced themselves to me.  I told them that I had sold my brand to their company and that I would be working with the team.  The regional manager registered a look of complete surprise.  This was the first time they had heard anything about the new frozen product  line.  They welcomed me and asked if I would be in the meetings this afternoon.  I have no idea what is going on to be honest I answered.  The regional manager laughed and said, welcome to our world, none of us do.

Oh boy, warning sign.  This group was disjointed at best.  Between the tension and the secrets it actually brought out the Irish in me and made me start to laugh.  I mean what the hell?  This is a pizza manufacturing company.  We were all trying to sell more pizza, that’s all!  Not planning g a coercive invasion of another country or even another frozen food company.  The secretive behavior was just absurd.  They had 5 sales people and they did not trust them to collaborate and develop ideas to go to market? Sick, sick sick, I tell you.

After lunch the president told me that I was welcome to join them in the conference room  We were going to be meeting with a representative from one of the largest food broker companies to give us the ABC’s of the food business.  I thought he was kidding, but it was like going into a meeting to learn how to write cursive.  I was surprised that we didn’t start with the creation of fire and how that changed the way cave man approached the foodCaveman starting fire supply. The broker was way too homogenized and pasteurized in his presentation skills to show the amusement that he must have felt during the question and answer session.  The private equity partners were arguing with him about the most basic facts in the frozen and refrigerated categories. The broker had access and presented detailed demographics and analytics to help our group make our best presentation to retailers.  Instead of using the tools as a learning experience, they chose to argue and say that they didn’t think the data was correct.  The broker finally grinned and asked what part of the information was invalid and what did they think was the correct version.  The equity guy didn’t have another version; he just wasn’t buying what the broker was presenting.  The broker seemed miffed, even through that polished steel veneer, I saw him wince and exchange a look with the VP of sales and marketing.  The VP looked embarrassed and extremely uncomfortable.  I must have shed my invisibility cloak because the equity guy  turned to me and asked what I thought.  I answered that it had been my experience that what the broker was presenting was accurate for the current market.  The VP smiled my direction and I thought I caught a glimpse of gratitude in his eyes.  It was hard to tell in the dimly lit room gathered around the projector shooting the PowerPoint presentation up on the screen at the far end of the room.

At the end of a fifteen minute break when everyone scattered like mice, we were all called back into the conference room.  This time, I was told that I would be presenting the new heart healthy pizza to the group.  No heads up, Jo your next, not a word.  No problem, however as it was my power point presentation and I knew the material like the back of my hand.  The deck was placed up on the screen and I walked the group through the new pizza product, its concept, why it fit the needs of the consumer, and ended with the success of placing the two flavors of the product line with The Kroger Company.  No reaction from the group other than the broker who said that is fantastic.  I realized that the rest of the team was oppressed.  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to speak, but that they were afraid to say anything with the president and the equity guy in the room. Secretive and Oppressive management, this was a very bad sign.  What had I gotten myself into?


That evening as our miserable mob gathered at a local restaurant for dinner, the equity guy cornered me to tell me that the president and he were impressed by my ability to do the PowerPoint presentation without any advance notice.  He said they had mixed up the slides a bit and that I did the presentation without pause or glitches.  I forced a smile, and said; well I did write the presentation and created the concept, so I could have done the presentation in the dark if necessary. No big deal really.  Truth was I had not even noticed that they had mixed up the slides order in the presentation.  When presenting, it works best to speak directly to your audience not at them. Speaking from your knowledge base is preferable, and not some canned spam information that is meaningless to you as the presenter.  He countered, no the president and I were really impressed that you didn’t get flustered and gave the presentation even under all that pressure.  My mind began to wander while the equity guy was spewing his crap.  What pressure?  We were a small group of people, all on the same team, talking about new products in development to meet the changing needs of consumers.  The equity guy’s praise was as if I were a magician that had just escaped Houdini’s  Chinese Water Torture Cell in the nick of time.  How many drinks had he consumed before our arrival to the restaurant I wondered?  Weird, seriously.


Many long hours of baseball stories, drunken off color jokes, and about six bottles of wine for the four people drinking, we were dismissed for the night.  I didn’t know that people still drank like that and drove.  As we all battled for a ride back with the VP of Sales, who like me, had not been drinking all evening, I muscled my way into the big Mercury sedan. Back at the hotel, a few of us sat around the lobby carrying on a generic conversation, then called it a night.

Driving home the next morning, my mind began to wander over the series of events that had taken place since I had met these folks.  I had committed my product line to Kroger through the new company, so I was stuck for the moment. But  I started on my contingency plan.


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