Volume 37, Issue 1, January 2002
Legends of the Game
Recognizing One of the Industry’s Most Accomplished Players
by Dez Farnady
Everybody else gets to celebrate their legends, so why not those of us in the glass business? My first nominee for legend status is Harold Witkin, one of the founding partners of the largest glass distribution company in Northern California.
In 1947, after the conclusion of the Second World War, Lieutenant Commander Harold Witkin of the U.S. Navy decided not to return to his home in Chicago. With his father-in- law, Nate Havlin, he found a suitable location in the Santa Clara Valley and established Havlin-Witkin Picture and Mirror Corp. They built a single block building that still serves as a center of glass distribution today as the Northern California offices of ACI Distribution.
In the Beginning
When I met Harold in the 1970s he was the owner and operator of a multi-million-dollar glass distribution operation. He was also recognized as the respected informal leader of most of the area’s industry management organizations. So when I first walked into his office to be introduced as the “green” new tempered salesman, I was more than a little apprehensive about meeting him. I was surprised when he asked me to sit down, offered me one of his famous premium imported Cuban cigars and quizzed me about the news of the industry. He treated the rookie like he treated everyone, particularly his suppliers: professionally and with respect. Through the years my first impression was often re-enforced and it was Harold for whom I went to work when I finally became a Havlin-Witkin employee.
There are many stories that made Harold famous in the Northern California glass business. Many small glass shops, and some that became big ones, owed their existence to Harold’s generosity or to his flexible credit policies.
Harold spent a lot of time in his later years collecting money for his accounts receivable department. He told his salespeople to go out into the field and make friends and he would take the responsibility for being the bad guy and the bill collector. Well, as often as he would call to collect on past-due bills, he never was the bad guy. But I did learn that he never asked any of his customers for “their” money. They had “his product” and if they had not paid for it they also had “his money.” So when Harold called, it was always “you have my money,” and they all knew exactly what he meant.
In 1985 Harold sold the Havlin-Witkin Corp. to ACI, but stayed on helping with the collections. On one particular day a young customer, a San Francisco glazing contractor, came in and we met in the office hallway. He had heard a lot about Harold but had never met him. As we were chatting in the hall he asked me why Harold was still around and just what he did. Just at that moment Harold came around the corner, so I introduced them to each other adding that the contractor had come down from “the city” to pick up some glass and pay an invoice. They chatted for a few moments and Harold said, “$3,248.37?” The contractor had to pull the check out of his pocket to check the amount. It was just as Harold had said. Harold then smiled, said goodbye and left us for his office. I turned to the contractor and told him, “That’s what he does …”
After the sale of the company to ACI and after the expiration of his contract, Harold retained his office at ACI and continued to help with collections at a minimal salary. Every year the zone manager would, out of courtesy, ask Harold if he wanted a raise. Usually Harold would just laugh. One year unexpectedly Harold showed up in the zone manager’s office and asked for a raise. “Why would you want a raise now?” the manager asked. Several employees’ children were participating in a Binswanger-sponsored college scholarship program at that time, including one of mine. “Send my raise to Binswanger as my contribution to the scholarship program,” said Harold. He not only knew how to make money and collect it, but as an active member of many Bay Area charitable organizations for many years, he also knew how to give it away.
There are many Harold Witkin stories, and while mine may not be the best, that’s the way I remember him. He was one of a kind and one of the “Legends of the Game.”
Dez Farnady serves as general manager of Royalite Manufacturing Inc., a skylight manufacturer in San Carlos, Calif. His column appears monthly.
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