Volume 38, Issue 6, June 2003
by Lyle R. Hill
I was early … very early, and that’s rare for me. I’m the kinda guy who likes to be right on time. Neither early nor late. Just right on time. But the first meeting of the morning, just south of the downtown area, had gone much faster than expected and it didn’t make sense to drive back to my office in the suburbs and then drive all the way back downtown for the next meeting, so I headed over to a nice, quiet little restaurant across the street from where my next meeting was to take place. I would then get a late breakfast, browse through the Sun-Times and stroll over casually for meeting number two on this cool, but pleasant, April morning. The purpose of this second meeting was to wrap up a complicated but worthwhile job that I had been chasing for the past 45 days or so. And while the customer with whom I was scheduled to meet was not someone for whom we did a lot of work, times were tough and we needed the job.
Chicago has a well-deserved reputation for great restaurants. This particular one is not destined to appear on anyone’s list of “must-visit spots” while in the windy city, but it isn’t bad … high backed booths … lots of plants (both real and artificial) … and a better than average menu. I ordered some scrambled eggs and then began reading the Times … like always, from back to front.
Before I was half way through the back inside page, I glanced up and immediately lost my appetite. In fact, I could hardly believe my eyes, because there … just inside the front door … stood two of the guys I was scheduled to meet with in just a little less than an hour. It wasn’t the sight of them that disturbed me. Under normal circumstances I would have been delighted to see them in this setting. In fact, I would have asked them to join me and gladly picked up the tab. No, they were not a bother to me. It was the third person in the group that bothered me … for he was a competitor. Even more than just a competitor … he was someone I didn’t like … at all. What was stinging even more was the fact that I had suggested to these two that we meet for coffee or a meal during my visit with them, but they had told me they were too busy. Well apparently they were too busy … too busy for me anyway … but not for the other guy.
Within just a minute or so, the three were approached by the restaurant’s hostess and, to my shock, she began leading them in my direction. I hiked up the newspaper, which I was now hiding behind, a little higher and hoped they wouldn’t see me. Fortunately, they didn’t, but as fate would have it … and I have spent most of my life trying hard to become fate’s best friend … they ended up being seated right behind me. The only thing that now separated us was the very high back of the booth and a thick and unbelievably dusty artificial ficus tree. I slunk a little lower into the bench and positioned myself for minimum exposure.
Then, just as I was still trying to decide whether or not I could fit completely and discreetly under the table, I started picking up their conversation … and I was not happy about what I was hearing. First, slime-ball competitor offered them tickets to the upcoming Cubs–Yankees game … a hot ticket to say the least. The Yankees’ first visit to Wrigley Field since the 1938 World Series had created an unbelievable demand for these tickets … scalpers were already getting $300 a seat and the price would certainly go even higher within a week or two. Next, Mr. Slime tells the two that all he wants in exchange for his generosity is to know my price on the very job that I am scheduled to meet with them about.
One of the many things I truly love about Chicago and its inhabitants is the quick and direct way with which things are dealt. Chicago is known as “The City That Works” and the reason it works is because there is little ceremony … no guessing … no innuendo … no codes to be deciphered or puzzles to be solved, just simple, direct action. I think this started many years ago when someone from the West side put a gun into the ribs of someone from the North side and said, “give me your wallet or I’ll shoot you.” Both parties clearly understood the deal and made their decisions accordingly. It’s all very Chicago.
The two men took the tickets, congratulated themselves on their good fortune, and produced a copy of my proposal so that the glad-hander could see for himself exactly what I had bid. And then to my complete and utter surprise … no, not surprise … absolute shock … the two pointed out to the would-be competitor that I was actually a few hundred dollars low, and that they were scheduled to meet with me and their boss within the hour. They went on to say that their boss was committed to giving the job to the low bidder and that the job had to be awarded immediately to avoid delays.
It is not possible to describe the feeling that swept over me at this precise moment. No … not due to the fact that my bid had been shared so carelessly with a competitor. Bids are passed around every day. No … not because I was being sold out for two Cubs tickets. After all, I’ve been sold out before for a lot less. And no, not because the customers involved had rejected my lunch offer and accepted the offer of my competitor. I’ve been rejected before and by people much better than these. In reality, this unbelievable feeling was being caused by the fact that I was actually low on a bid … can you believe it? Me … actually low! It had never happened before and I was overcome with a feeling of absolute euphoria. I banged my head on the underside of the table, but two quick slaps to the left side of my face delivered by my right hand restored my composure.
Now the two guys in this situation had made it very clear that they were looking for the tickets in question. In fact, they had made it clear to me as well and that was why I had also come prepared to show my “gratitude.” Indeed two of my own tickets were resting peacefully inside my coat pocket. Who could blame them for wanting to spend an afternoon at the friendly confines known as Wrigley Field watching the Yankees and Cubs go at each other? The last time the Yankees had played on Chicago’s North side was October 6, 1938. The Yankees of Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig beat the Cubs of Gabby Hartnett and Phil Cavaretta by a score of 6-3 that day. Lefty Gomez was the winning pitcher … Dizzy Dean was the loser. It was game two of the ’38 World Series. The Yankees swept the series in four games, just as they had done to the Cubs in the 1932 series. Eight straight Cub loses … all World Series events ... at the hands of the Yankees.
The competitor accepted the thanks of the two ticket recipients and then quickly produced a fresh, blank proposal from his inside suit coat pocket. He penned in a new price that now placed him exactly $75 lower than me, stuffed it into an envelope and handed it to the younger of the two grinning men. They shook hands, stood and headed for the exit. The whole ordeal lasted less than 20 minutes.
I love Chicago … I really do. Can’t even think about living somewhere else. Maybe you gotta grow up in Chicago to really appreciate it. How it works … why it works … and most importantly, how to make it work for you. And one of the things that helps Chicago work so well is the large number of retailers of every type and description on virtually every street corner in the city. So after crawling out from under the table at the restaurant, it only took a few minutes to find a store where I could acquire a bottle of whiteout and a crisp, clean, new envelope. And after doing so, I adjusted the price on the copy of the bid I was carrying, sealed it into the new envelope, gave the slightly used bottle of whiteout to a panhandler after making him promise that he wouldn’t drink it, and headed to the meeting.
Within seconds of my arrival, I was ushered into a conference room where the two I had eavesdropped on earlier were waiting. Their boss quickly joined us and after the obligatory introductions and chatter, I stated that I had found a small error in my bid and had modified it accordingly. I handed my proposal … which I knew would now be $18 lower than my competitor … over to the trio. The boss displayed an approving nod. The other two looked first at the new proposal and then sheepishly at each other. I was thanked by the boss and told to start work immediately.
Many years ago I had been taught that after you get the order … get out. So having accomplished the former, I quickly did the latter. And the best part of all … I got out of there still holding the Cubs-Yankee tickets with which I had started the day.
Lyle R. Hill is president of MTH
Industries of Chicago.
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