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Ken Keller: Six lessons taught by my mentor

Brain Food For Business Owners

Posted: April 1, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 1, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Whenever I drive on Interstate 10 through Palm Springs, I think about the lessons taught to me by “Wild Bill” Sweeney. I worked with Bill at Nestle.

That was first lesson I learned from Bill: Focus on what you have been directed to do, and do it well.

He had his marching orders to sell coffee to a certain set of customers, and nothing was going to stop him. Bill was a man on a
mission. He wanted people on his side, but if he had to, he would run you over; it was your choice.  

The second lesson was to be prepared. You had to be ready, and Bill would almost always ask me the one question I did not know the answer to.

Bill knew his stuff, but he was not interested in proving he was smarter. He wanted people thinking like him: focused on goals and getting obstacles out of the way, to take care of customers. 

I did not always want to deal with him. He often exploded — pounding his desk, pointing fingers and giving me grief about the things that negatively impacted his customers.

The third lesson I learned was the concept of service. He explained it clearly, so simply that I can remember it like it was yesterday.

He said, “The only thing I can do is out-service my clients because they can buy what we sell from anyone.”

That was a tall order. A company has policies, procedures and rules. While Bill understood that, he also realized that people not working in the interest of the customer were “sales prevention.”

None of that mattered to Bill. In his quest to grow a small division, new ways of doing business had to evolve. Attitudes had to change. 

His fourth lesson was that major decisions could be delayed for 24 hours. “Never,” he said, “make an important decision without waiting.” Following that advice, I was able to keep my head when emotions would have otherwise ruled the day.

His fifth lesson was financial. Bill believed that “If you watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.” His division was the most profitable in the company. 

We met weekly to review the inventory of each item. He did not want to run out of inventory, but he did not want to carry one more case than necessary. It was a balancing act; he wanted 100 percent customer service, a fill-rate of 100 percent on each order, no matter what.

This quest drove production and shipping nuts. Bill did not care; his care was limited to his customers.

The sixth lesson that Bill taught me was you must possess a sense of urgency.

When the search started to fill the position I eventually accepted, Bill ruled out any internal personnel because they lacked any interest in getting things done quickly.

These individuals, he explained, were not exactly in sales prevention, but a close relative: in a San Francisco fog. Since we were located on the waterfront in Downtown San Francisco, it was easy to understand his thinking.

To avoid me falling into the trap of complacency, Bill told me later he had made a point of staying on my case and to teach me, in his way, to anticipate what kind of information he was looking for so that I could stay ahead of him.

Almost everyone has had a mentor to guide them through the rough waters of business and life, and in some way, we are all mentors, as we set examples and are role models for others.

But we don’t do enough teaching and mentoring in business these days. All too often, we throw people into jobs because they have some of the basic skills and never invest the time needed to get them into a place where they could make a much larger contribution to the organization.

Bill Sweeney was one of many people that made a difference in my career and life. I did not appreciate what I was learning or doing at the time, but often, the lessons don’t come to fruition until time has passed.

Who should you be thanking for the help you’ve received along the way? And who should you be mentoring and coaching?

Ken Keller is CEO of STAR Business Consulting Inc., a company that works with companies interested in growing top line revenue. He can be reached at Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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