Hard-Earned Lessons

Juan Fourneau

IN MARCH 1999, I began my job at the chemical plant where I still work today. During the weeklong orientation, I had my 26th birthday. It was the start of a job where I felt I couldn’t make any excuses. I needed to be an adult.

I would be making good money. After graduating high school in 1991, I’d averaged $18,000 to $23,000 a year in various jobs. In my first full year at the plant, I made $42,000. The next year, after completing the training program and working 500 hours of overtime, I made more than $60,000—good pay for a guy in his late 20s with a high school diploma.

Over the years, I’ve heard many bits of advice from the old-timers at the plant. I’ve also picked up many lessons from watching these folks over the past two decades. The first lesson came during an informal talk that a worker gave at the orientation. Today, it probably wouldn’t be allowed because it would be considered financial advice from someone without any formal credentials. But his talk was valuable in its simplicity and its roots in real-life experience.

The technician implored us to begin contributing to our 401(k) immediately. He talked about the company match and how it was free money. He suggested we consider our investment allocations carefully. Because of our young age, he believed we should be in the aggressive portfolio. We had time to ride out the rough spells, he said.

I began to save in the 401(k). There was a whiff of euphoria in the air. The market had been on fire for the past few years and it was still raging. Returns of 20% or more were typical. This technician, who was approaching retirement, was feeling good seeing his balance grow to numbers he’d never thought possible.

A few years later, around the mid-2000s, I saw the same man. He was now retired and bagging groceries part-time. Maybe the dot-com crash burned him and he needed a job for a bit. Maybe he was bored and wanted something to do. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask, and he didn’t work at the store that long.

Many veterans at the plant had started in the 1970s. The company had something similar to a 401(k) back then. As the great bull market began in 1982, they rode an incredible wave until 2000. Over time, I began to see the role luck and timing played in investment results. When you were born, and when you got hired, all had a big impact on your returns.

If I were to guess, I’d say 98% of the plant workers saved in the 401(k). My older brother had been hired a few years before me. When he started, the old-timers in his area always told him, “You can’t afford not to.”

My brother never read The Wall Street Journal. I would ask him occasionally which funds he was in. He’d say he hadn’t looked in a while and wasn’t sure. He left it alone for the most part and retired early. I checked my funds often, moved my money around more than him and haven’t done as well.

I would hear rumors occasionally of the few who never joined the 401(k). They had lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe a million. But I could understand how this might happen. Many in the plant were from poor or working-class families. Some started families when they were young.

They may have thought about saving. But they probably always felt they couldn’t afford the 7% of pay they needed to get the full company match. They were raising kids and paying bills. Often, their spouse was staying at home and that was important to them. Maybe they’d start next year.

In that era, the pension plan was generous. The folks who were whispered to have never joined the 401(k) would invariably retire later, usually as soon as they could claim Social Security at age 62. Between Social Security and the pension they earned over 35 to 40 years of service, they could replace all the income they were making at the plant.

It was always interesting to see the moment people pulled the trigger. One lady—a friend of mine—had started working at the plant in her 20s. She had a straight-day job later in her career, but then unfortunately had to return to the production line and work the swing shift that came with it.

She started her week one Sunday with the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. She was frustrated with the poor planning from leadership the week before. Her night was going to be stressful, with all kinds of problems and little support. As I helped her with a question, she had a few choice words about the mess and said that she was calling her financial advisor that week to see what options she had.

She’d worked decades and made good money. A single mom, she’d raised her kids and, by then, they’d finished college. She retired a few months after that night and has enjoyed the years that followed. I was happy to hear that. She was a sweet lady. In her early years at the plant, it couldn’t have been easy being one of the few women, but she made it.

One of my coworkers got called out one weekend in the freezing cold of winter to deal with a problem. As he was walking around, examining all the pipes while trying to solve the issue, he asked himself, “What the hell am I doing here on a Saturday night?” He put in for retirement, though he worked several more months.

I saw him at Wal-Mart a few years ago. That call-out was just a blip, he told me. He said the real reason for his retirement was that his sister had passed away and it was weighing on him. He had plenty of money. Life was too short.

There was a kind, older guy on my shift who grew up on an Iowa farm and had worked in our area since the early 1970s. I went to his retirement party. He waved his wallet at an old friend, smiling as he said, “This thing has decided every major decision in my life.”

Like many I saw at the plant, he had put family first. His kids were raised and done with college. A small early retirement package pushed him over the finish line. He told me he was ready to be done with swing shift work and with the plant. But he then took a job as a school janitor for 20 years and finally retired for good with an Iowa state pension to add to his retirement savings.

One old friend, who had been my Little League baseball coach for a short time, told me—when I saw him at a bar a few years after he retired—that he simply did some math and felt comfortable calling it a career. He added together his 401(k)’s historical annual return, his pension and his other savings, and asked himself if he could live off half that number. He could.

He shared with me something I hadn’t heard many folks say. He had a great-paying job. He’d had it for decades. He didn’t really need the job anymore. And he knew that someone out there, a young person most likely, did need the job he had. It would change his or her family’s life, like it changed his and mine, so he retired.

One guy, who was a bit of a miser, said he put his notice in when no one told him not to. His wife and his financial advisor both agreed he had enough money to retire. He had worked for more than 30 years. He was still on the swing shift. He’d invested in some Iowa farmland before the prices skyrocketed. He was frugal, and had his 401(k) and pension. He seemed to abhor debt and that had served him well.

One recent retiree had been in leadership roles for more than half of his blue-collar career, so he hadn’t worked swing shifts for decades. He had many years under the old, more generous pension system. Yet, unlike so many in the plant, he wasn’t missing a beat. His mind was sharp, he was fit and still full of energy.

I’ve always thought that some 20% of plant workers have the skills, ambitions and mindset that aligns well with the work we do. He was one of them. I never heard him pine to be an artist or chase a different dream or career. His talents were valuable and he had kept up with the changing technology. In his early 60s, I know he could easily have done the work for another 10 years.

He shared with me that it would be silly to still be working at the plant in his 70s. What was the point? He retired after 40 years. We quickly discovered, when he headed off to winter in Florida, all the “little” problems he’d been solving that no one else noticed.

I enjoy talking with the younger people who have been hired in droves since the baby boom generation exited the plant. If they’re interested and ask, I’ll share some of the mistakes I made with my money while working at the plant.

I also let them know that I intend to keep my job there. Even after 23 years, I hesitate to call it a career. I don’t know why, I just do. Most know me as the guy who wrestles in a mask. It wasn’t my dream to work at the plant, and my talents don’t always align with my job. But I do my work well.

People seem to like having me on their team, so I must be doing okay. I appreciate all the lessons that my coworkers have taught me over the years. And I hope the younger generation working at the plant has picked up a thing or two from me.

Juan Fourneau’s goal is to retire at age 55. When he isn’t at his manufacturing job, he enjoys reading and writing about personal finance, investing and his other interests. Juan, who is married with two children, retired from the ring after wrestling on the independent circuit for more than 25 years. He wrestled as a Mexican Luchador under the name Latin Thunder. Follow Juan on Twitter @LatinThunder1, visit his website and check out his previous articles.

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