Born to Sell

Juan Fourneau

I ONCE DABBLED IN the world of sales. I wasn’t very good at it. In 1997, I got a job at Schwan’s, driving one of those yellow trucks you see in neighborhoods all over the U.S. selling frozen treats, ice cream and a variety of food. I thought it would be a delivery and service job. But I found out during the orientation and training that there was an element of sales.

I read the books of motivational speaker Zig Ziglar in my free time and got some basic training in sales from the company. But as I began my route in the railroad town of Fort Madison, Iowa, I could see I needed help. A natural sales guy I was not.

At a party one weekend, I ran into my dad’s old friend, Pablo. My dad was godfather, or padrino, to Pablo’s youngest son. I was interested in talking to him because he was a successful car salesman.

As we talked about my struggles in sales, Pablo gave me a few tips. He also shared with me how he began his career. Pablo was from San Antonio. He spoke good English, but like many Hispanic men in my hometown of that era, he had a limited education. He dropped out of school in sixth grade to work because his family didn’t have a lot of money.

He met his wife when they were both working as migrant laborers, following the crops. My Midwestern town is home to a Heinz manufacturing plant where, in the old days, migrant workers picked tomatoes from the fields and transported them to the plant. After one season in the mid-1960s, Pablo and his wife never went back to Texas. Instead, they decided to make a home here in Iowa.

He met my dad at the retread factory, but he lost his job when he broke his leg. When he’d recovered, he landed a job as a janitor at the high school. Needing more money, he also worked as a janitor in the evening at the local Montgomery Ward store, where he was known as Paul.

One day, the store decided to have a sales contest to see who could sell the most bedsheets. They divided the store employees into three groups, with the sales staff getting to pick their team from all the store employees.

Though most of the traffic would be driven by the sales team, they wanted to include everyone in the contest. One manager suggested, as an afterthought, they include the janitors so they didn’t feel left out. Like the slow nerdy kid at dodgeball, Pablo was picked last.

He was eager to win the prize and began to tell the customers he saw walking in about these fabulous bedsheets they just had to have. He found out he had a natural talent and began closing many sales. He was spending just as much time spotting leads as he was cleaning the store.

It turned out that Pablo’s team won the contest. It wasn’t even close. Matter of fact, Pablo sold more bedsheets by himself than the rest of the store combined.

The next day, after the contest was over, Pablo was pushing his broom, sweeping the floor as he always did. The store manager came up to him and suggested he put his broom down. He gave him a necktie and a job offer. “Paul, we think your skills would be better served selling.”

That humble beginning was the start of his sales career. Pablo eventually got a job as a car salesman in my hometown and consistently grossed six figures for more than 30 years.

He put his sons through college, and one even became a school principal. When my dad bought a car, he always went to his “compadre Pablo.” I went with my dad once as he bought a small, ugly used Dodge Omni for my older brother. I had the privilege of driving the same car when I turned 16.

You couldn’t see the wall in Pablo’s office for all the sales awards he’d won. I’m sure it helped that he was one of the few salesmen at that time who spoke Spanish. Ultimately, however, Pablo was just a fantastic salesman. He won sales contests that provided family vacations, the latest televisions and appliances, and he drove the dealership’s best demo car for free.

At different times, he owned a theatre that played Spanish movies in the Quad Cities and a Mexican restaurant. He was also a landlord—all while working six days a week selling cars. When I saw him last week, enjoying his retirement, I asked him if he ever regretted working so hard all those years.

Typical of his generation and background, he told me he never worked hard. He had seen migrant workers in the fields picking crops. That was hard work, he said. He made a sale, handed the ticket to the office, and his work was done. The hours were long, yes, but it never felt like hard work to him. Not bad for a Mexican-American kid with a sixth-grade education from a barrio in San Antonio.

My sales career ended after six months. The long hours working my route were getting to me, so I put in my notice. I wasn’t making great money and, with my sales skills lacking, I didn’t see that changing anytime soon. I got a temp job that eventually led me to a position at the plant where I work today. It was a great move for me.

I did develop an appreciation for the sales industry, though. The profession isn’t always given the respect it deserves. Every company relies on sales, and it’s a job that provides opportunity for those with sales talent, skills and drive.

Your education, grades and background don’t matter in sales. What drives your career and salary is your results, and my dad’s friend Pablo is a great example of that. Only in America,” as Don King would say.

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 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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