By Josh Karp, Independent Writer
Around the age of forty, John McLaughlin went through his first career transition. With four kids at home, he left the commercial real estate business when the market bottomed out in the late 1970s and started over, taking an entry-level sales position at AT&T. Blessed with considerable charm and plenty of drive to succeed, he thrived – quickly becoming one of the company’s top performers.
During the next twenty or so years, McLaughlin rose through the corporate ranks, surviving restructurings, layoffs and a number of spin-offs that eventually found him working for Lucent Technologies and finally an offshoot named Expanets. As an executive, he endured the management trends that 90s corporate America thrust upon its executives – total quality management, diversity training and on and on.
By the mid-90s, he was responsible for 7 states, thousands of customers, 350 employees and the endless need to sit in his downtown Chicago office trying each month to explain why his division had or hadn’t met their P&L goals.
“It was a lot of responsibility,” McLaughlin says, “And a lot of stress.”
In 2003, McLaughlin (now in his early 60s) left Expanets and tried to figure out what he would do with the rest of his career. Not ready to retire, he began having conversations with two old friends: one a fellow AT&T/Lucent/Expanets veteran and the other a high school buddy who had retired as a Vice President at Chicago-based Anixter, Inc, a global distributor of wire, cable and communications products. All three were in their early sixties, born within six months of each other.
“We didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do,” McLaughlin says, “But we knew we wanted to do it together.”
Bruce Siebert, McLaughlin’s former colleague, thought that he wanted to do something completely different and expressed an interest in corporate premiums like logo shirts and other items that are used in sales incentive programs. Bernie Browe, from Anixter, had a Rolodex filled with high-level corporate contacts that he wanted to leverage and was talking to various friends and colleagues about ways he could do that. McLaughlin still liked telecomm and sales, but mostly wanted to do something fun, challenging and involving his friends.
After talking things over for six months, a friend of McLaughlin’s who owned a Michigan-based company named Gee Communications wanted to establish a stronger presence in the Chicago market and offered him a position. Not wanting to be an employee again, McLaughlin discussed it with Browe and Siebert and they formed a partnership name Gee Hilltop, which would establish Gee’s presence in Chicago, while serving as an umbrella for whatever else they wanted to do.
Siebert began making arrangements with corporate apparel companies like Cutter and Buck, while creating incentive programs that offered everything from shirts to commercial hot dog, pizza and popcorn machines for in home use. He also hooked up with a Wisconsin-based corporate sales training company and began selling their services as well. Browe became involved with a Canadian software company that was marketing a unified communications product that placed e-mail, fax and voice mail onto a single Microsoft exchange program. Meanwhile, McLaughlin was busy working on the Gee end of things.
Hiring sales people, many of whom McLaughlin and Siebert worked with at AT&T and its spin-offs, they cross sold products and services for each other and mined leads at places where they had success. Thus, the telecomm group might sell Browe’s unified communications product or call on one of his Anixter contacts and simultaneously open the door for Siebert to sell his services and premiums to the same client.
“It all kind of loosely fit together,” McLaughlin says, “My interest was telecomm, but they were all somewhat related. If we built a relationship we’d mention Bruce’s piece and vice versa.”
Thus, as McLaughlin’s daughter called them, they’d become “Grumpy Old Salesmen” working in retirement. Skilled, experienced corporate sales execs who had the knowledge, contacts and desire to continue working and producing at an age and in an era where their contemporaries often find themselves with few options.
There were, of course, some awkward and often funny moments. As their own bosses and without the structure of a big company, things were much more casual and McLaughlin, Siebert and Browe sometimes had to do unlikely things for themselves. Such as, in the Winter of 2004, when Siebert called McLaughlin to tell him that he needed help making a delivery to the corporate offices of Stepan Chemical, to whom he’d sold some logo shirts.
“Why are you delivering them?” McLaughlin asked.
“To save the freight cost,” Siebert responded.
On a day where the temperature didn’t creep above zero, McLaughlin and Siebert made five trips carrying heavy boxes of shirts from a distant parking lot across Stepan’s large multi-building suburban Chicago headquarters and up several flights of stairs.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” McLaughlin says. “Finally, I turned to Bruce and said, ‘How much did shipping cost?’”
As they hand delivered box after box in the freezing cold, the client looked at the two men as if they were out of their minds.
“It wasn’t always the perfect fit,” McLaughlin says with a laugh.