Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Unconventional and Contrarian, Part Two

When we last left our hero (that’s me), I was working for the Ann Arbor Bank, a far cry from my original desire to make it in the radio business.  I did try to get back to it a couple of times – once with WAAM, the same station that canned me in ’72, and with my university’s public radio station, WEMU.  I fared better in public radio than at WAAM, as I got canned again.  It happens.  Undaunted, upon my graduation I applied for several jobs in radio, both commercial and public, on-air and in management/production (as I had my previous bank management experience to go with my radio background).

This was the last year of the Carter Administration, and my luck was zilch.  More than 300 applications, resumes, air-check tapes, and nothing to show for it except a horrendous postage bill.  After three months, we were getting a bit desperate – my wife was being squeezed out of her job, so something had to happen, and quick.  SO I started applying for other management-type jobs locally, including a blind box ad that listed three potential positions.

It turned out to be the Ann Arbor Bank, the same bank I left to go back to school.  The reason I left was that my rapid advancement had been halted because I did not have a degree (even though other managers also had no degree).  Feeling slighted (and a bit screwed), I quit, vowing never to return.  When they called I could not understand how they knew I was unemployed (and desperate), but they invited me in for a chat.  It turned out that two of the three positions they listed were filled, but they had a job for a manager of their ATM department, and “what would it take to bring you back?”  I mentioned a dollar figure that was about twice what I was making two years prior, thinking that would end the discussion, and to my surprise, they said, “Great!  Can you start immediately?”

I did mention I was desperate, yes?  So I took the job, and discovered why the offer was so generous.

The bank had just entered a “brave new world” of off-site ATMs to complement their branch
It wasn't THIS bad, but pretty bad
locations.  The department was already under-staffed to handle the load of the branches and now had to process everything from the off-site machines as well, and since most were located within walking distance of the University of Michigan, and we had the majority of students as our customers (and almost all of them had ATM cards), the machines were, in a word, busier than shit.

And that wasn’t the worst thing – we eventually hired more staff to handle the transaction load, but the new machines were of a different brand than our branch machines, and they were not as reliable.  When the machines went down during normal banking hours, I was the one who went to the site to make minor repairs, restock or reset the machine, and to meet the technicians to fix the machine when it was beyond my ability.  After hours work was the duty of our paid-volunteer crew made up of bonded senior employees looking for extra cash.  However, the increased workload and continued failure of the new machines caused several to drop out, causing a volunteer shortage, meaning I had to be the 24/7 maintenance guy.  That did not sit well with the spousal unit, nor with me.

So I was able to get bank management to increase the pay rate for volunteers, and began to recruit.  My first couple of memos met with little response (OK, none whatsoever), so I got weird.

I sent memos out on colored paper.  I sent a memo out typed sideways.  I sent one on a diagonal.  I sent one where the type went around in a spiral.  I sent one with the headline in cutouts, like a ransom note.

Two reminders.  First, this happened in 1979, long before computer terminals replaced typewriters.  I had an IBM Selectric at my disposal.  Second:  this was at a very, very, very conservative institution.  A very old, very traditional, very conservative, very stodgy bank.

The memos got noticed.  The memos were different.  The memos got people talking, and more importantly, they brought new volunteers to the maintenance team.  My weirdness worked wonders…until I took it a bit too far.

I typed up my new memo in the regular, old-fashioned way.  No colors, shapes, weird fonts, or anything like that.  The headline was the only thing different.  Instead of something drab like, “More Volunteers Needed,” I wrote:

“For Your Erotic Pleasure”

That earned me a trip downtown to see my boss.

Jerry Bies was a typical conservative banker.  Dressed as always in grey, dour, business-like, with a cup of sharpened pencils on his uncluttered desk, Bies held my most recent memo in his hand as if it contained Anthrax.  “This is reprehensible,” he said, “and not in the best interests of this institution.” I explained the need to capture the attention of busy executives who received several such memos every day.  “This is not the way to do it,” he calmly explained.  “You must stick to the standard ways, and if your message is important enough, people will read it.  Like this one.”

Jerry held a memo from Robert Bring, the Senior VP of Commercial Loans.  Now, you can’t spell BOB BRING without “boring,” and his missives were as dull and plain as the man himself.  I quickly grabbed the memo and faced Bies.  “So if this is the way to do it, then you’ll have no problem telling me what Bring said.  Did the prime rate go up or down, and how much?”

“That’s not the point I am trying to make.  What I mean…”

“That IS the point I am making.  If you don’t read it, it’s worthless.  So is prime up or down?”

It was hard to tell from Jerry’ furrowed brow whether he was trying to remember what prime was or he was trying to decide what the hell to do with me.  For thirty seconds he sat there, consumed in thought.  I let him simmer.  Finally, he said, “Fine.  Do whatever you want, but no more sex.  I’ll just tell the President it was a typo or something, and you meant EXOTIC.  He probably never read it.”  A pause.  “His secretary sure did, though.  Thought it was a hoot.”

So I continued my weird ways, but I eventually left the bank, went back into radio, etc. etc.  Life was good.  I stayed weird (obviously).  And you know the best part?

Bob Bring sent out his next Christmas Greeting memo on colored paper.  Folks were amazed.

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