Meet The Masters. They Could Sell You Anything
Every morning before Rob Michaels goes to work, he gets sick to his stomach. Jesse Williams, on the other hand, tells himself he is something else. "I'm a radish," he will say. "You have to be something else. You put your real life behind you, because this life is a killer."
Rob's real name is Robert Michael Acker. Jesse's real surname is Roth. For nine hours a day, sometimes on Saturdays, Jesse, Rob, and six other telephone salespeople at American Marketing Services Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attempt to induce people who don't want to talk to them to buy products they don't need at prices they probably shouldn't pay.
Vern, the reason that I'm calling. I know you're busy, and I don't want to take up much of your workday. . . . Vern, my name is Rob Michaels. I'm the executive vice-president and chairman of the board for American Marketing Services. . . . Way back in July you did some business with one of my salesmen, Mr. Ron Green.
Well, Vern, when you spoke with the Rotund One, do you remember him explaining to you that he got you the fur coat for your wife because on the first phase of this promotion your name had come out as the finalist for the entire state of Nebraska? Now, he should have also explained to you that every one of the 50 state winners would all be entered into the second and final phase of the promotion, where we were going to award our top grand bonus for '84 and our twentieth anniversary. . . .
Well, Vern, the reason my company told me today as chairman to handle your call, on the morning of October 23, Vern, it was your name that came out of our computer match for the single most expensive bonus premium we have ever had in our entire 20-year history. . . . a beautiful diamond and emerald necklace. . . . Congratulations to you.
A few of this story's essentials are true. Vern did do some business with the company before, and, yes, American Marketing is prepared to "give" Vern a diamond and emerald necklace, provided he is willing to place an order. The rest is pure hype. Rob isn't the executive vice-president or the chairman. There is no promotion, no 50 state winners, no "top grand bonus." The company is only seven years old, and Vern's name wasn't matched to anything except a computer-generated piece of paper indicating that he had bought from American Marketing before and was therefore a prime target for another pitch.
American Marketing Services is a "phone room," an enterprise in which commissioned salespeople use the promise of glamorous premiums to peddle advertising giveaway items to Main Street merchants and other small businesspeople all over the country. Although most phone rooms are located in South Florida and in Las Vegas, it is hard to know precisely how many there are. Many change their names and addresses every few months in an effort to stay a jump ahead of U.S. Postal Service and law-enforcement authorities.
There is a reason for this: Some of the phone rooms are outright frauds. They will sell a customer a carton of glow-in-the-dark key chains then send a box of bricks COD instead. Others promise pricey premiums -- weeklong Hawaii vacations, for example -- that they never intend to deliver. American Marketing is not in that category. What keeps the company on the right side of the fuzzy line separating legal from illegal in the telephone sales business is that, however enthusiastic the salesperson's spiel, American Marketing's customers actually get the products and the premiums described to them -- or something very close. "We can puff the premium," says one of the company's managers, "only to the point that we don't undermine satisfaction. The customer is our regulator."
Ah, but the hype. Some businesses depend on sales; this business is sales. The only demand for the company's product is the demand Rob, Jesse, and their colleagues create over the phone, buyer by buyer. Even steady customers -- and 80% of American Marketing's sales are to repeat buyers -- have to be sold anew every time they are called. What makes them buy is simply that the company's sales force plays on their fantasies the way Liberace plays on his piano. To watch these artists of the marketplace at work is to watch a mixture of theatrics, pressure, appeals to greed, and fine-tuned sensitivities to the customer, all assembled into a variety of well-orchestrated sales pitches. Over and over, the pitches are repeated -- and over and over, they work.
Bob, never in the history of our industry has the federal government authorized the expenditure of such a tremendous amount of money when it's going to just one businessperson. And I feel darn proud to know that this diamond and emerald necklace, our most expensive bonus ever, is going to an independent businessman and not to same large corporation.
These pens, Bob, when you buy them out of a stationery store, they're a fair trade item, Bob. They sell for $4.99. If you were to order them out of our catalog, we wholesale them completely printed for just $3.59. But today, Bob, you get the same pens for exactly what my company pays for them, just $2.99. . . . Take 200 and I will give you a $100 courtesy discount below my cost. I'll pay all the Illinois state and local taxes. I'll pay the shipping, the freight, and the insurance. I will even pay the gift tax on the emerald and diamond necklace. I'll get it out to you in two weeks for just $498. . . .
I just really can't afford it now . . .
Listen, Bob, I got an open box. There's only 150 pens in it. Darn it, am I gonna get my butt chewed. I tell you what. I'll still give you a $50 discount, and I'll get the whole thing out to you for just $398. And I'll still get you the necklace. My God, the gift tax I paid alone is more than what you're spending.
Like I said, I just don't feel like I can afford it, but . . . . Well, I guess I'll see what I can do.
I knew you could handle it, Bob. . . . You know I'm bending over backwards for you. I wouldn't do something to a customer that would hurt him financially. They don't call me the Prince of Nice around here for nothing. You know I'm concerned for you.
Ken Fairthorne, age 41, a visiting Canadian, saw phone rooms at work in Las Vegas in the mid-1970s and decided there was money to be made. He started American Marketing with his wife, Sharon Maybee, in 1977. By 1982, the company had operations in Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York City, Atlanta, and several Florida locations. But costs got out of hand, and now a leaner, more profitable American Marketing operates with just three phone rooms, all in Fort Lauderdale.
The "Z" room is brand new, an experiment the company has recently undertaken to generate new customers for its "A" and "B" rooms. In the Z room, novice phone operators take incoming calls from people who have received an "Expressgram" mailing from the company, promising an inflatable boat and motor if the recipient phones within 48 hours. When these people call, the freshmen salespeople try to sell them advertising products for their businesses. Those who buy get the product and the boat and a waiver of the boat's $69 "processing" charge. Those who don't buy can still get the boat -- which costs American Marketing $45, plus shipping -- for $69. In either case, American Marketing gets a new name for its computerized customers lists. People who bite on the boat become fresh fodder for one of the other sales rooms.
The B room is where the junior varsity works out; its mid-level salespeople call and pitch business owners who typically have bought just once before from the company. Even the B room has its share of thereatrics: Last Halloween, room manager Pam Reilly, a hyperactive combination of coach and cheerleader, wore a Super Woman costume to work. To the cape she pinned dozens of bills -- fives, tens, twenties, fifties -- as a reminder to her charges of why they were there.
But, both the Z and the B are no more than warm-up rooms. The best customers, the heavy repeaters -- "mooches," the salespeople call them -- are reserved for Rob, Jesse, and their six A-room colleagues. The Masters, they call themselves.
The A room is small, cheaply paneled, shabbily furnished, and, during the day, thick with cigarette smoke. Everywhere there are signs and reminders of money. Hand-lettered posters on the walls tell of sales records set and of promised rewards for new goals -- a steak and lobster dinner, for example, the first time combined sales in the room exceed $20,000 in a single day. Enlargements of each salesperson's paychecks are stapled along one wall, with conspicuous blanks indicating a week in which some presumably embarrassed soul has failed to reach his or her weekly quota.
The centerpiece of the room is a large board, edged with multicolored lights, where sales are recorded, one by one and minute by minute, with cumulative daily and weekly totals for each individual and for the room. "The worst feeling in the world," Jesse says, "is when it's 10 o'clock and you haven't got a sale in yet." Everyone knows who is behind, who is having a bad day. And everyone can hear the pitch of the desperate.
You're young enough, Joe, that there's going to be a girl coming along in your life that you're going to want to give this ring to. . . . Oh my God, Joe, I can't believe it. I can't believe you're passing this up. I'm going to do one more thing for you, Joe. I'm going to take some out of the box, and I'll send you 42 of them out for just $395, but I want a favor. . . . Joe, this is an emerald ring. I won't hurt you, Joe, believe me. I need to use this ring as a tax write-off, Joe, but I have to give it to a customer. All I need from you . . . Joe, I can't imagine that you . . . (click).
"That's rejection," says Ted Samuels, as he puts down his phone. They call him Steady Teddy. He's 56, the oldest person in the room; thin, graying, unflappable. He is the only man but one in the office whose shirt isn't open at least to the third button, and he wears less gold -- on neck, fingers, and wrists -- than most of the rest. He sits far back in his chair, legs crossed, smoking Kents and chatting until Kookie, his secretary, passes him a call. "Hold the line, please, for Mr. Ted Sanders." Then, in less than a second, he notes the name on the paper she slides across the desk and slips smoothly into his quiet, avuncular pitch. "Good morning, Sally. Ted Sanders here at American Marketing Services. . . ."
"Most people fail here," Ted says, "because they can't accept rejection. I understand that out of X calls, only Y will buy, and if you've reached one that won't, you call another one."
The Masters can take rejection; if they couldn't, they wouldn't be there. Otherwise, they seem to have little in common. Ted is a former New York real estate lawyer who worries about his son and colleague, David, age 28. "He has his MBA and is going to school for his CPA, but he makes more money here than any starting CPA. I'm afraid he may not want to leave." Rob, 36, is a tough-guy former Marine with no clear career path. Roland Greenspan fits another stereotype: the good Jewish son. He has carefully laid plans for getting "established," finding a wife, and starting his family. There is a former college jock, a composer of music for percussion instruments, a rider of show horses, and a psychology major who is unable to perform the simplest mathematical calculation.
They have, to be sure, their defenses, such as their phone names. When someone hangs up on Ron Green, Roland Greenspan doesn't take it so hard. There are other reasons, too, for the pseudonyms. A WASPy Doug Sanders can sell things to people who wouldn't buy from a Jewish David Samuels. Paula's telephone surname, Wright, is just simpler than Paula Midgett. She's the only woman among the Masters.
At the heart of what American Marketing offers its customers is the premium, items ranging from microwave ovens to fur coats, which the company "gives" to its customers with every order. To the Masters, though, product and premium are only the starting points of their sales strategies -- strategies that seem to fall into two broad categories, corresponding to the A room's two sides.
Rob sits on the south side. Directly behind him is Paul Duplessis, and to his left are Ted and David Samuels. None of the others copies Rob's pitch or delivery to the letter; in fact, David's quick 5- to 10-minute sales presentations stand in sharp contrast to Rob's half-hour minimum. But despite their differences, everyone on Rob's side of the room tends, like him, to take a straightforward, unembroidered approach. "I don't treat customers as friends," Rob says, "just as business propositions." His pitches, and those of the people around him, are couched in business terms.
Now Fred, if you were to purchase these pens out of a stationery store, they are a fair trade item at $4.99. If you were to order them from our catalog in quantity, they would be delivered for just $3.59. But today, Fred, for the first time in our history, we are allowing these pens to go at our cost, which is only $2.99. Now, here's my special deal for you. I've got these in a small box of 300 pens, a medium box of 450, and the largest box we have is a box of 1,000. . . . Well, what I was gonna do for you, Fred, I've only got one box of 300 pens left. . . . What I was going to do is, if you could take the box of 300 pens, I will print you up instead the medium box of 450 pens, and I will send you 450 pens at the cost of the small box of 300. I'll pay all your Texas state and local taxes. I'll pay the shipping, the freight, the insurance. I will even pay the gift tax on the diamond and ruby necklace. . . .
Well, okay, let me ask you something. I've got an open box. Now I'm not supposed to go below 300, so I'm going to ask you a little favor. There's only 200 pens in this box. Would that be more comfortable? . . .
Well, the minimum number my machine will print is 200. I tell you what I'll do. I've got the open box, and, God, you're helping me out so I guess I can help you. If you had taken the 300 at $2.99, you'd have been looking at $897. I tell you what. Take the box of 200, and I'll put the whole thing out there for just $598. Could you handle that? . . .
I tell you what I'll do. Darn it, I'm not going to let you pass up on the necklace. If I give you a personal discount, a $100 personal discount, just to get you the necklace and run it out there to you for $498. I know you can handle that. . . .
Well, Fred, I tell you what I'll do, bottom line. This is the best I can do for you. Take 150 pens, I'll run the things out there to you for just $399 and not a penny more, and I'll still get you the diamond and ruby necklace. Now you can't beat that. . . .
Okay, now, Fred . . . could you write down what you're going to be receiving? I've got an open box here. It's only got 30 of the pens in it. I know you can get some use out of those, so I'll throw the 30 in free, okay? So you're going to be getting 180 pens, plus the 19-stone diamond and ruby necklace . . . and the total amount of your check is just $399, and not a penny more. Now Fred, I'm going to put some of my business cards in there. When people ask you where you got these pens, you will be kind enough to at least give them one of my cards, won't you? But, God, don't tell 'em what you paid for them. . . .
Fred, God bless you. Congratulations, and have a great day.
There is, of course, more than a little hype even in this apparently businesslike approach. The pens actually cost American Marketing less than 30? each. The company sets a "top par" price on them of $1.49. On the company's books Rob can't charge more than $1.49, but if he wants his full 20% commission on the sale, he can't charge any less, either.
Here's what happened. Rob started the pitch at a unit price of $2.99 for 300 pens. The total, $897, was more than Fred wanted to spend. So Rob dropped the quantity, first to 200 and later to 150, and tossed in a "personal discount," finally offering Fred a total deal of $399, or $2.66 per pen. Then he threw in 30 free pens, lowering the unit price to $2.22.
That last step was important, because it got Rob's deal down to the company's top par price on the pens. The difference between 180 pens at $2.22 and 180 pens at their top par price of $1.49 is $131.40. That, as it happens, is almost exactly what the company wanted to realize from the necklace ($105) plus the standard shipping fee ($25). The necklace Costs American Marketing only $70, but the company marks even the premiums up by 50%, and that is profit it doesn't pay commission on. Fred's total bill was $399, but Rob's sale as toted on the board came to only $269 ($399 minus $130).
"See," Rob explains, "once I establish what he's willing to spend, I can add on whatever product I have to, to make sure the guy's paying the right amount. It's just making them think they're getting something for free, above and beyond the bonus. . . . You've already got the guy sold on the necklace. If he is serious at all about buying advertising for his business, 150 pens cost $448, and I can get him 180 for the price of 150, provided he believes they cost $2.99. He thinks he just made a great business decision and got 30 pens free. Plus, when he gets the box, in his mind he's only supposed to get 150, which makes those pens expensive. But 180 of 'em isn't near as bad.
"We don't have a premium I can't give away with 300 pens and still cover my cost at $2.99, so I start pitching everything at a high cost. . . . It gives you two ways to move. If the guy says the money's okay, you throw in the extra pens. If the guy bitches about the price, you drop it $100."
On the other side of the room, however, there is another strategy at work: Jesse's. Jesse never talks business; his pitch is razzle-dazzle, theater, and nobody gives customers a better show for their money. He is 26, the son of two successful Miami attorneys, and he still lives at home. Phone selling is all he has ever done. Rob can't stand him. Jesse "doesn't know what having a real job is like," he grouses. But Paula Midgett, Dave Kuhn, and Roland Greenspan, whose desks are arrayed around Jesse's, are proteges, if not disciples, of his what-the-hell attitude and dramatic approach to selling.
"It's the most asinine thing that's ever happened," Rod sniffs. "It irritates me to the point that at night I toss and turn about it. I may open envelopes, but I'll never do a Mrs. Van Fleet." The envelope routine and the Mrs. Van Fleet improvisation are innovations Jesse is partiularly proud of.
Frank, I called you personally. I didn't want Ron Green to call you because . . . they picked your name. See, they only picked one name out of each state for this promotion. Did he tell you they were going to do that?
So with your Christmas purchase of advertising required you're going to get, well, the least you can get is a color television set or a refrigerator-freezer and a videocassette recorder. Pretty good, huh?
Well that sounds good, except, Jesse, there is no way possible that I'm going to buy any more until the end of the year. Because my last order was what I just gave to Ron the other day.
I don't know what you won yet.
Hey, I don't, uh. . . . That's it.
That's it. I ain't buying nothin' else.
Well, you know what I would do if I was you?
Do you know what a Commodore 64 is?
Yeah, sure. It's a computer.
Do you know what it's worth?
No, not really.
What would you guess?
Maybe, two, three hundred bucks or something.
Want me to open your envelope and see what prize you got?
'Cause I'm holding your envelope up to the light bulb, but the damn envelope is double sealed so you can't see what it says. Want me to open it up so you at least see what you got?
Well, you could tell me what I was gonna get.
Okay, 'cause if you were only going to get a color television, maybe you should pass it up. But if you get that Commodore computer or the videocassette recorder or the washer and dryer or the refrigerator for a box of ballpoint pens . . . well, hold on. Can you hold on for a second? I'll open it.
(Jesse rips scrap paper over the telephone mouthpiece.)
Oh, shit! You got the diamond ring. I'll be a horse's ass.
(Aside) Mrs. Van Fleet, Pennsylvania got that diamond you were talking about.The diesel company.
Hello, Frank. You got the diamond.
Frank, I don't believe it. Can you hold on?
(Aside) No, I just opened his envelope. He's a personal friend of me and Mr. Green. No, he said I could open it up, 'cause he wanted to know what prize . . . Yes, it says Category A, the diamond that you were talking about. He got the prize. I know he's a friend of mine, but he entered in good faith and he got it. . . . No, I didn't tell him. I opened his envelope.
Frank, can you hold on another second?
(Aside) No, he got the . . . You better get over here.
Frank, you're going to have to get insurance taken out. Who's your homeowners' agency? Allstate, or Travelers, or Farmers, or who?
Oh, no. No, no . . . I don't, uh. We, I, we go through a broker. I don't know what the company is. I'm not worried about that.
I don't believe this. Can you hold on while I get the bookkeeper?
Yeah, I talked to her before.
(Aside) Mrs. Van Fleet, come over here. . . .
(Nearest available secretary picks up the phone.)
Hello, Frank, this is Mrs. Van Fleet. How are you?
Wow, Mr. Williams said he just opened your envelope and you got it. Wow!
Ha, ha, ha.
You got the ring. . . . That's really nice.
Un-huh. Yeah. That's good.
That's the most expensive bonus we've ever had.
Yes. I thought Mr. Williams was just trying to sneak this to you, but I see he opened the envelope and you have won it.
That sounds good.
Okay, just a moment, and I'll return you to Mr. Williams. And congratulations again.
Wow! (says Jesse, back on the phone).
Do you know Mrs. Van Fleet personally?
Well, no, but I talked to her before. . . .
So, Jesse, what's the catch?
The catch? The catch is that you have to buy some of this shit. You know that.
Among the many ironies of the telephone sales business, several stand out. One is that cynicism -- about the company, its products, and its customers -- is no handicap. Jesse, for example, has as little respect for his company as for his customers. "You know who our customers are?" he asks. "They're the same people who would vote for Ronald Reagan for a second term. They're timid. They want to be led by the hand. . . . Mel in his auto-parts store, he opens the box, and he gets the key chains and the microwave oven and he thinks to himself, 'Hey, I'm a winner.' Of course they're getting ripped off, but they still come back."
Rob, although he sees more value than Jesse does in what he and the company do, offers at best a tentative rationalization. "How can anybody," he asks, "tell us we don't have a right to sell that pen for $3? When I put your company name on it, it's not a pen any longer. It's a piece of advertising. What's that worth? . . . We try to help the guys use the stuff, too. The more you can make a guy believe his advertising is working, the less likely he is to bitch about the necklace or whatever. . . . Most of our customers are honest enough people that they would never do to us what we could do to them. Half of them really believe what they're told, and they just expect that we're telling the truth. Essentially, we are."
The truth? A second irony is that truth gets defined operationally: It is what the customers believe. Roland Greenspan, who is Ron Green on the telephone, draws a fine technical distinction between truth and falsehood. "Lying to a customer," he says by way of illustration, "is when you say, 'You know the watch the Prince of Wales wears? Well, you're getting one just like it.' Not lying is saying, 'You know the watch the Prince of Wales wears? Well, then, you know what I'm talking about." Soon, however, he gets to the heart of the matter. "Customers hear what they want to hear. They want to play the game. . . . Yes, they're getting a 20? pen and paying $3, but that's not a rip-off. . . . You can hear their calculators in the background. They're thinking, 'Okay, what you're giving me is worth $300 and the pens are worth $200, and I'm paying $500, so that's okay.' They're not complaining."
Whatever motivates the customers, there can be no doubt about what motivates American Marketing's employees. By any standard, the Masters are well paid. Last year, Rob earned $120,000. Jesse was close behind with $103,000. Roland made $93,000.This year Jesse will probably surpass Rob, and David Samuels will also join the $100,000 club. "We've never had anyone earn $200,000 yet," says a company executive, "but we will."
None of this money is in salary, draw, or benefits; all of it is in commission and bonus. In the A room, salespeople earn 20% commission on the value of the product (but not the premiums) they sell, plus $50 per $1,000 of sales over $6,000 per week. They get cash "spiffs" handed to them daily -- $5 for every credit-card sale of less than $400; $10 for larger charges. Ken Fairthorne flipped a $100 bill on Paula's desk one afternoon while she pitched. "It's yours," Fairthorne said, "if you make the sale."
There are few conversations in the room that do not relate to money; it's the common denominator that defines what everyone does. "My job?" answers Robin Anslow, David Samuels's secretary. "My job is to keep him on the phone. The more people he talks to, the more money he makes, and the more money I make." Secretaries, who earn small salaries, are also paid commissions based on their bosses' volume.
But the price that is exacted is high: The pressure to perform, to sell, to sell more, is relentless.
There is, for example, the competition that management carefully cultivates by putting everyone in a single room, despite the noise and chaos it creates. Rob works with an eye constantly on Jesse's sales tally. "Rob," says Roland, "doesn't care if he only makes one dollar, so long as it's 30? more than anybody else." Rob doesn't dispute him.
There is the pressure of quotas -- $2,000 a day, $10,000 a week per person. When some salespeople started meeting these quotas regularly, management raised them. "They say," says Rob," that if the room does $80,000 in a week we can go home. They didn't think we could do it. We got to $80,000 one Friday at 10 a.m., and all they said was, 'Let's go to 90."
"Up until recently," Roland adds, "we couldn't eat lunch, period. . . . Well, you could bring your own sandwich and eat it between phone calls, but you couldn't go out for food or have take-out sent in. It took away from the momentum."
And there is nearly unbelievable personal pressure on every individual -- pressure that may amount to the final irony in a business that depends on the hard sell. "The company does to salesmen what we do to customers," says Dave Kuhn, "only better."
By November 4, 1983, for example, Rob had earned $100,000. That was his goal for the year, but he couldn't take a vacation. "I had to promise Ken I'd do another $20,000 by the end of the year. . . ."
Another time, Rob says, his parents came for a week. "I made the mistake of staying home. I was called every morning at seven o'clock by my manager and by the general manager. They asked me if I didn't have special plans to do something with my parents to come in to work. They thought they could embarrass me, shame me, something, to get me to come into work and get something out of me.
"It's a business," Rob says, "where nobody cares about what happened yesterday, last week, or last year.If they want to fire me today they will.
"The first time I was fired," he recalls, "was right after my first $1,000 paycheck. I had busted my ass for the week, and my paycheck was going to be $1,057. Monday I woke up and I couldn't talk -- laryngitis. I drove into the office every day to show them I couldn't. I figured I'd get my paycheck Friday, cash it, pay my rent, and have a good time. So, I go down Friday and they fired me. Keith, my supervisor then, tore up my $1,057 paycheck right in my face and laughed. Just tore it up. . . . So I call a friend, and he got me a job in another ad specialty place. . . . I worked for five days, and I was having a good time. I was ready to stay there. Friday I walked into work, and the desks were all gone. They'd closed the place up. So I don't get my paycheck for that week either. Keith called and said, 'I hear you're unemployed.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Come down and talk to me.' I walked in and he had five people around him 'cause he thought I'd kill him. He said you'll get your check Monday, and he gave me three $100 bills out of his pocket. I was hired again."
The company giveth, and the company taketh away. Twenty-five-year-old Dave Kuhn drives a new Lincoln Town Car that the company pays for. David Samuels has a Volvo 760 GLE. Jesse's car is a Continental Mark VII, black, with leather upholstery." They told me to pick out the car," says Kuhn about his Lincoln, "and then they figured what it would cost them by the week. [A standard car costs] $170. The original deal was that if I verified $3,000 [in sales] a week, they'd pay half. If I did $4,000, they'd pay the whole $170. If I did $5,000, they'd pay the extra $55 [for the Lincoln]. So then this week they called me in and said they want to change the deal. I fought 'em and said a deal is a deal, but Ken said they're going to change it to $5,000 and $6,000. He said, 'Well, how many times have you verified less than $6,000 since you've been over here? . . . If there's a problem, the first week you think it's unfair you come to me and I'll straighten it out. . . ."
The people who impose this regimen on the A-room personnel make no apologies for it. Don Weaver, a partner in the company and American Marketing's general sales manager, use to wear leather and ride with a New Jersey motorcycle club. Now he wears a three-piece pin-striped suit and gold chains around his neck, visible through his open collar. When people call in sick, he'll sometimes drive out, pick them up, and bring them in. "Maybe they'll only do $600 or $700," he says. "Well, that's money we wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
"But it ain't all money," Weaver adds. "It's knowing that this company is helping other people make good lives for themselves. Ken helped me make my life. . . . You get people in here, and you gotta take care of them. I don't manipulate. I like to motivate. . . .Paula's a good example of how it's not just money. Tell me I can't go home proud for taking a nobody, someone who can hardly add and subtract, and putting her into the top one-half percent of all U.S. income earners. . . .
"I'm a PMA nut -- that's positive mental attitude. Every morning I say, 'I feel great, I look great, I am great.' It works."
"Don's not the smartest person in the world," says ownerfounder Ken Fairthorne, "but he goes out and does things just the way the company decides. . . . I had to bash him around a bit to get his head straight, but he's okay now. I work by intimidation."
Nor do they apologize for their business. "We do $8 million a year, and I don't want one guy screwing it up," says Fairthorne. "With Jesse, there's a connotation of a contest there; that little rip of the envelope can be deceitful. But he said up front that to get something, you're going to have to buy something. Well, maybe there's a little deceit there. No, creative, that's a better word. . . . He creates a picture in your mind, and what you get has got to match that picture. . . . I think we're doing people a service. Law-enforcement agencies are shooting at me. They'd like to get rid of me, but if our customers are happy, then where's the victim?"
Jesse came to work sobbing one day last August. His best friend was close to death after an early morning auto accident. At five o'clock he broke into sobs again. But between nine and five, "I had a pretty good day that day," he recalls.
"I've tried lots of things," says Rob, "to get ready for the day. I've tried swimming. I've tried smoking a joint. I've tried getting up an hour early, figuring I could relax by the time I got in, but all I did was spend another hour thinking about it. . . . I get here at 7:30 because I couldn't walk into this place, sit down, and pick up that phone. I need to bullshit, laugh, relax. . . .
"I don't meet anybody in the outside world. Everybody I know is in the phone business. Friday night I go home and cook out. Saturday I try to play golf. Saturday nights there's nothing I'd rather do than go out and tear the town apart, but that's going to make me feel like hell on Sunday, and Sunday I gotta spend the day getting ready for Monday. So I sit home on Saturday nights because it'll affect me Monday morning. . . . Monday really starts when I walk out of here Friday night."