High On The Hog
NO DOUBT, IF NEW PIG CORP. continues to grow at its present rate, Donald L. Beaver Jr., its founder and "Head Hog," will shortly be enshrined as an authentic "visionary," another of those business pioneers who saw beyond the status quo to achieve a new solution to an old problem. And the pundits will point to him as further proof of what has so often been said -- that vision is the real secret of entrepreneurial success. The prospect amuses Beaver greatly, because if his own experience is any guide, what passes for vision might be better described as a kind of meaningful groping in the dark.
Although their hagiographers often make the entrepreneurs' ascents appear sure and steady, where even the occasional difficulty is merely another opportunity for a display of heroic resolve -- since the ultimate outcome is never really in doubt -- Beaver suspects that for most people, visionary progress more likely follows the foggy course of his own career. And that, Lord knows, was a lurching procession of distractions, reverses, frustrations, and houses in hock, where the happy ending was anything but certain.
"I'll bet there are a lot of people who can identify with me: 'Hey, he's been whammied, too," Beaver says. "Vision? Sure, I had vision. I'd struggle and struggle, and then I'd see a light at the end of the tunnel and I'd say, 'Oh man, at last!" only to find out that it was another freight train coming through and that I'd have to hang on to the cowcatcher all over again."
At the moment, the 34-year-old Beaver is lifting -- proudly, but carefully, at arm's length -- the crowning glory of his meaningful groping, a bit sodden and slimy perhaps, but still a dream come true. Forty-six inches long, about three inches around, a tubular sheath of white polyester filled with the ground-up, highly absorbent pith of corn cobs, the "pig," as it's called, looks less like its four-footed namesake than it does a huge pork sausage. Even so, Beaver insists, this ersatz swine, depending heavily from his outstretched arm and glistening with oil, is, in fact, a perfect marriage of form and function whose effects are not at all unlike the real thing. "Nobody thought to package industrial absorbents this way before," he says. "Can you believe it? I mean, it's so simple. For a long time, even I couldn't see it."
Ultimately, though, a pig's right to trade on the good name of its barnyard cousin resides not in its form but in its stupendous, unabashed gluttony for certain types of industrial refuse. Two pigs, for example, weighing roughly one pound apiece, can absorb, in 30 seconds, four times their own weight or nearly a gallon of machine oil or hydraulic fluid before they are sated. "We call up our customers and ask them how they like our pigs," Beaver says, "and some of the funnier ones say, "They suck.' Oh, boy, do we love to hear that."
"They make great doorstops, too," says Fred L. Beers, who is standing next to Beaver. "You just can't beat 'em." Beers, a general maintenance man at the 100-year-old Blank Book Co., in Roaring Spring, Pa. (population 3,000), points out that before the pig in Beaver's grasp was so rudely disturbed, it was busy lapping up a problem that had bedeviled the company for some time. Lodged snugly under the gearbox of a shrink-wrap machine, the pig spends its days swallowing drops of oil falling from a small crack in the gearbox above. Before he started using the pig, Beers had tried other methods to control the leak, since it was too expensive to replace the entire unit. For example, he threw clay pellets on the floor -- a composition known technically as fuller's earth and popularly as cat litter -- but was dissatisfied with the side effects. Dust from the pellets wore down bearings and hydraulic mechanisms; employees tracked the oil and clay mix into other parts of the plant; and it was a chore to clean the stuff up with a broom and shovel. Then he tried what he thinks was treated sawdust for a while, but that left him discouraged as well. And to make matters worse, each of these methods captured only some of the oil; over time, the greater part of the leakage followed an ingenious route of escape. First, it seeped through the floorboards, then it pooled slowly above a fluorescent light fixture in the ceiling of the floor below, and finally, one day, it announced its presence from on high with a viscous eclat that landed next to a desktop computer.
As Beaver admires the victorious pig, his face occasionally achieves that look of majestic wonder usually associated with visits to the Grand Canyon. It is not merely one pig and one problem at one company that Beaver sees dangling before him, but a vision far richer, containing the image of thousands upon thousands of machines in plants throughout America all weeping their dark, oleaginous tears while the resident Fred Beers frets. What could be more common to industry, Beaver is thinking, than the pile of cat litter or the clump of cloth rags soaking in a puddle of oil. Annually, businesses spend roughly $100 million for some 600,000 tons of fuller's earth and another $60 million for various kinds of rags. Then the image changes and each pile and each clump is transformed into a pig, and a Fred Beers is smiling and paying cash. Yes, a good dream, Beaver thinks, far off but sweet all the way through. Besides, he is already off to a good start. In the year and a half since he incorporated New Pig, based in nearby Altoona, the company's sales have reached $4.5 million, contributed by some 10,000 customers throughout the United States, including representatives of more than 95% of the Fortune 500.
"It certainly hasn't always been this way," Beaver says. "There have been times when I could've folded the cards and you would've thought it completely understandable. The pig's been worth the wait, but it's been a long time coming."
Although the turbulent process that eventually produced New Pig Corp. churned through its course within the past 10 to 11 years, evidence suggests that its actual headwaters are found even further back in time. Apparently, the truly gifted meaningful groper, like thoroughbreds and prodigies, shows an early bloom of talent. Consider Beaver as a young boy growing up on Maple Avenue in a kind of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" section of Bellwood, five miles north of Altoona. To either side of his parents' house lived two elderly spinsters who had taken to asking young Beaver, the only boy on his block, to mow their lawns, shovel their snow, or wash their storm windows at 50 cents per job. Beaver would later call this the "old-girl network" because, as he puts it, "you do a good job for one lady and she talks about it at the bridge club, and the next day you'll get 10 more ladies calling." For most youngsters, the implications of this common childhood arrangement extend no further than the corner candy store, but not so for Don Beaver. He must have sensed a more profound connection between cleaning and hard cash and would, in fact, spend the next 20 years perfecting its possibilities. Not surprisingly, then, when Beaver entered Illinois's Wheaton College in 1970 and needed spending money, what did he do but activate the local network -- and so effectively that a few of his former clients still seek him out to ask if he might look after their houses while they winter in Florida. Then he expanded. By his senior year, from an off-campus apartment he shared with three roommates, Beaver managed a complex service that called on as many as 100 part-time employees to clean offices and apartment buildings in downtown Chicago and 10 surrounding suburbs. Beaver himself earned more than $20,000 that year.
After college, Beaver returned to Altoona and founded a company called Best Possible Services Inc., a versatile little enterprise designed for uncertain but great undertakings and staffed by himself and a helper. His corporate logo included a hammer, a paintbrush, and a broom, but in fact the company's mission amounted to not much more than a collection of odd jobs. And while he was undeniably busy, he grew increasingly unhappy. "I was still schlepping around, washing windows and stuff," Beaver says, "and I'd see these guys from college getting jobs at Fortune 500 companies, and I knew they were lazy bums. Somewhere in there, I began looking for something more. I didn't know what it was exactly, but I wanted it." And with that sentiment, Beaver's meaningful groping rose to a more advanced stage of development.
Almost overnight, Don Beaver, the handyman, became Don Beaver, the construction impresario, in a transmogrification that required regular infusions of bank debt. "I was going to be a million-dollar construction business in a year," he says. "Suddenly, I had trucks, mortar mixers, radial-arm saws, and all kinds of scaffolding. You should've seen it." Largely on the basis of small-home remodeling projects, Beaver, to his credit, was able to push this new engine of ambition to revenues of roughly $300,000 over the next year and a half. Then the wheels fell off or, more precisely, were knocked off. Rising interest rates and the removal of income-tax incentives for home insulation combined with his own lackadaisical management technique to bring him to the brink of insolvency. "It was all volume and no profit," Beaver says. "I wasn't much interested in P&L statements -- it was a seat-of-the-pants operation. The only time my wife cried over one of my business ventures was in 1978 when she totaled up the checkbook and said: 'We owe $100,000 and nobody owes us anything.' That got me thinking."
In addition to his early start in life and fanatical persistence, the genuine meaningful groper can also be identified by another distinguishing characteristic. Even as he gropes through wreckage that to an ordinary mortal would be utterly depressing, the meaningful groper has an almost supernatural ability to discover amid the rubble the bright glitter of new promise. So it was that Beaver found Ben E. Stapelfeld -- and found, too, a reaffirmation of his destiny as Bellwood's own "Mr. Clean," the once and future Head Hog.
Stapelfeld, now 36, is in charge of manufacturing and finance at New Pig and is regarded by Beaver as cofounder of the company. Before he joined New Pig full-time in January 1986, Stapelfeld had managed a $5-million, family-owned general-contracting business in Altoona. The two men first met on job sites in 1978 just as Beaver's construction empire was reverting back to sand. Almost immediately, it was clear to both men that their talents might be profitably combined. "Don and I are very different people," says Stapelfeld, "and I guess that's why we get along so well. He's 'get it,' and I'm 'do it.' He's great at sales and marketing; I get the manufacturing done. He's the idea man; I'm the filter. He'll come up with 100 ideas a year, and maybe 99 go down the tube -- but there's always that one." And fortunately for Don Beaver, good friend Ben was on hand early enough to catch what was a very intriguing idea indeed.
In 1978, nearly one-third of the $300,000 Beaver had taken in came not from construction but from cleaning jobs of all kinds -- everything from attending to the ashtrays, wastebaskets, and carpets of local offices, to steam-blasting layers of crud from machine-shop walls. In the process, Beaver's customers had consistently pointed out to him that someone with such a conspicuously cleansing touch really ought to concentrate on that gift alone. Driven by the pressures and frustrations of his own failing business, Beaver finally listened. He was especially attracted by the opportunities in industrial cleaning, in which each individual job was generally larger and more profitable than either residential or office contracts. But before he charged forward with his usual flair, this time Beaver asked himself how he might avoid the nerve-racking disorganization that had characterized his ill-fated construction adventure. He recalled that while he was operating his cleaning service at Wheaton College, he had frequently bid against franchisees from ServiceMaster Industries Inc., the billion-dollar cleaning-services giant headquartered in nearby Downers Grove, Ill. In addition to the technical and tactical support from the parent company, Beaver had also noticed that these franchisees possessed a comforting rationale for their existence nicely laid out in glossy brochures. And that sense of order and security was very appealing to a man who had narrowly escaped disaster, particularly when he learned that ServiceMaster had a division, Sermac, that sold industrial-cleaning franchises. "I saw a company that had grown from nothing to hundreds of millions of dollars," Beaver says, "and I thought they could do something like that for me, even in a small way."
Stapelfeld, now Beaver's friend and confidant, liked the idea as well, and after Beaver successfully pleaded with his banker for a $10,000 loan, Stapelfeld added $10,000 of his own money to buy a Sermac franchise. "I felt that no matter what happened, it was going to be fun," Stapelfeld says. "But I just knew it was going to turn into something." He was right. In April 1979, on his way home from a franchisee-training seminar in Chicago, Beaver convinced the good people at the Blank Book Co. that they could not survive without one of his $3,000 industrial-cleaning contracts. And business only got better from there. By 1982, operating out of a small, cinder-block building in Juniata, Pa., the Sermac franchise collected more than $500,000 in revenues and a profit of roughly 30% from some 45 customers. Of the close to 50 Sermac franchisees then in business throughout the country, theirs was in the top 5, and each of the others had been at it longer. At the same time, Beaver also converted his residential-and commercial-cleaning business, which he had kept up all along, into a standard ServiceMaster franchise specifically designed for those markets. It, too, did extremely well, so that in 1982 the combined revenues from these two franchises passed $1 million.
By this time, Beaver was quite thoroughly beside himself. Impressed, too, were those within the Sermac network, who considered him to have all the right leadership qualities -- resourcefulness, energy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to get himself dirty, very dirty. Even when his franchise used as many as 100 part-time employees, Beaver could still be found in a yellow rain suit and goggles steam-cleaning a ceiling from a catwalk high above a shop floor. As a result, his opinions were widely respected, a fact formally acknowledged by his appointment as chairman of the Sermac Advisory Council, in which capacity he regularly represented franchisee interests with ServiceMaster corporate executives. "You could say," Stapelfeld says, "that Don had become their fair-haired boy."
At this point, Beaver basked in the fullness of his success and prosperity. But what is that moving in the background? Could it be a gathering sense of foreboding that things are going a little too well for Beaver, who had just turned 30? Something bad isn't going to happen, is it?
In the fall of 1982, the fair-haired boy was invited to ServiceMaster headquarters to confer with none other than Bill Pollard, the company's president, and a few other executives. Beaver and his wife, Pam, discussed this mysterious summons and decided that Pollard was going to offer him some high-level corporate post. When Beaver, wearing his gray-flannel "power" suit, stepped into Pollard's office, he had already rehearsed how he would refuse the offer, since it would probably mean he would have to relocate. Instead, and to Beaver's utter amazement, Pollard offered him the ownership of the entire Sermac division, which Beaver was soon to learn had been foundering for some time.
"They knew what they were doing," Beaver says of that meeting. "They had a dog, and they wanted to get rid of it. They were probably thinking: 'Be still my heart, maybe we've got a live one here."
A live one, indeed. Two months later, Beaver and Stapelfeld bought Sermac without spending a dime of their own money. ServiceMaster, eager to close the deal, gave them a $50,000, five-year loan and agreed to buy back 15% of Sermac's common stock for $50,000 cash. "We did a leveraged buyout," says Stapelfeld, still amazed at the thought, "when we didn't even know what it meant."
Moreover, they bought Sermac against the advice of practically every sensible businessperson they knew. The fact that the number of existing franchisees had declined sharply over the previous two years failed to weaken their resolve. In fact, neither Sermac's current operating details nor its past record had ever really been the controlling factors in their decision anyway. They were buying the future. So great was their confidence that they sold off their own Sermac franchise as well as their residential- and commercial-cleaning businesses so they could concentrate exclusively on their new role as franchisor. Within a period of two months, in other words, a revenue stream that had recently approached $1.5 million narrowed to a trickle consisting of $150,000 in franchise royalties, some change from the sale of cleaning supplies, and the future's promise.
From the point of view of Sermac's franchisees, the change in ownership was understandably disturbing. Compared to ServiceMaster, a formidable and well-capitalized corporation, Beaver and Stapelfeld were, well, just two guys from Altoona. To allay the franchisees' fears and win their support, Beaver and Stapelfeld convened a weekend meeting at a Marriott Hotel outside of Pittsburgh. By that time, there were only 30 franchisees left in the Sermac system, down from 60, and of those 30, only 16 showed up at the Marriott. "And I want to tell you," Beaver says, "they were mad." Six franchisees quit on the spot, and had the new owners not bought the influence of Sermac's largest franchisee by giving him fully 15% of the company's stock, Beaver and Stapelfeld were convinced that they might well have lost everybody.
Still smarting from their pounding at the Marriott, Sermac's new owners hobbled back to Altoona only to learn that the vicious infighting had merely been a warm-up exercise for the main bout. Beaver, expecting to invigorate the operation through growth, was stunned to discover that he could not sell a new franchise even if someone were actually interested in buying one. First, there was the lengthy disclosure statement that he had to file with the Federal Trade Commission. That was followed, in turn, by the separate registrations with regulators of the various states. By the time it was finished, the process ultimately was to cost Beaver nearly $100,000 and a precious year of growth, forcing him to fall back on bank debt to meet his obligations to existing franchisees for support and supplies. "That year," he says, "was the first punch in the stomach. But only the first."
As the registration process neared its end, Beaver hired as his salesman Carl DeCaspers, his former high school basketball coach (the Bellwood-Antis Blue Devils) whose bracing pep talks he had always admired, and the two men stumped about the country visiting each of the most promising candidates on a list of some 400 potential franchisees. By the end of January 1985, they had sold three. "For a while that had us pretty excited," DeCaspers says, "but it really only obscured how difficult it was going to be. After that, we hit a brick wall."
"And that," Beaver adds, "was the second punch in the stomach -- now that we could sell the franchises, we couldn't sell 'em. That's when I started thinking, 'What's wrong?"
Two things were wrong. First, among those people capable of raising the $100,000 to buy and set up a business franchise, very few could fully appreciate the personal fulfillment attendant to mucking about in all sorts of noxious industrial goop. And second, there was not all that much that could be franchised in the first place. Unlike, say, office cleaning where the same problems were encountered over and over again and could thus be anticipated with a systematic and repeatable drill, each industrial-cleaning job had to be engineered from scratch according to its own idiosyncracies. Industrial cleaning could not be codified into that kind of mechanistic routine so characteristic of the franchising concept. It would take Beaver more than two years -- from January 1983 to March 1985 -- and roughly $400,000 to figure that out.
In the meantime, he groped his way up all sorts of blind alleys -- meaningfully, of course, but also desperately.
In 1983, Sermac's first full year in business, roughly 80% of the company's $120,000 in revenues came from a single franchisee who appeared to have uncovered a revolutionary approach to industrial cleaning. Instead of dispatching squadrons of his own employees to clean a customer's plant, this man managed a customer's in-house personnel while they did the very same job. Customers were thrilled for several reasons: the work was done much more efficiently than if they had tried it on their own; the folks were already on the payroll anyway; and, finally, this type of management contract did not aggravate the resident union's xenophobia. Nor could the franchisee have been more pleased. He could continue to build volume with far fewer employees, which in turn meant far fewer headaches of all kinds and ultimately much higher profit margins. Called "industrial contract management" (ICM), it was a powerful concept and, like gold, Beaver knew it as soon as he saw it. "We had decided that the biggest part of our effort was going to go to helping this guy set up this type of business," Beaver says. "We just knew it was a great idea." Unfortunately, so did the franchisee; and, worse still, so did the mighty ServiceMaster Corp.
Beaver got the bad news from ServiceMaster first during a casual visit to the company's headquarters in the summer of 1983. "I looked down this hallway," he says, "and I noticed this new area staffed with maybe 10 to 15 people. It used to be a secretarial area, but now it looked like an executive area. 'Mmm,' I said to myself, 'wonder what that is?' So I asked a friend of mine there, and he told me that's where they were putting in the contract-management division. 'Oh, really,' I said. In fact, I said, 'Oh, really' about 30 times."
Two months later, as if ServiceMaster's entry into the field was not sufficiently discouraging, Beaver lost his golden goose. The star franchisee said simply that since all he was really getting from Sermac was the use of the name, he intended to change his name and dump Beaver. Sermac's ICM business, which had been averaging $10,000 a month, evaporated on the spot. "Ever see a duck get shot out of the air?" asks Beaver. "Boom. Bang. Well, that's how I felt."
For another year, Beaver struggled along until three days before Christmas in 1984 when he could no longer deny the undeniable: ICM was dead, the company was $400,000 in debt, his banker was refusing to extend any more credit, and the number of franchisees had dwindled to six. "Up until then," Beaver says, "I had been putting my fingers in all the holes in the dike, but now I had to realize that the company was never going anywhere."
The moment was dark, but it was also glorious, a moment that confirms the true meaningful groper in the righteousness of his cause. "Everything came crashing down for Sermac," Beaver says. "But," -- and here he pauses reverently as if to hint at the rapture of an apocalyptic sighting -- "the pig was rising from the much. Just to think of it makes my heart pound."
Much of the fumbling and stumbling, the false starts and busted hopes scripted for the Sermac episode were played out under lighting so dim that it seems inconceivable that Beaver could have been even more in the dark with the pig. Consider, though, that Beaver actually had the product and concept in hand at least twice before it ever came to market -- and at neither time was he able to fathom the larger significance of what he had.
As far back as 1979, there was included on Beaver's roster of activities a fixed-price contract obligating him to clean weekly various sections of a paper-processing plant in central Pennsylvania. To his surprise, this contract, which at the outset had appeared lucrative, soon lost money. The cause, after a brief study, was readily apparent: several machines that cut and shaped paper products were leaking oil. To soak up the flow, the employees threw down cat litter, but instead of replacing it periodically, they allowed the litter to pile up for Beaver's weekend crew. As a result, it took Beaver much longer to shovel up the oil-soaked clay then he had originally anticipated. "The cumulative effect of losing money," Beaver says, "is what made me realize that there had to be a better way."
First Beaver tried stuffing rags into the machine itself. Then he took to rolling up the base of the machine. Not good. They lasted only three days before they were completely soaked and useless. Then one day, while he was laying his cordon of rags on the floor, several of the company's employees who were watching the ritual joked that it might make sense to wrap cat litter inside the rags. At this precise instant, for which the official New Pig chronicles will no doubt chisel an appropriate lapidary inscription, Don Beaver can be said to have experienced his first porcine thought. "Yes, of course," he thought, "but not in rags -- in my basketball tube socks." Not good. The tube socks were too thick, and the oil was not getting to the clay fast enough. Beaver needed a thinner fabric. "Yes, of course," he thought, "my wife's panty hose." The next day Beaver marched onto the job site with two clay-filled, cut-off sections of his wife's hosiery, which, when slung over his shoulder, looked to a few alarmed machinists disconcertingly similar to real human legs. Much better. These devices lasted a full week and were so much easier to replace that Beaver was able to accomplished in one hour what had previously taken him 10.
But what did Beaver do now, now that he had in his hands this diamond in the rough, this prototypical pig?
He forgot about it.
"I just thought," he says, "that it was a great tool for us on that one particular job. And since I didn't have any others quite like it, well, the pig didn't exactly die, but it did go into a coma for the next four years."
During that summer of 1983, Beaver's porcine thoughts started up again. He was calling on customers with the franchisee who had pioneered the ICM concept, and one afternoon they stopped at a plant owned by one the country's largest automobile manufacturers. Inside the plant Beaver claims he saw men driving around in golf carts with dump beds behind them delivering cat litter to the production line; 11 men to be exact doing naught but shoveling cat litter -- a railroad boxcar full of the stuff each month. "This was the first time," Beaver says, "that I began to think about actually replacing clay with some kind of absorbent sock. Bingo, the light went on." It must have been a weak bulb, however, for what light there was still could not illuminate the pig for what it was worth.
Beaver still could not yet see the idea as a viable product in its own right. This time he saw it as a tool that could "revolutionize" the emerging ICM business. He now developed an assortment of prototypes in various fabrics and lengths, including one pig procursor that turned out to be eight feet long, weighed 60 pounds, and "handled like a live boa constrictor." He even got several local machine shops to test the prototypes with good results. But just at that moment, his entry into the ICM market came to a halt with the news from ServiceMaster and the defection of his star franchisee.
What did he do with the pig then?
Right. He forgot about it.
"Since I was no longer in the ICM business," Beaver explains, "of course I no longer had a tool to revolutionize it. I had limited vision. There were too many distractions, a lack of focus."
For nearly a year, the pig lay dormant while Beaver struggled to resuscitate Sermac. Then, in February 1984, the pig awoke -- and again it did not know what it was. This time the pig thought it had returned as a loss leader come to save Sermac. In Beaver's latest plan, franchisees would distribute pigs to their customers at some nominal cost in the hope that it would open the door to selling them cleaning services. Reeling under the heady influence of this concept, Beaver traveled to the national conference of Sermac franchisees in Pittsburgh and appeared on the dais before the dwindling group with a pig dangling from each hand. Each pig had dollar signs drawn on it on black magic marker. "This," he announced, "is Project Moneybags -- the salvation of Sermac." The franchisees were enthusiastic, and they proposed names for the new product, good, stout names like "Soil Sausage" and "Oil Weenie." Their interest would wane, but at least Beaver now had the incentive he needed to finish developing the pig into its present form.
It was knwon as the Pig Pen, that space in Sermac's converted Altoona warehouse where James D. Bilka wallowed in the summer of 1984. Hired by Beaver as the pig's official research-and-development division, Bilka, a student at Pennsylvania State University, spent his time calculating absorption rates according to rigorous scientific methods. "I'd pour oil right on the floor to make it as real as possible," he says, "and then I'd try to clean it up. I used anything I could get my hands on -- clay, wood chips, even ground-up diapers. It was pretty nasty."
As Bilka poured, Beaver was off thinking about absorption, too, and eventually remembered an old cleaning job. He had been hired to remove caked-on grit from the walls of an industrial plant without pitting the surface underneath, which ruled out sandblasting. Searching for alternatives, Beaver read in a technical journal that the Navy had solved similar problems during World War II by blasting with ground-up corn cobs instead of sand. The technique worked for Beaver as well. But he also noticed that when the corn-husk bits fell on the floor, they had an extraordinary affinity for oil. Naturally, Bilka soon tried ground-up corn cobs and that pleased him, and then he found his way to the ground-up pith or center of the husk, which pleased him even more. Tests at nearly 200 local sites confirmed Bilka's findings.
By that fall, the pig, recognizable in shape and substance as the product being sold today, had been born. For a short time, its appearance gave Beaver the reassurance he needed as he entered that gloomy winter of 1984, when "everything came crashing down for Sermac." But its heady effects soon began to evaporate when he turned to his franchisees to find that only one was still interested in buying and distributing the pigs.
So what did Beaver do now that his franchisees would not distribute his pig? Did he forget it as he had before?
No. This time he went on to glory. Not in a straight line, of course, but on to glory nonetheless.
There is no one moment that Beaver singles out as that instant of subline revelation when he realized that the pig was worthy of its own place in the world. Rather, it was an accumulation of experiences and events that gradually revealed the pig's potential. "It's like what happens with kids," Beaver says. "They crawl around and crawl around, and then one day you notice they're up and walking. We had big troubles, but we also had this little cult following -- people who had been using the pigs for six months and just loved'em."
Beaver knew that it would take more than a cult following to keep the pig alive. It would take distribution. Yet in another of those curious inversions so characteristic of meaningful groping, Beaver now prolonged his suffering a little longer by discarding the one solution that eventually would solve his distribution problem.
Beaver suspected that the pig could be sold by direct mail, and after making some rough calculations and projections, he presented his plan to his board of directors and his advertising agency. Out of the question, he was told. Industrial products were not sold by direct mail to factories -- that was a misguided notion that went against all tradition. He must use distributors. Yes, distributors was the way it was done.
So he did. In the spring of 1985, he and a small band of fellow swine herders, including Doug Hershey, a dairy science graduate from Penn State who saw his new job as "agriculturally related," and Cyndee Williams, Beaver's sister, signed up 40 distributors. Within six weeks, they realized they had made a dreadful mistake. Some of the distributors returned their pigs, others refused to pay, and still others claimed that Beaver had misrepresented his product and threatened to sue. "No one was happy," says Beaver, whose views on distributors are today decidedly jaundiced. "The typical distributor is an order-taker for things people have been using for years. Nobody knew what a pig was, but they [the distributors] couldn't introduce a new product, educate the customer, and sell it."
In this moment of darkness, Beaver turned to what would surely have been anyone's obvious first choice -- Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc. He had just finished reading a book about the company and its direct-sales methods and came away with nes hope. In the summer of 1985, he hired seven Penn State students to sell pigs directly on a straight commission of $10 per box, further sweetened by a $2,000 stereo outfit to the top producer and a $500 cash award for second-place volume. "I thought we could be the Mary Kay of industry," Beaver says, "and have these cute people calling on these grisly manufacturing guys."
To support his sales force, every week Beaver sent out information mailers to companies within each sales territory. All in all, it was a standard approach to direct sales, but his mailers were not. They were inspired. First, because he wanted to reach buyers "who were actually pushing the broom," Beaver sent his mailers to so-called "facilities managers" -- people like Fred Beers -- rather than to company presidents, plant managers, and other executives. Second, he told his prospects that if they were unhappy with the pigs, they did not have to pay for them. "Now that was a good idea," Beaver says. "You don't hear that offer when it comes to industrial supplies. That was the way we overcame FUD -- you know, fear, uncertainty, and doubt."
Before long, a steady stream of mailers arrived back in Altoona, returned with orders scribbled on the bottom of the flyers. For Beaver, it was conclusive proof that he had been right all along, and that pigs could be sold successfully by direct mail. Personal sales calls were both unwanted and unnecessary. In September alone, 3,000 mailers had produced 100 responses and $10,000 in sales.
So, after an end-of-the-summer ceremony in which Beaver presented the stereo and cash award he had promised, he sent the Mary Kay team back to school. In its place, he organized a direct-mail effort that today spends about $120,000 per month to mail out 300,000 pieces. And in the process, Beaver has received an unexpected dividend. Not only do customers appear pleased with the product itself, but the very idea that it is possible to order something actually called a pig also seems to have touched a large and very sensitive funny bone. Time and again, people call up the pig's toll-free number -- the numerical equivalent of HOT-HOGS -- and insist on speaking to "Miss Piggy" or to "Boss Hogg," or they include notes on their order forms to say that the pigs are doing a great job because they "ate all the slop" or that they work fine "until they get loose and we can't round them up."
Scattered throughout New Pig's offices are all manner of pig doodads and geegaws, including smiling pig statues in pink porcelain and pudgy pig dolls in paisley prints. On one office wall there is a poster in vivid color showing a winged pig flying over a rainbow, on which is written the words "rise above the ordinary." The poster is a fairly accurate illustration of Beaver's current state of mind.
Not everyone, however, would find the flying pig so amusing. Richard M. Jaffee, for one. Jaffee is president of Oil-Dri Corporation of America, a publicly held corporation with $53 million in sales last year and recognized as the largest producer of clay industrial absorbents. Jaffee says he resents Beaver's repeated references to his product as "clay chips" rather than the more refined "mineral absorbent." He also resents Beaver's constant refrain about the pig's superior absorbency as a selective distortion of benefits that -- according to Jaffe -- fails to note some of clay's other important attributes, among them that clay "creates a safe, nonskid carpet for employees," while pigs do not. And finally, as an aside, Jaffee, a past president of the Sorptive Minerals Institute, a trade association of eight companies, wonders why Beaver gets so worked up over this market anyway. Bad enough that it is "very mature," he says, but worse yet that sales of industrial absorbents "deteriorated markedly" after 1979.
"I think the pig idea has a place," concedes Jaffee, adding ominously, "but it has a limited number of applications in specialty uses, and it would not be a replacement for clay in broad use."
Poor Don Beaver, down there in Altoona, toying with his pig dolls, hanging nonsense posters, stuffing mashed-up corn cobs into pink socks.
He does not know his market is supposed to be limited. He does not know that pigs are not supposed to fly.
Somebody ought to tell him. It's about time he got his facts straight, started listening to the voices of reason and orthodoxy.
Aah, what the hell, it probably wouldn't make a difference anyway. You know Beaver. He'll only smile and recite the meaningful groper's anthem.
"We never said we were smart," Beaver will say. "We just try lots of different things."
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