STRATEGY

At The Crossroads

After 10 years, Bill Wilson has discovered that the very traits that fed his early success no longer seem to work. He can no longer control every event in the company's life, nor can he toss off decisions with his usual flair. Like so many successful founders Bill Wilson finds his achievements have left him.
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WILLIAM H. WILSON INVENTED "shineology" when he was 27 years old. And not long after that he built a company around it. He called his company Pioneer/Eclipse Corp. -- "pioneer" because he was a zealous Jehovah's Witness and when the Witnesses make their rounds evangelizing the Bible they say they are "pioneering"; and "eclipse" because he thought his products were so good they would eclipse anything else on the market. Wilson also thought the name made his company sound like a big conglomerate. He liked that too.

Before Wilson did any of this, he was a janitor.

Today, at 36, he isn't exactly sure that he is.

. . . Which is a problem and which, since touching one's roots often helps, is also one of the reasons why Wilson is sitting in an employees' lunchroom at People's Drug in Galax, Va. For the first time in years, he has returned to the wellspring of his grand idea. Assisting in this nostalgic pilgrimage is Edward Barker, the store manager, who well remembers how it all began and who also, judging by the look on his face, has already sensed the tension in Wilson's transformation.

Barker is scanning Wilson's most recent brochure, a high-class selling manifesto announcing shineology as a revolutionary "integrated system" that weds a high-speed commercial floor buffer to a series of proprietary floor strippers, waxes, and finishes. From this felicitous arrangement, the copy advises, will flow all manner of cost savings as well as the "perfect shine every time." And to capture the wonder of it all, the brochure's cover features a striking visual extravaganza. Against the black expanse of the universe speckled here and there with tiny pinpricks of starlight, the flagship of Pioneer's line, the propane-powered 2100 SuperBuffer, is shown zooming in from outer space aboard a brightly colored rainbow.

Barker sighs incredulously. "Good Lord, Bill," he says, at the same time surveying Wilson's double-breasted blue blazer with gold buttons, light gray slacks, and glossy Bally shoes, "things sure have changed." Time was, he continues, oh about 1974, when he hired Wilson himself to shine the floors. Yup, Wilson was all alone back then, and would pull up to the store once a week and unload a floor buffer from his used Volvo station wagon. There were no blue blazers back then, no slick brochures, just good ole Bill and his buffing machine. "After a while, though," says Barker, "life really started getting interesting."

Wilson, it seems, had selected Barker's store as a testing ground for certain improvements he had in mind both in the design of the floor buffer and in the formulation of the floor finish. Goaded by his own self-interest to finish jobs more quickly so he could take on more work, Wilson tinkered relentlessly and often to Barker's utter amazement.

"What can I say?" Barker says. "His first buffers were ugly things, real contraptions, infernal machines. He had a lawn-mower engine bolted to this rectangular box, and then I think he even stuck a propane tank from a barbecue grill on the back. Loud? I want to tell you. And stink, I mean the thing belched blue smoke and we had to keep the doors open. Once it even threw a cleaning pad halfway across the store. I thought somebody was going to get killed. For a while I didn't know what the hell was going on."

Barker pauses to once again consider Pioneer's current state-of-the-art equipment -- five kinds of buffers, six types of finishes, and manifold accessories.

"You know, Bill," he says, "as I remember it you said you were going to keep the business on a smaller scale. I guess it didn't quite turn out that way."

Not even close.

In the past seven years, the only other thing in the universe that may have traveled faster than Wilson's intergalactic buffing machine is Pioneer itself. During that time, the company's revenues rose from $300,000 to $19 million. For four years in a row, it has appeared on Inc.'s annual list of the country's 500 fastest-growing private companies. Today, Pioneer sells an average of 5,500 buffers and some 1.4 million gallons of floor finish a year. In the process, Wilson has significantly altered, if not transformed, the practices of an entire industry. Not only has this accomplishment made Wilson a multimillionaire, but it has also won for him the recognition of his peers, including a citation in 1987 as North Carolina's small-business man of the year.

Paradoxically, this performance has left Wilson with distinctly mixed emotions. "For the past year or so," he says, "there's been a giant-tug-of-war going on inside me. I'm at a crossroads in my life. If I stay as frustrated as I've been, it could hurt the company. I know I would be a very bad leader if I wasn't enjoying what I was doing. Frankly, I'm a little burned out and a little gun-shy, too."

Bill Wilson, seeming so secure in the full amplitude of an extraordinary achievement, has an identity crisis. In the aftermath of a near disaster that might have ruined the company, Wilson discovered that the very traits that fed his early success no longer seemed to work. He could not personally control every event in the company's life as he once had; nor could he toss off decisions with his usual entrepreneurial flair; and where was the hectic uncertainty of the start-up that he crafted; and worst of all, could it be that he was falling away from his God? Although many of its features are well known among successful entrepreneurs, the crisis overtook Wilson with unusual speed and intensity, and it was all the more perplexing because in the past his style had worked very well indeed.

Pioneer/Eclipse started out as an afterthought along the way to the greater glory of Jehovah. By 1969, Wilson, then 17, had left his hometown, Parkersburg, W. Va., to live and evangelize in Ashland, Ky. One day he was bagging groceries in Mussetter's Super Valu food store when he asked the manager if he could take over the duties of the store's floor shiner, who had just quit. In retrospect, it is, of course, possible to identify this event as that ineffable moment when Wilson's destiny had at last found his correct address. At the time, though, his grasp of the situation was far more practical. The new assignment required that he perform his duties three nights a week, and that suited his real agenda quite nicely.

Wilson was now free to spend his days pioneering for Jehovah. He roamed the neighborhoods of Ashland, knocking on doors, citing scripture, and generally alerting the community to the imminent arrival of Jehovah's kingdom. On his evenings off from work, he would return to those families interested in learning more and lead Bible study sessions in their dining rooms. "If there was ever a time when I was happiest," Wilson says, "that was it. I love to talk about the Bible." While the experience, no doubt, advanced Wilson's celestial standing, it also enhanced his innate ability to communicate with the secular world of business. Today, when he promotes one of his buffers or floor finishes he achieves a sympathetic urgency in his delivery that might easily convince the listener that grasping Wilson's pitch may somehow contribute to the salvation of one's soul.

Apparently, Wilson was a world-class floor shiner from the very beginning, an indefatigable wunderkind who "just worked like a steamroller all night long." Soon he was asked to take on the four other stores in the Mussetter's chain. This modest opportunity had ramifications far beyond its immediate significance. Wilson was surprisingly, even amazingly, well prepared to exploit it -- a Mozart waiting for his first piano. In a sense, he had already graduated from a business school of his own design. Although in his youth Wilson carried the normal course load of odd jobs -- mowing lawns and delivering newspapers -- he had gone on to advance studies well ahead of his peers. At 14, he was repairing vacuum cleaners in a neighbor's business; at 16, he was a tax preparer for H&R Block; and, at 17, he was a bookkeeper in charge of the payroll at Jimbo's, a Parkersburg restaurant -- and all this in addition to the usual burdens of a high-school student. The sudden press of greater responsibility also forced to the surface the first visible sign of his future management style -- a kink of stay involved in everything all the time and make stuff up as you go along. A time would come when this approach would bring him to grief, but that day was a long way off. Right then, it was perfect.

Wilson hired four other Witnesses, and the group fanned out among the Mussetter's stores. Of course, Wilson ordered all the floor finishes himself, maintained the scrubbing machines himself, and charged around in an old van orchestrating his crew. Less than a year later, Wilson and his band had added several more local stores to their ongoing Mussetter's contract and were now doing business as Pioneer Floor Care Service. By 1974, as business flourished, this loose aggregation of Bible-toting entrepreneurs had grown to 12. That same year, though, Wilson and his wife had their first child and decided to move to Sparta, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where life was less citified and where Wilson hoped to help establish the area's first congregation of Witnesses. All of the existing contracts were distributed among Wilson's associates who preferred to remain in Ashland. The stage was now set for the discovery of shineology.

Wilson had anticipated his move to Sparta by convincing a few of the area's larger stores to let him maintain their floors -- Ed Barker of People's Drug being one of his earliest clients. Naturally, Wilson wanted to take on more work, but his prospects were limited by several factors: he was alone, some of his jobs were far apart -- 30 miles between Sparta and Barker's store, for example -- and the work itself went very slowly. At the time, the only technique available to people in Wilson's trade was known as "spray buffing," a tortured procedure in which the operator of the buffing machine hand-sprays a small patch of liquid wax in front of the machine, buffs it, stops, sprays a little more wax down, and so on, proceeding a foot or so at a time until the entire store is done. Today, using Wilson's system, one operator can compete a 20,000-square-foot store in one hour; back then, the same space required roughly six hours of costly direct labor.

"That's when I started to rebel," says Wilson. "I had no such travel time to deal with that I had to develop a faster, better way to clean floors. Necessity was the mother of invention."

Resting from his labors one day in the summer of 1975, Wilson spotted a small news item in a trade journal about a company that was manufacturing an unusual custom-made buffer selling for $1,200. It was powered not by electricity but by propane, and it could spin the buffing pad at the unheard-of speed of 1,000 revolutions per minute at a time when every other machine on the market produced a paltry 150 to 300 RPMs. To a professional like Wilson, the advantages were obvious -- that is, if the machine wasn't some kind of a joke. For one thing, he would no longer have to drag a long extension cord around with him as he worked, but more importantly, now he might be able to buff three times as fast. So he bought one. It wasn't a joke, but it was close. The buffer used a seven-horsepower lawn-mower engine that was far too weak for the job. As a result, the machine conked out with exasperating regularity. "Still," Wilson says, "as bad as it was, it was still better than anything else. I could see the potential and I thought I could improve it." Five years were to pass before Wilson would perfect the design. In the meantime, he bought more buffers whenever he could afford them and tinkered assiduously -- using different engines, changing the shape of the buffing pads, altering the handle bars, improving the propane tank -- trying anything and everything a former vacuum cleaner repairman could think of. And each time, he would haul his latest contraption over to People's Drug for a trial run as Ed Barker rolled his eyes toward heaven.

Although ultimate victory over the mercurial buffer still lay in the future, Wilson's persistence was repaid more quickly in other, unexpected ways. As he pondered the higher mysteries of the machine's engineering, he noticed that certain commercial floor finished responded to the increased RPMs with a much higher gloss than others. It must be possible, he reasoned, to brew a blend all his own that could capture the best features of various name brand. With this thought in mind, Wilson set out on another line of investigation, parallel to his buffing machine experiments, which had him blending all kinds of liquid acrylic polymers, polyethylenes, plasticizers, coalescents, and preservatives.

All of Wilson's tinkering and concocting, occurring as they did within the narrow confines of a small cinder-block building on Sparta's Highway 21, created a sight to behold. Charles M. Drum, Pioneer's outside accountant, remembers vividly the day Wilson asked him to drop by. "It was very hot in there," he says, "and the trucks were roaring up the hill outside so you could hardly hear to talk. Machines and big 55-gallon drums of chemicals were everywhere. Bill himself was stirring something furiously in one of those 250-gallon stainless-steel vats that are used for milk. He was sweating and stirring and sweating. I looked at him, and I thought he was some kind of mad scientist in there, and I sure didn't know whether I wanted to do business with him."

Drum was quickly won over by Wilson's irresistible salesmanship, but the business he saw that day bears little resemblance to the Pioneer of today. Although the raw concept of shineology was present, that is, that high-speed machines should be intentionally combined with specially formulated high-speed cleaners, polishes, and finishes, Wilson could not yet articulate what was to become his marketing masterstroke. Instead, he was off on a tangent trying to organize himself as a supply house with a full line of cleaning supplies and equipment including mops, brooms, buckets, and carpet-care products. At the same time, he continued to offer contract-cleaning service as well.

Even so, Wilson, by virtue of his enormous energy and constant personal attention to every detail, was not doing badly. By 1977, Wilson's latest business venture, now called Pioneer Sanitation Supply Inc., claimed revenues of $270,000 and a payroll of 10 employees. He was doing do well, in fact, that his father, Charles C. Wilson, quit the milk route he had driven for 25 years and signed on as part owner, vice-president, and floor buffer. Nor were Wilson's spiritual initiatives any less impressive. That year, Sparta's 20 Jehovah's Witnesses were recognized as an official congregation even as Wilson helped lay the stone foundation of the town's first Kingdom Hall. It soon became clear, however, that Wilson's business had taken a futile detour. "I was buying from 20 different manufacturers," Wilson says, "and still I couldn't satisfy everybody. If I carried an 8-inch mop, somebody wanted a 12-inch mop. You just couldn't win." When the evidence could no longer be denied, Wilson dumped his supply-house idea and cast about for something better. It was the kind of quick, decisive action that Wilson prided himself on. Later, when his company had grown much larger and required a more deliberate kind of planning, Wilson would feel estranged from this basic component of his personality. "I can't shoot from the hip like that anymore," he says. "I have to be more cautious because there's so much at stake."

In 1978, as if to atone for its earlier indecisiveness, shineology revealed itself with a sudden flourish of breakthroughs. That year, the Honda Motor Co. unveiled a new 11-horsepower engine that finally solved Wilson's engineering problems. When he bolted one of them to the frame of a buffer and fired it up, the engine simply would not quit. What's more, it turned the buffing pad at an amazing 2,000 revolutions per minute. Simultaneously, Wilson at last formulated Total Eclipse, a long-lasting, thermoplastic floor finish that, under the friction of the pads, produces such a high gloss that the floor appears to shimmer several inches below the vinyl surface. In addition, the finish could be laid down quickly in one continuous application and then buffed at high speed in a separate continuous operation. The laborious, stop-and-go approach of spray-buffing was instantly outclassed.

It was at this point that Wilson achieved an insight that some observers have since called genius. He had not invented high-speed buffing, but what he had discovered was something he took to calling shineology, a discipline that presented the interdependency between machine and finish as a highly marketable integrated system. "It wasn't accidental," he says. "I knew if I had a system, I could sell the system once, not each product separately, just one sale and I've sold it all. And this is what most people wanted because there were too many different products around and they didn't have any real experience at cleaning. They were at the mercy of salespeople who were primarily order takers. But I could be the one to tell them how it all fit together." Wilson, in a fragmented industry characterized by machine makers on the one side and finish formulaters on the other, could offer one-stop shopping, superior results, a preprogrammed method of application that maximized customer convenience and, at the same time, cut labor costs. "Yes, you could call his system revolutionary," says Jack Ramaley, former president of the 3,400-member International Sanitary Supply Association Inc., an industry trade group. "He removed all the guesswork with a compatible system. Bill offers the Rolls-Royce of floor maintenance and there he's the undisputed industry leader." In recognition of this singular achievement, Wilson changed his company's name from Pioneer Sanitation Supply ("too stodgy") to Pioneer/Eclipse ("a real contender") and placed his first ads in the trade press.

Although the initial customer response to shineology was enthusiastic, Pioneer's future was still clouded by one issue that had gone unresolved, namely what to do about the company's contract-cleaning business. Wilson strongly believed that success lay in product sales, not in cleaning contracts. "One day," Wilson recalls, "I sold six machines to a single customer and got a check for $10,000. Nobody had to tell me how many cleaning jobs you'd have to complete to make that kind of money." Wilson's father, Charles, however, believed just as strongly that true profits still lay in cleaning. One of Bill Wilson's characteristic "shoot-from-the-hip" solutions finally settled the dispute. The two men agreed to maintain their books separately for a year -- Bill in sales and Charles in cleaning -- and then, at the end of 1980, compare their results. Whoever made the most money would then determine the future direction of the company; he would also win a half-gallon of Jack Daniel's fine bourbon whiskey. Bill Wilson won the jug. And with that, Pioneer/Eclipse assumed its identity as a specialized manufacturer of high-speed floor-care products.

In October 1984, Bill Wilson attended the annual convention of the World Federation of Building Service Contractors held that year in Sydney, Australia. During the keynote address, he sat in the audience surrounded by some 200 of his peers from various countries and listened as the speaker described recent developments in floor maintenance. Suddenly a picture of the 2100 SuperBuffer appeared on the screen behind the speaker who was about to discuss high-speed buffing. "I couldn't believe it," Wilson says. "I mean, there I was in front of the whole world. I just wanted to jump out of my seat and start hollering, 'That's my baby. That's my baby." For Wilson, that moment represented a powerful validation of Pioneer's extraordinary success. From one man running around in a used station wagon, Wilson's enterprise was approaching $7.4 million in revenues, 65 employees, and 100 distributors. And he himself had been cited several times for "entrepreneurial excellence" by the governor of North Carolina in addition to numerous other awards. By 1985 revenues had reached $13 million.

Imagine Wilson's state of mind, then, as Pioneer began to lose money and continued to lose money in every month during the second half of 1986. And worse yet, nobody knew exactly why.

Pride goeth . . . before a fall." In business, as in life, few things are more dangerous than vanity brought on by sudden success. "If I can pick out any one thing that gave us problems," Wilson said recently, "it was that success had gone to my head. I call it 'successitis.' I got too big of an ego. I thought I could walk on water, and since I'm in charge, I've got to take the blame." To which Ellis F. "Butch" Reeves IV, Wilson's director of administration, responded: "Yeah, but we all had the feeling we could do no wrong. We got carried away by our own growth."

Calendar-year 1986 was supposed to have been Pioneer's most ambitious year yet. Inflamed by international recognition, Wilson orchestrated the introduction of an unprecedented number of new products and initiatives: two buffers, a line of chemicals designed to clean stone and masonry, a buffing pad system, new packaging, a wax applicator, and an electric hand dryer for public restrooms. Then, too, the company had just started advertising in Australia, Japan, and Europe. And, of course, don't forget the big promotion to cut the price of the SuperBuffer by $1,000. That plan was expected to increase profits sharply since more machines in the field meant more sales of higher-margined chemicals.

From afar, this ambitious program looked a sturdy enough monument to the greater glory of Pioneer/Eclipse, but there were cracks in the carapace and the foundation was week. The first rumblings of approaching disaster occurred early one morning in August when, at a hastily called meeting, Wilson was shown the latest month's figures. He had not seen numbers in the loss column for so long that for a moment he could only blink at them in utter disbelief. "Then," Reeves recalls, "things got very tense because no one could really explain what had happened. Bill looked up and said, 'I want to know. Find it. Find it." Wilson then decreed that everyone there assembled would meet every week until answers had been found. These explanations, it would turn out, were varied and several, and, to his profound disappointment, Wilson himself headed the list.

While many entrepreneurs say they are involved in everything, more as a figure of speech than anything else, with Wilson it was quite literally true, almost unbelievably true. "There was a time," says Garry A. Avram, a prominent Winston-Salem, N.C., attorney and Wilson confidante who sits on Pioneer's board of directors, "when you couldn't have a conversation with him that was five minutes long. It was like this: you're talking and a man comes along and says, 'Bill, this screw won't work,' and then Bill stops talking and says to the guy, 'Use another screw.' I mean people were that dependent on him." That was Wilson's style and it had worked wonders when the company was small. Unfortunately, it had not changed even as Pioneer grew larger and more complex. Indeed, Wilson persisted in dealing with his managers in a similar fashion -- one at a time and down to the smallest detail. Although the company was organized around a conventional departmental structure, the individual departments did not meet to discuss Pioneer's overall results and their combined effectiveness. The net result was a serious lack of communication. Thus, in one instance, the sales department ran a promotion without the knowledge of manufacturing and purchasing, which, in turn, could not have inventory on hand. In another, the credit department put the screws to a major account before sales could resolve the misunderstanding more diplomatically. "The left hand," says Reeves, "did not know what the right hand was doing."

The departments, confirmed as they were into the mass delusion of infallibility by Wilson himself, went their own ways, mesmerized by the promise of even greater achievements yet to come. In the process, they ignored the more pedestrian requirements of business such as serving the customer, in this case, the independent distributor. If Wilson and his managers had stopped to reflect on the peculiarities of their distribution network, they would have been far less likely to advance their plans so aggressively. Many of these distributors had grown up in the business as janitors and had themselves only recently stepped out from behind a buffing machine. They simply did not have the organizational depth nor the experience required to accommodate Pioneer's proposed expansion.

Fundamentals were being neglected at home, as well. The company's accounting systems, for example, were badly tangled, which came to light when it was discovered that two tractor-trailer loads of product -- each worth $21,000 -- had been dispatched but never invoiced. "And those were only the ones we found," Wilson laments. "There may have been more. People had started thinking an order was just a piece of paper. But it's gold, you know. I mean, things were getting loose around here."

One by one, in a quickening series of revelations, the causes underlying Pioneer's losses began to emerge. Nothing seemed to be going right -- anywhere. Wilson had recently appointed a new vice-president of sales development, and for the first time he had gone outside the company to find him. But all his best intentions foundered on the nightmare of antagonism that developed between this manager and his associates, including regional managers and several distributors. "He just didn't fit in here," says Wilson. "I don't know what got into me." Eventually, Wilson fired the man, an experience he describes as "the most distasteful I've ever had in business and one I never want to repeat."

Then, to make matters even worse, the big promotion, the one bright spot in the gathering gloom, guttered and fizzled and went out. That news was especially hard because Wilson had already hired 12 new employees for the production line. But through a combination of Pioneer's scheduling oversights and Honda's inventory controls, the company could not get the engines it needed to satisfy the demand for the discounted buffing machines. Once Pioneer had even diverted a Japanese cargo ship in mid-ocean so it would arrive at Los Angeles rather than wait for it to dock at Norfolk, Va., the usual port of entry. In Los Angeles, an idling tractor-trailer was waiting with two drivers who sped the engines to Sparta in only two and a half days. Still, it was too little, too late, and Wilson was ultimately left with a large increase in payroll expense and no work to offset it.

On and on it went; the litany of woe seemed endless and Wilson and his colleagues were now afraid, afraid that the company itself might fail. And then the crisis broke, marked by a meeting between Wilson and his distributors.

In late October, during the annual convention of the International Sanitary Supply Association, in Houston, Wilson sat down with some 15 distributors to review the company's predicament. While by then he was well aware of many of the specific complaints, others were less familiar, including charges that his sales force was often poorly trained and that the company's customer service stank. "Basically," says Daniel Merkel, president of Prinova Co., a Pioneer distributor based in San Francisco, "we were trying to get him to see that he was putting all this stuff on the drawing boards when there were still fundamentals he wasn't doing well." At one point, Wilson even heard himself described as a "growth junkie" who was "way out ahead of his company." The discussion was painfully frank and it was perhaps for this reason that Wilson was able to break through to a new point of view. "No one had a specific solution," says Wilson, "but they helped me see the trees and the forest. That's when the light bulb turned on, when I realized what we were doing wrong. We had lost our focus, our identity, and our sense of direction." More than anything else, Wilson saw the company's foray into hand dryers as a perfect example of the company's meandering ambitions. "I ask you," he says, "what were we doing in hand dryers? We were a market-niche-driven company, and our success was in that niche, and that niche was floor care. It's successitis that makes you do those kinds of things."

In December, Wilson invited 15 of his managers to lunch at the High Meadows, a local motel-restaurant complex. He stood in front of the group and confessed himself. "I told the I'd been on an ego trip," he says, "that I hadn't been myself. I took full blame." Then Wilson went on to outline a program of recovery. He called it "Back to Basics." He said the company had lost its way, but that this would get it back on track so they could all "concentrate on getting the company profitable again, on making it a sane place to work." In the days that followed, the company stopped promoting new products, discontinued foreign advertising, abandoned hand dryers altogether, laid off 18 employees, most of whom had been hired for the doomed buffing-machine promotion, and completely revamped the accounting system. In addition, Wilson installed a new management structure meant to close the communication gap and keep him from trying to run the company by himself. He established four committees -- sales, operations, finance and accounting, and executive. In this scheme, the three functional committees would meet monthly to review the overall condition of the company. If the committees could not reach consensus on a particular issue, it would be referred to the three-member executive committee. If the executive committee was also stumped, they would call in Wilson himself. Otherwise, the committee model would run the company while Wilson spent his time pondering broad questions of corporate policy and strategy.

"By January," says Reeves, "it was just like turning a light on and off. You wouldn't even have known it was the same company." Profitability returned instantly, cauterizing losses at $340,000 so that by year-end 1986, the company was still able to report a 2% pretax profit on $16 million in revenues. "And since then Pioneer hasn't lost a dime."

. . . Which is not to say that Pioneer/Eclipse has suddenly become a precision instrument.

There are still several areas within the company that need attention -- sales is one, marketing is another, and a third might be the committee system, which could use more testing. But as important as these topics are, they are still only minor details. In the end there is really only one issue yet to be resolved, and that is Bill Wilson. Pioneer may have rediscovered its identity, but the same cannot be said of him. He is still struggling with the painful ambiguities -- personal and professional -- that overtook him in 1986. No matter what anyone says to the contrary, Pioneer still looks, talks, and smells like a one-man show. Thus, there seems little room to doubt that it is the outcome of Wilson's inner turmoil on which the company's future must inevitably turn.

"Now that I've been through my six months of successitis," he says, "I'm simply trying to figure out what it is that I want to do next. And let me tell you, it isn't easy."

Indeed. In this process, there seem to be many more contradictions than straight answers. Wilson, for example, does not want to retire, but at the same time he admits that he is a "bit burned out" and no longer has the same enthusiasm for the business he once had; that he has "peaked" as a manager and cannot at all see himself as the manager of a $100-million company, which is what he believes Pioneer could become; that he no longer feels challenged because "from a business standpoint I've climbed my mountain"; that he wants growth but not turmoil; that, in fact, he doesn't want to run the company at all but rather wants it to run itself. And so it goes, back and forth, a rigorous soul-searching, some sense of which can be grasped from the following reaction. Not long ago, Wilson and some of his colleagues regularly shared a drink or two together in his office after work. A couple of Wilson's friends suggested that the practice might not set the kind of example he hoped for. Wilson agreed that, yes, he was drinking too much. Not only did he end the happy hour, but he also asked to be relieved of some of his Witness responsibilities until he felt he could provide a better example for the congregation.

At the moment, Wilson seems to have landed on the notion that he will become the company's "founder-figurehead, the guru, the mentor of other people," someone who although not involved in the "daily hiring and firing" will still "be the one who points the company in the right direction." Even though he has "not found that one single person I could turn the company over to" -- a thorny problem in its own right -- the mentor image attracts him nonetheless. It gives his associates a better chance to become more deeply involved in management, and it may bring him closer to Jehovah. More than anything else, Wilson wants to spend as much time as possible with the Witnesses, walking the neighborhoods and organizing Bible study groups. "In one way or another," he says, "my life has revolved around my religion." But business keeps pulling at him all the same. Every week someone wants to buy the company and Wilson along with it, and the investment bankers descend on him like locusts, offering to take him public so he'll be rich, and he tells them he can't even spend the money he already has.

Not surprisingly, it appears that in the tug-of-war going on inside him, Wilson often fails to give himself enough credit. He will dwell too much on his weaknesses and too little on his strengths. In fact, early experience with the improvements he has made has been encouraging, the company is growing well and it is highly regarded in its industry, and Wilson himself obviously has more than enough native talent to overcome his present discomfiture. It is not so easy, however, to get such observations past Wilson's self-effacement. "I keep trying," he'll say. "It's been an incredible experience. It's brought out the best in me and it's brought out the worst in me. Sometimes I just don't know what to do."

Bill Wilson is leaving People's Drug. On the way out, he passes an elderly employee stacking party favors on a rack. She is staring at him, searching for a memory. Wilson notices, stops, and smiles. "I know you," the woman says suddenly, delighted with herself and looking now at his double-breasted blue blazer with gold buttons, the light gray slacks, and the glossy Ballys. "You used to do the floors here."

"That's right," Wilson says, shaking her hand. "Nice to see you again." He turns and begins to walk away, then stops as if recalling a forgotten errand. He walks back to the woman and shakes her hand again, saying: "I'm still the same old Bill Wilson."

It was not entirely clear at that moment whether Wilson had just made a statement or asked a question.

Last updated: Feb 1, 1988




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