Forty-eight hours with today's prototype of the superstar salesperson

Dawn in Alabama on Interstate 65. Heading north to an 8:30 appointment in Russellville, leaving Birmingham in the mist.

That's Craig Ohlson behind the wheel, driving a blue Ford Bronco with beige leather seats, tinted glass, power windows, and a bug shield mounted on the hood. Ohlson used to drive a Nissan -- until he figured out why folks around the woodyard at the Champion paper company were giving him hostile looks. Ohlson is a salesman, see, and Champion is his biggest account. A salesperson knows (or soon learns) that when you're selling to American manufacturers, it's a good policy to buy from American manufacturers.

Stowed in the console between the front seats are a few necessities of the road: a black-plastic coffee mug (steam escaping from the sippy hole), four loose sticks of chewing gum, a cellular telephone. The dash is clear -- no radar detector -- which is surprising. But that's another thing a salesperson knows: without a radar detector, if you get pulled over (and when you drive 30,000 country miles a year, you will get pulled over), there's a chance you can talk your way out of a ticket; with a radar detector, no way. In the backseat is Ohlson's planner, a zippered leather number the size of a briefcase. In the way-back are his overnight bag and his catalogs, so many vinyl-covered loose-leaf binders filled with page after page of numbing spec sheets and cryptic drawings of pumps, valves, filters, and cylinders, Ohlson's stock in trade.

Ohlson does his selling for Activation, a $30-million distributor of hydraulic and pneumatic components in Birmingham. He came to Activation seven years ago from a similar company in Omaha. Ohlson was 23 years old at the time, ambitious, already bored with inside sales ("I can't stand to sit at a desk, day after day, all year long"), mechanically gifted but wary of repair work ("I didn't want to be getting dirty all the time, either"), and looking for a breakout opportunity in the fluid-power industry. Activation put Ohlson on a $25,000 guarantee and carved out a new territory for him straddling the border between Mississippi and Alabama, up on the Tennessee line.

Those were bleak, depressing days. For Ohlson, who was raised in tiny Westbrook, Minn., there was first of all the language barrier to overcome. "How do you spell that?" Ohlson had asked near the end of his first encounter with a genuine Deep South purchasing agent, this after twice hearing the man pronounce his name. "Su meeeith!" Three syllables. "S-M-I-T-H." Ohlson had some leads -- everybody in his territory who had bought anything from Activation in the past two years -- but the leads were cold. "You don't understand me," one former customer told him. "I will never buy a damn thing from Activation!" Others had nothing against Activation, they just weren't buying, no thanks, not right now. Sometimes it was Ohlson who terminated the relationship, such as when he made a lifestyle decision early on to avoid poultry processors. "Too filthy, too raw. The realm of the Bubbas," he says, noting particularly the Bubbas who wear raincoats to work and slit chickens' throats all day.

Soon, though, Ohlson caught a break. Early in December 1988, two months into the job, he took a "gimme" order for two hydraulic motors at $36,000 apiece. A gimme is a gift from God, a purchase order that flies in through the window and lands in your lap. Ohlson knew nothing about those motors and even less about the customer who ordered them -- but, hey, that's a gimme, you don't say no. "That's when I learned what commission was all about," he says.

That gimme got him going. "At some point during the first six months, he started to hit," says Dick Brus, Activation's president. "He's been going upwards and onwards ever since." In 1989, Ohlson's first full year, he broke $500,000 in sales; in 1991 he topped $800,000; in 1993 he did more than $1 million. Today he's the undisputed star of Activation's 32-man sales force, the youngest member of the President's Club ($250,000 in profits for the company), and his own soaring line on the sales graph that's part of the training program for every new hire. Brus, who's 57 years old and already looking ahead, calls Ohlson "presidential material."

Ohlson loves hearing that. He's ambitious. He wants to be a sales manager one day; after that, who knows? On the other hand, he's in no particular hurry to leave the front lines. He's a rare case in his profession, having come to sales by choice, not because something else didn't work out. His father sold insurance for a living. Ohlson knew he didn't want exactly that ("I have the door slammed in my face enough as it is"), but selling and the life it brings -- variety, independence, freedom from manual labor, a shot at making some real money -- always appealed to him and still do.

Part of what makes Ohlson so successful, says Brus, is his "ability to empathize with customers." Now, the concept of empathy as it applies to the arcane realm of fluid power has to do only in a secondary way with emotional needs, although Ohlson pays attention to those, too. Like any successful salesperson, no matter what the product is, Ohlson remembers names, returns phone calls, smiles a lot, is sensitive to pecking orders, takes office politics very seriously, and knows when you're having a bad day without having to be told.

All of that still matters, of course, but maybe not as much as it used to, not in the new world of selling. What makes Ohlson a special salesman is the depth of his business empathy. That means drawing on a deep reservoir of technical knowledge. It means talking less and listening more. It means making his customers' problems -- the cash-flow crises, the order backlogs, the inventory-management issues -- his own and finding sales opportunities in problem solving. It means, essentially, becoming a consultant, the kind Ohlson's sales manager, Tom Griffies, would describe as "a sustaining resource to the customer."

If Ohlson is ahead of the curve, that's because his industry demands it of him. His customers are mainly frontline manufacturers in basic industries (paper, steel), the kind of customers for whom the buzz phrases of the new economy -- foreign competition, just-in-time inventory requirements, downsizing, reengineering, cost cutting -- tend to be not abstractions but real, everyday issues. To observe how Ohlson operates in that kind of environment is to glimpse the future of selling.

Ohlson leaves the interstate at Cullman, Ala., and picks up Highway 157, heading northwest now in the full light of morning. He drives past spotty stands of pine, brown fields flecked with ripe cotton, and great green swarms of kudzu, swerving right to avoid tractor trailers carting mobile homes to Birmingham, left to zoom past poky John Deeres. Over the next two days he'll call on three of his biggest accounts: Franklin Manufacturing, in Russellville; Reynolds Metals, in Muscle Shoals (where he'll spend the night); and Champion, in Courtland.

Here we go.

* * *

Thursday, A.M.
"Hi, Tracy."

The receptionist looks up from her desk. "Jeff?" she says, just making sure, already reaching for the phone.

Ohlson is wearing dark slacks, a light-colored sport coat, and a tie; the look is prosperous but not flashy. ("Overdressing can be intimidating. They will get you dirty. Or they won't let you see anything so you won't get dirty.") He beams his smile at her -- "Yeah," he says -- then shuts it off, conserving energy. He's a little bit like Oliver North that way, skilled at shifting quickly from an aw-shucks grin to a dead-serious pious look, whatever's required.

While Tracy pages Jeff, Ohlson kills time in the sun-filled lobby. He's a couple of minutes late because he made an unscheduled pit stop at the Food Mart on the way into town. Late is not good, he knows that, but it beats showing up on time and right away asking for the bathroom.

Franklin Manufacturing is a family-owned company that makes machine tools and production-line equipment for the steel-fabrication industry. It wasn't even on the list of leads Ohlson started with back in '88. He just happened to be driving by one day on his way to somewhere else, noticed the building, and stopped. (Ohlson doesn't make many cold calls anymore. What with all the prep work that's required before he hits the road, all the hours he spends talking to customers and trying to anticipate their needs, then writing proposals, and then following up, it's everything he can do just to stay on top of existing accounts. "The hard part about it now is not the people and the contacts," he says, "it's getting it done.") By luck that first day he got through to the purchasing agent. "Danny," Ohlson had asked him, after the chitchat, "is there anything I can do for you?"

"Yeah," said Danny, "You could open up my f______ account."

Franklin, come to find out, was a lapsed Activation customer, long since banished to COD status. When Ohlson dug a little deeper, he decided that Franklin was not necessarily to blame. Partly, he assumed, it was the nature of the company's business: manufacturing capital equipment requires large initial outlays, which can sometimes wreak havoc with cash flow. Besides, no one from Activation had called on Franklin for years; that may have made it easy for Franklin in the past to shuffle Activation's bills to the bottom of the pile. Really, though, Ohlson had no idea why Franklin and Activation had grown apart, and he didn't really care. All that mattered at the time was that Franklin was thriving and buying lots of what Ohlson had to sell -- from somebody else.

So Ohlson pressed Franklin's case with Activation's credit department and won new terms that satisfied both parties. Then he started in by selling the company valves, fittings, tubing -- mainly small stuff his competitors weren't likely to notice. Only lately has he begun taking bigger orders for pumps and cylinders. In 1994, thanks to Ohlson, Activation did close to $100,000 worth of business with Franklin, paid in full and on time, and Ohlson sees the potential to double that in the years ahead. "We're getting there," he says. "They're slowly coming to us."

The door opens. Jeff Harbin -- Franklin's hydraulics expert -- nods at Ohlson, turns without waiting, and takes off down a dark, paneled hallway, never doubting for a moment that Ohlson will follow. Partly it's a play in an age-old power game -- buyers lead, sellers follow -- but to leave it at that would be to mask a truth, which is that Harbin genuinely likes Ohlson. More to the point, he respects him. When Harbin doesn't respect a salesperson, he doesn't hide it. Once, when a competitor sold Franklin a defective valve with a pinhole in it, Harbin made that poor salesman get down on his hands and knees to take a closer look, and then turned on the machine and sprayed his face with hydraulic fluid.

Finding the conference room occupied, Harbin doubles back to the kitchen (also dark, also paneled) and sits down at a folding table. Ohlson takes the chair opposite. Between them are a bag of chocolate-chip cookies and a bowl of bananas.

There was a time when Ohlson carted a briefcase stuffed with sales literature to every meeting with a customer. "By the time I got done with the call," he says, "my briefcase was empty, and I had to pack it all back in." Nowadays Ohlson carries only his planner, for taking notes. That indicates a fundamental shift in the way he does business. He's not here to make a pitch, he's here to listen.

"So whattaya anticipate doing here?" is Ohlson's first question. He already knows from earlier conversations with Harbin that Franklin has a continuing need for a certain kind of high-pressure valve. He has brought along a quote. "Right there's a real decent price," says Harbin. But price is not the only issue. Harbin's bigger problem lately is getting the parts he needs when he needs them. He has to know he can count on four weeks' delivery. Ohlson can do that; it may mean carrying more inventory than Activation would prefer, but that's OK, it's a popular valve.

Harbin is satisfied. Purchasing will want to stamp it, of course, but Ohlson knows from experience that at Franklin, with this kind of order, what the engineer says, goes. "50-60/YEAR OF A3D06/4WEH22," Ohlson prints neatly in pencil in his planner. "4 WEEKS' DELIVERY OKAY." Right there's a $15,000 start on 1995.

Afterward Ohlson follows Harbin out to the shop floor to inspect some new equipment and then drops in on Norman Carter, the purchasing agent. Carter's office is right off the shop floor. There must be a bathroom on the other side of that brown paneled wall; when the toilet flushes, everybody hears it. (Carter's a comedian. "A salesman," it says on a piece of paper taped to the wall, "is a man who knows very little about many things and keeps on learning less and less about more and more until he knows practically nothing about everything.")

Ohlson wants to take Carter's pulse. Recently, he nearly lost a $17,000 cylinder order from Carter when a competitor underbid him by $250. "What are you trying to do to us?" Ohlson demanded. Activation refused to trim its margin, and Carter eventually gave in. "Well," Carter replied, "it was worth a shot."

"As far as cylinders go," Ohlson wants to know now, "how many people are in here beating on you?" (His tone is friendly, confident, the opposite of bitter. You may well feel distress at the prospect of lost business, Ohlson says, but you'd better not show it, "because all the customer sees are dollar signs.")

"Milwaukee's the big one," Carter allows.

"Are you actively pursuing another cylinder company?"

"I'm not. I don't want to change -- go through the pain of stuff coming in wrong. We don't have time for that."

That's reassuring to Ohlson, as far as it goes. But there it is again, the time issue. A year ago, whatever Ohlson's customers wanted, they could have had yesterday. These days everybody's backed up, all down the line, and Ohlson's feeling the heat. Shipments have been late, and he knows he has some explaining to do. That's why, before he leaves, he wants a word with Shane Bendall, Franklin's chief engineer.

"Reason I wanted to talk to you was about cylinders," Ohlson starts in. He's perched on the edge of a side table in Bendall's spacious office, a pose that says, "This won't take long, we're both busy men."

Bendall nods. "This is the problem," says Bendall. "Business is good. We're booked now through June of next year." There will be no Christmas break this winter. Sheffer, Activation's supplier, can have no more unexplained delays on cylinder shipments. Customers are waiting. "Price and delivery are the driving forces right now," Bendall says. "Of course, if we can't get along with Sheffer on delivery, we'll have to go somewhere else."

Price first. "We're never going to have a price advantage here. On price, we can't compete," says Ohlson. That's OK, he continues, because of what Activation and Sheffer together can offer Franklin. With that he launches into a brief, untranslatable monologue on product features and capabilities.

Then on to the nut: delivery. Part of the problem, frankly, is that Activation is unwilling to inventory cylinders -- too many sizes, too many options. Bendall might understand that. Then again, he might not; that's Activation's problem, not his. So Ohlson tries a different tack. First he tells Bendall that Sheffer is hiring; eventually, that should help ease the production bottlenecks. Second, he's willing to work with Franklin to help Carter improve his order timing. And third, he has asked Sheffer to begin sending Franklin periodic delivery-status reports; if a delivery is going to be late, at least it won't be a surprise.

"The economy is good," Ohlson says, wrapping up. "We're seeing delivery problems with a lot of vendors. If someone else promises you two weeks now, the chances are real good that they'll mess up later. Live with us through this, and let's move on."

* * *

Thursday, P.M.
Lunch at the Speedy Pig, in Russellville -- chicken fingers, french fries, and broccoli casserole; salespeople sure know where to eat. Then it's back into the Bronco and north on U.S. 43, past the Big Bear Motor Exchange, the Cotton Patch Trading Post, and the sign pointing west to Tuscumbia ("Birthplace of Helen Keller"), with Ohlson arriving 15 minutes early for a one o'clock appointment at Reynolds Metals, outside Muscle Shoals.

The plant itself is huge -- 80 acres under a sheet-metal roof -- but Ohlson turns away from it and pulls in across the street, at a single-story brick building, home of the purchasing department. "Alloys Purchasing Sales Call Policy," says the sign on the door. "All calls are by appointment. No calls on Monday or Friday. By direction of purchasing manager." (Not the warmest welcome a salesperson might ask for, but a whole lot more friendly than the sign in the guard booth at the entrance to the plant. "We shoot every third salesman," it says, under a picture of a cowboy pointing his six-shooter. "The second one just left.") Ohlson steps in, looks around, and sees not a soul. Must be lunch hour. A moment later, though, down the hall comes Larry Haddock, Reynolds's silver-haired senior buyer, waving a cigarette. "Y'all stroll on back," he says, remarking on the glorious sunshine, the warm fall weather, and the injustice of spending such a fine day indoors instead of on the golf course.

One of the first things a visitor learns about Haddock is that he's an Auburn guy. On the wall of his office are two framed, numbered prints: "Legends of the Plains," a gallery of stars featuring Bo Jackson; and "Reverse to Victory," a dramatic rendering of Lawyer Tillman high-stepping it into the end zone in the 1986 Iron Bowl. Now, Norman Carter, the purchasing agent back at Franklin, is an Alabama guy. In this state, you're either/or. There is no middle ground. Unless you're a smart salesperson who didn't grow up around here, like Ohlson, in which case your only comment for the record is a very lame "I think they're fortunate to have two great teams."

But fan loyalty only begins to describe the differences between Carter and Haddock. The two are miles apart, at opposite poles of the purchasing agent's profession. Carter, says Ohlson gently, is "fairly directed." If Harbin at Franklin wants a particular kind of valve, Carter goes and gets it for him. Carter may not even hear about an order until after the decision to proceed has been made. At Reynolds, by contrast, if Haddock's not in the loop, it's not going to happen. "Purchasing runs this damn place," Ohlson grumbles.

Some salespeople prefer a situation in which a guy like Haddock is in charge. The skills it demands are old-time skills: building friendships, scratching backs, finding a way to beat the competition on price. That's not Ohlson. His heart is with the engineers and the guys inside the plant. He fixed motors when he was a teenager, worked in a body shop, and lived for a while on a farm. After high school he spent two years at a college in Granite Falls, Minn., studying fluid power. He has technical skills that may even surpass his selling skills, and it's clear where his heart lies. "If the engineer thinks something is good for the plant," says Ohlson, "he ought to be able to say, 'This is what I want.' "

But that's not the way things work in Muscle Shoals -- Ohlson knows that. That's why he has come here first, to Haddock's office, to deliver his proposal; and only afterward will he go across the street and give a copy to Bob Wood, the engineer who requested it.

The proposal has three pages. Ohlson hands them over one by one, making sure Haddock has all the time he needs in between to read and ask questions. Page one is a cover letter. The only point of that is to make plain that Ohlson's not trying to sell Reynolds a solution to a problem it didn't know it had. It was Wood who recognized the problem, and Wood who asked for help solving it; Ohlson's not making this up. Page two describes the existing system (a self-contained hydraulic assembly, part of the production line), explains why it's inadequate, and outlines what needs to be done to make it right. Page three offers two solutions: Reynolds can buy either the components alone, which the Reynolds maintenance staff would then have to assemble and mount, for $3,100 (that was all Wood asked for); or a complete new package built, tested, and guaranteed by Activation, ready to bolt down on the day it arrives, for $5,300 (that was Ohlson's better idea). "That ain't bad at all," Haddock says, pulling on his cigarette. "Thought you was gonna bust my chops."

Not included in Ohlson's proposal are the technical drawings he made while he was designing the system. Perhaps that wouldn't be an issue with a different kind of purchasing agent; but Ohlson is afraid that if he gives Haddock the drawings now, he might use them to put the job up for bid. Haddock can have all the drawings he wants later, after Ohlson has his purchase order.

Next item. "I notice you're using Moog Servo valves," Ohlson says while Haddock lights another cigarette. "Where are you going for repairing and refurbishing those valves?"

Simple question, complicated motive. Moog Servos are expensive valves: they cost thousands of dollars to buy and hundreds to refurbish, a very profitable line. Ohlson knows that somebody is servicing Moog valves for Reynolds -- he saw the repair tags hanging from the valves the last time he was in the plant -- but who? He cares because Activation has just signed a contract to represent Moog in Alabama. Ohlson isn't sure yet whether Activation will be servicing Moog valves internally or taking orders and sending them back to the factory. Either way he wants the business.

"Illinois," says Haddock.

Illinois is an interesting answer. Illinois is a long way from Alabama.

"Larry," says Ohlson, "what are your requirements? What are your major concerns?"

"Quick turnaround," says Haddock.

That's another interesting answer. Last question: Is Haddock happy with the quality of the work they do up there in Illinois?

"Oh, man, they do a great job."

Interesting again. That's not what the engineers are telling Ohlson inside the plant. Ohlson never does tell Haddock about Activation's signed contract with Moog -- only that there's a possibility Activation may be doing something with Moog at some point down the road. "That way he's not intimidated," Ohlson explains later. "It's a lot easier to probe when he doesn't think I'm, um, wanting money." Right -- and it will be a lot easier for Ohlson to write that Moog Servo proposal when the time comes, knowing what he knows now.

"The accounting girls will be over at P.J.'s tonight," Haddock tells Ohlson, by way of good-bye. "I know how it is when you're on the road. Sometimes you can't sleep!"

* * *

Ohlson, it turns out, has no trouble sleeping, ever. He drinks black coffee before he goes to bed. Maybe that's why he skips the scene at P.J.'s and settles instead for a burger and a couple of beers at Court Street Cafe, a Florence, Ala., version of a fern bar. The talk over dinner is mostly about money. Ohlson knows now that he's going to earn less in 1994 than he did in 1993, when he came closer to six figures than he ever thought he would. Ohlson has never gone backward before, and he's not happy about it. He blames partly the new bonus system, partly the fact that the company took away every salesman's base salary and went to 100% commission. Mainly, though, he blames the loss of about 150 marginal accounts, which he surrendered in 1994 in order to devote more time and resources to the 50 accounts he still has. He's sure it will pay off down the road -- sales to those top 50 are up almost 20% -- but for now, he's taking a hit.

Ohlson gave up the accounts voluntarily, knowing that changes were coming, hoping to take part in shaping his own future. Activation has been growing fast ever since it was taken over, two years ago, by Sun Distributors, a Philadelphia conglomerate. Sun has given Activation the resources to enter new markets, take on new product lines, and expand its staff. That's all for the good, Ohlson believes. He's counting on staying with Activation for the long haul, and growth means opportunity. Still, just the thought of change can be unsettling, especially when the thought arrives just before bed, in a fern bar miles from home.

"It scares me that they'll have 60 salespeople in five years," Ohlson admits. "I don't want to be just another salesman."

* * *

Friday, A.M.
Frost on the cotton, sun in the eyes, heading east from Muscle Shoals. Paper plants smell. This one started smelling 25 miles ago. By the time Ohlson pulls up to the gate at Champion International, the stench is nearly overwhelming. Doesn't seem to affect Ohlson, though. He's all smiles as the guard steps out of his hut, checks Ohlson's pass, and proceeds to search the Bronco for cameras, guns, and other implements of industrial espionage. Satisfied, he issues the necessary equipment: a hard hat, goggles, and a portable respirator, in the event Ohlson should encounter a deadly cloud of chlorine gas inside the plant. It happens.

It took Ohlson four years to get into Champion. There were gimmes all along, of course, but nothing meaningful, nothing near the $150,000 Champion will have spent with Activation once it closes the books on 1994. The problem was purchasing, whose power at Champion is absolute. No one even gets past the gate without the purchasing department's prior approval. "I think my age had something to do with it," Ohlson says. "I was young. People wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about. And they wanted to make sure I was going to be around in a year or two. The little accounts, it's easier to get in and get something going. But it's the big ones that you gotta keep going after, and it has paid off." Today Ohlson has his own drive-in pass -- complete freedom to drive where he pleases, when he pleases, all over the yard.

Activation has big plans for Champion. "We'd like to become its sole source for hydraulic and pneumatic components," Ohlson says. "We're trying to get in there just as deep as we can, so that when they go to evaluate vendors, we're in so deep they don't think anybody else can do it."

Ohlson's first appointment is with Anthony Eckl, an engineer on the pulp-mill side of the operation. They meet in the administrative building, in Eckl's ground-floor office: metal desk, linoleum floor, cinder-block walls painted baby blue. There are boxes on the floor and there's empty space on the shelves. Eckl's new to this job; Ohlson's never met him before, and this is a get-acquainted session. When Eckl admits he's not as familiar with the plant's hydraulic systems as he'd like to be, Ohlson sees an opportunity. They make a plan to take a walk through the plant together the next time Ohlson's in the neighborhood. ("That's to get to know the man better," Ohlson explains later. "The more I get to know him, the less he's going to want to talk to somebody else. He knows from hearsay that I've done a good job in there, but I still need to prove myself to him.")

"Have you worked any on the slasher gear boxes up in the screen room?" Eckl wants to know.

"No," says Ohlson, pricking up his ears.

"That's something you need to do. I think Hal has had a little bit of a problem with leakage. I'm imagining that it may be a big-enough problem that we might want to address it. One of the next times you come in here that you got some clothes on that you can afford to get a little dirty, we'll go down there and take a look. Make you a note on it, and when you come back this way, holler."

Ohlson is writing now. "You call that a slasher?"

" Slicer," Eckl says, smiling at the Yankee.

Ohlson's next appointment is with Don McAfee, the woodyard foreman, over in the maintenance shed. He drives slowly across the yard, on the lookout for arriving semis loaded down with 40,000 pounds of fresh-cut Alabama pine. It's a surreal place, the air aswarm with tiny wood chips, like snow. Ohlson points to a trailer filled with pulp, its tractor still attached; the whole unit is slowly being hoisted to a near-vertical position by a heavy-duty hydraulic installation, the chips sliding out the back.

McAfee, when he shows up, looks like a country singer, with blue eyes that match the color of his jeans, a black- checked shirt, a red face, and wavy gray hair. He hasn't been home before 11 p.m. once since the week began. That's because there's an outage in progress, a planned shutdown of the production line, and the work is not going well. Ohlson takes one look at him and offers to come back another time. But McAfee says no, "I'll see you," even tosses Ohlson a gimme almost before he has a chance to state his business.

Ohlson has been building his reputation at Champion for a long time, but the clincher came last summer, at 9 o'clock on a weeknight, when the phone rang at home. (Ohlson doesn't carry a beeper. He works 60-to-70-hour weeks as it is; once customers know you've got a beeper, he says, "you just can't ever get away." But he does give his home phone number to customers who ask.) It was the manager of maintenance and engineering for fiber prep up at Champion. A hydraulic motor had failed in the pulp press and Champion had to shut down the line. It wasn't even Ohlson's motor, but could he help? Ohlson tried. He gave the manager a couple of ideas, some things to check. The manager thanked him, and Ohlson went to bed.

At midnight the phone rang again. Ohlson's not sure what he said then; he was half asleep. But "after I hung up I realized something was pretty seriously wrong if they couldn't figure it out by now. That's when I got up, woke myself up, and called him back." No, the manager said, by the time you get here we'll have it fixed. But Ohlson fired up the Bronco anyway and drove for two and a half hours. When he got to the plant, at 2:30 a.m., everybody was still standing around looking at the motor, still trying to figure out what was wrong.

Ohlson could see right away that the motor was a lost cause. There was nothing to do but yank it out and replace it. That was not an easy decision for the folks at Champion to make, not when the motor in question came from Germany and cost $44,000. But Ohlson was able to convince them that they had no other choice. And later, after they'd taken out the old motor and installed the replacement, Ohlson was a hero. "We were virtually locked in," Ohlson says now. "I hate to say that, but we did a good-enough job that they appreciated it, and they're going to come back to us."

And so, four months later, although he's exhausted, McAfee watches and listens attentively while Ohlson runs through a product demo on a variable-frequency drive, something new in the Activation line.

"I can see a couple good uses for it," McAfee says while Ohlson puts it back into the box. "I wouldn't mind trying one. 'Course, I'd have to pass it through the powers that be."

"I'll throw you a brochure in the mail," Ohlson says.

* * *

Friday, P.M.
This road trip is winding down. After a quick lunch at Cracker Barrel, Ohlson rejoins the Interstate at Decatur, Ala., and points his Bronco south toward Birmingham. He has one more scheduled stop, at the Americold factory, in Cullman. Americold makes compressors for refrigeration units. Like everybody else in Alabama, the company is operating flat-out these days -- seven days a week, 24 hours a day. A few months ago Ohlson sold it an electronic unit that automates a hydraulic drill, which punches holes in aluminum rocker arms. The unit worked fine for a while but lately has been acting up.

Ohlson expects a quick fix. Instead he's stuck in the plant for two hours, and even then it takes a phone call to the system's manufacturer, in San Francisco, before the thing is up and running again. That's two hours with nothing to show for it, other than the goodwill of the customer. "That didn't make me any money," Ohlson says afterward in the truck. "But it didn't hurt me, either. Sometimes you gotta do that."

Almost home, just outside of Birmingham, and the cellular phone starts chirping. It's Louisiana-Pacific calling, wondering if Ohlson can come by soon and reset some valves on a year-old installation. There's an outage scheduled for tomorrow morning; would that be convenient? Sure, says Ohlson, then snaps the phone shut and tosses it onto the dash. "S___," he says, finally sounding tired, "there goes Saturday morning."

What this salesman doesn't know is how to say no.

* * *