If major league baseball had a place in the Hall of Fame for players kicked out of games most often, Bob Aspromonte would definitely by a contender. During 13 years in the big leagues, he amassed so many fines for breaking everything from bats to curfews that "it sometimes seemed I owed the club more than I earned," he recalls, laughing.
Today, Bob and his brother, Ken, also a former major league player, own a successful $15-million beer distributorship and two Burger King restaurants that net another $1.5 million, all in the Houston area. While Ken runs the restaurants, Bob heads up the distributorship with a managerial style that grew out of his years in baseball. He has found a way to put together a winning business team -- without the kind of front-office rules he found so restrictive as a player.
During his first season with the Houston Astros, the owners ordered their players to wear western-style suits and 10-gallon hats on get-away days. Bob incurred both a fine and their wrath when he chose to dress instead in the more conventional baseball street clothes of the day -- a Ban-Lon shirt, an alpaca sweater, and polyester pants.
Houston had picked Bob off the Los Angeles Dodgers roster as one of the top choices in the National League expansion draft of 1961. He went on to get the first hit and score the first run in Houston major league history. During his seven years there, he broke several league records at third base, including longest streak of errorless games, highest fielding average, and fewest errors.
A front-office clash over a more somber issue occurred in 1968. Bob and teammate Rusty Staub made headlines when they defied management's orders to play on the national day of mourning for Sen. Robert Kennedy. "There are times when you've got to act on what you believe," he says, still proud of the stand he took. He was soon traded from the Astros and closed out his career in 1971 with the New York Mets.
"What really rankled me as a player," he says in retrospect, "is that most of those rules laid down by management were basically telling us we weren't adult enough, or smart enough, to take care of ourselves."
It's no surprise, then, that Bob doesn't believe in using time clocks to get his 13 route salesmen, along with their assistants, out of the warehouse no later than 7:15 every morning. Texas law restricts the hours a beer wholesaler can operate, so Bob relies on his men to realize that their time is at a premium. "They have to use every minute of it to keep the product moving, maintain its high quality, and provide the best possible service to the most customers. This leads to more sales and more money for them, because the base salary is only the pasta," he points out. "The commissions pay for the meatballs to go with it." Bob maintains a hands-off policy unless he sees overall sales and profits slipping. "That's when I step in to look for an answer," he says, a little preoccupied by some of the statistics he sees in the sales reports on his desk.
Suddenly, he jumps up and rushes down the hall into the sales office where he corners his two sales managers. "Glen seems to be having trouble on his package route lately," he says. "Let's put him in the draft department and give him Ned's territory. I think the change might help them both."
With this one move -- switching two driver salesmen who are barely making their quotas -- Bob hopes to solve two problems. As he explains his rationale, "It's like a manager adjusting the lineup when one player is hitting well and another isn't.You look for a formula to strengthen your team."
This strategy has been so effective, in fact, that Aspromonte-Coors retains the same roster of salesmen who were in the company's starting lineup five years ago. An enviable record, certainly, but it produced an unforeseeable problem.
Because there was no turnover at the top, the assistants, who help the salesmen on the trucks, felt they had nowhere to go, except to find different jobs.
"Their attitude was understandable," Bob concedes. "We knew from baseball that management could talk until they were blue in the face about the prestige of winning, but what it really all boiled down to for the players was money. The closer to the top you finished, the bigger your share of World Series money, not to mention how much more you could negotiate for if you had a good season personally."
Meanwhile, the attrition rate among the assistants was taking its toll. The time needed to recruit and train replacements resulted in a leveling off of sales.
Again, baseball came to the rescue, this time in the form of the Major League Baseball Players Benefit Plan. During Bob's playing days, it provided that retired players with at least four years of service could begin drawing a pension at age 45. When he introduced the benefit plan at Aspromonte-Coors, the reaction he heard over and over again was: "You can't encourage people to retire at 45."
That was precisely Bob's goal. He disagrees with wholesalers who have sales-people in their 60s still driving trucks. "If our route salesmen decide to stay with us that long, I'd rather put them in another position," he says.
Periodically working the trucks himself for a first-hand assessment of what was happening out in the field, he became painfully aware of the similarity in the physical hardships between delivering beer and playing baseball.
As a former baseball player, Bob is sympathetic to the toll hard physical work can take on a middle-aged person. He compares it to the twilight days of his baseball career, when he was playing for the Mets. "My legs were giving out. About the best advice I got when I was having trouble running was to take the subway."
As a businessman, he's aware that the benefit plan makes it tempting for his salesmen to retire early, thus providing openings for assistants to move up to. Since the plan was set up retroactive to the day the first truck rolled, the salesmen were already eligible to collect at 45, whether to go into business for themselves or merely to retire.
Each employee's share of the plan is predicated on base salary. Therefore, assistants, who are on a lower commission scale than the salesmen, still receive the same amount, because both jobs start at the same base salary. The program is totally funded by Aspromonte-Coors, as determined by year-end profits, thus giving the administrative and warehouse departments, as well as the sales force, a financial stake in the company.
The motivation has worked. During the first year of the plan, sales were up 33% and the attribution rate among the assistants fell from 60% to 10%.
More traditional motivators such as "Worker-of-the-Week" contests are taboo at Aspromonte-Coors. "You'd see the same problems they create all the time in baseball.When I was playing," Bob recalls, "the nonwinners often felt resentment, and the winners sometimes suffered strange consequences later."
For example, one year the Houston fans held a "Bob Aspromonte Night," and gave Bob 3,000 pounds of spaghetti (which he donated to local hospitals), and a trip to Italy. The next year Bob's performance, and his popularity, suffered and "the fans said they were sorry they hadn't given me a one-way ticket," says Bob ruefully.
Then there was the day he was honored by the New York Mets' fans, who presented him with a car. Two months later, the team gave him an unconditional release.
"I hate to think of what would have happened if I'd made the All-Star team," he moans, shaking his head.
These experiences, plus the other highs and lows inherent in baseball, taught Bob the value of "consistency," which is the operative word for management at Aspromonte-Coors. "You can't go up and down in your moods or the way you treat people. I want my staff to be confident that they know who and what they are dealing with. And I've learned that it doesn't pay to get upset, because when you yell, it's tough to be heard. Besides," he adds, "It's harder to throw beer than batting helmets."