Chuck Fontenot and nearly 600 other salespeople hustle every day to keep the National Federation of Independent Business the largest of the country's small business associations.
About 8:30 every morning, Fontenot makes the first of 10 or 12 calls on NFIB members whose annual ante has come due.
On this Thursday morning it's raining in San Mateo County, Calif., where Fontenot covers a territory containing nearly 1,200 NFIB members. His first renewal call, a small flying school, is closed. Its owner, according to a woman in the main office of the suburban airfield, has disappeared. "Probably trying to avoid his creditors," she says. Fontenot marks a box on a 5" X 7" computer-printed card and puts it in the appropriate slot of his kit, the elaborately pocketed and compartmented briefcase he carries. Back in the car, he drives through the light commercial and industrial area extending back from his stretch of El Camino Real, about 20 miles south of San Francisco.
At the next stop, a three-year-old industrial supply firm, Fontenot has time to run through his entire pitch. There's a questionnaire to be filled out -- Which federal government agency causes your company the most trouble? What dollar volume of mail services do you use each month? Has one of your employees ever voluntarily quit and then drawn unemployment? And there's business data -- number of employees, gross sales, etc. -- to be updated.
Then Fontenot whips out a 10-page Action Report and flips through its pages. "We had a banner year last year," he tells the member. "The tax cuts we got contain 85% of the things we've been working on for years." This member and several others throughout the day are particularly interested in Fontenot's explanation of changes in state and federal estate tax laws. Eventually he gets down to it. "It's membership renewal time, and we're asking members to give a little more this year than last." NFIB members themselves, with a little help from the salesperson, decide how much they'll contribute each year. The minimum is $35; the maximum is $500.
During the course of the day Fontenot loses two members, takes two postdated checks, gets as many members to increase their dues as decide to reduce them, and hears the following stories:
* The novelty importer, whose business is up for sale, explains that he is doing only 20% of last year's gross since his head salesman and later his son-in-law each left to start his own, competing firm.
* A local town spent $80,000 on equipment to paint its own street markings, but gets less than six hours' use of the equipment daily. Town employees report to work but then wait two and a half hours for the plastic-based paint to be heated. The NFIB member, a private contractor with whom the town competes, puts his equipment on the road at 8 a.m. by having someone come in at 5:30 a.m. to start the heating process.
* The bearded, overalled young owner of an antique-refinishing business says he found the money to buy new stripping equipment, in part, by not paying his worker's compensation premiums. "You've gotta survive somehow," he says.
* Sales in the hoist and rigging distribution business are holding up well, but Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker has brought the economy to the brink of depression, says another young but close-cropped company president. "What the Fed needs to do is stop worrying about the money supply and start controlling interest rates," he says. Fontenot nods. He never argues with a member.
Except for the answers to the questionnaire, Fontenot records none of what he hears from the business owners in his territory every day. That's a shame. Congressional committees spend thousands of dollars to organize formal hearings that stretch over days or months, and they probably don't learn 10% of what Chuck Fontenot picks up before lunch.
But listening to stories is, after all, only a sideline with Fontenot, who gets paid himself only when he collects money from members.