I took over the Westfield Mission Valley mall location in May 2007. The turnaround was so impressive, my boss moved me back to Plaza Bonita the next month to rebuild the highest-volume store in San Diego. I had to start from scratch after three cases of credit fraud relieved four people of their jobs.
Things were slow at first. I had to rebuild the whole team. I recruited a couple of friends to work with me and scouted out a few new prospects. I practically lived at the mall. I was on salary now, so it wasn’t uncommon to be at work as early as 8:00 a.m. and not leave until after the mall closed at 9:00 p.m. Then off to the bar for my Ten High–sponsored sales meeting, which didn’t adjourn till 2:00 a.m. I finally got my team right and things started to click. There was Jono, the smallish Filipino wunderkind. All the aunties wanted to take him home as a son of their own. I recruited another of my close friends from childhood, Big Mike. At six feet tall and more than 300 pounds, he was intimidating in the kiosk. One minute he’d be bullying some 20-year-old punk into buying phones, the next his cheesy smile was out for the old lady and her upgrade. Big Mike and Jono became a dangerous team, and nothing was more amusing than the flying chest bump the two would do after a big sale. DTZ was my assistant manager. He was a veteran of the phone wars and a former boss of mine who had stepped down for a less-consuming position. We went way back. One of his best stories was about turning down a return when he was alone in his booth as a sales associate.
“I told the guy I was new and I didn’t even know how to process a return. I told him I didn’t want to screw it up,” he explained. “I assured him if he came back the next day my manager would take care of everything.” An evil grin would appear at the punch line. “The funny part is, I knew full well they were coming with a forklift that night to literally remove the booth. It was our last day at that mall. Imagine the look on the guy’s face when he showed up the following day, bag in hand, staring at a flat piece of ground.” He laughed hysterically at the thought. Five years ago, when I first heard the story, I was incredulous. Now, I’d tell it to new guys as my own.
The final piece of the puzzle was Alain, a fluent Spanish speaker and a diamond in the rough. Alain looked out of place in the kiosk at first. His greets were a flat, monotonous repetition. “Excuse me, sir, have you heard about…” he’d ask, filling in the blank with the weekly promotional phone. Then, one day, he found a line that worked: “Excuse me, sir, do you like money?” The first time I heard it, it piqued my interest. I stopped what I was doing and awaited the response. The customers didn’t have a good blow-off answer. I mean, who doesn’t like money? Invariably they would respond with some form of agreement, and Alain would go into his pitch.
By the time the calendar flipped over to 2008, Alain was managing his own store. Big Mike was an assistant manager at Parkway Plaza, and Jono was my protégé, promoted to assistant manager. In total, since my first month in charge at Mission Valley, I had helped get three people promoted to general manager and five make assistant manager. I’d had a roll of successful months, defeating quotas even as they were consistently raised. I was finally getting paid at Phi’s level. I was making more money than any of my friends. I looked back gleefully at my decision to drop out of college.
Everyone knew I was next in line to take over as regional manager of the struggling North County area. I just had to wait for the call.
Instead, I arrived one Saturday morning in April to find an ominous email. An emergency training was to be held on Monday. I was used to short notice. But, oddly, this training was for every employee. We would be closed for business that day while we learned new point-of-sale software and a new commission system.
But Phi had discovered that the company was being sold. A midnight call to my boss confirmed that I would be retained, at $13 an hour and a $500 monthly bonus. If things went well, I would get the promotion I sought, but the raise would just bring me back to what I was making before.
You mean more responsibility for the same money? No, thanks.
The day of the so-called training felt like a funeral. I didn’t bother to wear a tie. My shirt wasn’t even buttoned all the way. I took my usual seat at the head of the table. It was kind of reserved for me. Other managers showed me respect, and I loved that. I sat through the meeting and listened. “Mobile Systems Wireless has always done what it takes to adapt to changing times,” said the president. The guy struck me as a wannabe Gordon Gekko. He continued, “In accordance with the current economic climate, we’ve been forced to adapt again. We’ve decided to sell all the locations in the San Diego market.” I was staring into space but couldn’t help but laugh aloud at this statement. Your adaptation is to bail? The entire room turned to gawk at me. I’m proud of that moment.
I sat through the new president’s introduction and stood in line to receive my last checks. The old president pulled me aside and tried to sell me on the new company. I nodded and smiled until he was done. I had already checked out.
I sat in the parking lot saying my good-byes for over an hour. I gave advice to guys who looked up to me. I traded war stories with others.