I have strong memories from 1991: Silence of the Lambs freaked me out, George Bush (41) was silencing Sadaam Hussein in my generation’s first exposure to war (viewed on CNN), and I got to attend Super Bowl XXV in Tampa where my beloved NY Giants handed the poor Buffalo Bills the first of four consecutive Super Bowl defeats. I was 23 and living large in my second year of a dream job â€“ Assistant to the Chairman/CEO of Slim-Fast Foods. The company was growing like mad, filming TV commercials with Tommy Lasorda, NFL coaches and other celebrities, and every week we were criss-crossing the country in our Gulfstream jet calling on the nation’s most important retail accounts. Sure, hanging in the Dodger’s clubhouse, buying the plane and flying in the jump seat were the most fun and ego-feeding parts of the job. But the biggest benefit and my real-life MBA came from riding shotgun for a couple years alongside the CEO and sitting in on meetings with our key customers and most important suppliers.
Sometime midyear there was a day I won’t ever forget. Slim-Fast was one of the hottest brands in the country and Grey Advertising was making a fortune loading up the airwaves with new 30-second spots. The VP Sales, CEO and I were headed out to see Kmart, Wal-Mart and a few other biggies. We were announcing a new advertising blitz and rolling out a significant line extension for Ultra Slim-Fast. First stop: Troy, Michigan, Kmart headquarters. We met with a few buyers and merchandise managersâ€¦older guys wearing thick polyester pants and short-sleeve dress shirts. They sat with arms crossed and I remember hearing, “we’re not sure, think we’ll take a wait and see approach, we’re uneasy about committing the space. On the limo ride back to airport, Danny the CEO shook his head and said, these guys are dead and they don’t even know it.
Just moments later we were wheels up headed for Bentonville, Arkansas. As always, Wal-Mart’s lobby was packed with anxious visitors and you could feel the electricity in the air. We were escorted to the obligatory tiny meeting room and crammed around the table with the young, sharp buyer and his boss. The contrast in tone and energy to the culture at Kmart was huge and in many ways prophetic. How can we buy smarter? What if we only had you ship full truckloads? When is your local rep going to dial in to our online system and help optimize the inventory mix? About these line extensionsâ€¦we want to be first to market, when can we get these in the stores? What can you do for us if we commit to the end-cap next month?