The Quick Riff
Gerard McLean, a wily author and essayist, sets the content bar high; not an easy feat in a world in which dogs blog and inanimate characters have volatile voices.
The Deep Dive
The first decision I had to make when writing this “My Story” page was whether I should write it in the first person and risk bragging about myself or in the third person as a dispassionate biographer. I decided to first try it in the first person. He may change my mind eventually.
If you want to know all the details about where I worked, what I did, etc, just check out my CV. If you would like to offer me a job, please be aware that I am incredibly expensive, almost thoroughly unemployable, require unlimited in and out privileges, I don’t document my time and come with two dogs who go everywhere with me. However, I am open to offers.
I was born in a neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota known as Frogtown as the second child of five to two hard-working, Catholic parents. They each grew up in Maine and were travelling to California on their honeymoon. The car broke down first in Madison, Wisconsin and then broke down for good in St. Paul. So, my dad got a job with Ingersall-Rand as a claims clerk and my mom stayed at home and made babies. As the second in a line, I did my share of baby-sitting at a very young age.
As I grew, I become more curious with the world around me, went to St. Agnes Catholic Schools* for 13 years where I learned lots of life skills, discipline and a boatload of humility. This was back in the day when they still let nuns teach us poor, defenseless children. Not everyone was a winner in those days, but escaping middle school with any shred of self-esteem was considered an accomplishment worthy of a very large trophy.
In high school, we learned Latin every day, advanced algebra, sciences, English, literature and discipline… always, every day. There was no such thing as late or an excuse that would be accepted for anything. If something happened to you that you didn’t get your homework done or where you didn’t know the answer, it was God’s way of teaching you respect and humility.
I graduated near the top of my class, but not in the top 2, so I was neither the Valedictorian nor was I the Salutatorian. These were the days when there was only one of each. Only one best per year; only one second best. I went on to study English at the University of Minnesota, mostly because that was all I could afford. I applied to and been accepted by both Harvard and USC, but these places wanted more money than I had and not being a Valedictorian or Salutatorian, they wanted me to pay the whole thing sans scholarship. I had also been accepted into the NROTC program, but at the last minute, I decided that five years in the Marine Corps was probably not a good idea for either me or the Corps.
I wanted to be an English teacher or a writer. When I discovered how little they made, I decided that corporate training would be my career path of choice. So, with my English degree in hand, I headed off to a promising career in retail with Target Stores.
Which I did for 6 1/2 years. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the best work-prep experience I could ever have gotten. Even today, I refer to my Target days as “boot camp for the corporate world.” If you can afford it, get a job at a Target store and throw yourself into it, body and soul. You will learn, you will grow.
I discover the rewarding world of commissioned compensation
I was working as the Area Specialist in Sporting Goods at Target during April 1987. During those days, we had a repair and assembly technician from YLCE (Yorba Linda Cycle Enterprises, before it became Huffy Service First) come in twice a week. With every visit, the tech rolled in with his cart of tools and sat in a lawn chair, reading the newspaper until I had pulled 30 or so bicycles from the back storage for him to assemble. We chatted about this and that each time and eventually got to know each other pretty well (though I can not remember his name.)
The day before he came in, I had a particularly rough tour with the district manager. For those who have never worked retail, that is when the higher-ups swoop down on your store and are hyper-critical of everything you do day to day as if that were motivation. For a demanding company like Target, perfect was the only standard that mattered. The previous month, they had instituted a new SKU management system and assumed everyone was on board 100%. In truth, we were still being trained on the “dot” system. But the store manager and my hardlines manager were not about to admit to the district manager that we were not at 100%. Nobody ever did.
Suffice to say, the tour went badly. And then the YLCE tech showed up, rolling in with his tools, setting up his lawn chair and reading his newspaper while I pulled bikes.
“How much do you make assembling bikes?” I asked rather casually. He told me and it was several thousand more than I was making a year. “And,” he added, “I only work about six months of the year, and I get weekends and evenings off.” People don’t ride bikes in the winter in Minnesota.
I processed that for a few hours afterwards and figured; If I worked just 20-30% harder than this guy and scrounged around in the winter months for furniture, BBQ grills and other things to assemble and repair (YLCE was supposed to do those, but this guy just did bikes) I could make a pretty good living.
I decided I was going to quit my upwardly mobile, fast-tracked career path with Target Stores and build bikes. I called his manager who wanted me to start tomorrow. We negotiated two weeks. I went home to tell my wife and 19 month-old son that I was going to give up a secure job to build bikes on commission. And that I had to buy my own tools with money we didn’t have. As excited as I was was as terrified as she was. Fortunately I was too excited to notice or I would have chickened out.
As it turned out, I didn’t even need to work 30% harder than the YLCE tech who “recruited” me into the world of self-reliance. I just needed to not sit my butt down in the chair and read a newspaper. It turns out that when you help the over-worked, under-paid retail guys pull bikes from storage, they will go the extra mile to make sure to request you and save you the best bike building days. And trust only you to do repairs.
That year, I increased my Target salary by four times. And I got weekends and holidays off. But I still worked evenings during bicycle season. But every Saturday morning that summer, I pulled my son around in a red wagon bedecked with pillows and sandbox toys as we took long walks to the post office first to mail my paperwork, to the bank to deposit my check, to the school yard to play in the sandbox, to the walkway down by the Mississippi River to watch the riversharks swim by and the French bakery to relax before heading home.
It was the best summer of my life.
I grow impatient again
After a couple years of care-free working, i.e., no management responsibilities, I grew anxious again for a formal leadership role. I had become the lead trainer in the Metro and had the highest trainee retention rate, all while staying at either #1 or #2 in production, but I felt I wanted more. Recognizing that perhaps I would make a good Metro/Area Manager, YLCE (now Huffy Service First) decided to split the Minneapolis Metro into two parts and give me the smaller of the two while the current metro manager would retain the other. My area extended to the MN/IA border, all of St. Paul and most of Western Wisconsin.
I spent two years exceeding sales plans, reducing turnover, and generally making my bosses in Dayton, Ohio happy. So, they thought that I might want to take a promotion as an Operations Training Manager at the corporate offices. It wasn’t something they made easy to refuse as they had already replaced me before I said yes, so I moved to Dayton in June of 1991. My daughter had been born three months prior.
The job involved flying around the country putting on Train the Trainer workshops and various other duties that worked efficiency into all the systems that started out at the technician level and worked its way through the rest of the organization; from work orders to processing to inventory of repair parts. It was quite interesting, but as was my nature, I found myself being promoted later that year when my boss got promoted. The training department was expanded to include video production, all field employee communications, field IT systems, management training programs, field leadership conferences. I had four managers and dozens of people reporting to me, was flying around the country at the speed of heat and sitting in on high-level client meetings with some pretty major brands. I was sitting on a small empire.
And then things started to fall apart at the top. The president of our division was moved into the home corporate offices, my VP was passed over for promotion for the second time and left, several short-term thinkers were promoted and the VP spot was eventually filled by someone who created problems just to be able to solve them. I left to join SPAR Marketing as a VP over human resources and internal operations. A few short years later, Huffy collapsed and the service divisions were sold off in pieces.
SPAR was in Minneapolis so the plan was for me to relocate. A few family emergencies came up during my time at SPAR which caused me to rethink relocating and two years after “moving,” I moved back down to Dayton. Since I could not make cars and did not have a security clearance, my employment options were rather limited. I had some graphic design and media skills, so I started up Rivershark Inc. We were a graphic design company for about ten days before we switched to being an Internet company, building out websites and e-strategy solutions.
I have to interrupt my story here to tell you how I came up with the name Rivershark. I actually didn’t; my son did. Remember when I told you we spent Saturdays walking down by the Mississippi River? I’m a rambler if you let me and so I was always talking with him. He would point to things in the river and want to know what they were. When I knew, I would tell him — that is a tugboat, a barge, a floating log, a cadaver — but when I didn’t, it became a rivershark. And then it was his job to tell me where that rivershark came from, where he was going and what he was going to do on his trip down the river. I would fill in details about the river like the fact that Mark Twain was in St. Louis and he piloted steam boats. He would include these little tidbits in his stories until they become these intricate narratives of one shark’s journey down the river.
So I was struggling with naming my new media company. “What about Rivershark?” my son says. I added a fin in the “h” and we had a company. He now wants 50% of it and we’re still negotiating.
So the lesson here is: If you ever think your kids are not listening to your crazy ramblings, you are wrong. They hear everything.
I sold exercise bikes to paralyzed people
That is the most interesting thing about me and it is true. Sorta. I received a call from my real estate agent who had sold me my house when I moved to Dayton as she heard I was back in town. Another client of hers was in the business of some exercise equipment and they were looking for some marketing help. I had worked for Huffy and they did exercise bikes and stuff so perhaps we could do something for each other.
Ok, I bit and set up a meeting to talk with the owner of ELA. He was a good ol’ boy from Mississippi who had lived around the world, made a fortune and now found himself owning this bio-medical company that made all sorts of screws and implants that you never, ever want to need. But, if you ever found yourself needing them, he was the go-to man.
He paced the room in a very animated strut, while his engineer sat staring at me somewhat bug-eyed and told me the story about this electronic recumbent bike that allowed paralyzed people to peddle a bike using their own muscles. Basically, the rider strapped himself in a seat and three sets of electrodes were placed on his hams, quads and gluts. These were hooked into a computer that fired a stimulus, contracting the muscles in the precise order it took to pedal a bike. I signed up to market and sell them and within three months, we had Christopher Reeve’s endorsement as “The Care for the Cure.” I was selling anywhere from seven to nine units a month at $15,000 a piece, half up front, balance due before delivery, no refunds.
To date, that is my best answer ever when asked in a job interview, “So, what makes you qualified for this job?” Ahem. I sold exercise bikes to paralyzed people. You just can’t fake that skill.
Newsprint gets injected into my veins
After a couple years of selling exercise bikes to paralyzed people, I spun off a line of products aimed at the horse market. Apparently, a condition called “stocking up” was a huge problem, particularly with horses who were being transported by trailer long distances. As I understood it, horse legs are terribly inefficient at circulating blood and the constant contraction and counter-contruction of their leg muscles that kept them upright in a moving trailer contributed to blood and fluid pooling in their legs. That is why trainers walk the horses for several hours after a ride. I convinced one of the engineers to create a waveform that horses would tolerate and hooked it up to the stim box. Turns out, the horses we tested got addicted to the sensation and couldn’t wait to load the trailers and take a ride. Long story short, it worked. We called it Theraquine.
The longer story is the owners partnered up with a couple of know-it-all marketers out of Maryland who believed their price and market research more than their gut and ran the product into the ground. I decided it was time to separate the contract. About that time, a friend of mine got a job in the marketing department at the Dayton Daily News. She called me almost immediately afterward and wanted me to meet with the director of Newspapers In Education (NIE). They were frustrated with their creative and an inability to execute a grand new plan with the current talent.
By this time, Rivershark was growing quite rapidly and the exercise bike people had been sucking away a lot of my time I should have been spending with other clients and growing out different divisions at Rivershark. I was hesitant to jump into another long-term contract, especially one that required that I be on-site. But, she was persuasive, — nagged me constantly — and I relented. One meeting. Only one and we’ll see.
I met with the director of NIE. She explained that while other NIE programs were putting crossword puzzles and mazes on their pages, she wanted to write editorial and educational lesson plans around topics that kids were interested in. She believed that if you respected the kids’ intelligence, they would rise to the challenge. She was right; she still is.
Anyone who knows me at least marginally well knows that I love newspapers, old books, typewriters, teaching and dogs. I’ve always wanted to work in editorial at a newspaper and this was pretty close. They wanted to hire me as an employee at a salary that made no sense. But I wanted to work there really badly. We compromised on a contract and flexibility and the Dayton Daily News NIE program got a bunch of horse power for chicken feed. I promised two years; they got four and a half.
During my time at the newspaper, I had the opportunity to work with the most creative, dedicated and smart group of individuals I have ever known. We changed the world slightly, even though it was only for a short four years.
Aside from the great NIE team at the newspaper, working at the newspaper also gave me a great 9/11 story. The website person had gone home for the day (this is when newspapers only updated their Web sites once a day and everything was done at night, after the print edition was put to bed.) Apparently, I was the only one in the building who could create, post and manage Web site content independently.
The photo editor at that time, Jeff Adams, raced down to my floor and begged my director to “borrow” me for the day, or until they could reach the Web site producer and get her back in to work. From about 9:30am until 4:00pm, I was updating www.DaytonDailyNews.com, pulling off photos and 9/11 stories from the AP wire and posting updates as fast as we could. In 2001, the CNN.com servers were overwhelmed and people were turning to their local newspaper Web sites for updates.
I remember the day going slow and fast all at the same time. I remember how calm and professional the newsroom was, how the entire team become hyper-focused on getting local news coverage, processing photos and assembling the “bulldog” edition of the newspaper. I remember seeing a deluge of news stories on the AP wire still happening everywhere else in the world that nobody anywhere was reporting.
I remember stepping out into downtown Dayton from the Ludlow DDN bank building and how quiet traffic was and how slowly everyone walked.
And then I went home. And went to work the next day. And the next and the next.
More to come, I promise……
*If you clicked there, listen to some music. Worth it.
For the Mad Men fans in the crowd, you may have noticed I change the title of this page to Who is Gerard McLean? Yup, that is a nod to Don Draper. If anyone at AdAge or the Wall Street Journal comes out to interview me, they will at least have done their research by reading this. It will save us both a ton of work.