MY BEAR BEGINNINGS; Meeting A Legend
It is a five-hour drive from Ft. Wayne, Indiana up the spine of Michigan’s lower peninsula to Grayling. But it can seem like a year to a nervous 30-year-old advertising agency account executive on his way up to meet a hunting legend.
It was the summer of 1966, and I had just joined the Bonsib Advertising Agency in Ft. Wayne, hired to take over the accounts of Tom Blee. Tom, the bright, young Phi Beta Kappa vice president had just been promoted to president of the agency—one of the largest in Indiana at the time. Tom’s accounts included Bear Archery in Grayling, Michigan and Franklin Electric of Bluffton, Indiana.
I had graduated from Indiana University in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a major in advertising. My wife, Alice, whom I had met in college, still had two years to go to earn her elementary education degree when we married. So, I worked for the university handling advertising and sales promotion for their student union and all the facilities it contained. At the same time I also pursued post-graduate work toward a master’s degree in counseling and guidance.
Following Alice’s graduation and the birth of our first son, Mike, we left Bloomington to begin our real life together. Our first stop was in Indianapolis where I worked for a number of months for a one-man, one secretary advertising agency. We were tasked with selling the Handy Flame® cartoon character to natural gas companies around the country. Handy Flame was the gas industry’s equivalent of Reddy Kilowatt®, spokesman for the electric utilities in those days. Bill Rohr, Jr., its creator, was a wonderful person who took me under his wing. One of our other accounts was the Super Duper Pooper Scooper® for dog owners. My outdoor career could only go up from there.
After a hot summer in Indianapolis in an old walk-up apartment with a crying baby, very little furniture, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and realizing I did not really want to spend the rest of my career calling on natural gas companies, it was time for a change. Alice and I loaded up our young son and all our belongings in our used 1953 Chevy and headed up U.S. 31 home to South Bend, Indiana where I was born and raised.
HOME TO SOUTH BEND
Mom and Dad took us in for a couple of months while I searched for a job, and it was not easy. It was during a recession in the late ’50s, and jobs were very difficult to find. Advertising, especially, is a difficult profession in which to secure a foothold. Fortunately, there was an employment agency in The Lafayette Building in downtown South Bend where I had worked during high school and college at my Uncle Bill’s commercial photography studio, The Lattimer Studios.
The owner put me onto a job interview at The Studebaker-Packard Corporation a few blocks south. I spent three years there working in the market research department as a market analyst (basically I was a statistics gatherer), first for Dick Detzler, later for Larry Windecker. Both taught me a great deal about life, marketing and how to interview people. Much of the secret, as you may know, is listening more than one talks. Which, as it turned out, was also one of Fred’s secrets of communicating with people.
While at Studebaker’s I was one of the contacts with the other automotive companies exchanging sales data every 10 days. General Motors, Ford, American Motors and Studebaker would all call one another at the end of each 10-day period and report on model shipments during the time. It provided all of us with a yardstick with which to measure our share of market. I understand they all later ended this 10-day reporting tradition.
One of my other tasks each 10 days was going up to the top floor in the Studebaker administration building and updating the sales charts in the board of directors room, just off the president’s office. Heady stuff for a young kid just out of college. But it also allowed me to see the continued downward sales trend, and I knew that the company couldn’t survive. I began looking for an escape route.
CLIMBING THE LADDER
My father was a journeyman photo engraver in South Bend, and I had worked as an errand boy for him many years before, while in junior high school, delivering zinc and copper advertising printing plates to the many advertising agencies around town. I got to know many of the account executives at the agencies. This was bolstered when I later worked for my uncle at his photography studio and would often deliver photographic prints to them for use in advertising layouts.
It was, thus, due to my family’s reputation in the advertising field that Paul Fergus gave me an opportunity at his small, four-person agency. There I worked on accounts for pole barns, a regional gasoline distributor and Frolic® travel trailers.
After a while at the Fergus agency, I had an opportunity to join the much larger Juhl Advertising Agency in nearby Elkhart, Indiana. My uncle Bill had a branch photography studio there to service the many mobile home, travel trailer and musical instrument companies in the area. Juhl was one of Indiana’s hottest agencies at the time and was founded by Leif Juhl, a former sales executive at Selmer Band Instrument Company.
While at Juhl, I worked on the Skyline Mobile Home account and Travel Equipment Corporation’s (TEC) camping conversion for Ford Econoline and Dodge vans in addition to the NIBCO account. I really enjoyed my three years at Juhl and found Leif Juhl to be a wonderful mentor. A “prince of a gentleman” as we would say in those days.
One poignant situation comes to mind that had a lot to do with molding my character and way of relating to people. Magazine space salesmen regularly call on advertising agencies and attempt to convince their media directors and account executives to advertise in their publications. One day a new media space salesman pulled up in front of the old Juhl mansion on Harrison Street in Elkhart to introduce himself and to make his pitch.
When he got to the door there was an old man crouched down working on the threshold, obviously a janitor of some kind, dressed in casual old work clothes. The new space salesman very rudely pushed his way past the old man saying that he had an appointment with the president of the agency and couldn’t be late. The old man moved aside, interrupted at an inopportune moment in his repairs.You can guess the rest of the story.
When the space salesman was finally ushered into the president’s office 10 or 15 minutes later, there sat the old man in his janitor’s work clothes behind the desk. It was Leif Juhl, the founder of the agency. That ad sales guy learned an important lesson that morning, but so did the rest of us at the agency once the word had spread. And the fact that I mention it now 40 years later is evidence of the fact that it taught me a valuable lesson about how to treat everyone equally and with respect.
That, too, is something that was solidified by Fred Bear. Fred treated everyone with the same amount of respect, whether you were a janitor sweeping floors out in the plant, an international celebrity, a Maharajah, a movie star, or politician that he met along the way.
THE YEAR FROM HELL
A Juhl client in Canton, Ohio was looking for an advertising manager, and the job paid $10,000 a year. I was ready to get out from under my family’s reputation in my home area and strike out on my own.
While I didn’t work on the Ohio account at the time, I was extremely impressed when I went over to Canton with the account supervisor and met Woody Simpson, the president of Kennetrack Bi-Fold Doors and Washington Cabinet Hardware, both subsidiaries of Ekco Home Products. Woody was a 30-something Harvard MBA. He was a devout Mormon with a quiet, gentle, no-nonsense manner, and I liked him immediately along with the other folks I met on that trip. When offered the position, I immediately accepted it.
Our year in Canton turned out to be a year from hell. Not long after we moved into a beautiful split-level rental home in a suburb of North Canton the rains came and our bottom level flooded, ruining many of our personal items. Then the well went bad. And our oldest son, Mike, started hemorrhaging from a tonsillectomy, the same thing that had killed my wife’s brother. Bless her, Alice, did the best she could with three small children at that time, ages 6, 4 and 2. Our daughter, Beth, and son, Scott, had been born while we were living in South Bend and they, in addition to Mike, our oldest, gave her a handful.
Then American Home Products, a giant conglomerate that owned many brand name companies, decided it would acquire Ekco Home Products Company, our parent company. The head honcho came to town, had lunch with us in our small company lunch room, and promptly chopped off the two top levels of management, including Woody Simpson. I was absolutely devastated.
While I could undoubtedly have stayed with the company and worked there for many years, the challenge and opportunity of learning so much that I saw in Woody Simpson was gone.
One day, not long after the American Home Products acquisition of our company, I noticed a display ad in the employment section of Advertising Age newspaper. It seemed that an advertising agency in Ft. Wayne, Indiana was looking for an account executive to work on several of its accounts. The layout looked familiar, and I remembered that Bob Schumaker, an artist I had worked with at Juhl in Elkhart had subsequently gone to Ft. Wayne to work at Bonsib Advertising. Bob had a wonderfully clean style and he and I had worked closely together during my time at Juhl. I called Bob to tell him I had seen his ad, really with no thought of applying for the job, just reaching out to an old friend while I was depressed and lonely in Ohio.
Bob told me that what Bonsib was looking for was right down my alley in the outdoor field. He knew of my background in camping and hunting, instilled in me by my father and my Uncle Jack Ream, with whom I went on my first deer hunting trip at about the age of 14. Uncle Jack was an electrician at Studebaker’s and he and my Dad converted the old Studebaker mail truck into a camper that we took up into northern lower Michigan on hunting trips.
Bob and I had often fished together when I worked at Juhl, and he convinced me to come over to Ft. Wayne and interview for the Bonsib opening. After a good interview with Tom Blee and Jack Kerley, I was offered the job. I accepted and went to work in June 1966, on the account of an archery company in northern lower Michigan headed up by a man named Fred Bear.
NEXT: Chapter 2b: BONSIB AND FRED BEAR