HVAC Commercial Market / Boilers & Hydronics

My Day as a Potted Plant

A Tale of Corporate Misunderstanding and Embarrassing New Suits

February 24, 2014

Our daughter, Colleen, was born and raised on Long Island and now lives in a suburb of Boston with her husband Adam. The town they live in is called Medford. We have a Medford here on Long Island and we pronounce that name just as it appears — Med (like the club) and Ford (like the car). However, in Boston, I’ve learned that the proper way to pronounce Medford is to pretend you have a mouthful of Sam Adams beer and to then sputter MEHfah.

Dan Holohan
Dan Holohan

I’ve gotten used to this, though I sometimes pretend the beer is a Miller Lite, and not a Sammy, in honor of my Milwaukee-born son-in-law Adam. It works just as well.

I have also struggled with Peabody (PEEbidee), where I have friends, and Worcester (WUsta), where Colleen’s sister, Meg, spent four years at Holy Cross college. I’m OK with Somerville, where Colleen and Adam used to live, even though I’ve heard this fine old town referred to as Slumerville by citizens of Boston, but that was before gentrification.

None of which has to do with heating, but I’m getting there.

A Misunderstanding

I once spent 19 years working for a manufacturer’s rep here on Lawn Guyland. One of our lines was Bell & Gossett (B&G), which was owned by the International Telephone and Telegraph Co (ITT). This is an important part of the story of how I once spent the day as a potted plant in a looming tower overlooking Boston’s Quincy Market, the memory of which continues to make me shudder.

ITT also owned Sheraton Hotels back then, and there was supposed to be this grand sense of corporate solidarity between all the ITT-owned companies, which extended to their reps, of course. This meant that if I was traveling on business, say, to a tradeshow, and a Holiday Inn was available across the street and a higher-priced Sheraton was 25 miles away, I had to choose the Sheraton — even though this was more expensive and massively inconvenient. We were to keep things in the family. And when you’re in the rep business, you can’t be holier than the church.

Now knowing that, you would think that when Sheraton built a new hotel, it would insist on using Bell & Gossett products, right? I mean, we were all in the same family, and wouldn’t it be grand for ITT’s bottom line if one division bought stuff from another division? After all, that’s what had me driving miles to get to my bed after standing all day at that tradeshow.

But Sheraton viewed all this as a corporate check valve, where the business flowed only one way. If we wanted to get our stuff into their hotels, we were going to have to sell them.

The year I served as the potted plant, Sheraton was building a hotel out on Lawn Guyland. This is where things got tricky.

The new hotel was to be in our territory, which meant we would be responsible for warranty service, should that be necessary. But the contractor awarded the job was from out of state and that rep was trying to sell him B&G. The engineer, who had the ability to approve the change in the specs, was at Sheraton’s headquarters, which happened to be in that looming tower overlooking Quincy Market in downtown Boston.

You following this?

A friend from that fair city of Boston recently mentioned there had been a “shock attack” and I was right away thinking about electrical wires and storm-related damage. I said, “Shock attack?” to which she answered, “Not ‘shock,’ ‘SHOCK.’ You know, like ‘Jaws?’”

You see how easily misunderstandings can start? That’s what we had with Sheraton — a misunderstanding. We thought they should specify our stuff because we had to stay in their fancy hotels, but noooo.

So the folks in charge of the various companies concerned with this sent a delegation to Sheraton to sell them on the grandeur of our stuff. The owner of the Boston B&G rep firm represented his company. Bell & Gossett pulled out the biggest gun in its technical arsenal and sent Gil Carlson, who had dreamed up much hydronic science as B&G’s director of technical services. He’s the guy who figured out that circulators should pump away from compression tanks. He also dreamed up primary/secondary pumping. He had a ridiculously fertile imagination.

And my company sent a very young version of me.

Why me? We were responsible for any warranty service (a minor function in this big picture) and I suppose they probably had one extra chair in the conference room. My job was to sit near the window and experience photosynthesis. But wait, I’m getting to the juicy part.

New Suit and Wingtips

Eastern Airlines used to run an hourly shuttle between LaGuardia Airport in New York and Boston’s Logan. It was quite a deal. You didn’t need a reservation. If a plane was full and it had one additional passenger, it would roll out another plane, just for that one person. Imagine that.

My boss told me to get a ticket the day of the meeting, which was to be at 10 a.m., and I was so excited because I had been on a total of one business trip involving an airplane up to this point. I would get to sit next to the Great Carlson and appear brilliant by association. All I had to do was keep my mouth shut. Such an honor.

A week before I was to be planted near the window, I bought a suit and a new pair of wingtip shoes. Every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp-dressed man, and I was hoping the engineers at Sheraton would feel the same about me.

I woke while it was still dark, put on the suit and the new wingtips, drove to the airport, hopped on the plane, and, within an hour, as the sun was rising, found myself at Logan Airport. I got into a cab and told the driver where I needed to be. “That’s by Quincy Maaakit,” he said and I nodded, hoping this was true.

We get there fast. I pay him and quickly slide out of the cab, but in doing so, my new suit trousers snagged a wire that’s sticking out of the cab’s upholstery. This tears an 8-inch-long, L-shaped hole, right down to the skin. The driver looks over his shoulder and says, “That’s gonna be wicked embarrassing, khed.” He drives off.

All the stores are closed, of course. So I take off my new suit jacket, wrap it around my sorry lower-self and wander the streets, waiting for the meeting to start. In doing so, I manage to break in my new wingtips by raising water-balloon-sized blisters on both feet.

I’m now ready to go sit with the big shots. I manage to get to the meeting by walking sideways along the walls of the looming tower. I’m holding the slice-of-pizza-shaped gap in my drawers with my left hand as I shake hands with my right, but no one notices the oddness of this because I am a philodendron. Coffee is offered, which I politely decline, knowing what coffee causes.

Gil Carlson begins to lecture us for more than an hour on the finer points of centrifugal pumps, valves, and controls. He is brilliant.

The Boston rep then has his say and he, too, is impressive. I sit there, smiling painfully and bleeding a bit onto my leather swivel chair.

The meeting breaks up. The Sheraton engineers tell us how impressed they are with all they have heard and that they will take all this into consideration — for the good of the family.

(Eventually they will decide to hold the spec, which favors the competitor, who is cheaper. And that’s what gets installed.)

I make it back to Logan, along with a thunderstorm, which has delayed all flights. I stand with my back to the wall near the gate for a good long time. I can’t sit because, well, you know. And I can’t walk because of the blisters. I stand in the corner, a miserable, wilted ficus.

Three decades pass. I’m doing a seminar in that cursed Long Island Sheraton hotel. I’m retelling the story of that day to the lovely Marianne as we move stuff from the car to the meeting room. As I bend to lift a heavy case of books, I feel something pull, but it’s not the chinos. Nope, I just gave myself a hernia. Laid me up for six weeks. Hurt wicked bad!

Next time, it’s the Holiday Inn for me.

Publication date: 2/24/2014 

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