For a number of years I worked for AMF Bakery Systems, a division of AMF that manufactures equipment for large wholesale bakeries throughout the world. I joined the company as vice president of engineering and later served as vice president of sales. Having no prior experience in baking, or the food industry for that matter, I experienced a steep learning curve.
Most large industries and professions have a technical society which provides research, education, the exchange of ideas, and events to bring its members together periodically for various activities. The technical society for the baking industry is the American Institute of Baking, with headquarters in Manhattan, Kansas.
One course taught by AIB is “Baking for Non-Bakers.” It is a one-week course that is both informative and fun. They teach the theory of baking in the morning and set you loose in the afternoon in the kitchen to bake.
I was fortunate that one of these classes was scheduled to start shortly after I reported for duty at AMF. Thus, I found myself in Manhattan, Kansas for the second week of my new job.
The baking industry is world-wide and my class of thirty reflected that. Participants included people from Brazil, Mexico, Egypt and Jordan. I quickly learned that the Jordanians were on a mission that included more than learning how to bake bread.
For various reasons, King Hussein had decided to build a large government bakery to supply bread for the entire kingdom. The two Jordanians were from the Ministry of Supply and were attending the course to learn more about baking, but also to meet a representative from the baking equipment side of the business to assist in making the King’s vision become a reality. They were there to meet one of my new competitors! The staff at AIB was quick to introduce me as another person from the equipment side of the industry and another person with whom they might want to talk.
At lunch I called the president of my company to see if we wanted to do business in Jordan. I might just as well have asked if dogs have tails, because the answer was a resounding yes.
Remember that this was my second week with my new company. I had little knowledge of the equipment we offered and no knowledge of why our equipment would have a competitive advantage over that of the other supplier talking to them. I asked the president to “overnight” all the sales brochures and literature that would be of interest to the Jordanians and that would help me become more knowledgeable as well.
As soon as the phone call ended, I started to develop a plan to win this potential business. The first task was to stall any discussions of our equipment until I got my hands on the literature I had requested and had a chance to digest it. I learned that this was the first visit to America for the Jordanians. I decided that the best stalling tactic would be to invite the visitors to do a little sightseeing and to offer them an opportunity to do some shopping for souvenirs. I quickly made arrangements to pick up a rental car and headed to the kitchen to see if I could bake a loaf of bread.
During the first break, I asked my new acquaintances if they would like to do some sightseeing and perhaps visit some stores after class. Their eyes literally lit up as they told me that they had discussed their desires to do some shopping but weren’t sure how to get around in this new environment. They were quick to add, “Mr. Brian, that is so kind of you. We would very much like to visit a ‘Wal-Market’.” I made a mental note that if we had to drive sixty miles to Kansas City before we found a Wal-Mart, we would do exactly that. As luck would have it, Manhattan had a Wal-Mart about two miles from our motel. The only problem was that it closed at 9pm each night.
I never imagined what I had volunteered for. We shopped and shopped and shopped. We shopped Monday night, Tuesday night, and Wednesday night. On Thursday afternoon, we skipped baking and searched for a company that could package all their new-found treasures and could arrange to ship them to Jordan. It hadn’t occurred to me that, as representatives of the Minister of Supply, they were actually buying a number of items with the objective of later evaluating them for potential import.
Through all the shopping and late evening dinners at McDonald’s, we talked of our families, our countries, our religions, our travels, and our interests. In the process, we started developing friendships that continue to this day.
Another benefit of the shopping sprees was that they had no time to meet with my competitor. They were very gracious about this and they did take all his sales literature. They also took mine on the last day of class. They apologized to me for not having time for meaningful business discussions during the week, but quickly added, “Mr. Harry (my president) and you must come to Amman in a few weeks so that we could conduct business.”
My fifth week with AMF was spent in Amman, Jordan. The experience was extraordinary and I could not do justice to Jordan in a few paragraphs. To tell of the sights I saw, the history I learned, and the gracious people I met would require another book. Suffice to say it was a wonderful experience that still provides memories to cherish. If it were possible, I would return to Jordan in a minute.
By the way, we did spend a little time on business during the week. Four months after our visit, we signed a sweat deal to equip a large, national bakery for the kingdom of Jordan. I am certain our competitor was treated with respect by my friends. I am equally certain, he never got out of the batter’s box, much less to first base on the Jordanian bakery venture.
The lesson here is obvious, whenever possible, become friends first and then do business.
This advice may not be new to some people. Long before I attended the class in Manhattan, I was aware that in certain cultures, becoming friends prior to discussing business was a desirable path to take. Yet, in spite of that knowledge, my strategy didn’t include anything like developing friendships.
My strategy was to “stall” until I had the knowledge to discuss business in a meaningful way. Even though we all know a number of things that will make our missions easier, we often forget to utilize some of those things. We all need to do better jobs of taking the time to bring all of our knowledge to each venture we pursue.
In utilizing the friendship advice, keep in mind that friendships do not happen instantaneously, but take time. At a minimum, try to take a few steps to start developing a friendship before rushing into business discussions.
Whenever I meet someone for the first time in his office, I quickly scan the room for “signs of interest.” They can include diplomas, paintings, posters, books, pictures, small models, or anything else that doesn’t pertain to the business. I will utilize one of these to start a conversation. I will very sincerely inquire about something I spot in the first few seconds.
“I see you went to Notre Dame. What did you major in?”
“I see you have an autographed baseball. Do you enjoy baseball?”
“I see you have a skiing poster. Do you ski?”
“That is a great family portrait. Three kids must keep you and your wife busy all of the time.”
The beauty of these questions is that they open the door for your host to talk about his school days, his hobbies and avocations, or his family. You can bet that all are subjects that he loves to talk about and will not mind spending the first few minutes of the meeting to discuss them with you.
You are breaking the ice with your new acquaintance. You are potentially starting a relationship that could develop into a long friendship. Finally, you are enhancing the odds of a favorable outcome at the end of the meeting.
This technique is also an excellent way to start a job interview you are conducting. Something on the resume will lead to an ice-breaking question with which to start the interview. The goal in this case is not to start a friendship. It’s to put the person at ease and encourage him to speak more openly with you.
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Again, make friends and then do business. Friendship is all about getting to know someone, allowing them to know you, and truly enjoying being with one and other. You will want to do things for friends and they will want to do things for you. You may never benefit by getting their business, but you will be rewarded by the benefits of friendship and that will be worth your efforts.
From the book “IT AIN’T OKAY TO FAIL”
By Brian Strachan