When I was in college my dad’s brother Dodo (David) ran the family business together with his brothers, Milton and Paul. Unfortunately Dodo was sick and handicapped most of the years I knew him.They say that Dodo was the brightest of the Nathanson men, and despite his affirmaties, he managed Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco Company even when he was invalided and housebound. My brother Gary was his stock broker and claims that Dodo was the wisest investor he has ever known.
Dodo was always kind and generous to me, during those years when I worked for him at Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco. Only once did I test his patience. I remember the incident very well.
Some of the smaller stores I called on paid me for the merchandise by check or cash upon delivery. Most however, were billed by the office which extended them credit on 30 day terms. From time to time however, a customer might fall behind as much as sixty days. In those cases I was often asked to request payment for the delinquent balance in full or in part upon their next delivery.
In college I had taken some courses in Economics and Money and Banking. I was well aware that, though the company extended credit to the majority of its accounts, like most wholesalers, Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco worked on very slim profit margins and really couldn’t afford to carry substantial receivables. Cash flow in the wholesale business is therefore very critical.
All the big accounts were serviced at that time by my Uncle Milton Nathanson. These were the chains, some with as many as a dozen stores. They were the VIPs of the business. One day I happened to be going through the company’s receivables when I came across the Snyders Drug account. Snyders, at the time, had several stores in the twin cities and suburbs. I was shocked to discover that we had been carrying close to $100,000 of Snyders’ receivables on our books. That is like a million in today’s dollars.
I don’t know what prompted me to send a letter demanding payment to Snyders. I remember however, that after a week, having received no response, I called their bookkeeper, who said he would turn the matter over to his boss, Shirley Snyder. First name aside, Shirley Snyder was a man who, like Uncle Milton, had a well-known reputation with the ladies. After having received no response I called the bookkeeper again.
This time I received a response, but not from Shirley Snyder or his bookkeeper. This time I got calls from Uncle Dodo Nathanson who had been home sick for the past month and another from Milton who had been vacationing in Hawaii.
“Are you crazy?” screamed my Uncle Dodo, “threatening our biggest account? Are you aware that Crabtree and Phillips would kill to get Snyder’s business away from us?”
Milton’s call from Hawaii was gentler. “Geoffrey,” Milton said in his deep super salesman’s voice, “I want you to go down to Juster Brothers and pick up a sport coat I ordered, and personally bring it over to Shirley Snyder with my apologies. I spoke with Shirley and explained things. He understands. We are very good friends and I’m sure the matter will be forgotten.”
Dodo later explained that the big receivables balances they carry for an important client like Snyders was a form of insurance, so the customer wouldn’t take his business elsewhere. I was to discover later that there were several other important accounts that enjoyed a similar courtesy. My Economics professors at the University never showed me where the line item “good will” appears on a financial statement.
My uncles suggested that, in the future, I devote my energies to sales and leave accounting to the company’s bookkeeping department.
On My Route
Apart from the Snyder’s episode there were several more incidents during my employment at Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco that I chose to write-off as valuable learning experience. From time to time, especially in the winter months, I might take my company delivery van home with me if I had an early morning customer on the west side of town. What with two cars in the family garage I had to park the company’s van on the street in front of our house.
Anyone who has lived in that part of the country will tell you that the driver of a car parked overnight during those Minnesota winters can expect to find a thick layer of morning frost on his windshield. For that reason, just about every Minnesota driver carries a “scraper”.
On that particular morning I climbed into my vehicle which was facing west with its back to the rising sun. There was some frost on the windshield, but not too much, so I thought, that the defroster wouldn’t melt it away in a couple of minutes.
No such luck. Our street ended at the crest of a hill, and as I turned my little truck to head down that hill, I found myself driving directly into the glare of the sun. Unfortunately, as I headed slowly down, another car was coming up. I was blinded, of course, and skidded head-on into a car driven by a beautiful young girl on her way to school.
Unaware that I was completely at fault, she was all apologies. It was her cousin’s car, and she didn’t yet have a driver’s license.
“Please don’t call the police,” she said. “What will I tell my family?”
Playing it cool, I put my arm around her and assured her that I would “take care of everything”. I was, of course, terrified. What was I going to say to my uncles?
By some miracle both cars were drivable. In those days they made cars out of real steel. I promised again that I “would take care of everything”. I called Morrie Shanfeld, my father’s insurance agent, who somehow did “take care of everything”. How he did it? I never knew. I just assumed that was what insurance was for.
Actually there is a rather happy ending to this little story. My victim and I had a brief but very pleasant romance, at least until she went off to college the next fall in a beautiful little convertible that her father gave her as a graduation present.
I was, however, anything but a cool operator in those days. There was one other situation with a woman whose husband had a small drug store in Minneapolis. The owners lived in an apartment behind the store which was not unusual in those days. It was really a very small account, and for a reason that became obvious later, it was one of Uncle Milt’s customers.
It seems that my uncle was out of town at the time and, for some reason they were sending me by that particular store to make a delivery and pick up a check. It appeared that the husband was also away that week, and his wife was alone in the store. Actually, the boys at the Wholesale House were setting me up, and I didn’t have a clue.
It was a classic story. As I recall she looked a lot like that big busted redhead in the “Mad Men” TV series. Could I help her with a problem she was having back in her apartment?
Nuff said… Though the boys back at the Wholesale House gave me the third degree, begging for all the details upon my return, I tried to play it cool. Actually, I was embarrassed. She was, after all, an older woman, probably in her thirties (or maybe her forties). So much for the romantic life of a cigar salesman.
Chapter 4… Smoking: Perils and Politics [Open]