My wife and I were enjoying an evening with four other couples. It was several days after Super Bowl 40 where the Pittsburg Steelers had defeated the Seattle Seahawks for the NFL championship. After the guys had thoroughly discussed the game itself the subject turned to the Super Bowl commercials. Here the ladies joined in, giving their opinions along with their husbands. Finally one of our friends noticed my silence in that part of the conversation and asked, “What about you, Bill. Which commercial did you like best?”
I had been waiting for that moment. “Didn’t anyone notice?”
Puzzled faces stared at me. “What do you mean?” The question was returned in concert.
“Didn’t…Anyone…Notice?” I put emphasis on each word. Of course, I knew they hadn’t noticed. I just wanted to set up the conversation for my explanation. “I made the Super Bowl!” I said with pride.
These were close friends, and they knew I was getting ready to make a point. I was confident they had failed to connect me with the Super Bowl commercial that had given me a great deal of pride. I just wanted to point out to them they had missed something they shouldn’t have.
“We don’t get it. How did you make the Super Bowl?”
“Didn’t you see the Sharpie Commercial? I made the Super Bowl! I did it in my own way and in my own profession.”
In fact, there had been a Sharpie Commercial during the Super Bowl. Sanford had recently packaged the Sharpie with a retractable feature giving it a function much like a ball point pen. This was many years after my involvement with the product. But still, the overall success of the Sharpie had prompted this expansion into a new market. This was still my Sharpie.
Puzzlement was immediately replaced on the faces of my friends with expressions of enlightenment, and then came the “Oh yeah….that’s right. You were part of the team that developed the Sharpie, weren’t you!”
“That’s right”. I replied. “And when I saw that commercial, well, …I was very proud. In my own way and in my own career, I made the Super Bowl, just like the players in the game. Even if it was a new package for an old product, it is still my baby.”
I didn’t realize the significance of what I had accomplished at that time in my career when I did my share of work on the development of the Sharpie Marker. But I’ve been proud of that product for a long time. I’ve watched as entertainers, athletes and even Presidents casually pull their Sharpie from their pocket and sign autographs. In the pop movie classic The Terminator, a story set many years in the future, the writers created a scene where the hero reaches into his pocket during a critical moment, takes out his Sharpie, and marks on something. Just what, I don’t recall, but it isn’t important. If science fiction writers can be believed, my Sharpie will be around for thousands of years.
I have been in Europe and Asia, and noticed Sharpies in use everywhere. I learned to approach a new business opportunity by walking into an office in another part of the world and looking for the Sharpie lying on someone’s desk. “Oh”, I would say, being a little deceitful by pretending to be surprised. “I see you are using a product that I developed.” It was a great conversation starter.
No, the product was not my personal brain child. There were several people who share credit for this product. First and foremost there was Charles Lofgren, the President of Sanford Ink Company when Sharpie was developed. And then there was Francis Gilbert, the executive Vice President of the company, and the man who turned Charlie’s dreams into marketable realities. There was also Walt DeGroft, the Manager of New Product Development, and someone with a most unlikely background for the position he held. Ted Jenses was manager of the machine shop when the Sharpie was patented, and his name is included on the patent. And then there was me, Bill Green, an ambitious young chemist fresh from the University of Iowa.
Together we made it happen. And as I think back on that part of my life, I indeed take great pride in what was accomplished. The Sharpie has been produced and sold for many years now. It has provided many jobs right here in America. Many of my personal friends from those days spent their entire careers producing and selling Sharpies, and are now enjoying retirement funded by Sharpie’s success. I like to brag that more people have used the Sharpie than have watched Michael Jordan play basketball, both live and on television.
And now, looking back on what happened and who made it happen, I am finally beginning to realize the significance of it. A small group of men in a small private company developed and produced a product that is what it is today, a product that has been used by almost all Americans old enough to do so. It has become a piece of Americana.
I also realize that the Sharpie story is a story of some colorful men with very diverse personalities who blended their differences with their talents to create success. There is a lesson here for all f us today. Our story should not die, and I am the only one left who can tell it.