Introducing Francis Gilbert
If Charlie Lofgren was the engine that powered Sanford Ink Company, Francis Gilbert was the tires on which it moved. Charlie was emotional, forceful, and dynamic. Francis was even tempered, thoughtful, and decisive. Charlie dreamed big, Francis brought the dream to life.
I began working with alternative Sharpie ink formulations as soon as I started at Sanford in 1964. Somewhere along the line I came across a formulation that had an interesting property. When marked on a nylon surface, it was almost impossible to remove. Normal handling, including exposure to water, had no effect on this ink. I noted this in my lab book, but gave it little thought until one day a potential customer called the lab concerning an industrial application. A company named Thomas and Betts in suburban Tinley Park, Illinois wanted to know if Sanford had a marker that would have exceptional fastness on nylon. They manufactured nylon straps for bundling electrical wires, and they supplied a nylon tag that could be attached to the strap. This allowed the person bundling the wires to write on the tag an identification of some sort for the bundle. They needed a marker for marking their tabs.
They had been recommending Sharpie for marking these tags, but the ink wore off with time, and the company wondered if Sanford had a variation of the Sharpie that would be more permanent for their application. I explained that while there was only one Sharpie, I did have an ink formula that could be used for an industrial product if the quantities were large enough. I then offered to prepare a Sharpie variation in the laboratory for their evaluation. Calls like this were common, and often the fastest way to get rid of them without hurt feelings was to just send them a sample of something. Normally, that was the last I heard from them. But in this case the caller called back after receiving the sample, and wanted to discuss buying a product made for resale by their company.
This request took it to a level beyond my authority, so I referred it to Francis Gilbert. And Francis saw more to this than just a new product. He saw an opportunity to involve me in a broader level of activity, so he gave me his blessing to take this business opportunity to the point of closing the deal before he took over. And this is exactly what I did. Everything went well up to the point of talking real money, and at that point Francis recruited Norm Burgess, director of Industrial Sales, and the three of us got into Norm’s big, black Chrysler Imperial and drove to Tinley Park to complete the first order.
This was accomplished, and then Francis turned over to me the details of producing the order. It was going to be up to me to work with manufacturing for scheduling, producing and shipping. I would be in charge of everything but cashing the check.
Everything went well at the start. The product would use standard Sharpie parts except for the tip and ink. These I would supply to production when we were ready to produce the order. Thomas and Betts supplied the graphics they wanted printed on the barrels, and I oversaw the procurement of printing plates to do the printing. It was also up to me to deal with the customer on all matters. Norm stepped aside and let me have full reign for this order. He would only become involved if necessary.
I called the customer, give him the expected delivery date, and stayed focused on making this a winning experience in my young career. I ordered the materials necessary for a small, first production ink batch, and followed up the orders to make sure they were delivered on time. When all the materials were in house, I worked with the guys who made the inks to verify the inks were produced to specifications. I studied the manufacturing schedule to determine when the order would be ready to ship. Everything was in place
When it was time to produce the order I walked down the steps from the second story lab to the ground level production area, and went to the line that should have been ready to print the barrels. Something, however, was wrong. The line was not set up to print my barrels. It wasn’t set up to do anything. It was just setting there idle.
I checked the schedule again, and my order was no longer listed. Half confused and half angry, I went directly to the production manager. “What’s going on with my order”? I demanded.
The production manager, whose name I no longer remember, seemed very amused. He wasn’t apologetic, or concerned. He seemed to enjoy telling me that he took my order off the schedule. When I asked him why, he explained, “We are out of pen barrels. We had to use our entire inventory of barrels to take care of the Sharpie orders”.
I was disappointed because of the circumstances, intimidated about calling the customer, and angry at the production manager for laughing at my situation. But I did what I had to do. I confirmed with purchasing when new Sharpie barrels would be received. I checked with scheduling when my order would be put back on the schedule, and I called the customer and explained the situation.
The customer was angry. Very angry.
There was nothing I could do, however, to make product as scheduled. So I did the only thing I could do. I gave him the new production date, a sincere apology, and assurance this was not going to happen again.
But it did. The entire scenario was repeated. Only this time the customer was even more irate. They had made plans for a new product release. They had customers of their own waiting for orders to be filled. The situation was spinning out of control, and I was in danger of losing my order.
I routinely broke one of the rules for aspiring young people whose sights are on a management career. I frequently socialized with the blue collar workers. Coming from a very poor, rural background, it was easier for me to fit in with the factory workers than with upper management. Fortunately for me, I was able to fit in with both. And on this occasion I put my blue collar resources to work.
The warehouse was in a separate building next to the main plant. Sanford had acquired part of the building when a company named King Bee had gone out of business. When I started with Sanford, the rented portion of the building was referred to by its former owner, King Bee. As the Sharpie line grew and more space was required, Sanford took over the entire building and Charlie called all of his staff together for an announcement. “From this day on”, he pronounced, “The warehouse is no longer called King Bee. It is to be called Sanford East”.
And from that day forward, the building was called Sanford East. No one ever mentioned King Bee again. Charlie wanted it. Charlie got it. And on the day I am describing here, I walked across the parking lot to Sanford East and approached my friend Wayne Wainscott. Wayne was the man who unloaded the truckloads of materials as they were received.
“Wayne, are we out of Sharpie Barrels”? I asked.
“Yeah”, he replied. We are always running out of them. We can’t get enough of them”.
Sanford bought their molded components from a Canadian plastic molding company. The company was owned by Sanford, so it is not like we were at the mercy of someone who had little interest in our plight. The Sharpie sales were growing rapidly. Management had to forecast accurately their future needs before expanding their molding capability. And then it took time to make new and bigger molds. All of this put the company in a position where we were having difficulty meeting demand.
“Any idea when we will get more barrels in”? I asked.
“We get them in about twice a week” he replied
“Would you do me a favor”? .
“If I can”
“Call me when you get more in”.
I thanked Wayne, and then went back to the lab and waited. Several days later I got the call.
“We are unloading a shipment of Sharpie barrels right now” Wayne told me.
I thanked him, dropped everything, and went directly over to the Sanford East warehouse. I picked up a carton of barrels and carried it back to the lab and set it next to my desk. I checked the quantity in the carton to make sure there was enough, and then secured all the other components that would be necessary to fill my order. When everything was in place, I double checked the schedule to confirm the expected production date, and then called the customer and assured him that his order was on schedule.
On the day of the scheduled production I did my routine. I went down to the line that printed the barrels. And sure enough, it was idle. Then I went to the production manager’s office and asked for an explanation. He gave me the same answer. “We are out of barrels again”.
“No you’re not”, I replied. “Get your man over there and make the set up. Then get some people over to the assembly line and let’s produce the order”. I was firm with him, but trying not to be too offensive.
There was no avoiding the confrontation. He immediately became very angry. “I told you we are out of barrels, because we are out of barrels” he shouted at me. “No go away”
‘We are not out of barrels”, I insisted.
“If you’re so smart, then tell me. Where are these barrels”
“In a box next to my desk. I’ll get them while you get you start setting up”. He just stood there in shock looking at me, so I paused to add, “It’s on the schedule. We have the parts. Now let’s produce the order”.
I started to walk away when he stopped me. “Green”! He shouted angrily. I stopped and looked back at him. “Lofgren is going to hear about this” he said in a threatening tone. To Charlie Lofgren, Sharpie was the future of the company. Sharpie production took precedence over everything else. The production manager knew that, and I knew it too. By hoarding a box of Sharpie barrels I had delayed someone’s order for Sharpie markers. I had taken a serious risk.
“Tell him I said hello” was my reply. “Now excuse me while I go get the barrels. And any other components you think you may be out of”.
I moved the component inventory down to the assembly line, and then went back to my desk and waited. It didn’t take long. My desk was situated where anyone coming into the lab was in my full view. I knew that Lofgren would not personally handle this. I reported to Francis Gilbert, and Francis would be the one designated to handle my insubordination. In only a few minutes after the confrontation the door to the lab opened, and there stood Francis Gilbert. With the opening of the door, he just stood there, and looked directly at me.
I just waited.
Francis then entered the lab and left no doubt where he was headed. He started walking directly toward my desk. I just looked at him and waited. From the serious look on his face I didn’t know what to expect. Francis was not one to show emotion. Nor was he one to charge into a situation. He just made his customary slow, deliberate walk across the lab and then stopped in front of my desk and looked directly at me. And I kept waiting.
The suddenly Francis broke into a wide grin, which was a rare show of emotion for him, and said, “Lofgren loved it! He ab-so-lute-ly loved it! And with that I broke out laughing, while Francis’ grin widened.