Not a very propitious time, 1912, for a naval constructor to resign and find himself blinking in the world of civilians and on his own feet for the first time in his adult life — a naval constructor just entering middle age and having a wife and four children to support.
The country was none too prosperous, shipbuilding was at a low ebb. I was giving up the certainty of $4,500 a year in salary and allowances. Stick it out six years more, and I would be eligible to retire on three-fourths pay, to which I could probably add considerably by civilian work.
But — there was my self-respect of which Mr. Newberry had written. Six years of the humdrum, trifling work to which I was now sure to be assigned in the Navy? I couldn't take that.
Bertron, Griscom and Jenks, the New York investment bankers, found on their hands the bankrupt Moran Company, shipbuilders, of Seattle, Washington. It was a question of reorganization — if they could find a capable man for vice president and sales manager.
Mr. Rodman Griscom put it up to me. He and his partners, he said, had every confidence in Mr. J. V. Patterson, the president of the shipbuilding company, and wanted to retain him as executive and manager but preferred to have somebody else come in contact with the customers. I said I knew nothing about selling anything. He said he was satisfied I could do the work. Mr. Patterson, he said, was agreeable to the whole arrangement. I took the job — a five-year contract, salary of $10,000 a year with a bonus provision.
p286 I liked Seattle — its splendid climate, magnificent Puget Sound, the beautiful scenery, the hospitable people. President Patterson I found to be an amiable gentleman, educated and well-read. I settled my family in a comfortable house, renewed acquaintanceships in the Rainier Club, and prepared for a rosy future.
Mr. Patterson's ideas of business management were so different from mine that I wrote to Mr. Griscom in New York that my position in Seattle was unsatisfactory. On the plant's staff was a naval architect named Harry Crosby, a young man of much promise, who was also dissatisfied for the same reason.
One day I said to him, "If I do find another job, I'm going to send for you."
"Give me any opening, and I'll accept," he said. "Anything to get away from here."
The New York bankers made a settlement of my contract, and for the first time in my life, I found myself without a job. I wanted another badly, but I didn't make the mistake of hunting for it. The good job does not go to the jobhunter, it hunts the man.
There was also a measure of humiliation in this quick fiasco in Seattle. It gave my former enemies in Washington a chance to crow — contentious disposition — couldn't get along with his president. To keep myself from brooding I took up a game which I then regarded as silly and for which I was not physically adapted — golf. My arms are too short in proportion to my height for me ever to become a good golf player.
I methodized my study of this game as I had methodized the study of international law on my two‑years' cruise and of marine architecture at Glasgow. I spent every day on the golf course, from early morning until dark. I began each day with a lesson from the pro and spent the rest of the time in practice. At the end of two months — believe it or not, golfers — I was breaking 90 regularly. My first handicap was 16.
p287 Good jobs did not seem to be on the hunt on the Pacific Coast. I moved to a room in the Army and Navy Club in Washington, hoping to pick up consultation work. One day I was in the bar with Captain Blakely, a classmate, and, like all beginners, was bragging about my golf game. Blakely grew tired of it. A young man came into the bar. He was a low‑handicap player at the Chevy Chase Club, a member of the club team.
"See that fellow?" said Blakely. "He can give you a stroke a hole and take you over the jumps."
"Nobody in the world can give me a stroke a hole," I said.
"Will you play him on that basis for a wager?"
I had had several cocktails, and they answered for me, "Certainly I'll play him, and I'll make you a good side bet on the result."
The player was called, and we signed a written agreement. I was conceded ten days in which to learn the course. A number of others in the bar clamored for bets, and in a few days it seemed as if everybody in Washington wanted some of my money. I took many more bets than I should.
It was winter, and the day of the match was very cold, a howling gale blowing. I suggested that we might wait for better weather.
"It's beautiful golfing weather," said my opponent. "We're playing today."
The fairways were like rock, the water hazards were frozen, and so were the sand traps. The wind bothered me, and at the turn, despite my stroke-a‑hole, we were all even. But coming home Lady Luck perched on my shoulder. I could do nothing wrong. At Mount Zion, a par‑4 with an elevated green, after two bad shots, which nevertheless traveled well on the frozen ground, my ball was in the bunker below the green. I hit out with a niblick, heard a ring as the ball struck the steel flagpole, climbed to the green, and discovered that I had made a birdie.
p288 I played the last nine holes in 43 and was 8 up, playing the match out because of bets on the holes. I took great pleasure in collecting bets of more than $1,000 — very welcome to a jobless man open to an opportunity.
King and King, a law firm in Washington, employed me temporarily as technical adviser in suits against the Government before the Court of Claims. I had four days a week with them, at $35 a day. Then, though I didn't recognize it at first, came a big job out on a man‑hunt.
The Baltimore Trust Company was holding bonds of the Skinner Shipbuilding & Drydock Company, of Baltimore, to the amount of $300,000. The company was bankrupt, so bankrupt that the trust company was debating whether it was worth reorganizing. They asked me to make an investigation and advise them what to do.
I spent two days in Baltimore at the plant and another in the preparation of my report. While I found conditions bad, I stated that with proper management the plant could be made to pay. I advised the bank to make the reorganization. The bankers thanked me and told me to send in my bill.
This put me in a quandary. It was my first consultation job, and I had no idea what to charge. But I remembered words of Lewis Nixon, spoken to me years before, when I was a young naval inspector at his shipbuilding plant.
"If you work for bankers and charge a small fee, they will think you a small man," he said. "If you charge a moderate fee, they will consider you of moderate ability; but if you charge them a whale of a fee, then they sure you are one whale of a man and will send for you whenever they have a big job to be done."
Acting on Nixon's advice, I sent a bill for $1,000, which I knew Baltimore would consider as a "whale of a fee." I got the check by return mail.
p289 The bank then proceeded to run true to form as prescribed by Mr. Nixon. It decided to reorganize the shipbuilding plant and offered me the managership. This came to me as a complete surprise, but, desperately as I needed a job, I kept my head.
My reply to the bank committee was, "No, it's too small a job for me to take. You can't pay me enough salary."
Douglas Gordon, the committee's chairman, replied, "We've considered that question fully and are prepared to offer you $10,000 a year."
This was a very large salary then for Baltimore, but I was now on the track of bigger game. My investigation of the bankrupt plant had convinced me that under good management — meaning my own management — and with an improvement in shipping, it could be turned into a small gold mine. Once on a salary, always on a salary. If I made a big success, I wanted to share in the rewards.
"I'm afraid I can't accept," I said. "I couldn't work effectively on a salary but would have to have a financial interest in the business. Let me think it over a short time, and perhaps I can make you a satisfactory counter-proposition."
This conference took place in the morning. We agreed to meet again in the afternoon.
I went back to my hotel and did some earnest thinking. Here was my chance — the chance of a lifetime, if I played my cards are. I mustn't miss it. On the other hand, I mustn't be so greedy as to lose the job entirely. Even on a salary alone, it was vital to me. What bait could I offer the bankers to induce them to let me in on their deal? I had it — I would offer to take less salary than they proposed. The banking mind couldn't resist the lure of such bait, and I would be proving to them that I had confidence in my ability to make a success of the undertaking.
In the afternoon I planed my proposition in writing: a salary of $8,000 a year and 10 per cent of the net profits. I knew p290 a good deal about accounting and put in one safeguard — set limits to the amounts that could be charged off for repairs and depreciation.
The committee didn't even retire for consultation. The members looked at one another inquiringly, nodded, and Mr. Gordon said, "We accept and will sign a year's contract on those terms. If everything goes well, we will renew the arrangement."
Later, when I knew Mr. Gordon well, I discovered that I had overestimated the banking mind. After I had gone the committee members, while having no doubt about my ability as a plant manager, did question my business ability. Anyone who would sacrifice a two‑thousand-dollar bird in the hand for what might prove to be a chimera in the bush seemed to them to lack sound sense.
As for myself, I knew I had a great contract.
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