While attending California State University, Chico, I worked afternoons at a 7-11 to help pay the bills.
It was a nice store on the edge of town, conveniently located since the apartment I shared with my wife and son was just a block or so away. I developed several good friends while working there, mostly customers but also a few fellow employees.
One customer taught me something that has stayed with me to this very day. It was quite unexpected and came about because I expressed interest in his life and asked him a simple question.
I was in my 20s at the time and this gentleman - I’ll call him Bill - was in his 40s. He would sometimes drive up to the store in his sparkling Mercedes sedan, buy a coffee or soda, and stand by the counter and chat for awhile as other customers would come and go. Bill and I became friends and I slowly learned about his life. He owned a small business, had a wife and kids, and lived nearby.
Bill was always dressed well, with a tie and nice shoes. He was balding and spoke with a boisterous, but not obnoxious, clear voice. Over time I learned that he would stop by on his way to or from appointments selling Amway. Amway is a company that sells products through distributors, who work hard to find and bring aboard other distributors. The Amway model is not a Ponzi scheme, but has often been compared to one and at times seems very close to one to me.
In any case, distributing Amway seemed out of character for a man of Bill’s caliber.
On a quiet fall afternoon, in a lull between customers, Bill and I stood there gazing out the window at the field across the street from the store. On the back side of the field were peach orchards. There we stood, this businessman and I – a lanky college student with a scruffy beard and likely a flannel shirt. Think Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
I asked Bill why he distributed Amway. He continued gazing for a minute, then turned to me and gently explained his background.
He had lived in the Bay Area with his wife and family and worked for IBM selling IBM business equipment. He made a very nice living selling that business equipment on commission. But over time, he noticed that the IBM computer salesmen made much more money from commission. He approached management about switching to computer sales, but was rebuffed. Angry, he quit and opened up his own business in the central valley, not far from where we were standing.
Unfortunately, his new business did not make nearly as much money as he was earning at IBM. He was okay with it, he said, but his wife was not. He held up his hand as a measure. “She was not happy going from here”, holding his hand high, “to here” holding it mid-level. The only thing he could do to earn more money, he explained, was to sell Amway on the side.
I nodded and said I understood. I soaked in his words and wisdom and have never forgotten what he said.
I’m not sure how I used those words exactly. I had already selected a wife and had actually intentionally found a wife who wasn’t obsessed with status.
But I think Bill’s words and thoughts went through my head every time I considered a job change. Would I be sure I could come out ahead financially? Would it affect my family if I didn’t? Would I end up selling Amway?
I have always figured that my wife is not like his and it would not have mattered much. But you know, sometimes it’s better not to find out.