It’s not quite the same as selling ice cubes to Eskimos, but selling long, woolen black underwear to lumberjacks in the hot summer comes pretty close. I’ve heard this story since I was a little boy. Let me tell you what my dad did to pull it off.
My dad was born in 1900 and grew up on a farm as one of eight children. As the eldest, he was responsible for taking care of the sheep and cattle and herding them on the ranges of Utah and Nevada. He grew up a cowboy and learned about life on the trails. His strong work ethic continued in college. He was the salesman and writer for the newspaper, the manager and stock boy for the bookstore, he taught English, and was senior class president.
Up to this point in his life, he’d never really been challenged by a seemingly impossible assignment. That ended with his summer job as a salesman for the Utah Woolen Mills.
I can hear dad’s boss say, “Hey Marriott, take these black pairs of long underwear and head to the logger camps and don’t come back till you’ve sold them all.”
My father probably replied, “But it’s summer with temperatures in the 80s. Who wants to buy long johns and itch?” It was going to be a difficult job traveling to remote logging camps and talking tough lumberjacks into buying something they didn’t need right now.
Lumberjacks in those days had to saw down huge trees by hand using giant whip-saws, then cut the logs down to size. For fun, lumberjack competitions featured log rolling, climbing, sawing and chopping, giving you some idea of the strength and agility needed to work in the woods. As they used these giant whip-saws to cut their logs, they sweat and sweat. The long, black woolen underwear was supposedly designed to absorb it.
Somewhere along dad’s journey to find a logging camp, he must have realized that holding up long johns and shouting out “$20 a pair” -- a lot of money back then – would not work. So he came up with a way to win over these rough-hewn customers.
Dad would find two mean-looking lumberjacks and challenge them, saying: “Each of you take a leg of this pair of underwear. If you can pull the underwear apart, I’ll give you a free pair. If you can’t, you’ve got to buy it.” The loggers would tug-of-war but could never tear the underwear apart. Dad earned more than $2,000 in commissions during a single summer and was the most productive salesman in the Utah Woolen Mill Company.
From this colorful story, I can see my dad’s business skills at work. Dad knew his product. He knew how to measure up the customer. And he knew how to close the deal without getting kicked down the mountain.
I’ve often wondered what sort of bionic wool held the long underwear together as two beefy lumberjacks tried to tear it apart. For the next Lumberjack World Championship, I propose adding this as a new event – the long john tug of war. My father would’ve loved it.
I’m Bill Marriott and thanks for helping me keep Marriott on the move.