Make Way for the No-Problem Guy
By William D. Ellis
I ASKED the hat-department fellow if he had any hats with broader brims. He pulled himself up to nine-foot-two. “This is the brim worn this year,” he said.
I tried on several, finally found one to fit. “The band is a little sporty for me,” I said. “Could you put a plain brown one on?”
He couldn’t that was the way the factory shipped them, he said. Not to offend the factory, I bought the hat. At home my wife took one look; I knew right then I had a loser. Over the weekend I worked up my nerve to return that hat.
But Monday morning there was a new man on duty in the hat department. He walked over. “Help you?” “Yes,” I said, and fired off my speech.
He laughed. “No problem,” he said. “Pick out one you like.”
I found one, but it was a little too big. “No problem,” he said, raising the sweatband and tucking in two felt pads. “Try that.” It fit. I was reluctant to press my luck, but I said, “any chance I could have a plain brown band?” He opened a drawer, selected a band, hooked it around, handed me the hat. “No problem,” he said, smiling. Leaving the store I knew that here was man headed for the top on the strength of just two words-no problem.
Then I realized that this was the basic attitude of just about every successful man that I, as a journalist, had ever interviewed, worked with or written about. They all made little problems out of big ones or refused to let little ones get big; they used imagination to simplify complex situations or to turn obstacles into advantages; above all, they wore this “no problem” attitude like a flag, reassuring to everyone.
I thought of a walkathon interview I once had with long-striding Al Delany, who was building a 75-million-dollar addition TO Republic Steel’s mill. I walked with him over the construction site while he superintended such diverse phases of the job as moving the big Cuyahoga River 100 feet west and arranging for cream for the workers coffee.
Every few yards somebody hit him with a new problem, which hardly broke his stride. At the end of the day I asked, “Al, what’s your secret?” “Well, “he said, lighting his pipe, “no big problem’s really anything but a gang of little ones.”
Then I thought of a man named Jim Kier, who married during the summer of 1958 and planned to attend graduate business school in September. A financial setback hit him, and he decided to work for a while instead. Before he could find a job, though, his bride needed some apartment furnishings, so they went to Sears, Roebuck. When Jim asked about credit, the salesman judged him ineligible until he could land a job. “Okay,” Kier said. “Where is your employment office?”
Jim Kier went to work for Sears. At one stroke he became eligible for credit, with an employee discount, and began earning tuition money in a practical laboratory of economics. Kier finished graduate school and later brought his vigor to other people’s business problems in the trust department of a Cleveland bank.
You find “no problem” men like Kier and Delany in all walks of life, and you often see them move so fast between thought and action they don’t give a problem time to get its full growth. Bill Rapprich once solved a tough problem while sick in bed. Bill worked for a company that mined iron orehis job was to float the ore economically from Lake Superior iron ranges to lower-lakes steel mills. This had become enormously difficult because of rising U.S. –built ship would have cost about nine million dollars, which was then exorbitant. A foreign vessel could have been bought for less, but the law forbid using foreign ships in American intercoastal trade.
At this time every iron-ore company was battling the same problem, and several were giving up. Then Rapprich, laid up in bed, had an idea. He sent to the store for one of those plastic ship-model kits of a world War ll tanker. He assembled it, then cut it in two. Between the halves he built a long midsection.
When he got well, he showed the model to his management. He told them, “the law says you can have part of a vessel built overseas and still retain coastwise shipping rights. We can cut a World War tanker in two, insert a midsection built overseas and have a new 730-feet vessel for about half the price.”
Later the Walter A.Sterling, which plied the Great Lakes carrying 23,000 tons, was the offspring of Rapprich’s $1.98 plastic model. Its bow and stern came from the old tanker Chiwawa. Its 525-foot midsection was floated across the Atlantic behind a tug from Germany.
I have noticed one trait in common in the men who can break a bucking problem to the saddle and ride it home: they seem to dismiss quickly the part of the problem they can’t fix, and attack the part they can.
Abram Polsky and his boys had a four-story department store on Howard Street in Akron, Ohio. But Akron Shopping traffic was developing one block over on main street, and Polsky’s survival was challenged. He knew he couldn’t change the foot-traffic pattern of all Akron, nor move his entire store to Main Street. So he and his boys walked around and around the block, studying it, exploring all possibilities.
Finally one morning the surprised population of Akron went downtown to see a big sign right on Main Street-POLSKY’S. entering the door below the sign, they found themselves walking through a narrow, glamorous arcade displaying merchandise. The promenade, through what was formerly a small shop in the Kuebler Building led to an interesting footbridge which arched into the door of Polsky’s on Howard. With one bold stroke Abram Polsky had coe to Main Street, where the business was. “No sweat” Polsky said. “No problem.”