The Time I Competed Against the Former President of the United States – American Business Magazine Mar. 6, 2024

Early in my sales career, I called on a very large well-known furniture manufacturer that was headquartered in Western Michigan. They were looking for solutions to automate their in-house built general ledger accounting functions. After several telephone conversations with both accounting and information technology (IT) people, they invited me to present our solution. They also invited our major competitor as well. There were about fifteen people in the room who were very engaged and had a lot of questions, especially from the IT people, when I presented. I felt that the sales presentation went reasonably well. The Manager of Accounting was Keith, the IT Manager was Mark, and the Head of Auditing was Marsha. I followed up after the meeting with them and answered their questions. Several weeks went by and I went back to Michigan to meet with them again to answer their detailed questions. I was told that they would decide shortly.

About one week later I called Keith and he gave me the good news: They were going to recommend our solution for approval to their Vice President of Finance. However, Keith informed me that it was a split, not a unanimous decision. Two people were in favor of my solution and one person was not. He did not tell me who dissented on the selection. We then began the procurement approval and contracting process.

Approximately two weeks later I received a message to call Keith as soon as possible. When I called Keith, he informed me that the VP of Finance wanted more diligence on the recommendation and was looking for more information on why our solution was a better fit for them than our competitor’s. We reviewed his recommendation and I was able to provide additional information. We focused on such important issues as ease of use, functionality, and audit trails. This same thing happened about one week later—a call requesting more information.

I was out of town at a meeting with another prospect when the meeting was interrupted. I was handed a note that said I had an urgent telephone call that needed to be responded to immediately. I excused myself and walked to a place where I could place a private telephone call. My heart was pounding. I was worried that something terrible had happened with my family. I called my office and my assistant told me that Keith had called and said I needed to call him as soon as possible. I was relieved that there was not a problem with my family, but was concerned that Keith had requested that I be interrupted and call him right away.

When I called Keith he was in a full state of panic, out of breath, and could hardly speak. He informed me that former President Gerald R. Ford had called his good friend, the Chief Executive Officer of the company. President Ford had been the Congressman that represented that area of Western Michigan for twenty-five years and was very popular in that District before becoming Vice President, and then President of the United States. According to Keith President Ford asked that the decision be changed to select my competitor. Keith asked for more

information on why our solution was a better fit and we both tried to come up with a few more important differentiators. But, with the CEO now involved, would it make a difference? After the call, I lowered my expectation of the possibility of closing this sale. I then went back to my meeting, a little bit rattled.

Wow! I had never competed with a former President of the U.S. on a sale before this happened.

About one week later Keith called me and informed me that the company had indeed changed their decision. I thought we had lost. He then reminded me that the initial decision was 2-1 in my favor. However, Keith told me that the competitor had recently disparaged the IT Manager, Mark, to executive management and questioned his ability to make such an important decision. As a result, they had another vote, and Mark, who had initially voted for the competitor, changed his vote and now the decision was unanimous in favor of our solution. Keith informed me that both the C.E.O. and VP of Finance endorsed the decision because they felt it was in the best interests of the company.

Fast forward a few years – the company I worked for, McCormack &N Dodge, and the competitor, MSA, were both acquired by the same company, Dun & Bradstreet, and the Chief Executive Officer of the competitor, John Imlay (whom I later came to respect and admire) was now in charge of the merged company. And I met with him when they hired me back after the merger. (“I want you on my side,” he said to me.) Imlay later wrote a book called Jungle Rules and told the story from the other side.

We had struck up a friendly relationship with former President Gerald Ford, who had keynoted some of our conferences and been a great hit with his observations, wit, and self-deprecating humor…One of the other things was for a donation to his Presidential Library, a project extremely important to him. I was perfectly happy to make one, but it occurred to me that President Ford could do both his library and MSA a favor if he was willing to have a little fun.

We had some clients in Michigan, Ford’s home state, who were on the fence about buying.

“Mr. President,” I said, “I have a proposition for you. If you’ll get on the phone and mention a few kind words about MSA, I’ll give your library a percentage of all the sales we’re able to close. You could end up with a lot more than a regular donation.”

To my delight, he agreed to do it.1 The late John Imlay wrote that as a result of the call the Ford library received $38,000 and “MSA got $3.8 million.”2 I am sure he was being truthful, but they did not close the sale at the furniture manufacturer.

This was a lesson for me to be sure that I meet with the key decision maker so that I could communicate directly with him or her in the future. In addition, I needed to assure that the recommendation was endorsed at all levels in the company, not just with the buying committee.


  1. John P. Imlay and Dennis Hamilton, Jungle Rules, Penguin Books (New York, 1994), pp. 100-101.
  2. Ibid