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The One Thing More Important Than Industry Experience


A respected lumberyard owner recently told me that he’d never hire someone without industry experience. I disagreed with the gentleman, and when he asked why, I told him the story of my first job in the industry.

Here’s how it happened….

It was 6 a.m. on a Monday and I woke up to an email reading, “Not going to make it, you’re on your own.”

I was six weeks on the job, barely 22 years old and on my way to Cleveland, where I would pick up the Vice President of my No. 1 customer. During this three-day tour of all the Ohio stores, my boss, who was scheduled to accompany me, had bailed.


In short order, I’d be embarking on a dozen meetings and 1,000-plus miles of windshield time with a person I’d never met, had strong influence over my success, and was known to be “kind of a firecracker” (my boss’s words, not mine).

I picked him up from Macedonia, Ohio and within five minutes he asked me the following:

What’s your view on politics?
What about stem cell research?
What’s your religion?

Of course, traditional thinking would tell you to avoid these topics in a business setting, but I had been cornered by a cagy bulldog and I was trapped behind the wheel.

To hell with it; I answered truthfully and confidently every question he asked. In return, I tried to ask him questions to spark conversation.

We made it to our first stop. It was easy. The people there liked the company I represented, which was good news, especially since I had little-to-no understanding of what we actually did for the guy.

The second stop is why I’m writing this article. It’s to help you truly value what you need in a workforce beyond experience.

On the second stop, I found myself in a dark conference room, sitting in a small chair and surrounded by three people: the Vice President, a Store Manager, and the Sales Manager. After the introductions, the Store Manager and Sales Manager proceeded to chew me out for 15 minutes over how someone at our company had dropped the ball.

After the tag-team speech that sounded like two whiny children who just missed the ice cream truck, I responded, with a smile.

“Gentlemen, I really apologize for the events that happened in the past. I honestly don’t know what to say. In fact, I don’t even know much about what we do as a company yet. But what I can tell you is that we are here to help. I am here to help. I’ll check in with you weekly and we will see how we can work better together.”

I meant it, and they knew that I meant it.

In my head I’m thinking, “People can get this bent out of shape over doors and railing? Wow.”

The Vice President sat back, looked at me and smiled. Next, he lived up to his reputation and completely annihilated his two employees. After the verbal beating, we walked out of the building and to the car.

“Was that a test?” I quietly asked. “Just get in the [expletive] car,” he said with a smile.

Looking back, that event sparked the development of a successful business relationship between the Vice President and myself. Today, the relationship has transitioned to me working elsewhere and the Vice President sending me weekly forecasts of his sunny retirement location.

The moral of this story is that I didn’t know anything about building products when I started at my first job. I simply wanted to help out the person in need. I learned the business based on their needs. Of course I couldn’t do it alone, nor should anyone. I still don’t know it all (not even close) but I know whom to ask. Successful business is a team sport, isn’t it?

I urge you to consider outside people for the positions you’re looking for. Find value in their desire to positively contribute. Their learning about the industry will come from the person’s need to provide value to whomever is counting on them. Lastly, don’t underestimate the non-industry experiences they possess and how those experiences can benefit your business.