Weekly retail columnist Armand Lobato has worked with many produce managers over the years. Here’s a story about one of those managers. The names of people and businesses have been changed so they remain anonymous, but the story is true.
Little did I know the actual battle lines extended an additional 8,600 miles to the east and were decades old. For Max Reese, his war will never be completely over.
“If you’re looking for Max, he’s off today,” Wayne, the store manager, said. “But go ahead, take a look around, then we’ll go over your notes.”
Max was the produce manager at this location, and I was his new supervisor. Max, like most of the managers I oversaw, was older than me and had more experience. I was assigned the task of keeping guys like Max in line.
My territory was the southern half of the state, overlooking the growing chain. I lied about my age at 15 to join the first chain I worked for, and earned a series of promotions.
I was the come-in-early-and-stay-late employee and as a produce manager myself, had quickly ascended to the top tiers, having a knack for turning around poor-performing locations. By my late 20s I had even opened several new stores — choice assignments usually reserved for the best in our company.
I built on this no-nonsense reputation when I became a produce supervisor. I was young and ready to embark on a new string of accomplishments. My job was to make sure stores were maintaining company standards, such as building certain displays in certain areas, having only so much inventory on hand and sticking within purchasing, supply and labor budgets. These were all the things that I used to do and more. I took zero guff from my older charges, and despite my youth I was determined to become a force to be reckoned with. It was my-way-or-the-highway, as the saying goes, and I already had a hand in demoting a couple produce managers and built up the profit base in my area. I was on a roll.
And then came Max, as unconventional a produce manager as anyone could imagine.
Like the other managers I supervised, he was “old” — at least 40 — and had the stereotypical hardhead image and was described as being “set in his ways.” This didn’t matter to me.
I had heard it all before, or so I thought. I stuck to the set standards and wished guys like Max would do the same, but he didn’t. This was my third visit to his store in the past few months and he had done almost nothing to react to the direction I gave him.
Max disregarded my merchandising plans. He put apples where the oranges were supposed to go, and instead of placing the tomato end cap adjacent to the head lettuce he twisted the whole merchandising scheme around.
“The tomatoes sell better when I put them near the packaged salad display,” Max told me during the previous visit. He didn’t say much, but he spoke with confidence and conviction.
This was a produce manager that had to go. I dealt with similar insubordination before, and I could be as two-fisted as anyone. Besides, I had the authority and support of the company behind me.
All I had to do was complete a series of poor-performance evaluations, make the recommendation to the higher-ups back in the home office that Max should be demoted, and that would be that. I was finishing my notes on the final, third evaluation when the store director approached me again.
“Say, do you have time for a cup of coffee?” Wayne asked. “I’d like to talk to you if you don’t mind.”
This isn’t an unusual ploy. I thought. Many times, a produce manager and store manager are pals, especially in the areas like this college town, located farther away from headquarters. Even the powerful, store district-type managers in the outlying areas harbored a quiet disdain for corporate influence.
Behind our backs, guys like myself were referred to as “The Suits” because we dressed in sport coats and ties — in contrast to the golf shirts and wet aprons worn by those actually working in the stores. Even this didn’t bother me, for I paid my dues. I wore that wet apron for 15 years before trading up for the coat and tie.
The performance figures from this store indicated that Max was at best, tolerable. He always hit his goals, always seemed to do just what he had to do to keep his job — the minimum and nothing extra. The sales at his store were passable but not what I thought approached the potential. If he only did what I suggested, this store could be a real show-stopper. I thought. Why doesn’t he do what I ask? Why doesn’t this store manager step on Max’s throat?
I tucked my legal pad in my briefcase and followed Wayne to a nearby coffee shop. No matter what old-buddy Wayne has to say, I thought, Max is mine. He’s toast.
We sat across from each other. The store manager was smart enough to be cooperative and civil — as with enough reports from supervisors like me, even his job would eventually be on the line. Ours was a chain of set rules, and if a supervisor gave direction, according to the company CEO, it had better be supported or there would be hell to pay.
So much for the docile-appearing, friendly corner grocery store.
“We want to make sure we’re following up on what you want done.” Wayne said. “And I’ll do everything to make sure Max cooperates. He’s a bit ornery you know. He always turns in acceptable sales and profit-margin numbers but, as you know, Max tends to push back against authority. Even to some extent me.”
Wayne stirred his coffee and straightened up in his chair.
“How much do you know about Max?” Wayne asked.
“Enough to know he’s done nothing to get this store how it ought to be.” I said. “Enough to know that he seems to think this is his own, personal operation that he can do whatever he wants. Last time I looked, Wayne, it doesn’t say ‘Max’s Market’ on the outside of this store, it says ‘Sun Markets’ and he needs to get that in a hurry.”
“Max is a vet you know. Vietnam.” Wayne broke in, speaking in an even tone.
“Yeah? I’ve got a few like him in my territory.” I said. “I missed Vietnam by just a few years myself. I have lots of relatives, uncles and cousins that went through ’Nam.” I said, not losing my determination or get hoodwinked by this store director, who I thought was a forming a front, an excuse for Max’s dodging ways.
“You don’t understand.” Wayne continued. “Max was a private in Vietnam. Near a place called Quang-Tri. Messy place. Disorganized as all hell. It was just before the Tet Offensive in January of ’68. By some grave error, Max’s platoon was exposed in a small clearing. They awoke to a murderous hailstorm of mortars and machine guns from the surrounding jungle. Nobody could see anything or even react before they were overrun. Every guy in the platoon was killed. Every one that is, except for Max.”
I blinked in disbelief, and suddenly felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
“It was Christmas morning, 1967. Mercifully a call for help was sent before the radioman was hit. Max squeezed in between two of his dead buddies. Until an air strike came soon afterwards to turn back the Viet Cong, Max endured the heavy fire. Not many people are aware of Max’s little experience over there in Southeast Asia. Certainly nobody on Max’s crew knows, here at the store. They all just think Max is a bit eccentric and very contrary. I only know about it because Max’s dad and I used to fish together sometimes. He discovered everything later reading his son’s medical records, after they shipped him home early. Max was in a near-trance that took years to recover. My guess is that Max hasn’t trusted any authority since.
“Max has never married, no kids. No problems with the bottle or drugs. He just works hard and fishes or tinkers in his garage on his days off; and has never breathed a word of 1967 or Christmas Day in Quang-Tri to anyone. Imagine. The sole survivor. The trauma, the guilt.”
Wayne pushed his mostly full cup to the side and crumpled his napkin in his palm.
“Max was 19 years old when that happened. Nineteen. Nobody should have to endure something like that, but … just a kid.”
Wayne shook his head.
My pitiful, insignificant notes scribbled on the yellow legal pad stayed in my briefcase. In the time that followed the only reason I stopped by Max’s store was to drop off the latest company updates, usually just pages to be filed in training manuals, or simply to take Max or Wayne out for coffee.
Instead of pushing formal written direction for Max’s produce stand, I might have given him one or two verbal suggestions. Which he usually ignored. I never filed the damning, third report.
A while later my position was eliminated, along with other supervisors. Seems we were as expendable as anyone.
After so much focused time working for a company and building support relationships with the produce managers, no one under my direction called to even say good bye or good luck.
Nobody that is, except for Max.
But that was good enough for me.