Maine Street: "A Tribute..."

by Don Maine

Excerpted from Maine Street: "A Tribute to 27 West Michigan Entrepreneurs," as told by Donald W. Maine, Chancellor Emeritus, Davenport University, and reprinted by permission from Pearson Custom Publishing

One summer day in 1964 Peter Secchia, then a young salesman, had a two-hour layover at O'Hare Field in Chicago. He thought he'd make the most of it. The White Sox game was under way when he entered Commiskey Park and began scanning the seats. But he wasn't trying to locate a place to sit. Instead, he was looking for the nearest hot dog vendor. Was he hungry? Definitely, but not for a ballpark frank.

Peter had been cultivating a potential customer for two years. The man used the lumber Peter was selling, but he just couldn't close a deal. He decided to use his two-hour wait for one more try. He called the prospect at home only to find his target was at the White Sox game. Not one to do things conventionally, Peter asked his spouse where he was sitting, located a park vendor and offered $20 for the use of his jacket, hat, and hot dog tray. Then he made his way to the box where his potential customer was watching the game.

"Hot dog?" asked Peter, tapping the man on the shoulder. No response.

"Hot dog?" he said again. Again, no response.

Finally he shouted, "Hey, you tightwad, how about buying a !#$%$@! Hot dog?"

This time the man spun around and looked up. Annoyed, and then surprised, he asked, "Peter, what are you doing here?"

Peter replied, "Well, until you give me some business, this is how I'm putting my kids through school!"

He ultimately made the sale, and the customer became one of Universal Forest Products' biggest accounts of the '60s.

That combination of persistence and ingenuity propelled Peter Secchia as he built a business, befriended presidents, and served as the U.S. Ambassador to Italy. Those qualities—and a core belief that opportunities exist everywhere for everyone—have distinguished his work and leadership style since his first job as a young boy, and eventually led to his induction into the West Michigan Business Hall of Fame.

Peter grew up in New Jersey. His father, Caesar, delivered newspapers door-to-door seven days a week. Peter remembers waking up at 4 a.m. on Sundays to help his father with the paper route. He remembers the way the papers smelled, and the way the ink blackened his fingers and how it never completely came off his father's hands. He recalls his father working two jobs to make ends meet while his mother worked in the high school. Peter often wished his family were more like those of his friends; that his mother stayed at home; that his father wore a white shirt and tie and worked in an office. But the Secchias remained a hard-working, blue-collar family who lived upstairs from Peter's Italian immigrant grandparents until Peter was 13.

When Peter attended high school in the 1950s, most of his classmates took for granted their path to college. One of the few students in his circle of friends who came from a working-class background, Peter's family couldn't afford to send him to college. In fact, his father didn't want him to go to college. His father preferred that his son become a police officer at $3.67 an hour, an honorable and reliable profession. In spite of his father's wishes, Peter applied to West Point, knowing it was a "free" education and no burden to his parents. He also applied to Michigan State University after reading a magazine advertisement that touted the school's reasonable tuition and track record in finding students part-time jobs.

Peter was accepted at Michigan State. He also was named an alternate candidate to West Point, which meant he could enter West Point only if the principal candidate decided not to attend. When the principle accepted the appointment, Peter decided to go to Michigan State.

He saved $500 working at a machine shop during the week and shining shoes at a golf club on the weekends. But he still had to figure out how to get from New Jersey to Michigan. Then on the last weekend before the start of MSU's first quarter, Peter got a phone call from a total stranger. The man on the other end said he'd heard Peter was going to East Lansing and wondered if he needed a ride. So, in September of 1955, Peter hitched a ride from New Jersey to Michigan for a fee of $15.

When it came time for Peter's goodbyes, his father was watching television. Finally, during a commercial break after The Ed Sullivan Show, he walked outside to see his son off.

"I understand now," says Peter. "My dad worked seven days a week, and when he was home on Sunday night his one real source of relaxation was watching TV. It was tough at the time, though. When he finally came out to see me off, he said, 'You'll be home in six months.' That was even harder, but it did make me determined." Peter got into the car with two cardboard boxes filled with his belongings, and he was off.

Midway through the second quarter Peter received an unexpected telegram announcing his principle appointment to the first class at the new Air Force Academy in Colorado. A year after he'd applied to West Point, Congress authorized a service academy in Colorado Springs, and Peter had been named the principal appointee. He was so excited he decided to celebrate. With a transfer to the Airforce Academy on the horizon, he let his classes slide and spent the semester having fun. A few weeks later he received another Air Force telegram indicating his eye exam showed a reverse astigmatism. Since each member of the Academy's inaugural class was to be trained as a jet pilot and needed perfect vision, Peter's appointment was revoked.

By that time Peter had missed so many classes his grades had tumbled. He withdrew from Michigan State (at their request) and, without a car to use, he took the bus to and from a job he found in Lansing. On Memorial Day weekend, he headed home to New Jersey to find a summer job. When he arrived, his father said, "I knew you'd be home within six months."

That night Peter went out with some friends and joked, "I might as well join the Marine Corps." A friend responded, "I dare you." The next day Peter borrowed his grandmother's car and drove to Paterson, New Jersey, where he enlisted. He moved from basic training on Parris Island to a ship cruising the Mediterranean for two tours of duty. When he was discharged at age 22, a more mature Peter thought it wise to finish college. Due to his poor first showing, Michigan State refused him as a regular student, but Peter convinced the school to let him audit classes. Eventually he was readmitted and earned a gifted student scholarship.

As a Marine supply sergeant, Peter had gained some management experience. When he returned to college, he was naturally drawn to campus activities that tested his leadership skills, chairing various events and organizations. His entrepreneurial instincts also quickly surfaced when he rented a house, subletting rooms to other students to make some extra money. He then cooked for the renters as well, charging an extra $7 a week for lunch.

Peter began to see that meeting new people created opportunities on which he could capitalize. One of his first mentors was Tom Johnson, the owner of the student bar where Peter worked. Johnson loaned him the money to complete his last year of college, and Peter graduated from Michigan State in December 1962 with an economics degree from the school of business.

The day after Christmas, Peter was offered a sales position with a Grand Rapids-based lumber company owned by Mr. Bill Grant, Sr. He took the job on a temporary basis, hoping to enter another company's corporate training program in June. As it turned out, Peter stayed on at Universal Forest Products — and remained with the company for 40 years watching that company go from $1 million to $1.6 billion in sales.

When Peter joined Universal Forest Products, he received a $600 salary advance meant to sustain him until he earned his first commission. He used the money instead to buy his father the first new television he ever had, and to give his mother new dining room carpeting.

Peter admits that part of what drove his success was a fear of failure. "I remembered being embarrassed by the fact that my dad sold newspapers for a living and we seemed to have less when the other kids' fathers smoked big cigars and drove big cars," recalls Peter. "I think it wasn't until I'd been working a while that I knew I'd had more to be proud of than they did. My dad worked hard and was an honorable person. Still, I wanted to make sure that I would always be able to provide well for my family. I was driven by that fear of failing."

Before starting him in sales at Universal Forest Products, Grant sent Peter on a three-month sojourn to British Columbia to learn about the lumber business first hand. With what was left from his advance, Peter bought his first business suit, topcoat, and briefcase. He arrived at the Prince George Airport in British Columbia all decked out and ready to be trained as an executive. At the airport, however, the mill foreman and his big dog met Peter in a pickup truck. Without fanfare, the man threw Peter's bag in the flatbed, directed his big dog into the cab, and told Peter to ride in the back with his bag.

"So, I'm riding through British Columbia on my first day of work, in my new suit and my vest, holding my hat in the wind. I'm sitting on my suitcase in the back of a pickup truck, and it's forty below zero," says Peter. "It was probably just the ride I needed to take me down a few notches." Every day for three months Peter rode to work in the bed of the foreman's pickup truck.

When he returned from British Columbia the real work began. Peter went into the office on Monday morning then left Monday afternoon at five o'clock for the all-night drive to his assigned sales territory in Pennsylvania. Arriving at six in the morning, he napped briefly, and then started pounding the pavement making his sales calls. He spent the week in Pennsylvania, left his last call at three or four in the afternoon on Friday, and drove back to Lansing, where he spent Saturday at the office and weekends bunking with friends in an M.S.U. dorm to save money.

He didn't do very well his first year, hardly making his $600-a-month draw. But he made friends, and started building a network of strong contacts. The next year his contacts began to pay off and his customer base grew. Universal Forest Products' annual sales jumped from $1 million to $11 million in Peter's first 10 years with the company.

When Mr. Grant retired in 1971, he sold Peter 51 percent of the company on a 12-year land contract. Even though he had done well in sales, buying the company was a financial challenge for Peter who by then had a wife and two young children. Yet he couldn't pass up the opportunity. Owning 51 percent would allow Peter to build the company his way, and he was confident that he could improve on what others had done in the past.

In the first few years, Peter led Universal Forest Products through rough times when the whole company had to pull together. At one point, in 1974, business was so poor that Universal let the cleaning and lawn services go, saddling every executive with a maintenance job. The vice president of purchasing cut grass and Peter cleaned bathrooms. In addition, everyone in the company took a five percent pay cut except the officers, who had a 10 percent reduction. Universal Forest Products pulled through and, as tough as it had been, not one of those employees left during that period. Peter had provided them with a creative if nerve-wracking way to clear a hurdle.

It became well known that Peter was an industry innovator, applying the creativity he learned in sales to his management and leadership. He changed a lot of rules as he went along, tempering his unconventional methods with constant appraisals of what worked and what didn't. And he provided a hefty dose of humor through it all. "We used to hold funeral services for the financial books after a bad year," states Peter. "We'd learn from it, bury the books, and move on." (The photos adorning the office walls testify to this and other creative events.)

"We planned to hold funeral services for the financial books after a bad year," states Peter. "We'd learn from it, bury the books, and move on. Thank heaven we only had one 'down' year."

Peter's leadership style was rooted in his belief that it was important to help employees succeed and have fun, important ingredients in making them loyal to the company. He hired the best people, tested them, and created ways for them to have fun at work while staying focused. Peter recalls the time when he hired Bill Currie to take over his Pennsylvania sales territory. "Before I sent him off to Pennsylvania, I called Bill over and told him that I had reserved the honeymoon suite for him at the Middleburger Hotel in Middleburg, Pennsylvania," remembers Peter.

Currie was to report to his training plant in Pennsylvania at 7 a.m. on a Monday morning. He was given a company car and sent from Grand Rapids on Sunday morning. When Currie arrived in Middleburg he located the Middleburger Hotel only to find it closed for the day. With no other reservations, Currie was forced to sleep in the car and still report to work on time the next morning.

"I knew the Middleburger was nothing more than a local bar with two rooms upstairs," laughs Peter. "That was part of our executive training strategy. We made their first week miserable. If someone was going to quit on us, we wanted them to quit early." Bill Currie stayed with the company for more than 30 years and succeeded Peter as CEO. "We've tried to have fun while we did our work," continues Peter. "But we worked very hard."

In the early years, Peter and his management team required a 5 1/2 day week, making calls on weekdays and completing paperwork on Saturdays. Aware his executives had limited time at home, Peter hired high school students to do their errands and yard work. This way, when the executives were home, they could spend their time more leisurely. (One of those high school students later went to law school and, at age 35, is an executive vice president at the company with 20 years of seniority.)

Universal Forest Products also hosted several "Night to Remember" parties to celebrate the company's success. This annual party followed the weekly budget and planning meetings where all officers and their families spent Thanksgiving week attending meetings together and growing as a corporate family. The children looked forward to this gathering each year. Peter recalls one party where he sent his top nine executives and their families to an island in Florida and hired a performance company to stage a mini-circus. The executives' children were then gathered together, made up by professional make-up artists, and bused to the event. Much to their parents' delight, the children, dressed as clowns, marched through the middle of the circus in the opening parade. "It's important to make success fun," says Peter.

Peter also extended his creativity to the way he did business. Universal Forest Products was a wholesale lumber business, and, traditionally, clients purchased the lumber, had it shipped it to their manufacturing sites, and then had it cut or milled to their specifications. It was an expensive process for the clients, requiring buildings and capital equipment to run mills. By offering to cut lumber to client specifications before shipping it — a unique approach at the time — Universal Forest Products distinguished itself from the competition. The challenge, however, was not only convincing clients to buy pre-cut lumber, but also convincing them that the higher price created a significant value. Peter knew that for his clients, the key to growth and success was their ability to open more plants. So Universal Forest Products demonstrated how eliminating machinerary, the manufacturing space, the use of capital, and the dust collection systems would cover the higher cost of lumber and give them abundant capital savings to open new manufacturing facilities.

Universal Forest Products' success didn't go unnoticed in the business world. In 2001, they were designated as a "Platinum Company" by Forbes and noted as one of "America's Best Managed Companies." Peter sees that as the pinnacle, and credits his executive team and employees for the achievement. "It was not the growth from $1 million in sales to almost $2 billion that I was most proud of," says Peter. "It was the very few divorces and very few key persons departing over 30 years that were our proudest accomplishments."

Did Peter know the potential for Universal Forest Products when he took over the company? Was he confident taking it through the hard times? "I always knew Universal Forest Products could be the best, but I didn't know we would be one of the biggest," says Peter.

By 2001, Peter was aware Universal Forest Products wouldn't get much bigger on his watch, since retirement was looming. Mandatory retirement at 65 is a policy Peter himself established. Moreover, he had explained early on to his children that they couldn't work for Universal Forest Products, another rule he'd instituted. "One of the reasons I was able to keep a strong management team was that they knew they wouldn't have to worry about my children taking their jobs. I also wanted them to know that when I moved out, they could move up. Otherwise, why would they stay?"

Peter doesn't worry about what he'll do post-Universal Forest Products. The next stage of his life will revolve around community activism, community investment, and charitable giving. He has always been active in multiple ventures, from restaurants to politics. He took his love of cooking into the restaurant and catering business and now is partial owner of more than 20 restaurants, including three named after his grandfather, Pietro.

Peter also had a hand in politics. "I realized early on that I couldn't be just a complainer. If I didn't like something, I needed to do something about it." His interest in politics led him, years ago, to the office of Congressman Gerald R. Ford. Peter, then a young salesman, didn't think the way Ford represented young people was very effective, and he didn't hesitate to speak his mind. As it turned out, Peter later worked on Ford's presidential campaign and, eventually, that of President George H. W. Bush, who named Peter U.S. Ambassador to Italy. The Secchias, the Fords, and the Bushes remain close friends. President Gerald R. Ford once said, "Peter is one of the most reliable people I've known."

"The reason I work in a variety of ventures is because I love doing business," says Peter. "Business is a game. It's an exciting opportunity. I think the basic principles that I used to build my business are: one, always try to figure out how to do it better tomorrow than you did it yesterday; two, respect the time and value of others to never keep a person waiting; and three, you can't make a good deal with a bad guy."

Best advice: The quotation carved on Peter's custom-made desk says it all: Son of Caesar says: "Seize the Day."