Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey—part 11

It became extremely important to the Coca-Cola company to beat the Pepsi company in the Nielsen ratings. It was more a matter of pride than any good business sense. For this reason, the bonus plan for all Coca-Cola USA employees was based upon passing Pepsi in the Nielsen’s. The supervisory personnel for New York Coke knew where the Nielsen stores were located and loaded them. We had an increase in Nielsen and a simultaneous decrease in sales.

AC Nielsen personnel came to the New York office and made a presentation of store surveys where we would receive the actual sheets for the in-store surveys. I had seen these previously at RC. They were useless. College students had been used to collect the information, and they had confused 10-oz. bottles in the Los Angeles market with 16-oz., which we did not at the time carry. These were actual store surveys, and I knew the stores, so I knew the information was wrong. Their work was totally worthless. I shared this with my new employers. They elected to use the surveys anyhow. They decided to have Nielsen duplicate our own in-store surveys as a check upon that information.

When we received the Nielsen information, it was internally inconsistent. There were more signs on displays than there were displays, even though there was no mathematical justification for this in the survey. The survey only asked was there a sign, yes or no. Yet the statistical information stated that 120 percent of the displays had signs. The reports were filled with other glaringly obvious faults. After consultation with my immediate boss, Larry, I refused payment for the work.

I was called on the carpet by the big boss, Frank Morley. He stated to me the AC Nielsen company and the Coca-Cola Company had a long history and that under no circumstances would we refuse to pay for work done by them. I had an epiphany; our bonuses were predicated upon overtaking Pepsi in the Nielsen ratings. No one was going to upset Nielsen. Even if the information was totally wrong. And it was.

I don’t know why, but I started to keep a daily journal, writing down exactly, everything that occurred in my business relations. It was to prove propitious. I would sit in my hotel room at the end of the day and carefully document what had happened in each call that I made. Unbeknownst to me, I had developed an enemy. He was another Coca-Cola field person on the next level down from my position. My advice was being taken over his in his territory. In my defense, I knew a lot more about the business than he did and was being better received by his bottlers. Also, it helped that his bottlers were old RC Cola bottlers and felt an affinity for another who had come over to Coke from Royal Crown.

About this time, I paid a visit to Rockford. I had always wanted to be in the restaurant business. I drove downtown looking for a likely spot. On State Street, right at Madison, I saw my dream restaurant. It was Gentleman Jim’s, a restaurant that had been set up by the Woodstock General Corporation in conjunction with First National Bank and the First Rockford Community Development Corporation, one of the first CDCs in the nation. The bank had formed the not-for-profit to help revive State Street. The first operators of the restaurant had gone broke. It was full of old antiques and fit right into my idea of what I wanted to do. My son Drew was living in Rockford and attending Boylan. I wanted to be near him while he finished high school. I had a conversation with Dick Brynteson, who ran the CDC. Then I went back to New York.

In New York, I was called in to Larry, my immediate boss’s office. I was being fired, he said. I asked for an exit interview with him and Frank Morley. In the interview, I got out my journal and dispelled the negative things I was supposed to have done. I left the office still in the employ of Coca-Cola USA. I went to my office and called Dick Brynteson to start the process of obtaining the restaurant in Rockford, the restaurant that was to become the Old Rock River Café. My accuser, the one who had started the trouble, was dismissed shortly thereafter, but I didn’t care; I was already moving on. I was tired of working for other people, I wanted to work for myself.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com, and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the May 11-17, 2005, issue

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