Wednesday, March 24, 2010

“Torque over Horsepower”

The following article appears in this month's Atlantic Business Magazine in my regular column "Fish to Fry" under the heading “Torque over Horsepower”

Something Donnie Allan once told me about choosing a car popped in my head today as I made my way through a stack of resumes.

I was out on a cold call when I first met Donnie. I was sitting across from this quiet man, trying hard to sell him a metal building when he starting asking me more questions about the buildings than I had answers to.

Behind his desk, which wasn’t much more than a dusty machinist’s workstation, was a homemade model of a huge motor home. Its tri-axles for steering and numerous axles at the rear made it look like something right out of Cape Canaveral.

Happy to have found a way to change the topic, I asked what it was. He proceeded to explain that he had once seen something like it at NASA and thought it would make a great motor home. His face lit up like a child’s when he asked if I’d like to see the one he was building.

On my way home, I couldn’t help but consider the fact that even though his resume could have listed NASA under work experience, this mechanical genius was raised on a farm. He didn’t have a formal education; his start in the manufacturing business came from welding go-karts as a means to get away from the farm.

Our family business was a two-bay “service station” involving more family members standing at the end of a gas pump hose than paid help. From as early as I can remember, up to the time of my Dad’s death when I was 16, I had been kidnapped by the world of work.

Today I could probably declare a lost youth and blame my circumstances on dropping out of school way too young. But looking back I don’t remember being all that unhappy. In fact, I’m certain most of what I know today was absorbed during that period from Dad’s continuous harping about customer service to Mom’s ability to find the positive in everything. It was there I discovered my passion for cars and the drive to find something better for myself than working on them for other people. My lucky break came from a customer in the contracting business who helped me get back to school and into an industry which ironically now allows me to play with those cars I’ve always loved so much.

Since that long-ago sales call, Donnie and I have become good friends who share an interest in automobiles. When discussing which cars to buy, Donnie will often say, “Sometimes it’s less about the horsepower and more about the torque.” I usually just nod in agreement.

Donnie’s theory is well-debated but I still don’t really get it, except from my experiences racing a car out of the turns, I know I’d rather have more torque than horsepower.

One of our engineers came to us when a “top of the class” student engineer we’d hired for the summer found a better paying position with the Federal government. Through either guilt or for her own entertainment, she found a replacement for us in a young, not-so-studious classmate who was working at a nightclub. Another student engineer who usually strolled in wearing gym pants, sometime around noon, found his way to us because of his drafting skills – not from his school record. Today both these guys are executives at the top of their game. They got to where they are with a strong work ethic and the ability to take charge.

I’ve also headhunted “top of the class” talent and though they are usually bright individuals that doesn’t ensure they’ll be the best. In fact, most have a great tendency to move on to something else.

You may need more patience with younger employees but they’re more open to ideas. More experienced candidates know more but resist change. But it’s “work ethic” that stands out for me in the end. The good news for job-seekers is that you don’t always have to be the “top gun” to get the job. Work hard at finding the right job and the right job will find you. Life comes at you funny sometimes.

When I find myself in another conversation with Donnie about finding good employees, I’ll offer up my own anecdote, “Sometimes it’s less about the ‘top guns’ and more about the work ethic.”

But I’m pretty sure he already knows that.

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