Welcome to my blog. This introduction is important as it helps frame many of the discussions to follow. I may refer you back to it occasionally. I always appreciate knowing something about a writer, and hope you do as well.
First, Nick Athens is not my real name. Many of my friends will recognize my alias. But, it is just easier to remember and pronounce. I have spent my life saddled with a name that is both unpronounceable and unspellable on the first pass. Hopefully, most college kids can spell it correctly upon hearing it. Although I doubt many would recognize it as a city in Georgia .
Born it the 50’s to a Greek father and Czech mother. She was a hardworking woman, and he was a cigar smoking gambler. The marriage didn’t last long. She worked as a waitress, and was a single mom. One of my fondest childhood memories is we laid in bed on Sundays and she read the Sunday paper out loud to me. We were poor. So while I don’t recall many toys per se, I do remember my mother said I could buy all the books I could read. So I subscribed to a magazine called Junior Scholastic, and joined a kids book club of some kind so I always had a book.
I got skipped out of third grade. Don’t ever do this to a boy! Skip girls, hold boys back! More on this later.
My mother met a nice Italian man and got married. I remember he used to take me fishing, A LOT. He liked hunting too, but a deer stared me down while in my gun sight and I could never hunt. He taught me other basic skills. I learned how to be a car mechanic, fix motorcycles, basic carpentry, home electrical, simple plumbing and other basic skills. He was a union machinist. He was a good man. I got a little brother when I was 10. His son got the attention you would expect, but he always treated me right. My brother on the other hand, can hunt like no tomorrow as can his son.
I went to a predominantly black junior high school. Recall I had skipped a grade so I was smaller than my peers. The bullies used to take my lunch money. I wisely selected the biggest bully who was named James Walker to be my body guard for my lunch money. He would even get some Chinese kid named Fong to buy lunch for me sometimes. This worked great until he held a teacher out a window for getting an “F” and I never saw him again. I did exceptionally well in math. I was a natural in sciences, and continued to love to read. School ended just in time for summer.
I started at a really tough minority high school as a freshman. It was a long way from home. I walked home most days. It took about 45 minutes. I have a scar under my left eye from accidentally turning a corner into a gang fight. I recall a bigger white bully telling everyone he was going to kill me because I stole his motorcycle, which was already stolen and left by my house. Everyday I ran home a different way hoping to miss him. One day I turned the corner and there he was. Richard. I have no recollection to this day, but when I awoke I was on his back crying and screaming, rubbing his face on the concrete. There was blood everywhere. I never got picked on again.
My stepfather got relocated and we moved in my sophomore year of high school. When you move it is interesting how you make friends. The lower class cliques will embrace you much quicker than the higher class college prep kids will. A few burglaries and I had a bunch of new friends! But I thought the prettiest girls were the cheerleaders, and I was a year younger than all of them. In junior year everyone could drive but me. In senior year my Mom let me drive her car to school. These were the days of muscle cars, GTO’s Camaro’s, hemi engines, blowers, ¼ mile drags etc. I was in there in that I had my Mom’s brown Ford Falcon. At least it was a 2 door straight six, with an automatic transmission.
Both my mother and stepfather worked. He worked days and she worked nights. I never got an allowance, BUT my mother said there was always work for money. The work consisted of painting, roofing, cleaning septic tanks, and the like. Each project had a price and a schedule completion date. I learned that if I did not finish on time, I got nothing, no negotiation. As an example, I once finished painting the outside of the house with a flashlight because I had learned that MOM would not pay me if I went past midnight ! But I always had spending money. Plus, I was able to get a weekend car detailing job at 90 cents an hour!
This was also the time of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco , riots in Berkeley , free love (hmm), and music. It was a great time, Pop music embraced everything. One week would have an R&B song like Smokey Robinson at the top of the charts, the next week some rock Jefferson Airplane or Rolling Stones, and then whatever you might call it the next week would have a Beatles song. I loved it all. Unfortunately, while listening to LIGHT MY FIRE I got rear ended and lost my Mom’s car. Back to walking.
I was a bad student. C’s. I had a counselor who always kept me after school to lecture me on how high my test scores were that if I tried I could go to college. My mother said college was a bad idea and that I should try to get a good union job. A turning point of my life was a magazine on my counselors’ desk that I picked up in detention. It stated the University of CA had an admissions program for gifted students determined solely by SAT scores. Yee ha, I always have tested great. So my grades got even worse, because I knew I was going to test into UC Berkeley. Think of it, society is trying to help the smartest kids of all classes get further ahead. Now fast forward to today, where we hold these same kids back so the slowest can catch up to the pack. Guaranteed mediocrity.
LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND, seems to mean the same thing as LET NO CHILD EXCEL. Back then it was the opposite.
So I graduated from high school at 17 and at my mother’s urging I got a nice union job at General Motors. I had to use a fake ID as I wouldn’t turn 18 for 9 more months. I got hired. I recall a few things. First, as a joke guys would put marbles in the box frame. They would roll back and forth and make noise later. They left food behind the door panels which would later smell. There were marijuana joints passed down the line under the windshield wiper blades. One of the biggest fringe benefits was if you bought a new car they let you have the day off to walk the line with it being built. Then you could tell your union buddies, “this is my car, do it right”. Some extra options usually got “accidentally” installed as well. I quit 4 months later, but I had missed the window to get into UC Berkeley, even though I had succeeded in getting the SAT scores I expected. Worse, my mother was so mad at me we hardly spoke for the next 10 years.
So I started at Community College a quarter late. I got my high school girlfriend pregnant as well. Abortion was illegal. We went to a counseling center that would set us up for a Mexican abortion. They were very descriptive and neither of us could go through with it. It was unbelievably gross and hardly what would qualify as a medical procedure. So we decided to get married. She wasn’t religious, and I was catholic, so we found some less demanding religion like Episcopal to marry us. During the interview with the minister, I was forced to admit I was a year younger that I had told her for the last two years (see skipping grade above). Not a great way to start a marriage. It Lasted 18 months. I got a great son out of it, who is my best friend to this day.
So I did finally get accepted to UC Berkeley in my junior year, using the same program for gifted students. I also got a California State Scholarship which paid my tuition It was just over $300 a year! I was able to complete the Physics Honors Program and graduated on schedule 4 years after graduating from High school, even though I wasted some time at GM. I started on my Master’s degree as well. Full time work as a college graduate in the sciences still paid less that the GM job I had quit 4 years earlier. My mother kept saying I told you so.
But I was married and had a child. So I also had to work full time! My friends went to frat parties and the like, but I worked. My wife of the time worked as well. Kids are expensive! I filed for divorce the day I graduated. We agreed to an amicable settlement whereby I paid for her college degree.
After two quarters of sciences graduate school, I realized I was still not going to make any money. So I went to an evening program to the State University to get an M.B.A. Remember I still have to work full time. No parental help, mom always saying get a union job! Two years later I complete the M.B.A. with a 3.7 G.P.A.
I got hired by Ford in a defense division in the early 1970’s. It was a great place to work. Great boss too. No complaints. It was the beginning of the Disco era. Happy hour after work nearly every day! Beautiful women everywhere, I was a junior exec, cool car, nice apartment, spending money, only great memories. I learned so much. But I was still a poor kid. Didn’t know how to dress (tan suit with maroon shirt?), bad manners, and most of my friends were those high school criminals from my sophomore year. After 18 months I got recruited by Lockheed.
Without going into boring detail I had a skyrocketing career at Lockheed. I was so successful my pay seemed to go up every six months. I had helped win a new line of business with a new customer. Sounds great, except that a friend of mine got a job at an air conditioning firm that paid 50% more than me, and I was way smarter than him. So I started complaining about my compensation. I learned that I was 20 years younger than anyone else with my title. They all made 3-4 x more than me. Human resources had a pay versus age chart and showed me how I was already out of the “band” on the high side! But that all I had to do was wait an in 10-15 years I would be making my goal.
I quit, even though my immediate boss was one of the finest I would ever have! Today I would have had the mother of all age discrimination lawsuits. I wish I could have kept those charts.
Anyway, I moved on to Memorex to work in Finance. VP went on vacation and I was his replacement. With urging from CEO, I changed some sales comp plans and had an immediate improvement in sales. Basically just went back to old comp plan. Well when VP returned he was furious. Made me a huge cash offer to disappear and not talk to CEO, poof I was gone!
Anyway, after a few more job changes I ended up in a Fortune 500 company for nearly a decade. Enjoyed the work, progressive career, finally achieved my six figure salary goal, but was clearly stuck. To summarize the last 20 years, I started in technology, moved to finance and ended up in Sales and Marketing because of my compensation desires. Being raised a very poor child had had a profound effect on me.
So I got recruited by a smaller competitor at DOUBLE the salary and more as a Vice President. Ultimately got promoted to CEO, but only because the “recruited” candidate from HP didn’t show up for work. I was the default. I will take luck over skill any day.
Becoming a CEO was a life changing experience. It was a dramatically different role than any of the other senior executive positions I had had before. Most interesting to me is the compensation is incredibly high compared to your staff. I went on to have 4 of these positions and was always left with the impression that my comp was unfair to my staff and employees. On the other hand, if you tried to share the difference it would have no meaning when spread amongst 10 or 50 or 100, so you just keep it.
My CEO position required salvaging a money losing company. Of course I was able to negotiate a package that would reward me if I succeeded. Only later did I realize how much I left on the table. But I did it, sold the company, and moved on. During the course of that job, I dealt with problem employees with drug and alcohol problems, employees’ troubled children and on and on. Being a CEO can become quite paternalistic. In fact, I am Godfather to some of those former employees’ children.
I continued to move down to smaller companies. The salary didn’t grow but the upside did. Basically, if you can make a small company succeed, you can make a lot of money. I began to rationalize my comp, even though I would earn 10x my CFO or VP of Sales who had as much to contribute as me. I began to think when you are in your 40’s, if you can get people in your 60’s to determine your compensation, and they like you, they will treat you like the son or daughter they never had. On the other hand, I watched peers during the Internet age make deals that were 1000x more lucrative than mine. Worse, they were less educated, less experienced, less intelligent, and it seemed more like a lottery ticket than specific job performance. I learned later the importance of “others” like VC’s in making these deals. Especially, when companies like Cisco or Yahoo were buyers. People always do “comps” on similar companies. They compare sales, profits, growth, and infer that they should then be worth x % of a recent sale. In most small companies all those financial attributes matter less than the pedigrees and or relationships of your board and investors.
So I sold one of these small companies with no revenue and no profits, to one of the internet giants, worked out my vesting schedule (didn’t know about acceleration), and decided I had enough to retire. Not wealthy by any means, but enough to maintain my executive lifestyle. I chose to retire early, as I was increasingly disgusted by the ethics
So what do you do when you are 50 and retired? The stock market was doing well, and I decided to engage in giving some money to charity. I spent several years working with some of the biggest, most well known charities in America. All I can say is I became disgusted. I completely understand why Bill Gates did what he did in creating his foundation. It takes a lot of effort to peel away where all the money goes in this industry, and in virtually all cases too much goes to management. I feel compelled to cover this in greater detail before ending and will do so in a subsequent blog. This is a huge industry that cries out for regulation!
Bottom line, I was able to rise from a very poor childhood to what is considered success in America. With both my mother and stepfather working they never made over $10,000 in a single year. My brother listened to MOM and hopes to retire from his union job in three years. His pay did not keep up with inflation, and it took all he could do to raise a son as a single father, and put him through private school. It paid off for his son, but the union didn’t pay off for him. My son went in the Navy, and I helped him get jobs with some customers in the video industry. He then came to work for me in one of my companies and worked his way up. He now enjoys a high level position in technology without ever having graduated from college!
I am grateful there were opportunities for poor smart kids like myself. But I have also become completely disgusted by the current educational system which seems to be betraying our children. The teachers union cares not about kids. Both parents work and are not even aware curriculum changes that make their children less competitive. But my mother taught me to love reading and it carried me through my whole life.
As of 2013, I have moved to Thailand! I found the stresses of America becoming too much. I am blissfully happy here, pets everywhere for me, dogs, cats, turtles, fish and birds. Just feeding and managing the landscape is a busy daily recreation. I will return to blogging soon, and recommend you follow me on facebook. Nick Athens in thailand.