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Shortly after college, I had a memorable conversation with a soft-spoken gentleman who started his career pumping gasoline and sweeping floors at The Texas Co. filling station in East Boston, Mass., in 1924. Although working as a gas jockey was certainly not glamorous, he said he felt honored to work for a major oil company and was Proud to Wear the Star.

Like many others back then, he said, he worked hard and tried to pump gas and sweep floors better than anyone else. Apparently he did that and more, because it wasnt long before someone took notice and he was promoted to a field sales position. That was just the start.

During what turned out to be a 50-year career with Texaco he held sales and marketing management positions of increasing responsibility in both fuels and lubricants. He moved 11 times for the company and, best as he could remember, never missed a day of work due to sickness. At the time of his retirement his office was an executive suite in New York Citys Chrysler Building, and he reported to the president of Texaco Inc. This was truly a company man with a great deal of real-world experience at virtually every level of a major oil company. Thats why when I entered the oil business, I asked him to reflect on his career and tell me some of the more important things he learned working for a major oil company. Although he passed away in 1992, I will never forget his answer.

First, he said simply, whether your job is sweeping floors, delivering fuel, managing sales or running a business, good things will come if you are honest, you do your best, and try to do it better than anyone else. Second, he said, Its important to take pride in your job and the company you work for.

And third, Expect and accept change, because if you stick around long enough in this business you will see plenty of it and there will be a lot to learn from it.

These changes, he went on to say, will include organizational structures shifting from matrix-shaped to hierarchal and back again. At times decision-making will be decentralized and at others it will be centralized. Businesses will cycle through setting up departments, divisions, business units and groups. Sometimes the businesses will be in silos and at other they will be fully integrated. Over time, sales structures will shuffle between territories, zones, districts, regions; sometimes the business will be segmented by products, and sometimes by markets. He also spoke about how companies will change from acquiring to divesting and back to acquiring. In addition, he said, they will migrate back and forth from focusing on their internal workings to placing their attention on the customers.

According to him, most change will come in with new management teams and people – because they, too, are trying to do their best and to do it better than anyone else. Its expected and in most cases necessary, he said, but also, if you stick around long enough in this industry or any other, you will see that much of the change taking place is not about new ideas. Instead, its often about new people adopting and adapting business principles, practices and ideas from the past in an effort to manage changing markets.

Because of this, there is a tremendous amount that can be learned and leveraged by looking at past business practices and market conditions. In fact, he said, some of the most successful managers hed seen didnt necessarily bring in new ideas. Instead, they brought in the business savvy and street smarts needed to dust off and polish up old concepts and apply them at the right time and place to new and emerging market conditions.

In the years since, Ive often seen examples suggesting that this gentleman may have been right. In fact, I recently thought about his words of wisdom when I saw Castrols new Winter Synthetic Blend Motor Oil. Is this really a new idea, or did Shell discover winter marketing in 1941 when it ran an advertisement that urged, Good Bad-Weather Driving – Change Now to Golden Shell? Or maybe it was Quaker State, which ran an ad in 1936 for Winter Oil. It warned, Dont Let the Winter Catch you Unprepared.

And what about todays engine oils designed for start-and-stop driving? Is this a new concept from some clever marketing guru looking for success in the mid-tier space? Maybe. Or is it an adaptation of something Quaker State promoted from 1969 through 1972 in its Stop. Go. Stop. Go. and The Oil Killer – Traffic Signals Can be Murder on Motor Oil ads? Maybe its an update of another Shell claim? In 1944 it had an ad that said, 5,000 Cars Junked Every Day by Wartime Stop and Go – Wartime Stop and Go Hurts Cars.

I also think about his advice when I see some of the majors moving to structure business silos, and when I hear consultants encouraging companies to embrace leaner, more-efficient business practices or run the risk of being defeated by the lower-cost producers. His words also come to mind when I see majors now making huge investments to implement supply-chain management strategies.

Oddly enough, all of these were also being done in the 1920s and at other appropriate times in our industrys history. I know this because my grandfather told me; he was the one pumping gas and cleaning windows at The Texas Co. filling station back in 1924.

Maybe he was right. Maybe there is something we can learn from the past. And from the old-timers who lived through it.

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