16 December 2009

Bloody Labels and Second Chances

When I was 18, I worked in a factory that printed plastic labels for laundry detergent bottles, juice containers, shampoo bottles, and various other consumer products. My job (I couldn't make this up if I tried) was to wipe the dust off of giant sheets of labels with a rag-wrapped block of wood. Eight hours a day, five days a week you could find me doing the Mr. Daniel Larusso-esque wax on wax off technique in the corner of the production floor.

I was convinced that I had finally made it.

That is, until the day that I actually did make it. One day, the production manager asked if I could assist with the die-cutting machine. Albeit temporary, I saw this as the first "promotion" I had ever been offered. I jumped at the opportunity and committed myself to doing such a great job that the dusting table would forever be in my rearview mirror.

The die-cutting machine split large, rectangle-shaped stacks of labels into two stacks of labels along a contoured line. This was the second-to-last step in the label-making process, which culminated with a final pass through another die-cutting station, shrink wrapping, and boxing for delivery. My job was to grab the fast-moving stacks of labels off of the die-cutter and stack them in large wooden crates that could be wheeled over to finishing.

The job was easy in concept, but surprisingly demanding. The better I got that first night, the faster the operator made the machine go. The production manager walked past me after an hour or so and mentioned how impressed he was with how quick we were working. He was so impressed, that he wanted to see if I could go any faster. He took over as the operator and started pumping out labels as fast as the machine could go. I could barely keep up, but somehow got through the first crate load.

Just as the operator had pushed the power button to start the second crate, I noticed a cut on the tip of my right index finger. It didn't hurt, but it was a reasonably deep cut. There was no time to worry about it, though, because the labels had already started zooming out of the die-cutter. I grabbed them as fast as I could off of the machine, stacking them neatly as I could as we went. We finished that batch even faster than the last. The production manager patted me on the shoulder and said, "Wow, I haven't been able to run this machine that fast in years! Great job!"

I was beaming. He was pleased. I was sure that I would never have to wipe a label again in my life.

Then, his eyes caught a glimpse of the crate I had just filled. His jaw dropped. My head turned to see what he was looking at. There was a single droplet of blood on each of the 300 or so stacks of labels.

"Are you bleeding?" the Production Manager asked me.

"Yeah, I think I cut myself on the last batch." I said.

His face turned red, and I could tell he was livid.

"Do you have any idea how much that crate of labels is worth?" he asked.

"No idea."

"You just cost us about $4,000!" he exclaimed.

To this day, I'm still heart-broken by this moment. I can still remember the sweat dripping down my face and my sore shoulders from trying to keep up with the machine. I can remember how hard I was trying, how enthusiastic I was about doing a great job, and how devastated I was that I had failed nonetheless.

Luckily for me, the Production Manager gave me a second chance. I'm not sure he ever forgave me, but he didn't send me back to label dusting. For the next two months (until I left for college) I became his right hand man on the die-cutter. We ran at the machine's speed capacity every single time we worked together, and I became a valuable member of the production floor.

Young people mess up. Sometimes, they mess up in very big ways. But so did you. Somewhere along the way you screwed up (yes, even you). Somewhere along the way you got a second chance, too. Remember that?

When you finally come to the conclusion that the young, up-and-comer at your credit union is worth giving a chance to...please remember to give him/her a second chance, too.


Mark Curran said...

My first CU job was as a summer intern when I was in college. I worked for a CU in NC doing a number of odd jobs, including courier services and general "go-fer."

One day, the Asst GM (remember when CUs had GMs) asked me to run an errand for him, which I was happy to do because it meant I would get out of the office for awhile. At the time, the credit union had a repo, and I was allowed to drive it for business purposes.

Long story short, I was about 30 miles from where I was supposed to be and was in an accident. It was totally my fault. As the officer was writing his report, he called the CU to confirm that I was authorized to drive the car. I was and the car was in a driveable state, so I headed back to work, certain that I would be picking up my final paycheck.

When I arrived back at the CU, the Asst. GM came out to make sure I was OK and to survey the damage. I began to tell him how sorry I was to have wrecked their car, but all he said was, "Don't worry about it. That's what CUNA Mutual is for."

That was it. No screaming, no yelling, no lecture, no final paycheck. In fact, I collected paychecks from that CU for the next 15 years.

I still see that Asst. GM from time to time. He's the President of another CU in NC now and one of my customers. He probably doesn't remember any of this, but I'll never forget it. And I'll never forget how kind he was to this 19 year old kid. Thanks, Jeff!

(PS: That's the first time I ever heard of this "CUNA Mutual" thing. I didn't know what it was, but I knew that I liked it, because it was going to take care of all of my problems with that car. As it turns out, I earned paychecks from CMG for 7 years too. Funny...)

Christopher Morris said...

So so true.

Early on at one of my first jobs at a hotel chain doing banquets, I accidently cut my boss' hand while chopping fruit (don't ask...). It was in the morning and we were both tired - I don't think I've ever been more embarrassed. He could've fired me right there, but instead just stood a little farther away when we were making fruit trays. :)

In the end, we worked together for almost a year and I was offered his job when he left!

Evhen said...

Outstanding story and lesson, Matt! Thanks for sharing. I think each and every one of us has been given a second (or third, or fourth...) chance, and yet it's so hard for us to remember that and be equally gracious when in a position to give someone else a second chance. Great post!

Kelley Parks said...

Great post, Matt. And great reminder that we're all human. We CU's are good at giving our members second chances, but you're right our employees deserve that same compassion.

When I was in college I worked at a Furniture Store. I ran all the cash sales. One night my drawer was mysteriously $280 off. I never will forget nervously sitting in the office looking into the eyes of the Store Manager with a big hard knot lodged in my throat, embarrassed and waiting to be fired. Even though it was completely accidental, I couldn't help but think - he must think I'm a thief.

Rather than making me feel terrible about, he stayed late and went through every transaction to help me find it. I thanked him for not getting upset. He said that he was sure I'd do a better job of punishing myself than he ever could. Boy, he was right. I didn't sleep for days thinking about each and every person I helped that day. The principle of the matter bothered me more than anything. A month later, my coworker who worked right beside me was caught embezzling. I have always wondered.

To this day, I still have no idea what officially happened to that money, but I have a real soft spot at the end of each day for tellers that balance their drawer. When one of them doesn't balance, I think about that time I didn't.

Compassion is best when paid forward. Thanks for that reminder, Matt.

everythingcu said...

Matt, it's amazing to me how unkind and unthinking your production manager was. He's incredibly lucky on two fronts: 1.) You didn't hurt or cut yourself more than you did, on a personal level. 2.) You didn't sue his a$$ for compensation for getting hurt on the job. I've known many a professional in the printing industry who have lost the tips of fingers to the cutting blade. Thank goodness cutting-machine manufacturers have improved the safety in those machines to make it nearly impossible to have a body part under the knife when it is deployed.

But what really irks me here is that it was NOT $4000 worth of labels that had blood spots on them. I'm sure that was the selling price on them. But it's NOT the cost to the company to produce a few hundred more sheets. I'm sure there is a certain cost there, but it's nothing in comparison to an employee's health, well-being, and safety. I got nervous just reading the words "die-cutting machine" and where this story was leading. Glad you didn't lose a fingertip to the machine.

Matt, the Credit Union Warrior said...

Thank you all for your comments! I think we all have stories about a time when someone gave us a second chance. One of humankind's greatest gifts is forgiveness.

@everythingcu I was burned on my hands when I was very young. As a result, my hands have a tendency to dry out very easily (handling paper, dribbling a basketball, things like that). The cut was much more a product those burns than they were negligence or poor industrial design by my employer.

Jodi Torres said...

Matt this is a wonderful story and one my favorite blog posts all year. Thanks for sharing your story - it is even more meaningful at this time of the year! Best to you and your family!

Matt Mielke said...

When I was 19 years old, I was a teller at a midsized credit union in Michigan. After four months of working as a teller, I applied and was hired to work in their Information Technology department as the computer operator. I didn't think I had much of chance, but I thought I'd give it a shot. To this day, I am very grateful for this opportunity, as at that time I lacked direction in my career and life. Today I work as a Systems Analyst at another credit union. If it wasn't for that first opportunity, I'd still be trying to find my niche.