"Why does Nick get a commission?" Tony, one of our truck drivers, asked me years ago.
"Because he's a salesman," I answered.
"Salesmen get commissions."
"I don't get paid like that."
I sat down on a unit of plywood and Tony settled in next to me. "You want to be a salesman?" I asked.
"Me?" the driver asked, shocked at the suggestion. "Look at me." He pointed to his company shirt, pocked with ketchup, dirt, and unidentified stains. "I'm a slob."
"I'm just saying, he sells the wood, I deliver the wood. Right?"
"But he gets a commission. I don't."
"You're not a salesman," I reminded him. "Look at your shirt."
"Forget about the shirt for a minute."
"That's hard to do."
This conversation was happening during a local housing boom. Business was soaring. Our sales staff was crushing its monthly quotas. Some reps, like Nick, weren't shy telling others about their huge commissions.
"You see something wrong with that?" Tony asked.
"With Nick getting a commission?"
"He's a salesman."
"Let's dig a little deeper, shall we?"
For a slob of a truck driver, Tony was a pretty quick thinker. During our conversation, he challenged the fundamental principles of the lumber industry's compensation structure, our pay scales, even the very notion of an hourly wage.
But I refused to yield.
"Tony, drivers don't earn commissions," I said. "It's not the way it works."
"Just think about," he suggested, jumping off the plywood and heading to help the foreman load a truck. "I got to go stack some wood."
That conversation, as surreal as it was, was matched—perhaps surpassed—by one I had with Nick about a year later.
"I'm just saying, I do a lot more than sell," the sales rep told me as we sat on the hood of his company pickup truck, parked in the yard.
"Like what?" I asked.
"I represent us."
"The company, of course."
"When you are selling, right?"
"And other times," Nick assured me. "You know what I mean."
"Right," I said, confused. "What else do you do?"
"I'm a team player," he said confidently.
Then I was treated to a discourse on teamwork, including sports analogies, geometric examples and references to men in combat, during which he explained how he would gladly run the football, be the pyramid's base, and fall on the grenade.
I didn't interrupt with mention of the many opportunities to help out around the company that Nick had passed on through the years. He was on a roll.
Of course, this conversation was happening when business was flagging, so Nick's commissions were down. Clearly, his ultimate goal was to change his compensation package from commission to salary.
I couldn't help but hope that Tony was in the yard, eavesdropping on our conversation.
It's only natural that everyone try to improve their compensation. But it was fascinating to hear such two equally inventive and eloquent arguments that challenged the very foundation of lumberyard compensation practices from diametrically opposite positions.
Needless to say, the foundation remained strong. The salesman stayed on commission. The driver stayed on hourly wages.
But Tony did get a raise for washing his shirts.
Tad Troilo is a manager for Cranmer's Kitchens by Design in Yardley, Pa.