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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In service of the Empire

Not too many of you will know this but yesterday was my 10th Anniversary of signing on with GW.  Ten years ago, I started a story that any hobbyist would kill to have and yesterday got me wanting to share that story. 

First, I have to tell you the story of how it all started.

It was June 2001.  For the many years leading up to this point, I had enjoyed weekends at my game shop.  It was my release from a taxing school schedule and, later, a harsh job in a factory.  On the weekends I had spent so much time there that I was used as the 'walking encyclopedia' for the rules and eventually even teaching newbs how to play.  I wasn't a leader in the community; I was more like 'furniture'.  But those weekends were important to me, so I asked my girlfriend to find a game shop up in Buffalo.  The call came, I moved to join her and, on my second day there, we travelled to the Walden Galleria Mall. 

She swore to me that she saw a Games Workshop store, but I assured her that it could not be.  I had checked in the WD and saw no listing for Buffalo, NY, and GW shops were rare in the US.  As we rounded the corner and walked through the food court, we were greeted by the shop.  I quickly admitted I was wrong and we entered the mystical GW...

The shop was tiny.  There was one red-shirt, named Dan, sitting behind two 4' by 4' tables and painting Space Wolves and Tyranids; otherwise the shop was empty (it was 11am on a weekday, to be fair).  The models in the figure cases were painted well, but nothing close to the high-quality images seen in WD.  The terrain was fantastic and everything was CHEAPER than my game shop back home!!!  (I didn't know that my shop overcharged until that moment, and that was a kick in the pants.)  In any case, I looked around, eyeballed some stuff, and then went to leave with a feeling of disappointment.  That was when my girlfriend reminded me that I needed a job and I should apply.  "Sure", I thought.  It couldn't hurt, I know the rules and I am an amazing dood when it all comes down to it.  So I walked back into the shop and asked Dan, "What do I have to do to apply here?"  Before poor Dan could answer a tall black-shirt leaped out of the back room and greeted me emphatically.  He even insisted we sit down for an interview right then.  There's a story:

An hour before we walked into the shop, the black-shirt (Manager) had to fire his assistant manager (an appointed, non-rewarded position back then) for coming into work looking as though he'd been in a fight.  In fact, that staff member had stayed out in the bars all night and had defended someone's honor not too long before work- but he was still in his uniform shirt!!!  Worse yet, Gamesday '01 was in three weeks, and Dan would be gone on vacation at that time as well!  Suddenly, the Manager had no staff to run his shop while he was  away.  And in I walked.  It was almost as though it was fate.

I worked with some great guys.  Todd, my Manager, was the calmest kat I knew.  Shane was the other Full Timer and his hobby skills made me feel insufficient.  Shane also loved to party and  I took full advantage of that.  There was Dan, the Key Timer, who could sell ratty sneakers to Michael Jordan.  He was young and impetuous, but he was good.  Then there was Bonan the Barbarian (I honestly don't remember his name anymore, it's been that long.  But I DO remember his nickname), who walked around the shop with two measuring sticks and would randomly attack the tables.  I do that to this day myself.  This staff was amazing!  GW Walden Galleria (the 108) hummed and I couldn't have been more proud to be a part of it.  Being one of only 12 shops in North America, our shop regularly posted 3rd against the rest. 

It was great times, and I wore that red shirt proudly.  So proudly, in fact, that I changed my name just for GW.  At that time managers contacted HQ for everything, from hiring paperwork to uniforms.  But the company started the second Great Expansion here in the US and support operations slowly shifted onto the managers in the field.  Todd was never quite clear what became his responsibilities and so continually asked for my nametag for months.  (Remember, red-shirts don't get a nametag for the first three months, they're called 'Scout'.  It's cool and accounted for the tradition of service back then.)  I finally became so exasperated that I found an old staff shirt in the back room with a 'Jay' nametag on it.  Figuring it was close enough to my real name, I wore that tag and forever was my identity changed.  And so it was that in October of 2001 was Jay born, he who writes this as you read... :-)

While there, GW taught us many things. 

It wasn't about slick sales techniques or over-the-top promotions, it was about the character of the staff.  The very first thing that we learn when we open our Training Codex (yes, we call our manuals 'codex' as well.  Again, I loved this back then) was that "Being the best means being obsessed".  The was all about focusing that passion for the hobby into our conversations with hobbyists.  We were even issued a 'Black Book' (and later, the 'Red Book') which contained the Emperor's wisdom for behaviors.  GW was very big about our culture, and that culture was centered on the hobby first, great people, and lots of fun.  In fact, our measurables for success weren't based on sales back then, they were based on selling starter kits and like-for-like growth.  Nothing else mattered as long as we introduced more people to the hobby and were doing better than the year before (Grow the hobby!). 

And we did.  The small GW company of those days made so many new hobbyists (we all aimed for 480 a year in each shop) that we ADDED 70 shops in the last nine years!!!  That was not because of profit, either.  In fact, GW America didn't make a profit for the first time until 2006 and it was less than my monthly salary as a black-shirt.  GW was focused on growing the hobby so much that staff practices were based on great conversations, running great events, and just asking people if they wanted to buy.  It wasn't hard, it was fun.

But that all changed.  GW became more focused on profits when we appointed a new COO, whose history dated back to being a CFO at Mattel.  This guy knew business and it completely changed GW America's business model.  That business model changed to being focused on merchandising for selling, sales conversations, and focussed promotions-to-sales.  It wasn't a huge difference in how we staff operated, but it was a massive change to GW's focus.  We, as staff, noticed it and  I was a Manager myself.  I could only describe the good 'ol days to my guys.  I won't say that I hated the new GW.  After all, it worked so well that GW openned 70 new shops in nine years.  And that's a couple thousand miles from corporate HQ in England.  That's not easy to do, if you know business.

By 2004, I was fully immersed in this change of business practice.  I still trained my staff according to the old ways and my staff saw great success.  I was in my third shop, managing for the second time, and the corporate evolution was going on all around us.  We had to catchup if we wanted to stay competitive in the company.  I learned how to watch specific sales and be able to tell what the weaknesses are in my staff just from those figures.  I learned how to 'read the bones' and control my business. 

For example, I had a month where my boss called me and informed me that I'd only sold four paint kits that last period.  I had focused my staff onto Starter kits and army-building, so we had forgotten to push painting in there.  My boss told me that we'd have a drop in core regiment sales that next period.  Sure enough, he was right.  It was that moment that I realized just how exact a science business could be.  

In 2006, I transferred to Milwaukee and openned up the new 'flagship' store.  I was given orders that I 'held control of the future in my hands, which means you'll be watched every minute of every day', and I took that seriously.  My boss there was very helpful (um, in this regard) in that he taught us the other half of business- the customers/stakeholder!.  Where I'd spent many years learning how to develop and manipulate the staff to get the results I wanted, I'd never thought that I could ever successfully 'herd the cats'.  But he taught us how to lighten the load on the staff by utilizing the passion in the customer base.  He taught us how we were little different than the customers themselves. 

For example:  We only recieved a potential hobbyist once or twice a day at my location but, when we did, we were able to dedicate hours to them.  My staff were outstanding teachers and just downright 'cool guys', which made keeping our customers easy.  But with so few new people it was hard to grow the hobby.  Worse, there were times when my staff and I were too busy to run a newb through a demo game or even get an event running on time (thanks, less staff)!  I trained some of my regulars to run demo games and activities.  It wasn't long before they were jumping on new customers.  There were times that I had to intervene, but it was great having an additional resource.  And better yet, these helpful customers didn't do it for reward or anything, they did it because they genuinely wanted the shop to succeed.  That's loyalty, and that's a real secret to business.

I learned much more while working for the Emperor, but I wanted to keep the minutae out.  It only matters that my time with GW was productive.  I honestly thank all those who gave me something.  Without those lessons, I'd probably still be a factory worker somewhere.

Honors to all.

There's MUCH MUCH MUCH more to my story of service to the Emperor than this.  But for now, I wanted to celebrate just the beginning and the general plot.  Here's to the Anniversary of that day!
 
Below will be my 'family tree' within the company.  Every one of these people and many more besides had a great impact and this shall immortalize them.  We all served Him (the Emperor) and we did it well.   Let none question that...

 
28June2001     Signed on with GW 108 (Walden Galleria, Buffalo, NY) as Full Timer
                   Trent, Regional Manager
                   Todd, Manager
                         Shane, Full Timer
                         Phil, Full Timer
                         Dan, Key Timer
                         Bonan, Part Timer
4Feb2002     Transferred to GW 130 (Carousel Center, Syracuse, NY), promoted to Manager
                      Brad, Regional Manager
                      Don, Full Timer, later Manager
                      Grant, Full Timer
                      Terry, Part Timer, later Full Timer, later Manager
                      Steve, Key Timer, transferred to VA
                      Ted, the greatest Part Timer ever
                      Brett, Key Timer
                         Chris, Part Timer
20Aug2003     Transferred to GW 117 (Cherry Hill Mall, Cherry Hill, NJ)
                         Fabrice, TM/Regional Manager
                         Trent, Cell Manager
                         Dave, Full Timer, later Manager
                         Jon, Full Timer
                         Chris, Full Timer, later Part Timer
                         Joel, Part Timer
                         Aaron, Part Timer
                            Jordan, Part Timer
4Nov2004     Transferred to GW 113 (Franklin Mills, Philadelphia, PA), promoted to Senior Manager
                       Fabrice, Regional Manager
                        xxx, Manager Trainee, FIRED (he was terrible)
                       Scott, Full Timer
                       Mike, Full Timer
                       Tasha, Full Timer
                       Michael, Part Timer
                     Mike, Key Timer
                            xxx, Part Timer
                            xxx, Part TImer
                            xxx, Part Timer
20Jan2005     Transferred to GW 108 (back to Buffalo)
                       John, Vice President
                       Jeff, Regional Manager
                       Sean, Regional Manager
                       Adam, Full Timer
                       Hoff, Full Timer
                       Jason, Full Timer
                       Perry, Key Timer
                       Dan, Key Timer (he served awhile)
                       Vito, Key Timer
                           Jack, Part Timer
20June2006     Walden Galleria closed, I'm terminated
28Sept2006     Reactivated and transferred to GW 164 (Layton Plaze, Milwaukee, WI)
                         Josh, Regional Manager
                         Max, Regional Manager
                         Dave, Regional Manager
                         Hoff, Full Timer, later Assistant Manager
                         Ted, most metal Full Timer
                         Mikey, Full Timer
                         Cortez, Full Timer
                         Drake, Full Timer
                         Scottie, Full Timer
                            Jason, Key Timer
18Apr2010     GW downsizes, I'm terminated

If you've read this far and you also served the Emperor (work for GW), sound off!  Let me hear your brief history and we shall commisserate together.

Ave Imperator!