Ron Shaw realized what a gift life is just moments after a Philadelphia trolley car sped by inches away from his head on an icy winter evening in l947. Shaw, who changed his name from Schurowitz when he entered show business several years later, was often a victim of anti-Semitic bullying by neighborhood kids.
That fateful afternoon, Shaw was on his way home from school when a group of boys surrounded, taunted and beat him until one of them tossed him into a icy street just as a trolley car approached. Shaw, who slipped and fell past the trolley car’s tracks, has been inspired by the incident ever since.
“I don’t know if God meant for me to live because there was work he wanted me to do or if it was just a fluke,” Shaw writes in his book, “Pilot Your Life.” “But somehow, for whatever reason, I survived.”
This childhood tale is just one of the harrowing and entertaining anecdotes in Shaw’s book, which chronicles his rise from an 11-year-old stand-up comedian to Bic Pen salesman to the leader of the Pilot Pen Corp. of America, the nation’s third largest pen company with more than $200 million in annual sales.
The book’s business lessons about selling yourself, creating opportunities, taking risks and marketing your product could’ve been pulled from any of hundreds of positive-thinking or motivational tomes, but Shaw’s charm, sense of humor and great stories outweigh the occasional lack of original insight. And for so many of the business books out there, you can’t ask for much more.
Shaw spoke with SBN Magazine during his book tour and was as candid and entertaining as he is in his book.
You’ve made a lot of transitions in your life, from comedian to pen salesmen to CEO, and then jumping to your competition. How did you know when to move?
When I was making that transition, I didn’t have much choice. I needed a steady paycheck because I was just kind of floundering around and not sure what I wanted to do. I got married, and within one year, nine months and three days from our wedding day, our first son, Steve, was born.
So I picked up the book “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. It made me concentrate on what it was I was doing at that point and what I wanted to do. If I had to be out of show business, then damn it, I was going to become a success in whatever it was I was going to do.
I lived in five different cities when I worked for Bic Pen. I started with them in Miami, then Atlanta, followed by Chicago, Detroit and Connecticut. It was not an easy transition.
But it (sales) was coming so easily to me that when Bic would have weekly sales contests, every week I was at the top. Once that light went on and I recognized what it was, it made it even easier to concentrate and realize that I was born to be a salesman.
How do you sell yourself?
I think it’s the way you dress, the way you come on, the way you walk into a room or make an exit. You walk onto the stage with an air of confidence, not cockiness. You’ve got to have a pleasant look about you and can’t take an attitude of ‘I’m better than you.’
It’s that instant reaction. People do judge books by their covers. As soon as you see somebody, you make an opinion based upon the impression.
What is your secret for growing Pilot?
In 1975, (when I joined the firm), there was hardly anyone that heard of Pilot. My job was to make it into a brand. When I told the president of Bic that I was going to work for Pilot, he said, ‘Six months from now, you’ll be looking for another job. You’ll get it up to $10 million a year but it’s not going beyond that.’ As we’re approaching $200 million this year, he’s no longer with Bic.
It was a matter of razzle-dazzle marketing. It was bringing things to the industry that had never been done before. I took advantage of my former life as a performer. I met with this young ad agency and said,’Let’s do humor to get people’s attention.’
We would go out to our customers and say, ‘Buy a gross of our pens and you’ll get a Samsonite briefcase absolutely free.’ We did travel contests. Those are some of the things that you can’t really do today because the smaller wholesalers have been wiped out by big box retailers.
All of a sudden we built a brand. I’m happy to brag that we are now the third biggest pen company in America. How to reach: “Pilot Your Life,” by Ron Shaw, Prentice Hall Press, $22. Available at bookstores everywhere.