To be an entrepreneur has always required a significant element of showmanship. If customers are to be interested in a product, it helps immeasurably if they are first entranced by the person who represents that product, whether the salesperson, the spokesperson or the company CEO. Ron Shaw, president and CEO of Pilot Pen Corp. of America, started his business career in sales, pushing pens to Mom-and-Pop stationary stores. After he moved into the executive suite, he also sometimes acted as the public face of his brand, in both paid and unpaid media. But he really started out in show business, first as a child musician, then as a stand-up comic. In Pilot Your Life: How to Create the Career You Want (Emmis Books) he argues that it was this early training in “working the room” that has been crucial to his success in business. The book is written with Richard Krevolin and Phil Ehrenkranz.

Shaw was born Ronald Schurowitz in Philadelphia in 1938. His family left the city 10 years later after a series of escalating ant-Semitic incidents which included the vandalizing of the family business — a candy store — and several attacks on Shaw himself. The worst of these, which he describes in harrowing detail, but also says was a very early turning point in his life, involved a gang of neighborhood kids throwing him in front of a street trolley. 

He was saved because the street was icy and he slid out of the trolley’s path. “As I skidded across Chelton Avenue,” he writes, “I had a revelation of the gift of life I had been given. Since then, I have grasped the irony that I was saved by slipping: I hate cold and ice, but if it hadn’t been for those cold, icy conditions that winter day, I’d be dead instead of writing this book.”

His family arrived in Miami in 1948 when he was nine. His father was promptly swindled out of his life savings by his partner in a dry cleaning business, and Shaw quickly moved from having a paper route to a regular weekly gig on a local radio show called Youth Round-Up. When the program folded, several years later, it enjoyed a 13-week run on television and then morphed into a troupe which toured the USO clubs of military bases in Florida, as the “Youth Round-Up Stars on Parade.” A few months in, at the age of 15, Shaw took over for the troupe’s absent comedian, launching a seven-year career in stand-up.  He left show business at the age of 22 when he got married, started as a salesman for Bic pens, moved up the management chain and then, eventually to Pilot, where he worked his way into the top job.

All of this does something to explain the book’s format. It consists of 34 generally short chapters, most of them prefaced by a joke or comic anecdote, most of them marrying together elements of Shaw’s personal history with advice for the aspiring executive. In a sense, the book is a double hybrid — a memoir linked to a business advice book, with the memoir split between Shaw’s experiences in show business and his experiences in the world of commerce.

This does not always work as well as it might. The book often attempts to be too many things to too many people.

It is, above all else, a careful book: Shaw thanks everyone who should be thanked, mentions everyone who should be mentioned, and stresses the business and social verities that ought to be stressed: It’s important to believe in yourself, to be persistent, to take chances; it’s also important to polish your shoes. What is missing is an element of salt, of sting, although this is often implied, just around the corner from the show biz experiences and business deals that he ably describes.  

It feels as if Shaw has deprived himself of his most powerful ammunition by erring on the side of being inoffensive, as when he sums up a chapter on litigation after cautioning against frivolous legal dickering, by writing: “When you truly believe that an important principle would be endangered if you failed to take every legal step to protect it, then by all means, stand firm and sue the [expletive deleted].”

Not my edit: his. And the point is not that business memoirs or advice books need unexpurgated obscenity, but that they need punch; they sometimes need to be blunt, rather than blunted. 

A deeper issue, along the same lines, concerns his early changing of his name. “When I was sixteen and had been doing comedy for about a year,” he writes, “I thought I might jump-start my career by changing my name from Ronald Schurowitz to something that would be a little easier to pronounce. The only hitch was that I had received a small fourteen-karat gold ring from my parents for my Bar Mitzvah with the initials RS on it. I didn’t want to have to stop wearing it on stage, so I limited myself to picking a new last name that started with S.” His great uncle suggested Shaw and he liked the way it sounded. “It rolls off the tongue with grace and ease,” he continues. “So, that’s how I became — Ronnie Shaw!”

As an author, Shaw was certainly straightforward, at the very beginning of the book, in detailing his early and personal experience with anti-Semitism. Once done with that section, however, he is done with it. One wonders — given that overt discrimination against Jews persisted into the 1950s in covenants, in real estate deeds, quotas for college admissions and restrictions on club memberships — how this affected Shaw, both on stage and afterward in his business career. He doesn’t say. And one wonders what has been lost in the smoothing.  

The humor that introduces most chapters is also rather loosely tied to the content that follows. Chapter 20, for example, “Protect Your Name,” which deals with legal issues, starts with this courtroom-based joke:

An Amish man named Smith was injured when he and his horse were struck by a car at an intersection. Smith sued the driver. In court, he was cross-examined by the driver’s lawyer.

Lawyer: “Mr. Smith, you’ve testified all about your injuries. But according to the accident report, you told the investigating officer at the scene that you were not injured. What about that?”

Smith: “Well, let me explain. When the officer arrived at the scene, he first looked at my horse. He said, ‘Looks like he has a broken leg.’ And then he took out his gun and shot the horse. Then he came up to me and asked how I was doing. I immediately responded, ‘I’m fine!  I’m fine!'”

There are a number of places where the writing is more forceful, direct and concretely useful. Chapter 22, for example, is entitled, “Show Business Secrets for Presentations.” The suggestions here are not radical. They amount to something of a business sector echo of the Powell Doctrine on the use of military force: You need to have both solid entrance and exit strategies; you need to have your logistical ducks in a row before you commit; you need to know your terrain. But this chapter amounts to a well written primer on how to do presentations. Here, the connection between the show biz stage and the business dais are clear and the examples are solid.

He devotes short sections of this chapter to staging, crowd control, how you should strive to be introduced to the audience, how to open and close presentations, whether or not to work from notes. He also devotes a section to media interviews, right down to brass tacks issues like how to dress and what kinds of verbal cliches to avoid.

Similarly, in Chapter 27, “Your Greatest Assets,” in which Shaw discusses the appropriate treatment of employees, there is clarity and power to what he says. He relates a gritty anecdote, for example, of the suicide of a fired employee: “The following Sunday morning, our former salesman went to church with his family,” Shaw writes. During the service, he excused himself to go to the men’s room. Instead of going to the men’s room, however, he walked behind the church and put a bullet through his head.” There is no sermonizing here about the relationship of employer to employee.  Shaw lets the example speak for itself.

In the same chapter, he gives a thorough, step-by-step chronology of the decision making and implementation process when Pilot decided to move from using manufacturers’ reps to an in-house sales staff. This is a useful case study: Here’s why we did this, here’s how; this is why we tried to buffer the employees being let go and how we tried to orient and assist those being brought in. At a time when the rhetoric of treating employees as a valuable resource is thick, while the reality on the ground seems to be thinning, Shaw makes the case in a clearheaded and open manner that comes across as both sincere and pragmatic.

The chronology takes us through seven separate steps as the company implemented this radical shift in how it did business: 1. Notifying customers that the change was coming and giving the company’s rationale; 2. Making sure that the shift was accomplished nationally, rather than on a region by region basis, which might have disadvantaged some of their customers; 3. Devising severance packages which cushioned the blow to the reps being let go; 4. Dividing the country into five primary sales regions, “each with a field sales manager to oversee the new sales force”; 5. Developing a uniform and rigorous national recruiting process for the new sales reps; 6. Developing a thorough and uniform national training process for new recruits; and 7. Offering “an attractive combination  of salary, benefits, bonuses and travel incentive contests – [including] trips to such locales as Monte Carlo and Japan” to motivate the new sales force.

Pilot’s role, as the U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese company, and Shaw’s long tenure, give him a bird’s eye view of some of the cross-cultural issues to which more and more multinational corporations need to pay attention. Some of the concerns have a light hearted edge to them. Shaw relates, for example, that he had to alert the marketing department in Japan to why “the pecker” was not the right name for a pen refill targeted at English-speaking markets (this was a refill for a pen which had been given a sharp-beaked wood pecker as its package logo, to evoke the sharpness of the tip).

On a more serious note, he recalls the difficulties brought on by rising anti-Japanese protectionism in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over time, Pilot has moved from importing pens into the U.S., to assembling them in the U.S., to manufacturing them here. At the height of the protectionist wave, he made a point of impressing upon his congressman that even the pens or materials being imported were unloaded “by American longshoremen, and the containers are placed on flatbed trucks driven by American Teamsters Union members. Then they are brought to our American warehouse where we employ only American workers, and then they are packaged and shipped around the country on American trucks to American stores with American salespeople, and sold by advertising written by American admen to be published in American magazines.”

Ultimately, Pilot Your Life is a useful compendium of commonsense reminders about sound business practices and strategies. A more interesting read, however, would have let us behind the curtain more often and given us a backstage view of the multiple and interlinking lives that Shaw has led. That would have been a hot ticket.

Knowledge at Wharton Summer Reading Collection
Summer Reading Special
A special offer for Knowledge at Wharton readers from Wharton School Publishing
» Click here for more information