While I started out in technical theatre, fortune took me in a different direction and I have spent most of my adult life in the architectural metal business — primarily dealing with railings. While my technical and communications background were skills that I was able to mine for marketing, I had to turn to others in the industry to give me the customer and industry insights that would ensure my success.
I was fortunate to work with some of the greats in the business — Walter Blum, Sam Parisi, Jack Tobin, Bob Wagner, and Henry Bills. Some are no longer with us and this past weekend, Henry Bills passed away.
I met Henry and his wife Barbara in 1985 when I first got into the metal business. He was kind and welcoming.
We would see each other at trade shows and he always made a point of pulling me into conversations and introducing me around. Before social media, this was how you networked.
In 1997, my life went through a seismic shift and I called Henry to see if there might be a place for me at Wagner. It took a year, but he invited me to Milwaukee to meet with his cousin, Bob Wagner. R & B Wagner had purchased the J.G. Braun Company the previous year and they later offered me the position of president of that division.
Eventually, we shut down the J.G. Braun office in Morton Grove, IL and I took over Henry’s position as Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing for The Wagner Companies. Through the transition, he was always gracious and shared everything with me. He was a true mentor. It was an honor to sit in his chair — literally — for 16 years.
My favorite Bills’ story was told to me by his wife Barbara. Henry and Barbara lived on a lovely lake in Delafield, Wisconsin. One night, they took their boat over to the club for dinner with some friends. On the way back, Henry and the friends were chatting away and failed to notice that Barbara fell off the boat. Barbara was an excellent swimmer and when she realized they weren’t stopping, she swam to shore and waited for them to notice. Eventually, they circled back and called out to her. Annoyed that it took so long for them to notice she was not aboard, she sat quietly and did not respond as they circled and called out her name.
Henry found Barbara — eventually. When Barbara told me that story, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever heard. And Henry was enjoying it as much as I. I know that he must have been terrified at the time but as they say, Tragedy + Time = Comedy.
Barbara once told me that Henry wished he could be me. I was the young whippersnapper who would get to have all the fun as he moved into retirement.
Barbara and Henry are both gone now and I will miss them.
But, Henry is with me all the time. When I answer a technical question on building codes or railings, it’s because Henry answered my questions about those same issues. When a customer has a challenge, he taught me that all people have value and are worthy of as much assistance as can be provided.
My success is in large part due to his influence. I will never forget his lessons and spirit.