Friday, November 10, 2006

Drinking a Coke at Pepsi

My name is Wayne A. Schneider, and this is an absolutely true story. Have you ever heard about the copier repair guy who drank a Coke at Pepsico Corporate Headquarters (or some variation of that?) Well, I've heard that some people have. I'm that guy. I'm the Xerox repairman who drank a Coke at Pepsico International Corporate Headquarters. And I didn't get fired.


I used to work for Xerox fixing copiers. I would drive a company-issued vehicle loaded up with spare copier parts and supplies from one of my broken copiers to another in an often-vain attempt to reach a point where I didn't have any broken copiers of my own to fix. This would free me up to fix someone else's machine that was trying to impersonate one of my pieces of crap. I freely admit that I wasn't the best copier repairman in the business, but I did manage to get caught up from time to time. When I had free time to do a call in another rep's territory, I would try to do it, unless I needed the time to straighten out my inventory of spare parts. This is how we made sure that others would help us when we needed it. Those not prone to helping others often found themselves not getting it when they needed it. Our branch was in Tarrytown, NY (near the legendary Sleepy Hollow, and the Headless Horsemen therein; the town is very real, the headless horseman?), and my territory of machines that I serviced was primarily in downtown White Plains, NY. This had its advantages and disadvantages. If I parked my car at the Galleria Mall, I could easily walk to one third of my territory. I liked that. On the other hand, my customers tended to be lawyers who seemed to think that even a minute of downtime constituted breach of contract. And accountants (April was fun). And insurance companies (such sticklers for detail.) So it was nice every once in a while to get out of my own territory and deal with "normal" people. Well, one day in August 1989, I made the mistake of helping another rep when I had some spare time.


One of my little quirks was that I liked to bring a can of soda with me to a service call. [A brief side discussion because my military experience taught me that people in different parts of the country call "soda pop" by all kinds of variations. To me, it's "soda", to others "pop", and to some others still, "a Coke" (ironically, regardless of the actual brand of the beverage.) So when I mention a particular brand name, I mean that particular brand name, and not some generic soda. It matters a great deal in this story. I came across a map that shows what different people around the country call soda.] My beverage of choice was Coca-Cola (Coke) and it's all I would drink. I took it everywhere I went unless there were specific prohibitions against beverages in the area I was working. It didn't matter to me who the customer was because, as per my training, they were all equal in my eyes. That is, unless my manager decided that one particular customer was "more equal" than the others. None of my customers seemed to mind the Coke I brought with me. Seagram's didn't mind, and A&W Root Beer didn't care. Pepsico, parent company of Pepsi-Cola, was not one of my customers.


Pepsico International Corporate Headquarters is located in Purchase, NY. (It was then.) It's a pretty building with lots of glass and it looks really impressive. It was also in someone else's territory, and one August afternoon, I had the time, so I took a call at Pepsico. Now, something that I didn't know (but would learn later) was that Pepsico was a "sensitive account." That meant that there were certain things about which they got really upset, but the person who gave me the call didn't mention this. One of the things that upset them, as it turned out, was having a Coke on their property. In fact, I think even mentioning the word "Coke" was forbidden, as I later had reason to suspect. I had heard rumors, like the one about how the head of Pepsico ordered a chartered flight turned around and brought back to the airport because there was a Coke in the on-board fridge. I had heard that executives were sometimes fired because someone in their family had a Coke in their own house!. But for all I knew, these were urban legends. And we all know how true they are. I really didn't think it would bother them that much. Boy was I wrong, and it created a bigger stink than might be generally known among not just the general public, but Wall Street as well. (No, no, no need to cue the dramatic music here. I'm just saying, is all. You'll see.)


The copier that I was asked to fix was on the floor where the executives were. The walls were almost seamless and you had to look carefully to find where you could slip down a corridor. The copier was down one of these corridors. The nice lady (nice for the moment) led me to it and I started working on it. In the course of the repair, I took out my Coke, opened it up, and set it down on a table. The table was closer to the door and the copier on the opposite side of the room. While I was there several people walked in, saw that the copier was unavailable, and then left. If any of them noticed the can of Coke, they didn't say anything to me about it. Maybe they said something to someone else. After a little while (it couldn't have been too long because there was still a lot of work to do) the formerly nice lady who led me to the copier came in and must have seen the Coke can sitting on the table because she suddenly turned to me and asked, "Is that your can?" (I noticed she couldn't bring herself to say "Coke". I wonder why.) I cautiously answered, "Yes." Then she said, "If I were you, I'd get rid of it." I thought to myself, "It's a perfectly good Coke and I just opened it so why would I do that?" Instead I asked her "Why?" And she snottily said, "Because this Pepsi." I confusedly answered "So?" because I honestly did not understand why she was being so snippy about it but her excuse was, "They're our number one competitor." I said, "Okay." and finished up the Coke and put the empty can in my tool kit. Sheesh! What's the big hairy deal? As best I could recall at the time, Coke outsold Pepsi by like two-to-one. Bear in mind that I had no idea then or now (or even now about back then) what the actual sales figues were. All I knew was that Coke was number one by a long shot, and Pepsi was number two with a healthy lead over number three. They weren't going anywhere the next day, unless they did something stupid like change the formula.


A little while later, that same lady came in to the room with a note saying that I had to call this number. It was an 800 number, and it turned out it was the Xerox National Customer Accounts line. This couldn't be good. I was directed to a phone I could use which, considering what she just set in motion for me, was surprisingly nice of her. She wasn't looking at me. That wasn't good either. As best I can recall, the phone call went something like this. Me:"Hi, this is Wayne, I was told to give you a call." "Peggy" (not real):"Yes, Wayne, this is Peggy at [something like] Xerox National Accounts. Are you working on a copier at Pepsico?" I said, "Yes." She said, "And were you drinking a Coke while you were doing it?" Uh-oh. "Yes." She continued, "Well, they want you to get rid of the can right away." I said, "I figured that, it's out of sight right now." She said, "Well they want it off the premises. In fact, they want you to leave, but I convinced them that they would still need their copier fixed."




Wow. It's just a fucking can of Coke! How much trouble are they willing to make out of this? You might be surprised. I sure was. I agreed to finish up as quickly as I could and get out there just as quietly. Maybe I should have been a little more quiet on the way out, but I was young and I hadn't learned when not to make public my observations. As I was being escorted out by a stern-faced woman, I probably shouldn't have made reference to that Diet Pepsi "Freedom of Choice" ad campaign. I was into noticing irony then.


Little did I kow at the time that Pepsico did make a major stink about it. In fact, they lied about what I said and did and threatened to cancel the entire national account with Xerox. They told Xerox that I was "belligerent and obnoxious" and I most certainly was not either of those things as far as I was concerned. Maybe they felt I was that way because I didn't bend down and beg forgiveness at their feet for daring to bring up their "number one competitor". I had also heard that the guy who made the actual complaint to Xerox was the head of the Reprographics Department, who did not talk to me at all during the whole incident. I heard that he once threw IBM out of there over something that didn't warrant canceling the national account with them, either. Xerox was nervous about losing the account, and I was told later that there was a lot of debate about the subject. Executives (like the Vice President of the company) were pulled out of meetings to deal with this. That's how big this got. My manager seemed disappointed that my primary concern was for my own job. Too bad, because I needed the work and if I was going to get fired because a customer lied about my behavior, then I think I had every right to be concerned. I know that he would have preferred that I first ask if we would lose the customer, but those kinds of concerns were not for people at the bottom like me.


As it turns out, Xerox did not lose the account over that, and I didn't lose my job. I was, however, banned from ever going to Pepsico again, and that was fine with me. In fact, I gained quite a reputation around our branch office. One of the "old-timers" who had been servicing copiers at Pepsico for years (and hating it) greeted me one day with, "Wayne, the Coca-Cola Kid. I wish I had thought if that." Well, Ed, you didn't.


Now, why would I think that any of you might have heard this story? Well, about six months to a year after this, I was at our training facility in Hawthorne, NY, when a Xerox person from another branch was visiting and talking to our trainer. Suddenly he turns to me and says, "Was that you?" He was just being told about the tech rep who drank a Coke at Pepsi. Even some Xerox employees didn't believe I was real. But the real kicker came years later at my current job. I was talking to the owner and I happened to mention the trouble I got in for drinking a Coke at Pepsi and he said, "I heard about that." I said, "How?" (because our business is not connected to Xerox in any way.) He said that he was dating a woman who used to work for Xerox and she told him about it. I think she thought that I was fired, too. So when people from all over start telling me they heard about the Xerox guy who drank a Coke at Pepsi, I wonder what they heard.


That's my story to the best of my recollection. I tried to avoid using real names to protect the identities of the other Xerox people involved. It is a true story.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are legendary, Wayne!
-Zooey

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