18 May, 2011
Two men casually sit in the lobby lounge, amidst a loud, chattering crowd of entrepreneurial salesmen and women converging for an annual gala. They sit in facing chairs with an immense, dark walnut coffee table between them, each mirroring the other’s physicality and body position. Perhaps it’s their khaki pants and button-up shirts with collars undone that signal business casual. Perhaps it’s their quiet engagement with one another as they confer over a clipboard. Whatever it is, they are an unassuming presence, two apart from the rest of the people in the room. While everyone else talks with loud importance about numbers or how to grow a customer base, these guys have the easy laughter and rapport that comes from a lengthy working relationship that involves a lot of traveling together – waking up early, sharing cabs and cramped waiting areas at airports.
One of the few seats free happens to be located as part of the array of chairs in their vicinity, so I approach: “Is this taken?”
The slightly graying, broadly-smiling man opposite me replies, “No, not at all.”
“Do you mind if I sit here?”
He gestures, and the taller, dark-haired and bespectacled man nearer me nods an affirmation, “Please…”
Within moments, the gentleman across, who as it turns out has the remarkable low growl of a young (much more articulate) Sylvester Stallone, leans over and gestures at my scarf, while firing off questions in quick domino-falling succession: “What a lovely scarf! How is that tied? What is that? A name tag? What does it say?”
It’s almost effortless as we slide into conversation about what brings them to Milwaukee. Working for an international company, they come to Wisconsin a couple times a year to visit with one of their clients, based in the area, and one of their favorites. A favorite client because they are straightforward and honest, yet undeniably warm – almost certainly a result of the company’s roots in the Midwest, as the stereotypes about people here being honest and hardworking, has borne out time and again over the decade and a half they’ve done business together.
Our conversation meanders to discussing the importance of wearing ties to an initial business meeting, then over to what great things they should do in Milwaukee the next time they visit (take in a show at the Pabst/Riverside, see the Calatrava, etc.), and on to a recent six-course dinner they had at an Italian restaurant in NYC where four of the courses were pasta. They talk easily about their families (one son recently graduated college) and generally represent a perspective that, in the rush of the modern world, feels lost: one that is relational and not focused on the increasingly impersonal nature of business. It’s refreshing, and particularly so when taking into account that they don’t work for a small enterprise.
The crowd dissipates, the air empties of marketing strategies and is replaced by classical music, and these two travelers depart for dinner. Promises are made to keep in touch.
So, the next time you see people sitting together, attired in business clothing and casually chatting, consider that they might not be talking profits, but rather sharing a story of the last good meal they had in another city, or perhaps something even more personal—a child’s accomplishments—that may be a sign of a deepening business relationship, or the dawning of a new friendship. And, just maybe, you might consider walking up to them and asking if the nearby seat is free.