The Southwestern Equation

When Capitalism Becomes A Cult

'Like I said, Mrs. Wilson, my name is--. Have your neighbors told you much about me' I've sure had a good time meeting people here in (name of state). Are you from here originally? I'm from--. Have you ever been out there? Well. I'll be out here all summer, and people have really made me feel at home. I've learned lots of interesting things about the area too.

(Note: At this point mention something especially complimentary about the area. For example: "That Ford Glass Plant sure employs a lot of people, doesn't it?" Or "The landscape is a lot different around here than what I'm used to.")

You know, I just have a few minutes to spend with each family, so I would really like to catch everyone who is at home. Are the kids around today? Why don't we get them and everyone else in here and I'll go through this for everyone at the same time. (Wait until everyone home is seated toether). Let me be sure I've got everybody's name straight (Take a moment to get everyone's name and grade in school for the coming year and verify which church the family attends. This allows you to complete your pre-approach method.)

Over 5000 college and graduate students repeat variations of this set sales pitch 13 hours a day, six days a week, 13 weeks each summer. As dealers for Southwestern, a Nashville-based publishing and bookselling company, they go door to door in small towns all across the country selling Bibles and encyclopedias. For some, the monetary rewards are great. Last year the average first year dealer made $1240.46, and the company's top salesman raked in $15.500 The company's recruiters also stress the benefits of the arduous sales experience, both in personal development and business training. But the program also carries its share of risks Since student salesmen must pay all of their own expenses while on the road and are only paid by commission at the end of the summer, there are stories of students who have been left stranded far from home. In addition, the recruiters' aggressive techniques have drawn criticism because they often sway wavering students who sign contracts before they have had time to consider the pros and cons of the program.

Placement officers at some of the 500 schools across the nation, where Southwestern representatives recruit, generally approve of the opportunities the company offers certain students. However, most of the college officials simultaneously object to the actual recruitment practices carried out on their campuses. Particular criticism centers on recruiters use of misleading advertisements and vague sales pitches to attract students.

Posters placed around Harvard earlier this spring said only "Want to make $3148?" without telling students the name of the company or the nature of the business. In addition, one student who attended an introductory meeting at the Sheraton Commander last month said the sales manager running the meeting took 55 minutes to mention any specifics about the rigorous job. "When I asked him to 'get to the bottom line, he said, 'You can just leave,'" Jeff A. Halperin '85 recalls. "He left all the unpleasant details till the end."

The company justifies its recruiters' actions, saying it wouldn't be able to draw students to introductory meetings any other way. According to one college official who sat in on a training session at Southwestern's sales school in Nashville, the company's president asked the group of 200 students how many would have joined the program if they had been told immediately they would be selling books door to door all summer. Only 10 percent raised raised their hands.

Although the process of recruitment is a "source of irritation." Joseph Galloway, acting director of placement at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), explains that UNC allows the company to recruit on campus because many sales companies "like the experience a Southwestern man has had."

Although for this reason many colleges retain steady relationships with Southwestern. Harvard is one of a few universities that has placed an absolute ban on all of the company's recruitment activities on campus. Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, says that because of the potential risk involved with the company and recruiters' flagrant violation of College policies. Southwestern will not be allowed back on campus. Epps criticizes the pushy actions of recruiters who convince students to sign contracts prematurely without telling the students what they'll actually be doing. "It looks like you can get stranded out there in some small town with no financial support," he says.

Epps' distrust of the company stems from the fact that all student salesmen and managers are officially independent dealers for Southwestern Earning all their money from commission, the students have to pay all transportation and room and board expenses themselves. Southwestern officials maintain, however, that the company's basic principle is to let students work for themselves "as independent businessmen and women." They contend that the company has followed this principle ever since it was established three years after the end of the Civil War. In the economically devastated South, "young men trying to make their way through college, no longer had family plantations fo fall upon," says James Simpson. South-western's public relations administrator The company was started in order to help students settle their accounts by selling Bibles in the Southern states, he adds.

Since that time, Southwestern has expanded its publications to include educational family and home learning divisions, selling religious, educational, reference, and children's books.

One thing a lot of people have been telling me is that we are really living in troubled times these days I guess that's really true, isn't it. Mrs. Wilson? Seems like there's always some major controversy going on about politics, war, raising children, women's rights, divorce, abortion, and on and on. More and more people are turning to the Bible to find answers to some of these problems, but sometimes they have trouble finding what they're looking for. Has that ever happened to you, Mrs. Wilson?

Today, students recruited to work for the company are bombarded with letters, information packets and "Parents Brochures," and meet several times with local recruiters before the summer begins. They are asked to memorize six-page sales pitches verbatim and must attend a five-day session at the company's sales school in Nashville. Tenn, One college official who visited the school five years ago compares the training program to an evangelistic meeting with cheering contingencies from each college. Edward M. Noise, director of Yale's career advancement and placement service, adds that a Billy Graham-type figure exhorted sales techniques to a packed auditorium. Galloway, who attended the same session, says the company "gives a rather enthusiastic presentation like the military used to do." Students, he adds, are like "paratroopers ready to jump, in high spirits before they go out on their own."

Once students have gone through the training session, they are divided into sales teams and assigned to areas around the country, mostly in the rural South, Midwest and West.

Although the students must find their own housing, they are given many contacts and often go to local ministers for help. They usually stay in the same area for the entire summer and live with two or three other dealers Mark Tiedemann, a sophomore at Trinity, sold books in Saginaw. Michigan last summer Fortunately, Tiedemann says he got free board from a Baptist minister, who let him stay in an old part of a church.

Although many of the people in the town had been laid off. Tiedemann says the members on his sales team did very well: he netted $3500. This year Tiedemann is a student manager for Southwestern and has so far recruited 12 students one of whom is from Harvard.

Clara Y. Bingham '85, who is joining Tiedemann's group, learned about Southwestern through Tiedemann, who is an old friend. She describes Southwestern as "a word-of-mouth network within the country," adding that recruiters "seduce you into selling." After attending the sales school in late May. Bingham says her team will be assigned to an area in the West. Every Sunday they will meet for a "pow-wow" to compare experiences and successes Describing Southwestern as a "capitalistic cult." Bingham says she will sell the books "partly for the money and partly for the adventure."

During the year, the company offers various seminars and special weekends for students who have been with the company at least one summer At these weekends, the students and managers discuss recruiting techniques and watch psychologists' studies on why people excel, succeed, and make money.

Stacy P. Gilber, a junior at Brandeis, accompanied her boyfriend, a Southwestern salesman, to an awards ceremony in the Pocano Mountains last March. Numerous prizes were given out, including awards for hardest worker, most hours, and best sales presentation. Her boyfriend, who is paying his way through New York University law school, won a trip to the Bahamas during Christmas vacation.

Daniel Moore '76, marketing development manager for Southwestern, says the company provides a chance for students to make enough money that they will not be so dependent on financial aid. During his three years at Harvard. Moore recruited during the school year and sold books for Southwestern during the summer, making enough money to pay his way through school. Although he admits that selling books is not for everyone. Moore adds that "if students are willing to work hard and do something different, they will get something out of the program." He says his only regret about Harvard's ban on Southwestern is that students are missing an option to obviate financial difficulties.

The problems with Harvard began in 1975 when recruiters used a common room to interview students. By preventing students from officially hearing about Southwestern, a bad image was painted. Moore says, adding that Southwestern maintains a good rapport with the other Ivy League schools.

Since Harvard has banned Southwestern from campus, a Business School recruiter. Thomas J. Mallon, has this spring held introductory meetings at the Sheraton Commander hotel. Unapproved posters announced the meetings, listing the time and place. Halperin attended one of these meetings and says when he left early Mallon followed him out to make a "last ditch effort" to recruit him Mallon was told both this year and last by officials at both the College and the B school that he could not use his room or business phone to recruit or post unapproved posters. Jesse M. Fried '85, who is joining the program, says Mallon called him after getting his name from some friends who were considering joining the program. Until last week when Mallon was told to stop using his room for any activities concerning Southwestern, Fried and a few others had been meeting weekly in Mallon's room. At those meetings, they discussed various sales techniques and methods of self-improvement. Fried explains his reasons for deciding to sell books as "I usually follow the conventional route. This is something so unconventional, something I never imagined myself doing, so I'm doing it."

Mallon has been affiliated with Southwestern for the past six years. As an undergraduate at Dennison son College, he sold books and became a student manager. Although the managers receive no salary from the company, they receive a percentage of the total sales their recruiters make Mallon says if he doesn't feel a student is working he sends them home but adds that the attrition rate of his teams has gradually improved each year After college he became a full-time, salaried district sales manager for the company. Saving enough money, he was able to pay his way through the B-school and after this summer hopes to have enough capital to buy his own business.

Mallon had planned to do most of his recruiting this term but says he will have to go off-campus completely because of the strict enforcement of the ban. Agreeing with the need for college supervision. Mallon feels Epps should give the company an opportunity to recruit on campus because of everything it has to offer.

Other schools in the Boston area have different policies with regard to Southwestern. MIT doesn't allow the company to recruit on campus because "students objected to misleading advertisements." Phyllis Jackson, assistant director of career planning and placement, says. Jackson adds that in the past recruiters have asked to use MIT rooms to interview but have been denied permission since they refuse to fill out detailed information forms about the company. Boston University has also banned Southwestern because recruiters used campus facilities without permission.

However, Boston College allows Southwestern to recruit through its career planning office, and this year 26 B.C. students are planning to join. John Steel, director of career planning at B.C., says. Steel explains that the company has a fine reputation but adds that problems with student managers sometimes develop. With the high turnover of personnel. Steel says relationships with recruiters differ each year, adding that last year Southwestern wasn't sponsored because recruiters didn't stay in contact with the school. Galloway says the recruiters' independent relationship to Southwestern contributes to the problems because there is no one overseer to address complaints to.

Tufts' student employment agency was founded last year, and Director Bernard Pakala contacted other campuses in the area to learn about Southwestern. He discovered that it "wasn't well liked" and was skeptical because recruiters didn't seem to try "to weed out the non-salesmen."

Although he heard many complaints about the recruiting practices of Southwestern. Yale's Noise says he allows the company to recruit on campus. "I heard horror stories about the aggressive sales organization, but if people join with their eyes open they should be all right." Noise adds that if a student can succeed in that rigorous program, "you can succeed in a more gentile marketing management program when you graduate."

"It can be a nightmare for some," says Howard Lumsden, director of career planning and placement for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He adds that that is why it's necessary to be absolutely up front when recruiting students. As Gilber says, "people must have a positive attitude or otherwise they'll get nailed."