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.