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I Got My Most Important Graduate Degree on the Factory Floor

by | Mar 1, 2023

Early in my career I was fortunate to have a terrific position at Avon Products: Director of Export Operations and New Markets. Revenues in today’s dollars would be $400 to $500 million. We sold Avon products to distributors in countries where Avon didn’t have a subsidiary.

However, I suggested that Avon consider Africa. At age 28 I figuratively “parachuted” into Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. Over the Board’s initial objections and with the assistance of a terrific colleague, Tracey A. Bazie, we established highly profitable and successful businesses in both countries. This laid the groundwork for Avon’s success in many other developing country markets, such as Costa Rica, etc.

Therefore, I was shocked when the CEO, David Mitchell, suggested that I spend a year in Cincinnati, Avon’s largest manufacturing and distribution facility, as an entry level employee, aka a “grunt”.

I sold Avon door-to-door, managed 150 Avon representatives, and then oversaw 30 Avon managers before becoming a factory supervisor in “packing” where cartons of the various products that specific representatives had ordered were readied for shipping. Each employee in packing on the line had to “solve the following linear programming equation”:

  • Minimize for time spent packing.
  • Minimize for the amount of packing materials used.
  • Minimize for any breakage.
  • Minimize for cube since we didn’t want to ship “air.”

I got into my jeans and worked on the line and quickly identified the best workers. I asked one if she could come in fifteen minutes before shift to pass on her learning to the others. She was surprised that I believed she could assist the others, but she agreed to try, came in and educated the team.

Within a week I was pulled aside by the plant’s General Manager, a great guy with an important job, named Al Michaels:

Al: We got a problem. “Your productivity is through the roof, and you don’t know beans.”  Al was on target, as usual. I didn’t know “beans”, but I knew to trust my workers.

Bottom line: 9 of every 10 ideas was on target. No one tried to make me look bad. The tenth idea was off only because that individual didn’t understand the “big picture”. But they cared about their jobs and how they performed. All I had to do was to watch carefully and to listen to them. They had the answers. THAT WAS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS I LEARNED IN MY CAREER.

Therefore, in every successive job, I’ve always made it a point to “get down in the trenches”, look and listen to find out what is going on and to learn. It’s paid huge dividends.


Jeff Balash achieves results that change companies by applying his EQ and IQ. He gets to know people easily, appreciates their personal and their firm’s challenges, culture, and competitive environment to develop breakthrough solutions that can be understood and implemented.

Jeff has done business on six continents and has consistently been an innovator. He uses Design Thinking to develop creative and innovative solutions and strategies. McKinsey research: over a ten-year period, design-led companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 219 percent.