The 5 business lessons I learned 25 years ago

At age 18 I moved to the United States of America for 1 year. As a senior in high school I had a wonderful time. The following years I visited the US several times during Christmas breaks and summer holidays and therefore it was no surprise that during my studies at age 22 I went back to the US for my marketing internship. I was lucky to end up at a great company where I had an amazing learning experience; Melroe Co (then part of Ingersoll-Rand), the manufacturer of #Bobcat.

Bobcat was then already a global player and manufacturer of top-tier compact equipment, such as excavators, utility vehicles and compact tractors. During my internship I was conducting a market study and a competitive analysis. For this I was working from the global head office in Fargo (the city, not the movie) and traveled literally all over the country. During those days being a long way from home and spending my time in 5 star hotels in for example Phoenix, Arizona and Newark, New Jersey I recognized that international business was the thing for me. Now 25 years later, still working for and with global players in different fields of business I realize how valuable those lessons where.

Here are the 5 business lessons I learned back in 1996.

 1.     Desk research

As a marketing intern I collected numerous pieces of information for my research and market study. The necessity of doing a well-grounded research is in many times inevitable. It´s time consuming but very valuable. Too many business man and business owners work only from their gut feeling and experience. 

Knowing the size of the market, (size of the prize), understanding where to play and who your competitors are, is an exercise that should start at the desk of the marketer, marketing strategist or business developer.

A research is as strong as its conclusions (ideally already provided in the introduction). Many reports are written where they are summing of plenty of data points from all sorts of collected pieces of information. However, the data and even the information on its own isn’t all that exciting. The conclusions that can be drawn floating out of all that information is what´s all about. Make sure to come up with some strong conclusions at the end or at the start of your report.

Sandor Willems, USA. 1996

2.     Get out of the office

I was really lucky that this company invested in a 22 year young Dutch student and put my on a plane every now and then flying across all directions for my market study and competitive analysis. It basically counts for everybody with a commercial position but especially for all marketer; get out of the office, leave your ivory tower and get your hands and feet dirty in the real world where you sales people and customers live. In the end, that´s where your competitors live as well. During my business trips we literally tested all kinds of competitive equipment’s which meant for example taking a skid steer loader for a spin or two. Think boys with toys…By trying out your competitors products, you have a better understanding of the differences, the challenges, your positioning, etc.

Sandor Willems, USA. 1996

3.     Be a bit reserved

I have to say, I have never been really shy and always liked the American proactive and outgoing culture. In business culture you can even say I have Americanized a little bit here and then. At age 22 though I thought I already knew quite a bit and had an answer for everything. An attitude I recognize at current 22 years old´s and I am sure an attitude many of us will recognize; we don’t realize what we don´t know yet. Especially when you don´t have all the experience or knowledge yet, be careful making any assumption. Being Dutch can be a blessing, we are known for our outgoingness, our communicative skills and our open mind towards the rest of the world. The flipside is that we tend to be direct and although Americans can be direct as well, (as a 22 year old) sometimes it´s better not to speak your mind. Oh, and nobody likes a smart a*s. (Unless “ass” stands for analyze, start and stear 😉

 4.     Invest in training and team & personal development

Always invest in education and training. During my internship I attended my first business training program ever called “TOPS; team optimized process strategy”. Now 25 years later I can still vividly remember how I drove my own grey tinted Mercury Cougar across state to spend a whole business week in a hotel with a large group of “colleagues”. A great learning experience it was. It was for sure not the last learning program I enjoyed but did sparkle the interest to develop various of these programs myself. Unfortunately not all companies invest in training programs nor team building events and some even seem to have forgotten that employers should have the obligation to keep developing and sharpening the skill set of their employees. Invest well enough in your most important asset; your people. Even if it´s for a foreign marketing intern who will leave in a few months again. You never know how it´ll pay out in the end…

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 5.     Blend in

Since my internship that started in the spring of 1996, I have traveled a bit more. I feel blessed that I have visited various countries and met numerous people from all different backgrounds. My key take a way here is to always be true to yourself and to be able to blend in with your new environment. There are certain cultural differences, people from different regions react and respond differently and it´s up to the visitor to deal with that. Are you able to make a connection no matter where your counterpart is from? Invest some time to understand these differences and what drives certain cultures and people. Already in 1992 when I traveled through the US during a several trips I noticed the differences between various states. A New Yorker from Brooklyn (Tony, white T-shirt and jeans) ticks differently than a person from Greensboro, North Carolina (How ya doin y´all, y´all doin okay?).

In business and for that fact in life, the more you are able to make solid connections with a broad range of people, the more you will reap the benefits from this. 

It´s funny how time moves by. It feels like yesterday but in fact already a quarter century has past since my marketing internship in the US. A time the internet was at it´s early days and many businesses still had to face some major challenges that still had to come and yet lay a front of them. Now 25 years later, having worked for and with Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Indians, Chinese and countless Europeans I wish I came to realize the importance of these 5 lessons a tidbit earlier… Oh well, I guess that´s the beauty of a perfect 20/20 hindsight. Here they are again; do your desk research, get out of the office and mingle with real people, be yourself and a little reserved, make sure to investing training and development and blend in. I wonder what business lessons I will pick up next…

About the author;

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Sandor Willems is founder and managing partner at Blue Pepper. With his approach he makes businesses and teams commercially stronger and more structured. “We add Blue Pepper to your Commerce” where blue is the color of structure and pepper stands for action. Sandor is a true marketer, a sales leader, trainer and business coach. He lectures marketing and sales to MBA and executive program students at Rome Business School and is the author of two books. You can contact Sandor via and +31-73-2080022. 

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