Good on the Phone

With the reissue of Jack Getze’s first Austin Carr Mystery, Big Numbers, Jack offered to talk about where Austin came from.

Good on the Phone
Jack Getze

I’m pretty sure I invented my protagonist as a survival technique. But I didn’t just write about a brash and crafty stockbroker to ease the stress of a new sales job. I became him – Austin Carr, a golden-tongued devil – to make my way in a strange new world.

Moving from southern California to New Jersey wasn’t easy for this semi-quiet, bookish man, and changing careers from journalist to bond salesman felt life-threatening. For one thing, the east coast public was much tougher than I’d been used to — confrontational compared to Los Angeles. In addition, people usually had been agreeable to speaking with a reporter, but sales was different. Hang-ups were ten times more common than hello. Initially, I had no clue how these hardboiled Jersey guys talked strangers into buying tax-free bonds over the telephone.

There was an early moment when I fully understood what I was up against: At lunch, over a bucket of martinis, I learned one of my new co-workers had just married a very special, multi-millionaire. A half-eaten olive spat from my mouth. “Say that again?”

“Jim was a bond-jockey like the rest of us, living month-to-month, until his richest client died,” my lunch partner said. “One week after the client’s funeral, Jim started dating the rich new widow.”

“And now he’s married her?”

“That’s right, pal. No more cold calling for Jim.”

Oh my God. In no way was I prepared to make a living competing with these guys. I had to do something … like change, and quick. No more Mr. Nice Guy. I had to sell, baby, sell. And luckily, I had at least one important resource. Austin Carr’s gift of gab had already been cultivated.

I was nineteen when The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner hired me as a copy boy and still short of a twentieth birthday when I earned my first byline. Since we didn’t have computers or Google back in the 1960s, newspaper reporters learned to work the telephone for information. By the time I could legally drink in a California bar, my phone skills were remarkably good. People liked the sound of my baritone. I instinctively made friends. From operators and secretaries, and later, CEOs to nationally known economists, I learned to cajole, coax, plead, persuade, soft-soap, butter-up, or wheedle almost anybody out of the information I needed.

I apologize for bragging, but I was good. When Herald-Examiner writers and editors went on strike a few years later, I got snatched up by the bigger paper in town, The Los Angeles Times. Hired as a twenty-three-year-old cub reporter, I left exactly nine years later as the Financial Department Ace, the only business writer of the thirty-man staff who chose his own stories, the next in line for a bureau appointment. Why I left is another story, but my point is this: I advanced and was successful as a reporter because I was good on the telephone. People gave me scoops. People told me things they shouldn’t have.

So when I landed in New Jersey with a new wife, a baby, and no job two years after leaving journalism, I not only knew investment products – stocks, bonds, and mutual funds – I had a professional telephone voice. I just had to learn to sell with it. It wasn’t information I wanted – it was people’s investment dollars.

Here, I have to thank a man named John Bendokas. They sat JB and I next to each other our first months on the job, me passing on what I knew about investments, the economy, and interest rates; JB the ex-used car salesman teaching me the techniques I needed to feed my growing family – things like closing the sale, highlighting the benefits, and – most important of all — always always always asking for the order.

How many copies of BIG NUMBERS should I send you?

Find out more about BIG NUMBERS here.