January 23
by Max Beardslee

In the heart of northern Michigan’s fruit belt, around the Spring of 1971 Chef Pierre held court as the fastest growing company in the entire northern part of the state. Owned by two Greek brothers, the company had been around since the 20’s, founded by their father. And when one brother developed the “Hi Pie” concept while a student at the University of Michigan, Chef Pierre shifted into high gear from a small family owned retail store to a full fledged dessert factory. It now assembled thousands upon thousands of fruit pies and cakes every day out of it‘s processing facility in Traverse City, known as the cherry capital of the U.S. The name Chef Pierre had obvious marketing considerations over, say, Chef Demosthenes. In each twenty-four hours over three shifts, hundreds of white-gowned workers poured, rolled, sifted, mixed, and eventually stored in a freezer these delicious desserts.

As pies came off the assembly lines, they became boxed, labeled and put onto pallets. From there, forklift operators drove the pallets to a staging area. The storage process concluded when crane drivers, hoisted the pallets and drove them off to one of several thousand honey comb like slots within their freezer facilities.A previous sale to Chef Pierre for a computer dedicated to financial matters such as billing, payroll and accounts receivable, had me well established within the company. The looming freezer about to be completed caught my attention.As I surveyed the storage process I noted that although Chef Pierre’s present methods got the job done, inefficiencies existed that might be better handled with automation. Pies got lost. Shipping the oldest pies first was a problem. But the biggest inefficiency came from reserving slots for the various flavors. Apple had a section of the warehouse, blueberry another and so on. From the dynamics of always seeing new requirements for space, many empty gaps occurred or space was not available and apple, for example, would have to go into the blueberry section. Chef Pierre also had a new freezer warehouse set to open. The construction plan showed it to be four stories high with the width and breadth of a football field. Several thousand honeycomb slots could be used.IBM had just announced a new computer, the System 7. As sales appeared sluggish, a nice bonus was tacked onto the normal commissions surrounding a sale. I went to work figuring out how this new computer could aid in the frozen storage issue, planning to make about five thousand commission dollars along the way. Big bucks back then.

Bringing in a talented System 7 specialist named David Cotcher, I went to work on the Greeks. Pete and Mike Dendrinos were impressive physical specimens. Pete, the president, had played on the University of Michigan’s handball team. Popeye forearms, a steely grip, and a six three frame made heads turn when he entered a room.

Over a few meetings Cotcher and I got the Greeks excited about being able to get rid of their inefficient, manually operated warehouse system. With a computer system, pies could be commingled. Cherry could co-exist side by side with apple, blueberry, rhubarb, and all the rest. The computer could keep track of everything in every slot. Flavor, size, amount, manufacturing date, the works.

Slots closest to the front and lowest to the ground would always get first priority for pies going into the warehouse. Manufacturing dates made selecting the oldest pies for shipment more consistent. And lot number control in the case of recall became quite manageable. But the biggest payback was commingling. Maybe 30 percent efficiency in space usage could be gained from not having to reserve certain areas of the warehouse for certain kinds of pies, no small payback when involving a multi million dollar warehouse.

“Okay, we’ll buy one” said Pete. “Put a rush on it. Our new freezer opens in just a few weeks.” Excited about the money and the opportunity, Cotcher and I laid out to an IBM programmer exactly what we wanted the System 7 to accomplish. All of the input rules and the outgo rules were nailed down. We smelled a winner. We even gave it a name. “Dynamic Warehouse Allocation”.

Not many IBM’ers knew how to program a System 7. But we grabbed a systems engineer who professed he could and gave him all the rules we needed in detail. Our first clue that a calamity lurked out there came from the engineer’s resignation from IBM after he had completed his work. Undaunted, in Cotcher’s and my haste and greed, we slapped a System 7 into the warehouse and pronounced it ready to go, riding in the glow of hearing it was the second System 7 shipped in the United States. More recognition. After sending crane drivers out into the 12 degree frosty gloom to give us an accurate inventory of what kind of pie and it’s manufacture date resided in each of the thousands of slots, we plugged it in.

With the Greeks home in bed, during the first night of operation Chef Pierre’s vice president of production, Bud Gerow, and I watched the System 7 pick pies for shipment like an experienced migrant peach picker. The occasion seemed to call for a name, so we gave it one: Super Clerk.

Super Clerk helped us load up seven semi’s in the course of eight hours, a Chef Pierre record. Beams all around including the hardened crane drivers that operated in the 12 degree temperatures. What we didn’t know was that Super Clerk possessed one fatal flaw. It did not record some of it’s transactions into it’s files. It printed out the assumption that it did, but it did not. Kind of like receiving a paycheck. The bank teller takes the real thing and deposits it, giving you a deposit slip, but the dough never shows on your bank statement.

Knowing nothing of the disaster awaiting me, I drove away from Chef Pierre in the best of moods, anxious to brag to my wife, Pat, of my latest success. “Honey, Super Clerk really knows how to pump out the pies. Those Greeks are gonna love Cotcher and me”.

My diminutive, Scotch Irish, blue eyed, pony tailed wife responded “Oh yeah? What’s so special about ‘pumping out pies’”?

I proudly taught her the pie business.

“Chef Pierre can now randomly store a pallet of cherry right next to a pallet of apple which can be next to a pallet of turnovers. Before, they had to reserve dedicated space for each product. All in all there are several hundred different kinds of desserts when considering size, flavor, and labeling. Now they don’t have to worry about saving space. Super clerk figures out where to best put each pallet taking into consideration space closest to the front and to the bottom, making the crane guys’ jobs easier.” I sketched on a napkin the way things got put away.

“ And getting the goddamn things out of there is equally efficient. Super Clerk always goes for the oldest pies first, insuring rotation of the inventory. And how about the poor-assed crane operators who work at 12 degrees above zero all day? It simplifies what they do. You oughta see them. They’re all hunkered down in huge clothing. We call them “Noonah’s, like Noonah of the North. Hit a button and you can see you entire inventory. I gotta tell you, Pat, it’s really something”. She appeared happy that I appeared happy.

After breakfast I drove back to Chef Pierre figuring I might be invited into the personable Greeks’ executive offices for lunch. Donning a fleece-lined parka, I walked toward the freezer and approached the entry.

Pressing the switch giving me access, twenty foot high doors broke the seal. Instant fog appeared from the exchange of air. Through that fog and mist, my eyes met with a totally chaotic scene.

Instead of the efficient and organized flow of pies as expected, a dozen weary Noonahs stared glassy-eyed at a mountain of pies stacked all over the floor and aisles of the freezer entranceway, thus snuffing out the usual orderly flow. Forklift drivers with full pallets from production sat queued up about a dozen deep waiting to add to the mountain. Hard-hatted foremen barked signals into their walkie-talkies sending all available personnel to the warehouse. This was a scene for the three stooges, not for Max Beardslee, computer salesman of renown.

Spotting the vice president of production, Bud Gerow leaning against a wall and stubbing out a cigar into a nearly-empty cup of coffee, I shuffled toward him tentatively, my apprehension increasing with each step. Black stubble protruded from his face, his shoulders slouched forward.

Gerow, our key supporter and benefactor for Super Clerk, held high level jobs a dozen years in production management. He’d seen it all. A hardened veteran of assembly-line foul ups, I had heard that he rarely cursed or got upset. So when he said, ’Beardslee, the goddamn System 7 is a piece of shit! Fix it or I’ll set it out on the curb”, my heart started thumping a little faster.

Through bloodshot eyes and a tight jaw, Gerow continued the saga. “Hey, we’ve sent semi-drivers over to the Holiday Inn. It’ll be days if not weeks before we dig through this mountain of crap and load them up.”

Donning a padded parka, an executive luncheon with the Greeks a distant memory, I joined the warehouse Noonahs and saw first hand that Super Clerk knew all the tricks. I watched a warehouseman put in a simple command for a pallet of raspberry pie. Super Clerk instantly responded by clicking out the following: “NOT AVAILABLE IN WAREHOUSE”. Shit.

Gerow, peering over Super Clerk, looked even more frustrated. “Godammit, we just put some in there two days ago. Where in hell are they?” A production man asked Super Clerk where to put a pallet of pineapple turnovers in the half-full warehouse. Once again, clackity clack, the printer snapped out “NO WAREHOUSE SPACE AVAILABLE”.

A crane operator then asked for a pallet of cherry that needed to be loaded. Immediately Super Clerk typed out the aisle, row and bin location of the oldest pallet of cherry pie. Glad to escape Gerow’s glare, I rode with the crane driver to the designed area.

“For Chrissakes, there’s no cherry here, just apple” came the words from the ski mask garbed operator. “What the hell are you IBM guys trying to do to us? I borrowed myself deeper in my parka, wondering the same thing.

The very benefit of being able to store stuff randomly now worked to our distinct disfavor. The only way to find some things was to wander around in the warehouse and look for them, which is exactly what Cotcher and I did for the next twelve days and nights. Other items were found easily. We never knew what we were going to encounter. The freezer grabbed all waking moments except for the dreaded occasions when we were summoned to the Greek’s offices–not for lunch, nor, for that matter, for much talking, but for listening–listening very intently.

Dendrinos rarely found occasion for ill temper, but when he did, he would squeeze a handball to it’s original factory compression causing the cords of his massive forearms to pop out. He did so frequently during our forced appearances while voicing displeasure. “Hey, I’ve managed growth compounded at seventy percent a year . My people have torn down entire assembly lines and replaced them with new ones overnight. And over all that time, where fast growth can cause foul ups, this IBM computer you sold us takes the cake, no goddamned pun intended.”

Traverse City’s tiny airport stayed busy with incoming flights of lab technicians, programmers and field managers all sent from afar to help solve the problem. Normal debugging software would find problems in a few hours. The System 7 hadn’t yet any tools in that regard. The best we had were “core dumps”. The dumps showed contents of computer memory in hexadecimal numbering while we tried to figure out which files had not been updated and why; a very cumbersome debugging process. On the twelfth day, the bug discovered, the programs fully functional, after yet another complete inventory, Chef Pierre stared humming again. Thousands of pies entered and left the freezer flawlessly. The Greeks smiled. Gerow shaved. Beardslee and Cotcher slept.

Post mortem, the magnitude of our foul ups exposed itself. For example, a semi-truck arriving in New Orleans had left Traverse City in reasonable shape. However, the pies it carried arrived in what the frozen food industry terms a ‘hot’ condition. They had been insufficiently frozen before leaving because Super Clerk lost track of how long they had been in there and we had no manual back-up procedures. In New Orleans, with red goo sliding out the bottom of the semi’s door, we had Strawberry Shortcake soup.

After all the above ruckus, Chef Pierre’s program eventually got used by fifty odd frozen food distributors on the East Coast, most of them dealing with fish. A brochure called “Dynamic Warehouse Allocation” was produced buy IBM’s marketing wizards to inform prospective customers all about Super Clerk and the amazing feats it performed. Chef Pierre remained a contented customer for the rest of my years with IBM.

 

 

Read about Max on the Writer’s Bios Page