Leadership Agenda: Skip Rosskam's tough lesson

Sometimes there's a pivotal moment in a person's career that shapes what came later. Such a moment happened to Skip Rosskam, when he was 26 or 27 years old. He's now president and chief operating officer of David Michael & Co., the Northeast Philadelphia flavoring manufacturing company.

He described it to me during our Leadership Agenda interview after I asked him whether he had ever been fired.

"No, but, I quit one," he said, sighing heavily. "I quit over a big dispute. 

"This was my second job. I was probably 26 or 27. I was in charge of marketing for a company called the Lincoln Mint in Chicago, like the Franklin Mint  here. I was the guy who came up with all the ideas for coins."

(For those of you who may not remember, the Franklin Mint was a direct marketing company that sold commemorative coins, plates and other memorabilia). 

"This was around the American Bicentennial," he said. "I was put in charge of the company’s strategy of designing coins for the Bicentennial. I set up a new division of the company  and made a [verbal] deal with the chairman of the board  on compensation, based on our success.

"Within 18 months, my little division that had myself and a secretary was larger than the whole company in sales and he reneged on my deal," Rosskam said.

Rosskam said he was deeply shaken by the experience. "I quit my job. My wife was pregnant with our first child.  We closed up our home, I was so angry and disillusioned with the business that we drove for four and a half months -- 12,500 miles -- on less than $2,200 for everything. We camped out. We mooched. I had to go cleanse my soul. And I did. I came back." 

He quickly landed a third job, for a painting manufacturer.

"Like I said, I was very young and it was my first lesson in business. The thing I learned from it, is that you must honor your word," he said. "If you give your handshake and a word, I don’t care what it costs you, whatever it costs you, the price is way bigger if you don’t honor it, because [otherwise] your reputation is down the toilet."