From business sales manager to published author.
Second acts are one of those things everyone dreams of but few actually pursue. Discovering a new hobby or learning a new skill after a successful career is one of the things many look forward to in retirement. And it’s never been easier thanks to all the resources available on the Web, with everything from learning to play a new instrument to framing original artwork. For Gerry Zimmerman (Virginia), it was writing. The story that lead the retired sales manager to write his first book begins with his time in Sigma Nu’s Beta Chapter at University of Virginia.
In place of being drafted, Gerry applied for Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS). With his background in international history he knew there was a good chance he end up working in Navy intelligence services. Gerry had originally intended to study dentistry or medicine at U-Va. but, he says, later switched to history after losing interest in all the chemistry labs.
Gerry spent the next 16 weeks in a grueling basic training in Newport, Rhode Island. “We lost a third of our class,” he remembers. “There was a guy from Yale who also had a law degree from Harvard – he failed out for academic reasons.”
Gerry would remain in the Navy for 20 years with 4 years serving on active duty and the balance in the active reserves before retiring as a Commander. He had job offers to remain in Hawaii after he completed his tour but opted to be closer to his family back in Virginia. “I had a case of ‘Rock Fever,’ as it’s known there – a reference to the feeling of missing out on the rest of the world.” Back in Virginia, Gerry found an opportunity in insurance and investment sales with Mutual of New York (MONY) in an office run by a fellow U-Va. alumnus. Despite starting his career on June 1, he led all 1,200 agents hired that year in sales and was named Rookie of the Year by MONY.
“I didn’t realize how tough that business would be,” he says, thinking of his first year. “I had two kids and a wife, I had to perform to support my family.” (Gerry met wife senior year at U-Va.)
Looking for Something More
Although Gerry was successful in individual sales, he aspired to bigger and better things and soon found a comfortable home with the business insurance market. He focused on bigger clients like businesses, estate planning, and pension programs.
“I had the desire and the capacity to teach others how to do what I was doing,” he says, reflecting on his early career. Gerry’s superiors took notice of this approach and guided him to the management path where he could continue to counsel other new agents on how to get into advanced markets.
Gerry soon became the assistant manager of the Washington, D.C. office of the Mutual of New York, which was the leading office in the country. He dreamed of having his own agency one day, but knew it could never be there since the manger was about ten years from retirement; plus there was no guarantee that the company would give the job to him. This led to him being hired by the Phoenix Companies of Hartford, Conn., and was promised taking over the D.C. office in about three years when the manager there moved on back to Connecticut. In the meantime, the company offered him the opportunity to run the Colorado office, so he took his family out west and began to build a high-performing sales organization.
That opportunity to return to D.C. didn’t happen in three years as promised, but after five years he was finally offered that position. Meanwhile, Gerry and his family had fallen in love with the lifestyle they were enjoying in Colorado, all the while building up the Colorado operation into a larger and more successful company than the branch in D.C. After much consideration he decided to decline the DC post opportunity since it seemed foolish to move back for a pay cut.
Management in the home office in Hartford began to suffer after they hired a new executive with no experience in the field to be the senior VP of sales and agencies. “He was never an agent and never had any experience leading other people in management,” Gerry recalls. He could sense things were not headed in the right direction with the new management, and after feeling a lack of appreciation for the job he and his team had done, he decided to leave the company – a difficult decision given his role in doubling production for that office from year to year on several occasions.
Moving to cable TV sales
Right about this time Gerry had a fortuitous meeting with an old acquaintance – one of those chance meetings that comes right at the perfect time. “He told me about a guy in Denver, Bill Daniels, who had introduced major cable companies to the business, many of which had set up headquarters in the Denver area.” Gerry took him up on his offer to introduce him to Daniels. Even better for Gerry, this man had been a Navy pilot in Korea and later with the Blue Angels. They connected instantly thanks to the shared background.
Bill Daniels, who was known as the father of cable television, saw a need for investment banking and brokerage in the cable TV business. His company, Daniels and Associates, became the leading financial services company in cable TV. The company was growing and needed another guy to handle brokerage – the sales and acquisition of cable companies.
“That’s a common characteristic of successful people – they analyze what’s involved and take intelligent risks.”
“I think you can do this,” he told Gerry, “but nobody’s ever closed a deal their first year.” He offered Gerry half of what he was making at the time, as an advance against possible commissions.
As Gerry recalls, it was a risk, but with great potential. He walked away from a lucrative career for a great unknown.
“It proved to be an unbelievable thing,” he says now. “The cable business was putting programming on satellites which expanded the opportunities. I travelled all over the country working cable deals.”
Gerry did seven deals – the second largest in the history of the business in his first nine months in the business. After it was all said and done, Gerry sold over a billion dollars’ worth of cable properties, and in the process connected with early pioneers of the telecommunications industry.
Gerry travelled all the time, an experience he remembers as both exciting and stressful. He always had a goal to retire by 50, and his hard work made that a reality. Gerry’s family had built a second home in Vail, Colo., and they found themselves spending more and more time there, eventually building a larger home where they became full-time residents in 1994.
In 2003 Gerry’s wife suffered a major brain aneurysm where doctors gave a 1% chance of survival. She would make a miraculous recovery, but still lives with balance issues that prevent her from skiing.
“We’d been coming down to Scottsdale after ski season,” Gerry says. “We decided this would be a better place to live given my wife’s lingering health issues.” They sold the Vail house and found a beautiful home in Scottsdale where they live now.
Finding What it Takes to Build a Career in Sales
What does it take to be successful in sales? After school Gerry was supposed to play semi-pro baseball in New England until the team failed to provide transportation. Gerry ended up selling pots and pans door-to-door in a commission-only sales job. “I was selling these items so single women who lived in apartments in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.” Gerry discovered he could buy aluminum pie pans from the same company for five cents apiece; the same pans sold in stores for a dollar. “When you’re trying to build relationships – whether in sales or in life – you have to give people a reason to talk to you. So I gave away the pie pan.”
Gerry has plans to continue writing additional books, following the concept of prolific authors like Vince Flynn.
Gerry liked financial sales because he could deal with people who had the authority to make decisions. “When it comes to sales, dealing with people who can’t make decisions is not a great use of time.” Instead, Gerry focused on working with people who were dynamic, bold, and willing to take risks. “That’s a common characteristic of successful people – they analyze what’s involved and take intelligent risks.”
“You have to be aware of what’s changing around you,” he observes. “Look at Blockbuster Video. They said, ‘We’re doing ok so why would we change?’ They wouldn’t change and they became irrelevant. Successful people are aware of what’s changing and they take appropriate action.”
Becoming an author
The story of how Gerry became an author began with a visit to Mount Rushmore. Gerry and his wife had been visiting their son in Denver and decided to drive to South Dakota, previously the only state he had never visited despite the extensive travel required of his sales career. They heard about a nighttime lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore and decided to attend. The event also showcased a film about the construction of iconic granite carving. With the monument lit under the night, he joined veterans in singing God Bless America.
“I went to bed that night with this image in my mind. The monument, the lights, the patriotic music.” Gerry had a dream that night that inspired the idea for his first book, The Legacy of Gray Ghost – the nickname for John Mosby, a Confederate cavalry able to penetrate deep behind enemy lines who always managed to escape.
Gerry was familiar with the story form history classes, but it all came back to him in that dream. He started writing promptly upon returning home. He spent weeks writing with no sign of writers block. Shortly after Gerry was introduced to a book publisher through a mutual friend. The timing couldn’t have been more prefect.
The publisher agreed to offer some advice to Gerry and they met at a Starbucks near his home. Gerry brought along a notebook and absorbed all the advice he could about getting his book published. Four months later Gerry was a published author. His book, Legacy of the Gray Ghost, won the Gold Medal for Southern Fiction in 2011 and was named the best Historical Fiction book of that year as well.
In 2013 Gerry decided to write the sequel, Mosby’s Raiders Return. It was named the Silver Medalist in that year for Sports Fiction. The original book, Legacy of the Gray Ghost, tells the story about Mosby’s upbringing in Virginia with the prologue coinciding with Lee’s surrender. From there the main character moves forward in his life, attending University of Virginia to study engineering. He starts a family and goes on to become very successful. As a tribute to his former leader, Mosby, they found a men’s university in Virginia’s horse country. From there the tale becomes Mosby University with focus on its struggling football program. On the verge of being shutdown, the program is resuscitated by a new coach who employs Mosby’s tactics.
The story is set in the late 50’s and the star player is African American, which would have been controversial during a period of integration that was tumultuous at times. Picking up where Legacy left off, Mosby’s Raiders Return describes the events during 1959 and the challenges Coach Willie Hairston and his Mosby University football team face due to graduations and injuries.
Although school integration had been mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, many politicians and influential citizens in Virginia were still resisting. When the president of Mosby University decides to offer young men of color the opportunity to attend this prestigious, formerly all-white men’s university, he faced much criticism. While the story is fiction, many of the feelings and attitudes described were reflective of that era.
Gerry has plans to continue writing additional books, following the concept of prolific authors like Vince Flynn. “I like to write about heroes who did extraordinary things, but I am thinking about writing a humorous book about golf as my next endeavor and I guarantee that it will have some amazing characters in the tale. I think the chief joy in writing is to enable readers to relate to the characters and relate to an interesting story. Some people are old at age 40, but I think age is a matter of attitude. Why not live it up? Your time on earth is really not that long in the grand scheme of things, so why not reach out and enjoy the blessings you have received and try to make others feel better as a result of your connection with them. The friendships I made as a Sigma Nu have been the best over the years and, unlike many others, have not faded with time.”