When it came time to choose a major in college, I put minimal time into the decision. I was a straight “B” student with one “A” and one “C”. The “A” was in chemistry. Mainly because I had a very easy teacher. My father was educated as a chemist, and made a good enough living, so I thought “chemistry seems like a good place to start”. If chemistry was too difficult, I could always switch to something easier.
Toward the end of my freshman year in college, two things happened. First, I had what would be the first of many truly difficult (for me) chemistry courses. Second, every morning, as I watched hundreds of kids on their way to class, in the pit of my stomach I realized that I would be competing with A LOT of people for a job when I graduate.
Before the job market decided for me, I realized that I was not suited to be a “test tube tipping chemist”. However, I thought if I had a degree in chemistry, I would be more qualified to work in the business side of the chemical industry. And every business needs salespeople. And there are lots of chemical companies. So, I set off to craft the perfect resume to be a chemical salesman.
I became committed to getting my chemistry degree. I also added enough business courses to get a business minor. I worked for two summers selling books door to door and got the job running the dormitory refrigerator rental service. Fortunately, I was a much better business than chemistry student, so I was able to raise my grade point average from pathetic to mediocre.
After training, I was transferred to their Chicago office where I sold industrial resins. These went into diverse products such as chewing gum, paints, printing inks and even concrete. As the new salesperson in the office, I discovered I was assigned two types of accounts. One type had to buy from me because my product was already an ingredient in their end product. The other type had never purchased from my company despite the best efforts of the several salesmen before me.
I remember getting an appointment with the woman who ran the research and development laboratory for a company that was a large part of my sales quota. She started the meeting by saying “Mike, I wanted to meet with you so that I could tell you in person that we will NEVER do business with your company”.
Unbeknownst to me, in addition to the products in my bag, my company had developed a competitive product to theirs. If I were her, I would not buy from me either!
After about 6 Months on the job, I felt like i was in the outer rings of Dante’s Inferno. Every Sunday around noon, I would get a sickly feeling in my stomach in anticipation of the next week. I had worked so hard struggling through chemistry courses, selling books door to door for two summers and renting refrigerators to get here. This was supposed to be my dream job!
Instead, I found myself just sort of taking up space, struggling to justify my paycheck. I was supposed to be in chemical sales – providing value, helping customers solve problems. My biggest target account would not do business with me for reasons out of my control and my other clients were doing business with me because they had to. They were nice enough to see me, but I was not really into chemical sales. It was more like “chemical visiting”. I was not providing value to my customers and I was not providing value to my employer. Not exactly the recipe for career fulfillment.
I realized that not everyone was miserable with their jobs. So out of desperation, I bought a book on career choice.
The exercises in the book helped me examine things I had done in the past and enjoyed and helped me think of how to convert those experiences to a better career choice.
I came up with two distinct career paths. One was teaching and coaching, the other was being in business for myself. I liked the idea of being in control of my own income, so I chose entrepreneurship.
From that time, it took me about two and a half years to reach my goal. I eventually found a line of dermatologic pharmaceuticals that was almost out of business and was able to purchase it at a reasonable price.
That business brought me great joy for many years. No matter what else was going on in my life, I would wake up countless mornings grateful for a job and career that was a great fit. No more “Sunday sick feelings”. My weekends were as good as my weekdays.
There was no “Sunday Sickness”, but there just wasn’t the same level of joy. My company had grown and evolved. I could do the work well enough, but something was missing. So about six months before the pandemic, I decided it was time to get out of the day to day operation of the business and take the second career path I had identified so many years ago. It was time to pivot and start teaching and coaching.
Teaching is all about being of service to others. One place I see service is needed is in assisting young people to make choices that lead to satisfying, enjoyable and fulfilling careers. I am really grateful that I eventually found the right career, but it was not a straight line. I have paid enough for my mistakes to cover the cost for everyone.
I take the perspective of “if I knew then what I know now” to help younger people make a life-long difference in how they view their work life.
Mike Precopio is the CEO of Summers Laboratories, Inc., a small company with a line of dermatologic pharmaceuticals, which Mike purchased and grew from near failure to a solid success.
One of his products became the 5th largest product in its category in the US, available at Target, Walmart, and CVS. Another of Mike’s product creations was approved by the FDA and sold to a major pharmaceutical company. Mike found a career he loved and where he thrived…but it was not a straight-line path. He failed at his first “dream job” out of college.
Mike’s early career disappointment and eventual career fulfillment led him to ask “if he knew then what he knows now” what would he share with high school and college students
to make a life-long difference in how they view their work life? One answer is helping students identify their natural talents and interests. That leads to identifying next steps toward a career they will love. Mike provides students with specific tools for this.
Mike Precopio graduated with a B.A. in Chemistry and a minor in Business Administration from the University of Delaware. Interestingly, Mike learned his team spirit and camaraderie as the captain of the University of Delaware wrestling team.