The resilient Sam Macatee

Dan Rodricks

January 24, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

He slid a 2-inch stack of stock certificates across the dinner table, and with a smile that seemed to contain a wink, Sam Macatee offered me 1,000 shares of American Multi-Lert -- at no charge. The certificates were made of high-quality paper, handsomely engraved with a distinctive bank-note blue border. Each bore the corporate seal of American Multi-Lert and the signatures of its officers. The certificates appeared to be the genuine article.

Except that they were worthless.

"You can wallpaper a room with them," Sam Macatee said. "Take all you want."

He smiled again -- that amiable, charming grin of the old salesman. Though the stock certificates evidenced one of his many failed business ventures, Sam Macatee offered them for the record. He even showed an old brochure from Multi-Lert. It was a Pennsylvania company that had planned to market an electronic burglar alarm for tractor-trailers and cargo containers. Beautiful idea. Sam was co-founder of the company in 1968.

"We had planned to go public," he says. "We were getting patents lined up."

But the venture crashed on takeoff. "Poor management by the people up front," Sam says.

And that, folks, is just the beginning of the Sam Macatee story -- or rather, it's the middle of the story.

Here is a walking, smiling, hand-shaking, back-slapping monument to human resilience. There's got to be something special here. Sam is 67, but looks 10 years younger. He's tall and trim and altogether dapper in a smart-looking suit. No man could look this good and consider himself a failure. Sam Macatee must be a rare breed -- the pioneer who roams the plains of American commerce, searching for gold and never quite finding it, tripping in gopher holes along the way. He gets up, dusts himself off and moves on to the next venture.

Nowhere in the resume do you see Sam Macatee relinquishing his freedom to do his own thing and chance failure.

In fact, by the time of the Multi-Lert deal, he'd already tried four jobs.

"My wife says I retired in 1959," Sam said, laughing.

That was when he left a dead-end job at the C&P Telephone Co. to take a shot at selling insurance. That lasted only 10 months. He then got a marketing job for a communications contractor in California, rising swiftly to assistant to the company president. "I really caught fire out there," Sam said. After a year, the company sent him to Washington to secure government contracts. But the assignment didn't last.

Instead of moving his family back to California, Sam took a sales job with IT&T in Baltimore.

Then the Multi-Lert deal came along.

Then the Multi-Lert deal went away.

"Shame, too," Sam said. "We had the only successful anti-theft system for truck cargo available at the time."

After the Multi-Lert flop, there was a job in Baltimore with an underground utilities contractor. Sam was vice president of sales.

Then there was the frozen seafood deal, in the late 1970s. "It was called Skipjack Seafood," Sam explained. "We were in Safeway."

But it didn't work out. Good idea at a bad time.

After Skipjack sank, Sam sold insurance.

Then there was another beautiful idea -- energy-saving devices for home and car.

"What did the devices do?" I asked.

"They don't do anything anymore," Sam said. "There are 500 of these units in my basement. It goes in the car. You want to kill pollution? I'll do it with one of these. Problem was, fuel-injection came along, and the government sort of put us out of business. They said it didn't work."

Somewhere along the line, you'd think Sam would have quit his search for the gold. But he didn't. He kept trying something new. He supported four kids; they all managed to get through college. He and his wife are grandparents now. Sam hasn't retired. His latest endeavor is Nu Skin products. He's an independent distributor.

Most people I know wouldn't have had the stomach for all this. They want steady paychecks and the promise of benefits and a pension, even if their job is miserable. They can't handle a lot of failure and disappointment.

Why didn't Sam Macatee just settle down with one job?

"I never had time."

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