Forged in the crucible of adversity

Local businesspeople talk of their toughest jobs — and the lessons they learned from them

Doug Thomas, CEO of Bellingham Cold Storage, said his worst job ever — working at a Skagit Valley gravel pit as a teenager — left him determined that college was the way to go.

Dan Hiestand
   It’s hard to find someone who has not had a lousy job.
   Oft-dreaded chores may include flipping greasy burgers, picking moldy berries on a farm in the pouring rain, or dealing with bad bosses.
   Perhaps not all of these less-than-desirable experiences end up on an episode of The Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” but few of the people who perform these tasks would consider them a bucket of fun.
   Of course, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure in some cases, said Russell Barlow, a 34-year-old shop manager at Clark’s Cycle in Bellingham. For Barlow, this rings especially true, as he started off as a garbage collector at the age of 12.
   “The elements of a bad job don’t necessarily have anything to do with what you’re doing sometimes as much as where or who you’re doing it with,” Barlow said. “I’ve pushed boulders uphill in the mud, but I was with somebody fun doing it.”
   He’s also been a vacuum salesman and a gravedigger.
   Conversely, he said he has had seemingly ‘fun’ jobs that were ruined because of less-than-ideal co-workers.
   “I’ve had some really fun jobs that just turned to crap because (my co-workers) were idiots,” Barlow said. The lesson: It is impossible to classify any job as good or bad, because that judgment truly is in the eye of the beholder.

Filth and mud
   The view from Doug Thomas’ current office is pretty darn nice. The waves of Bellingham Bay lap under his feet when he sits at his desk, and sailboats bob lazily in the distant background. However, the views have not always been so good for the 43-year-old president and CEO of Bellingham Cold Storage.
   Long before he took over the leadership role of the well-known Bellingham business, he worked in a Skagit County gravel pit. That’s the job Thomas feels was his worst.
   “I was putting myself through college at the time, and I knew I was going to do something different at some point, so I wasn’t depressed about it at all,” he said. “It was just a nasty task.”
   Thomas said he was a “gopher guy,” helping to do a variety of tasks at the site, such as driving dump trucks and loaders, or helping to run the wash plant — where the gravel was crushed and filtered into different sizes for different uses.
   The job that he disliked the most involved cleaning out the “cone-crushing machine,” which ground the gravel into crushed rock.
   “Each night, I was unfortunate enough to be assigned the job of taking a fire hose inside of a cone-crushing machine,” Thomas remembered. “I would take the fire hose in there with my raingear on and a hard hat, and I would proceed to wash out the inside of this cone crusher.”
   The cone crusher was about 15 feet tall; six to eight feet in diameter, and like a large water tank. Getting inside of it, and maneuvering around wasn’t easy, he said.
   “I’m wrestling this high-pressure fire hose, and sometimes the stuff would splatter off the sides and hit me in the face,” Thomas said. “It took me a couple of days to figure out that I didn’t need the rain suit. The rain suit was really only to kind of protect me from the sharpness of the little crushed rock that would come down after I’d wash it all out.”
   The fact it was summer didn’t help, he said.
   “I was so hot and sweaty in there because it was the middle of the summer and I’m in there working my tail off,” he said. “I had to crawl around on my knees on the stuff that I was washing out. That was probably one of the worst jobs.”
   He also remembered having to clear out mud and debris from the pit’s settling ponds, which were used to clean the gravel. During one week, he spent the majority of his time hand bailing “chocolate pudding-type mud” out of a cement culvert approximately 20 feet long and five feet wide.
   “I thought that job would never go away,” he said. “Every day after that job, I went down to the Samish River (near the worksite) — and instead of trying to clean myself up and just going home — I would go down to the river and I’d just jump in with my clothes and my boots and everything.”
   A high school senior at the time, Thomas said the experience helped him determine his path.
   “I knew I wanted to go to a four-year university, and I knew I wanted to complete my degree. I knew I wanted to do something other than that,” he said. Despite the hard work, he said he actually looks back on the time fondly.
   “We had a lot of fun,” he said. “You can either moan and groan and drag your feet, or you can make the best of it and have a good time.”

Personal space invaders
   Before there was Bijoux, there were bras for Shelly Muzzy.
   Muzzy, the 59-year-old owner of Bijoux in Bellingham, said she still remembers her worst professional experience: working as a bra-fitter at a department store. While her role as a fitter was nearly three decades ago, in her early 30s, she still looks back on the time with distaste.
   When she first started at the department store, she thought the position would not only provide better pay, but also a better job.
   However, things didn’t happen as planned.
   “I got stuck in the bra department,” she said. “Bras and panties. And I really struggled with that. I tried to make that a good job, but I really was just not suited to that job.”
   “I really hated it,” she said. “You had to physically go in the dressing room and help people fit their bras. Usually, they take their tops off.”
   A lot of her discomfort came from the invasion of personal space.
   “It was very uncomfortable for me,” she said. “I’m really not suited for that kind of closeness with other people, with strangers. The job got more and more distasteful for me.”
   While she said the position did have some prestige (bra fitters had to attend training courses, unlike some of her colleagues in other departments), that perk didn’t make up for the pitfalls of the job.
   “There was one old lady who would come in all the time, and she wanted me to fit her, but she would not take her clothes off. She wouldn’t even take her old bra off, and she insisted upon trying her bras on top of her clothing — so she never got a great fit,” Muzzy remembered. “I would see her coming, and I would try to get off the floor, but she liked me, so she’d always ask for me because I was real indulgent with her. I would cringe and try and get into the stock room, but it never worked.”
   And there were other underlying issues, she said.
   “It’s amazing the underwear that women return, and the state it’s in,” she said. She ended up working at the store for four years, until she accepted another job for less money but a more enjoyable atmosphere.
   Said Muzzy: “I was so glad when I got out of there.”

Russell Barlow’s tour as an aircraft refueler onboard the USS Nimitz ranks as his worst-ever job — mostly due to the built-in negatives of life as an enlisted sailor in the Navy.

Out to sea
   For Barlow, the high seas was the scene of his least favorite vocational endeavor: during his early 20s, he fueled aircraft aboard the USS Nimitz for the U.S. Navy. His description of the job is complicated.
   “The military is another great example of perspective,” he said. “It was the coolest job you would ever hate, and it has a lot to do with people.”
   He did if for two years after leaving his home in Pennsylvania, and he said not all his memories are bad.
   “It’s cool because you are out to sea, you’re around $1 million aircraft,” he said. “You know, here’s this missile that is $2.5 million and the bird that is holding ‘em has like six of ‘em. That’s cool. When you watch birds ripping by, showing off with the sonic boom, that’s pretty darn cool. Sunsets and sunrises are absolutely amazing out to sea.”
   Even with that said, the job still ranks as his worst, he said.
   "All these guys, they are leaving their wives, their girlfriends, their fiancées," he said. "Everybody is grumpy, and they are in charge of me, so they gotta take it out on me. No matter how hard you work or whatever, somebody has got to come along in a bad mood and start spitting and yelling."
   A lack of sleep also contributed to making the experience less-than-pleasant.
   “When we practiced combat readiness, we worked literally 45 days straight of 18-hour days. You had six hours to yourself to eat, sleep, shower, the works,” he said. “You had only these six hours to do that, and if they decided to play war during your six hours, that was your tough luck. So the idea was to sleep anywhere.”
   Just not on the job.

Lessons learned the hard way

   Doug Thomas, President and CEO, Bellingham Cold Storage

What makes a bad job?
   “I think probably working in hot, confined spaces without fresh air, and just being dirty or wet or both.”

What are the lessons you learned from you worst job?
   “As an employer, I think you have to have respect for those folks that are doing the least desirable jobs because you need those jobs to be done.”

Shelly Muzzy, owner, Bijoux

What makes a bad job?
   “The elements that make up a bad job to me are probably the incompatibility and unsuitability of a person with a type of job … A person taking a job just to take a job that they don’t really have an interest in.”

What are the lessons you learned from your worst job?
   “You learn to be really patient … I encouraged my children to work, but not to stay in a job they are not happy with. It (also) taught me what I didn’t want to do.”

Russell Barlow, shop manager, Clark’s Cycle

What is the value of having a bad job?
   “If you start out with a really bad job, the rest of the jobs you have will be gravy.”

What are the lessons you learned from your worst job?
   “I learned a way to get people to do things for you because they want to — not because I told them to.”




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