|11/23/2021 3:59:00 PM|
Tom and Winnie Coleman
Checking out his sales territory aboard a camel at China’s Great Wall.
|Dean M. Laux|
He's A Well-Traveled Man
It seems like Tom Coleman has spent a large part of his life “on the road.” Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1942, he spent his childhood in Chicago … and Pittsburgh … and Freeport, Long Island. Why the moves? “My dad kept getting promoted,” he explains. His dad worked for the Associated Press and kept moving up the line from reporter to night editor to manager of AP’s media contracts.
Tom went to Chaminade High School, a private Catholic school in Mineola, IL, and went on to Marquette University in Milwaukee, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism. In his final two years he got a job scripting national news reports for local station WISN television, and upon graduation in 1964 he went to work as a reporter for AP.
Like father, like son? Well, not exactly. Tom admired his dad, but he harbored thoughts of becoming a diplomat. “I wanted to see the world, and working in a diplomatic post seemed like a great way to do it,” he says. He didn’t become a diplomat, but his career was to take him to as many interesting foreign venues as a life in the diplomatic service would have.
And another circumstance intervened. The war in Vietnam was heating up, and in 1964 the U.S. Congress, under the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to ramp up our military presence there. Young men were prime candidates for the draft, and rather than be drafted, Tom joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, went through basic training and officer candidate school and was commissioned as an Ensign in early 1965. Thus began his peripatetic career almost with a bang.
“I was assigned to the USS Raleigh, a new class of amphibious assault ship operating out of Norfolk, Virginia,” he says. “I had gone to Naval Justice School and spent eight weeks studying the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so I was given collateral duties as the ship’s legal officer. I was supposed to meet my ship in Panama, but the day I flew out to Panama, a revolution broke out in the Dominican Republic,” and the Raleigh was deployed there as part of the U.S. intervention that sent in the 82nd Airborne Division to restore order.
Tom arrived in Panama and three days later was flown to the Dominican Republic along with 30 helicopter pilots. They were dropped at an abandoned airfield and Tom was given a helicopter lift to the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo. During the flight he heard what sounded like rifle shots below. “I asked if someone was shooting at us, and a crew member said, ‘They are, but they’re not very good shots.’ When we got there, I took a break outside the embassy, wearing a bright yellow Mae West life jacket. Little did I know that I was a brightly colored sitting duck idling in a hot zone where two people had already been killed by snipers.”
Luckily he came away unscathed, and the Raleigh moved out, carrying Tom and 558 U.S. refugees to safety. At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba the Raleigh picked up an equally precious cargo: 10,000 cases of beer to be delivered to the 82nd Airborne back in the Dominican Republic. “My first task aboard ship was to conduct a Judge Advocate General investigation into the mysterious death of my predecessor just two days earlier,” Tom says. That investigation indicated a high probability that a certain Bosun Mate 1st Class had killed or failed to rescue his division officer, whom he disliked, but the case could not be proven. That Bosun Mate became Tom’s leading petty officer and right-hand man when Tom became the new division officer. It can be presumed that he kept his eyes wide open throughout his time aboard the Raleigh.
The yearly cruises took him to virtually all the Caribbean islands, and at each port they’d stay about a week, allowing time for some golf and lolling on the beaches. “That was really tough duty,” Tom laments. Tom did put in some serious time as Division Officer responsible for the Combat Information Center, which controlled the ship’s radars, communications and navigation. He had collateral duty using Raleigh’s long-range air search radar to run air intercepts by F4 and F8 aircraft. The Raleigh also did tours in the European theater and the Arctic that were instructive, though less glamorous than the Caribbean cruises.
“But I wasn’t going to stay in the Navy,” Tom says. “It was too strenuous on families, and the pay wasn’t sufficient. So when my four years were up in 1968 I took a job with IBM.”
Tom’s assignment was with the Service Bureau Corporation, an IBM subsidiary, selling machine time, applications and consulting services to the engineering community and to (surprise!) the U.S. Navy in the Washington D.C. area. “I didn’t like it at all,” he says, “so I got a job with Honeywell as a product marketing manager responsible for their magnetic tape drives.” That was in 1970. Two years later he was promoted to manager of their small business division, which had acquired General Electric’s computer business and was transitioning to new computer models for old Honeywell and GE users. “That was kind of fun,” he remembers, but he could see that Honeywell’s strategic plan was leading to disaster, and in 1975 he joined the up-and-coming Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard, Mass., reporting to the vice president of central engineering.
“My job was to meet with the managers of all 17 product lines and help them plan their product strategies,” he says. Within a year Tom was put in charge of product introductions in the Pacific, and soon thereafter Africa, India, Iran and Latin America were added to his responsibilities. He became a travelin’ man, visiting his managers on three continents. “We were extraordinarily successful,” he observes, and the company wanted to move into Asia in a major way. In 1983 they promoted Tom to Regional Sales Manager for the Far East (excluding Japan and Australia), to be based in Hong Kong. At last he’d have a job rivaling the best posts the diplomatic corps had to offer, and he moved with his wife Winnie and their four teenage children to one of the world’s most beautiful and exciting cities.
The four-year assignment was a great move for both the Colemans and DEC. Tom and his family had a spacious four-story apartment overlooking the harbor, and the kids got their schooling at the International School in Repulse Bay, all at the company’s expense. DEC pioneered computer sales in China and its business in the Far East grew 50 percent a year.
When his tour was up in 1987, Tom was promoted to Multinational Sales Manager for Japan, based in Tokyo, another great location. One major move he made was to hire a woman for the sales force. “We had 5,000 employees,” he says, “and she was the first saleswoman.” He also oversaw annual sales growth from $25 million to $150 million in just under three years there.
After that tour was up, Tom returned to DEC headquarters in Maynard in 1989. “I hated it,” compared to those exciting postings in Hong Kong and Tokyo, he says, but he stayed on for two years before accepting “a job offer he couldn’t refuse” by a business acquaintance he had been very friendly with in Nigeria. “I ran the business selling satellite communications in Nigeria from a 42-foot cabin cruiser equipped with a satellite phone and a fax machine, out of Mystic, Connecticut,” he confesses, “but my Nigerian partner ran for president of the country, came in second, and the business floundered.”
After that there was one more foreign adventure that lasted for two years, from 1993 to 1995: managing the European headquarters in Prague, capital of the newly independent Czech Republic, for Kirchman Banking, an Orlando-based company. His task was to sell software banking services to other countries that were newly independent following the demise of the Soviet Union. He and Winnie enjoyed two years seeing the sights in Europe, but the business concept didn’t catch on. The then-small European banks that were their primary prospects simply couldn’t afford the $5 million mainframe that was a prerequisite for using Kirchman’s services. It was a product that was too early for its time.
Back home in Mystic in 1995, Tom joined a Mystic-based company, Ship Analytics, Inc., which was developing crisis-management software for sale to Third World countries. “The only problem was that the software was still under development. I was trying to sell a paper tiger,” he avers. His most entertaining moment came when he met one-on-one with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasango, whose country had been suffering for years from civil unrest. “His presidential palace was a replica of the U.S. White House,” Tom remembers, “but it was on 500 fenced-in acres of land patrolled by 50 full-grown lions. We were talking about a $50 million deal, and it looked like it might go through … until he asked ‘What’s in it for me?’ ”
Back home in 2001, Tom and Winnie moved to Englewood, and he looked for a business to acquire, “to ease my way into retirement,” he says. He purchased and then sold a franchise to make and sell custom furniture in Sarasota, and then in 2003 purchased the Sears store in Englewood.
Tom retired for good in 2005. Currently slowed by a hip replacement, he spends a lot of his time reading and doing difficult Sudoku puzzles. But he’s planning to get back to golf again … and also travel. After all these years, he is still a travelin’ man.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.