To solve problems for the customer, it starts by going out into the field, Mal Mixon advises

Mal Mixon always enjoyed selling.

“You learn more about your company selling. But I can guarantee that if you think your company is good, let me go out and sell, and I will tell you 10 things you are not doing that you should be doing,” he told an audience at the inaugural Friends of the Cleveland Public Library Executive Speaker Series in June.

“In the field, people will tell you they want things for say, less money, at a lighter weight or in a different color.”

The Executive Speaker Series was established to bring together champions of industry and state to the Cleveland Public Library campus to share philosophies, insight and experiences gained throughout their careers. Andrew Jackson, president and CEO of Elsons International, moderated the discussion.

Mixon, the retired CEO and chairman of Invacare Corporation and author of “An American Journey,” spoke about the opportunities he was able to take advantage of during his career.

Known for his “can do” attitude, Mixon took a big risk and bought his first company, Invacare, in a leveraged $7.8 million buyout. He grew the company’s sales from $19 million to almost $2 billion.

Mixon said at Invacare he went into the field every month for 40 years. The face time with the customer was important not only to maintain the relationship but to determine if there was satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the company’s products. He cited an example to illustrate his point.

“We were having some quality problems at Invacare, and I went to see this guy in Phoenix. He chewed my tail out for an hour,” Mixon said. “I said, ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ I answered all his questions and told him what I was going to do.

“Then he took me down to meet the purchasing agent, and he told the purchasing agent, ‘From now on, I don’t want you to buy anything but Invacare.’” What brought about the happy ending was Mixon taking responsibility for the problem.

“If you’re wrong, admit it. Don’t sweet talk the customer to tell him you don’t have a problem. Be a problem solver,” he says.

Mixon, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Harvard School of Business, said he moved from a marketing position into sales at his first job after Harvard.

“I said to myself, ‘I could never lead this organization if I don’t learn how to sell.’ So I asked for a territory. I did pretty well. I was making more money than where I was before,” he says.

He credited his boss, E.P. “Pat” Nalley, who taught him about selling and put him in circumstances where he was able to learn.

How to reach: Friends of the Cleveland Public Library Executive Speaker Series,