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The Sitdown: Gerald McCarthy, former Zenith exec, sold 1st TV remote control

As told to Sandra Guy

The award-wining salesman grew up in a 1950s-era Garfield Park community where good union jobs were lifetime mainstays and a kid’s every need was fulfilled within one square mile, but he’s been as intricate a part of this country’s consumer-electronics market upsurge as any Silicon Valley geek. McCarthy, 73, rose up the ranks from writing orders and helping ship products at the old Zenith Radio Corp. plant near Amundsen Park in 1965, to helping lead the company as president of the Zenith Sales Co. and Zenith Radio Canada from November 1983 until he retired in 1996. He played a key role in introducing innovations such as the first stereo TVs, the first closed-caption TVs, the first TVs with electronic program guides and the first TVs with premium sound systems (Zenith with Sound by Bose) and was inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame on Nov. 11. He couldn’t forestall Zenith’s eventual decline as rivals from Japan and Korea won bigger market share — Zenith went bankrupt and was acquired by LG Electronics in 1999 — but he shares insights and advice teaching at Dominican University’s Brennan School of Business in River Forest.

If you really want to be successful, you have to motivate and influence people in ways that let them want to achieve what is necessary for a company to meet its goals.

The best management principle I ever learned in my life is that a degree better than an MBA is an MBWA — management by walking around.

If you learn people’s names, visit them during the work day, learn they have a child in college, then ask about their lives on a regular basis, you create a powerful culture.

One of the concerns I have about young people today is that they don’t talk to each other. I watch a student in a booth texting another student in a booth (across the same room).

The last few years, in the 1990s, Zenith had real financial difficulties.

We (the executive leadership) pursued diversification strategies that diverted a lot of our cash into other businesses so we didn’t have as much to invest in the core business. We bought a watch company; we embarked on that strategy in the 1980s. I didn’t necessarily think it was a wise decision.

At our peak, we had 28,000 employees. At the peak at the Chicago facilities, we probably had 10,000 to 12,000.

We had a plant in Melrose Park that made 5 million picture tubes a year. It ran 363 days a year, closing only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had 14 to 15 suppliers, all of them independent businesses throughout the Chicago market, for everything from tuners to fasteners.

I remember seeing a bill of material: There are 17,382 items in one TV set.

I was taught by some incredible men at Saint Ignatius High School.

My classmates came from all over the city and the suburbs.

My parents, both of whose families were from Ireland, were part of the immigrant culture in placing an emphasis on education. I’m very grateful for that.

When I got my Social Security statement, I can see that I’ve paid in to it since I was 10. Since that time, I’ve never had a year where I haven’t had a W-2 or a 1099 that didn’t produce Social Security.

I started as a newspaper boy. At 11, I became a clerk at a grocery store owned by a Holocaust survivor. I probably learned as much about math there as anywhere. He taught me figures, as he called it.

At 13, I started delivering meat for the neighborhood butcher to restaurants on the West Side and in the western suburbs. I loved it. I drove a Ford station wagon — a big old blue one.

There’s an expression: I think successful people are blessed with common sense. They’re able to sort out those things that are opportunities versus those that are a waste of time. I’m still friends with some of those folks today.

All the males in my family, including my dad, my grandpa, my uncle and my brother and I, worked for the CTA. My dad stayed from the time he came here from Ireland until he retired 32 years later. He was a supervisor, trying to keep the buses on schedule.

At age 16 or 17, I went to work for the CTA as a ticket agent. I took fares and handed out tickets on an L station.

When I was in college at Loyola University, I worked as a motorman and a conductor on the Lake Street L.

One of the worst days in my dad’s life was when, after I had graduated from Loyola and came back from the Army, telling him I wasn’t going to work for the CTA.

You have to lead by example. You can make all the speeches that anyone could conceive and write all manner of directives. But the bottom line is that, if what you do mirrors what you say and what you ask of people, they’re going to respond.

I remember hiring a fellow at Zenith for an advertising position in the 1970s who was pretty slovenly. I went to work wearing a tie, a shirt and a coat. I took a risk and hired this fellow who was what I would call less than presentable. He turned out to be one of the most creative, effective young folks I’d ever dealt with.

He convinced us that we should alter our strategy from 30-second commercials to 10-second commercials.

We ended up getting three times the bang for our buck: three messages in the same 30-second time slot we used to pay to get across one message. That was in the 1970s, and I still see 10-second spots today.

I got to sell the first remote control. I watched the market for the remote control grow incredibly. Buyers paid a premium for the TV with a remote. All kinds of people stepped up and paid another $100 for that incredible feature.