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Wednesday, 12 July 2006 00:00

Odd jobs

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Today’s economy is amazingly complex. Niches of the most obscure order have been found and filled, giving birth to a spectrum of jobs most people don’t realize existed.

Every time we buy something, we’re handed a cash register receipt. But few have pondered the salesman whose mission in life is selling cash register receipt paper to merchants. We all get our haircut, but it didn’t dawn on most of us that someone makes a career of traveling from one salon to the next, sharpening the stylists’ scissors.

Society has developed an uncanny ability to connect people willing to pay for a service with those willing to offer it. Like a woman in Highlands who repairs shattered heirloom porcelain vases for customers all over the country, or the toy designer in Cashiers who is sought out by toy companies to help fill the shelves at Toys-R-Us and Wal-Mart.

This week, the Smoky Mountain News sought out a handful of these unique professions to profile — professions that play a vital role in making our world tick but that rarely make the limelight.

 

Porcelain crackerjack

Name: Rita Kelley, late 50s, Highlands

Job: Restores porcelain and crystal antiques and family heirlooms

Niche: Kelley has the rare skill of putting back together porcelain vases, plates, pitchers or figurines that have shattered into more than 100 pieces.

“They are people’s collectibles, so they will spend the money getting the pieces done. They have sentimental value. It could be a worthless piece to us, but it is very important to them,” Kelley said.

Selling points: Most customers find Kelley on-line. People from all over the country mail her their shattered objects for an assessment and price quote.

“I’ve got some right now I am hesitant to price it has so many pieces,” Kelley said.

Occasionally, she scores several objects from one person when a shelf holding their collections breaks and the whole thing crashes. Most who mail her their pieces for a quote follow through with restoration, but some are beyond repair.

“I encourage them to buy a new piece at that point,” Kelley said.

Competition: Kelley is one of the few in her industry in the Southeast, but most people are simply unaware porcelain can be restored.

“It is a very interesting business, but it is hard to make a living at it because orders are few and far between,” Kelley said.

Ins and outs: Some pieces were so damaged, Kelley spent more than a year restoring them.

“It is like putting a puzzle back together,” Kelley said.

Only harder. A puzzle is only two dimensional, and if you can’t figure out where a piece goes, you can come back to it later. That won’t work in porcelain restoration.

“You have to get the pieces in a proper balance sequence for it to all fit right,” Kelley said. “You can’t wait until it is finished to go back and put a little triangular piece in because it is not going fit.”

The full restoration treatment includes reglazing to mask seam lines. Occasionally an object won’t have all its pieces. Kelley fabricates the missing piece out of a porcelain-like material.

Pet peeves: Everyone is sentimental about their broken object. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t invest the money in having Kelley repair it.

But some customers are so sentimental that Kelley smells trouble. Some, she says, would call her daily sobbing to check on the progress, and she has to decline their business.

“Some people are so sentimental about their pieces it is almost pathetic,” Kelley said.

Industry advancements: When Kelley first started the business 20 years ago, it was hard to find supplies. Now, there are several lapidary companies she can order from on-line, along with a restoration association of which she is a member.

 

Holistic healer

Name: Dr. David Pesek, Maggie Valley

Job: Leads seminars and workshops through the International Institute of Iridology

Niche: Pesek can analyze the iris of someone’s eye and assess their physical and mental ailments using an ancient technique called iridology. It’s a growing form of natural medicine, Pesek said. Chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths and even traditional medical doctors are adding iridology to their holistic medicine toolbox.

Selling points: Pesek is one of the nation’s leading experts in iridology, and as a result is in high demand. Rather than schedule his conferences, Pesek keeps his schedule full with invitations.

“They say Dr. Pesek is going to be in town and the classes just fill up. That’s just where I am in the career right now.”

Pesek did an interview for this article from a hotel room in New York City. Trips to Toronto, Boston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, and Brazil are lined up for this summer and fall.

Competition: Pesek’s stiffest competition comes from pharmaceutical companies who generally support a health care system devoid of natural medicine. For example, he is not allowed to refer to an iris assessment as a diagnosis. If he detects the presence of diabetes, he can’t use that medical term.

“I have to call it a blood sugar challenge,” Pesek said.

Ins and outs: Pesek spends more than half his time in hotels and on airplanes. He has reduced packing to a science to avoid forgetting a stack of handouts or an important poster.

“We have worked that kink out of the system,” Pesek said. The key is a checklist.

“We’ve done it enough that it’s down to rubber bands and a little stapler, all on the checklist,” he said.

All that traveling makes eating healthy a challenge, though. He carries a portable blender and protein supplements so he can make protein shakes in his hotel room. The first stop in any city is a health food store to stock up. He always requests a hotel room with refrigerator so he can have salads, courtesy of his wife, who usually tags along on trips.

“My wife takes care of me while I am teaching classes. I come back to the room during lunch and there is a nice salad waiting for me with a little bit of chicken on it,” Pesek said.

Pet peeves: Traveling has gotten a lot less fun since 9-11, Pesek said. Taking off his shoes and belt are aggravating, but the worst part is the jostling of the items in his luggage during hand searches of checked baggage. He packs things he needs for his seminars so they won’t get broken, but airline workers rifling through suitcases don’t put it back properly, he said. Things have been broken, such as a plastic rack for holding flyers and brochures.

Industry advancements: The acceptance of natural and holistic health care is the biggest step in Pesek’s field. People used to think those who practiced natural medicine “smoked dope, ate granola and burned the American flag,” Pesek said. But it is slowly becoming as accepted as traditional health care. His seminars count as continuing education credits required for doctors.

“I guess part of my lot in life is being ahead of my time. Iridology is my passion, and I am reviving it,” Pesek said. “It has been wonderful to see the changes that have taken place in public awareness.”

 

Scissors wizard

Name: Mark Ketch, 42, Leicester

Job: Sharpens scissors at beauty salons

Niche: Ketch makes a circuit of nearly 100 beauty salons in the area to sharpen the scissors of the stylists who work there.

“People normally have one good pair of scissors, maybe two. But they cannot afford to be without them,” Ketch said.

Ketch rolls up to each shop with his portable case of scissor sharpening tools every five or six months, often to an enthusiastic greeting.

Selling points: A good pair of hair styling scissors cost $250 minimum. Ketch has sharpened some that are as much as $1,000. More than the cost, however, stylists develop a personal attachment to their scissors and won’t let just anyone touch them.

“At $250, you can’t afford to have your scissors damaged, and I have seen some that are really damaged.”

Competition: Ketch said it seems like a there is a new scissors upstart every month.

“Like any business, probably 10 percent of people doing it are doing it correctly. The rest are just causing damage,” Ketch said. “Some people are doing serous damage to people’s scissors.”

One of his regular clients took pity on a man soliciting scissor business one day and let him sharpen her scissors.

“He took about four years off her scissors,” Ketch said. “I told her next time to give him $20 and send him home, but don’t let him touch your scissors.”

As a result, winning new clients is tough.

“It is really extremely difficult to get scissors from people. They have been burned so many times,” Ketch said.

If he can convince one stylist in a shop to let him do their scissors, they rave enough about his work the others become clients, too.

Ins and outs: Ketch considers his trade a mechanical one, and even describes himself as a little OCD — the abbreviative for obsessive-compulsive disorder — when it comes to scissors.

“It requires the ability to think analytically,” Ketch said. “My wife told me one time I treat each scissors like an individual. You have some scissors that you do have to learn.”

Ketch respects the attachment between stylists and their scissors. One stylist refused to part with a 20-year-old pair of scissors, even after Ketch sought out an identical model for her. The new ones didn’t have the familiar worn spots on the handles where her fingers rested, she said.

“I told her ‘Eventually we are going to get to the point where we aren’t going to be able to sharpen them anymore,’” Ketch said. But luckily the stylist retired first.

Pet peeves: Ketch services the gamut of beauty shops, from little old lady shops to the wild and boisterous to the ultra upscale chic. Occasionally a shop will be a little too chic for Ketch.

“There are some shops I have quit going to because of the attitudes,” Ketch said.

Industry advancements: “I remember the first $150 pair of scissors that came out. Everyone in town was talking about them,” Ketch said. “Now $150 will basically buy you a cheap pair of scissors.”

 

Train track inspector

Name: Tom Falicon, 53, Bryson City

Job: Inspect and repair the train track used by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Niche: Falicon never runs the rails without finding something wrong.

“The track is like a living being,” Falicon said. “The heavy train is running over it all the time. Water runs under it. The sun heats it up. The winter cools it down. It pulls apart and pushes together.”

From a loose spike to a rotten railroad tie, Falicon has to detect the problems and fix them before the train can pass that day.

Selling points: When Falicon rides down the track in his high-railer truck, it’s like a traveling mechanics shop.

“I have every size bolt we have on this railroad, every size joint bar, spikes, little wooden plugs that get pushed into the ties,” Falicon said, rattling through his arsenal.

His tool chest has two chainsaws — one to cut downed trees off the track and a back-up in case the first one gets stuck. He carries heavy duty chain link in case he has to replace a segment of track and needs to pull a spare segment into place.

Competition: Falicon’s top competition is staying one step ahead of the train. Falicon takes off down the tracks as soon as the sun rises and he can see to spot problems. If Falicon has to stop for lots of repairs, he can find the train barreling down on his crew before they’re done. They carry radios and use cell phones where possible to report their progress and have the train slow down if needed.

Ins and outs: Falicon’s found some weird things on the track that needed clearing, from a camper who pitched his tent on the tracks to a pick-up truck abandoned by an intoxicated driver the night before.

“We never know what we are going to find when we are heading up the rails,” Falicon said.

But Falicon isn’t just looking for the obvious. He’s even scrutinizing the way the track feels and sounds as potential signs of a problem.

“It’s not like we are gliding along just looking for downed trees,” Falicon said.

Pet peeves: While not exactly a pet peeve, Falicon has an arsenal of government forms and codes to adhere to. He records each inspection, the problems that were found, where they were found and how they were fixed. Each track problem has a code number — a 121.08 is a loose bolt, for example. Falicon has to consult a government manual to find the code for more obscure problems. He keeps three manuals handy to be on the safe side — one on the high-railer rig, one in the fire cabinet in the shop and one in his briefcase.

“There are books of government rules just inches thick that govern the railroad. It isn’t a thing to be taken lightly,” Falicon said of track inspections.

Industry advancement: Falicon is thankful for cell phones. They work along most sections of track. He can call the mechanics shop and tell them to meet him at a certain mile marker with a part or tool he doesn’t have, or check in with the train engineers to find out where the train is without using the radio.

 

Wig artist

Name: Bryce Hicks, 18, Cherokee

Job: Preps wigs and headdresses for performers in Cherokee drama Unto These Hills.

Niche: Hicks does the wigs and hair for a half dozen actors before the curtains open and dons others with headdresses backstage during scene changes in the show. Hicks is also equipped with a dark blue make-up caddy at his backstage station for mid-show touch-ups.

Selling point: Whether it’s a wig before the show or a headdress during a scene change, Hicks follows the golden rule of hair.

“My boss says if they don’t say ‘Ow’ at least once, it’s not on securely,” Hicks said.

Luckily, Hicks is a tall — 6-foot, 1-inch — and can reach most heads. A 5-foot, 2-inch co-worker has to stand on a stool.

Competition: Hicks is a popular wig and hair artist. He does the hair of more performers pre-show than any of the other hairdressers — 6 in 90 minutes. His performers often jostle over who gets done first.

Ins and outs: Once the show starts, so can the chaos, at least during scene changes. Some performers constantly dash up to him for make-up and hair checks, while others prone to problems don’t always check in and have to be monitored.

“We keep watch,” Hicks said, adding that they have learned which actors have more active dancing roles and sweat the most, needing more make-up touch ups.

There’s three types of headdresses: Cherokee, Shawnee and Creek. Only once that Hicks can remember did an actor run up to the wrong headdress station and get the wrong headdress for their part.

Pet peeves: Things can get a little hectic during the scene changes.

“I put four headdresses on in a matter of two minutes,” Hicks said.

Sometimes actors are in a hurry to get back on stage and dash off before Hicks feels comfortable with their headdress.

“When that happens you just stand there and pray to God it doesn’t fall off and hold your breath until the thing is over,” Hicks said.

It’s hardly happened enough to mention, but once or twice an actor forgot to turn in their headdress after the show.

“Before the show is over we take all of them out so we have control of them,” Hicks said. A quick rummage through dressing rooms usually produces the misplaced headdress, causing only temporary panic.

Industry advancement: For the first time, Hicks is using wigs from real human hair, which look more natural. Hicks keeps a little of the performers’ natural hair around their forehead to create a softer more natural hairline, called ventilating. It’s easier to blend the performers’ natural hairline with the real hair wigs.

 

Toying around

Name: Mike Bamford, Cashiers

Job: Toy consultant and designer

Niche: Bamford launches 100 new toy ideas and kids products a year to pitch to companies. About five make it to the shelves, a successful batting average in the toy business.

“It is kind of like a game of poker,” Bamford said. “Something about it has to strike that buyer’s fancy.”

Bamford is well known in the industry, enough so that companies come to him to develop a product they have in mind. Bamford doesn’t simply dream up sketches of cool toys on paper. His expertise is in manufacturing, delivering a tangible prototype in the company’s hands.

Selling point: The toy industry is full of great ideas. The problem is that most would cost $100 to make and could only sell for $10. That’s where Bamford comes in. His expertise is in developing toys and juvenile products that are profitable to make, whether they’re his own ideas or honing someone else’s.

Competition: A major toy company might get 10,000 ideas a year, but only 10 make it to production. Bamford is such a popular designer in the industry that toy companies hint at what they hope to see and invite him to make pitches.

It’s not unheard of for two toy consultants to pitch similar products. The consultant with the proven track record will win, Bamford said. If both are on equal standing, it comes down to price.

“This is where the rubber meets the road. They’ll say go sharpen your pencil,” Bamford said. “They are turning an item you have spent all this time working on into a commodity before your eyes.”

But Bamford understands the profit window for a company is short.

“You only have one year because the following year everyone will be copying your design,” Bamford said.

Ins and outs: Bamford has a resource team of 25 design specialists around the country to call on when needed.

“Some are wonderful with electronics. Some are wonderful with plastics. Some are wonderful with fabrics,” Bamford said.

The specialists are crucial when Bamford is under deadline. For example, Bamford got a call from a company that wanted to start a line of baby bouncers. They had a sales meeting with Wal-Mart in six weeks and needed Bamford to get them a proto-type by then.

“First thing, I start my textile people working on fabric ideas,” Bamford said. “I tell them I’m making a baby bouncer and I need several fabric sketches that would be cute, funky, very toyish and one or two ideas that would be very different.”

In the “very different” category, for example, was an idea to make the entire baby bouncer a character, like a frog, rather than just fabric with a frog print.

There was also the support frame, the toys mounted on it, including electronic lights and music, and the bouncy mechanism to nail down. So Bamford flew to China the next day for a factory tour. Bamford has lots of irons in the fire. Most trips to China he’s checking on a dozen or more toys he has in the development process.

“I think my record is visiting 45 different factories in two weeks,” Bamford said. His biggest challenge there is dodging the factory executives trying to wine and dine him and instead talk to the technical guys on the floor.

Pet peeves: Bamford is enamored by pet peeves — moms’ pet peeves that is. When hosting focus groups with moms to hone product development, his favorites are the complainers.

“When someone said ‘You know what really stinks?’ my brain would turn on and go ‘What?’” Bamford said. “Don’t tell me what you need, tell me what you hate. You can develop toy ides from that.”

Moms hate toys that need cleaning, for example, giving birth to a line of toys that can be thrown in the dishwasher for easy sanitizing, which proved especially useful for daycares.

Industry advancement: Of the 100 toy ideas Bamford starts out pursuing in a year, many hit technical dead ends.

“It might be two different pieces of plastic I couldn’t get to fit together or the electronics I couldn’t get to work,” Bamford said.

So he files the parts and ideas away for the day when technology will present itself to overcome the hurdle.

“I go to these bins every once in while and say, ‘Oh I know how I can fix this now,’” Bamford said.


Santa’s little elf

Name: Linda Torres, 38, Cherokee

Job: Operations manager for Santa’s Land

Niche: Torres has done just about every job in the amusement park over the past 17 years.

“Being one of Santa’s elves from the time you get out of your car in the morning to when you drive away is pretty unique,” Torres said. “What’s neat about it are the repeat customers. They think of me as a ticket booth elf or a train elf and then see me doing something else the next year.”

Selling point: Smiling is one of the top job requirements for Santa’s elves, and for Torres, it comes second nature despite her chronic migraines.

“Sometimes the train bell will work your nerves, or the boat bell, but you just have to carry on with it,” Torres said.

Torres said she has been at it so long she’s adopted the cheery demeanor as a lifestyle, occasionally grinning and saying hello to strangers in the grocery store.

“I realize I’m not at work and people are looking at me kind of weird,” Torres said.

Competition: Torres job is to make people happy, but sometimes she just can’t compete with a person determined to be down.

“Like in every industry you have the ones who no matter what you do you can’t make them happy,” Torres said. Most of the time it’s someone whose wife or kids dragged them to the park against their wishes and they’re being sullen to make a point.

Ins and outs: Getting your picture taken goes with the territory — between 50 to 100 times a day as the train operator — but Torres said she doesn’t stress over bad hair days.

“I just put my hair up and put my elf hat on and don’t worry,” Torres said.

Trying to be happy when a personal tragedy strikes at work can be tough. Her third year on the job she found out her father was diagnosed with cancer while working the ticket booth. She ran to the bathroom and cried, then threw water on her face and went back out with a smile.

Pet peeves: Not all parents take kindly to their children being disciplined by a Santa’s Land elf, even if their child could be in danger.

It’s typically basic stuff, like telling kids to keep their hands inside the cart and not jump out in front of the train cars.

“We are looking out for their safety, but you are correcting other people’s children and sometimes they don’t like it,” Torres said. “Other parents pick up on our cue and explain to their kids why they can’t do something.”

 

Cash register receipt paper salesman

Name: Ted White, 49, Asheville

Job: Sells receipt paper for cash registers, credit card machines and pay-at-the-pump

Niche: Every storeowner needs receipt paper for their machines. White just has to convince them to buy from him. It’s a far cry from his past job selling life insurance.

“If you can sell life insurance, which is an intangible product, you can sell something somebody can put in their hand,” White said.

Selling point: White loves the human side of sales.

“You know what keeps me going every morning when my alarm wakes me up? I wake up unemployed. Until I get on the phone and make that first phone call, no one has employed me that day,” White said.

Competition: White is no stranger to cold calls: walking into a business uninvited and trying to sell them cash register paper.

“Sometimes people say ‘I have a good relationship with the person I buy from,’ and I say, ‘Here’s my card. If you have an emergency don’t feel like you can’t call me.’”

Ins and outs: White said sales is all about building relationships with customers.

“Sometimes I see my customers and it’s not because I want to sell them something but I want to see how their son’s or daughter’s graduation went,” White said.

Unfortunately, White’s a salesman, not a technician.

“Quite frankly, there are some machines I don’t understand,” White said. “We are not what I would call cash register, credit card, or pay at the pump repair people.” White said he does know how to load most types of machines, however.

Pet peeves: White claims he rarely has glitches. If he is on a delivery route and realizes he forgot someone’s order, he gives them samples from his sales kit until he can get them their whole order. He said he’s never been on the road and had his cell phone die, either.

“At night when I come in and unload, the first thing I do is put my phone on the charger,” White said. White said he likes to have everything laid out for the next day before he goes to bed, from his call list to billing orders.

Industry advancement: Growth of pay-at-the-pump gas stations and the growing number of businesses that take credit cards — including fast food chains — has opened up a whole new line of receipt paper sales.

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