The $10,000 Screwdriver

by Peter Cotton, founder and president of Best Sales Talent, LLC



You may have seen the 2014 Olympic Gold Medal Winner Figure Skater.  Her short program was just 2 minutes and 50 seconds in duration, but during that time, she had to perform eight required elements. She glided over the ice with graceful ease executing flawless spins and other maneuvers. Sotnikova made her performance look so beautiful it appeared as if she found it extremely easy to do. Yet we know it wasn’t easy at all. She spent many years in extensive training to reach that level of performance. She practiced that short program day and night for many months before her Olympic win.

Usain Bolt is regarded as the fastest person ever on earth. He is the first man to hold both the 100 meter world record at 9.58 seconds and the 200 meter world record at 19.19 seconds. Other athletes compete in individual events that take much longer to finish, like swimming in the 400 meter individual medley, or the grueling 10km marathon swim. One could argue that performing in a race that can be completed in 9.58 seconds is very little time or effort for receiving a gold medal. Yet we know that Bolt must have gone through long and arduous years of training to make it appear that it was easy to win the gold.


You go to the doctor about a pain in your knee and learn you have a torn meniscus. The doctor has done thousands of these surgeries and he tells you it will be an easy fix. He performs a simple arthroscopic meniscus tear repair on your knee in about 15 minutes. The charge for the surgery is $9,000. That’s $600 a minute. We don’t complain because we need the surgery. We also know that the doctor went through college to get an undergraduate degree, then four years of medical school, followed by four to six years of orthopedic surgery residency in a hospital. We don’t pick the surgeon based on his fees to perform surgery. We choose him because he is a good surgeon and we have confidence that he will make us well again. He has the expertise that makes it seem easy.

A lawyer acts on behalf of a client defending a man for a crime of murder which he didn’t commit. It might take weeks or months to try the case. The lawyer went to college, three years of law school and passed the bar exam. She has also had many years of legal practice. She knows the law and knows what she is doing. She is masterful in the courtroom and she proves to the jury, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that her client was completely innocent of the charge. She makes it seem easy, but we know it wasn’t. In order to get an acquittal spending $50,000 to $100,000 on the defense is an excellent investment if it keeps the client out of a life sentence in prison, or worse, from being sentenced to death.

These examples of hard work, study and professional expertise can make things appear to look easy. They are also true in business. Some professionals make what they do look easy, while their customers sometimes object to what they charge. It reminds me of the story of the $10,000 screwdriver:

Early one morning, Bob Sullivan, an east-coast plant manager, who supervised 500 workers in a major manufacturing operation, was met with a big surprise when he arrived at work. His 24-hour assembly line conveyor system came to a sudden and complete stop. His 500 workers were standing around, drinking coffee or playing cards, unable to do their work. This was costing Sullivan’s company considerable money for every hour the line was shut down. He had his best in-house maintenance repairmen attempt to resolve the problem. Try as they did, they were unable to get the conveyor system, which moved heavy parts through the assembly line, to get moving again.

Sullivan called the conveyor system manufacturer, but their only available technician was on the west coast and the earliest they could get anyone out to repair the system would be late the next day. This meant that the 700 units they need to produce each day would be delayed for at least forty-eight hours. 1,400 units or more would not be produced on time. A shut-down like this would prevent them from fulfilling contracts with their customers, costing them even more money.

Sullivan remembered that months earlier a consultant by the name of Johnson, who specialized in industrial engineering repairs and service, had called on him. Johnson had spoken to him about his service contracts that would ensure plant operational efficiency and cost savings on the in-house manufacturing systems. Sullivan didn’t take advantage of Johnson’s proposal thinking his services were too expensive. However, Sullivan had saved Johnson’s business card. Desperate to get his people back to work and his production line moving again, Sullivan pulled Johnson’s business card from a drawer and called him:

“I’m in a real jam here, Johnson! I need your help! My assembly line is down and my 500 workers are twiddling their thumbs. I can’t get the repair technician here for at least 48 hours. The company will be losing big money if I don’t get this fixed right away and my job is on the line. Can you get down here right away? I’ll pay whatever your fee is just to get this place producing again.”

Johnson said, “Sorry to hear of your trouble. I’d be happy to come down to see if I can be of some help to you. I’ll leave right away. I’ll be there in less than a half hour.”

Twenty-five minutes later, Johnson is standing on the plant floor with Sullivan, asking a few questions of the workers and the production supervisor to ascertain what had occurred. Armed with that information, Johnson walks over to the conveyor system’s large main control panel. He studies all the electronics inside the panel for a moment, looks at the schematic posted on the inside door of the console, and reaches into his pocket to take out a tiny screwdriver. Inserting a hand deep into the wires of the console, he can feel that a wire is disconnected. He reconnects it and moves some other wires out of the way, where he locates a tiny, hidden screw, which probably nobody knew was there. He inserts his screwdriver and gives the screw a quarter turn to the right. The conveyor system lurches back into motion and the parts start to move down the assembly line at their usual speed. All the workers went back to their rightful places and the manufacturing process was fully underway once again. Johnson was in the plant for a total of 10 minutes.

Sullivan was thrilled. “Thank you so much!” says Sullivan. “You got me out of some very serious trouble. What do I owe you?”

Johnson pulls a blank invoice out of his briefcase, writes on it and hands it to Sullivan.

“$10,000 !??! Are you out of your mind!??! That’s highway robbery!! That’s $1,000 a minute!!” says Sullivan.

Johnson replies: “My fee is quite typical in my industry. I did come here almost immediately to solve your problem for you. Your plant would have been down for at least two days. I have put your people back to work and I have saved your company far more than my fee.”

“Well, I’m not paying that much for a few minutes of work!” said Sullivan.

Johnson smiled, walked back to the conveyor system main control panel, disconnected the wire he had previously connected, and turned the same little hidden screw a quarter turn to the left. The conveyor system came to a sudden stop. Walking back towards Sullivan, he hands the screwdriver to him saying, “OK. Here’s a gift that is easily worth $10,000 — after you spend 25 years learning what to do with it!”

Peter Cotton is an executive recruiter with over 40 years of experience.  He is the Founder and President of Best Sales Talent, LLC., a Franklin, MA executive search firm specializing in search, recruitment and placement of the very best sales, sales management and marketing personnel. 



Twitter: @pcotton

Privacy Preference Center