How I Learned To Salute My Customers

Lessons from the U.S. Navy

Life is timing and mine was pretty good. The Vietnam War was at flank speed in the mid to late 1960s, and though I was sworn into the Navy in January, I would not report to Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, until June. I needed a job.

I interviewed in a hurry with several different companies in different industries. There was mutual interest in most cases, until I informed them that I was sworn into the Navy and would be leaving in June for active duty. Only one company, the industrial gases division of Union Carbide Corporation, thought that was all right with them. I spent about 100 days in the Cryogenic Equipment Department, learning to sell the Polarstream Liquid Nitrogen in-transit refrigeration system, a baptism by fire at cryogenic temperatures.


U.S. Army Staff Sergeants and Professional Praxair Drivers Joel Brekke (left) and Ed Selzler outside their U.S. Army National Guard welding tent somewhere in Iraq, which they used for uparmoring vehicles. Says Brekke, “Having access to welding and metal fabrication equipment was an essential part of completing our Iraq mission.” He adds, “I am sure this is the only welding 'store' in Iraq with a Praxair sign on it.” Both men are back on the job; Brekke in Fargo, ND, and Selzler in Aberdeen, SD.

Discharged following four years of active duty and another 26 in the Navy Reserve, I was able to sustain parallel careers in the Navy and at Praxair. I retired from the Navy at the rank of Captain, with my final assignment of Navy Liaison Officer to the State of New Jersey during Governor Christine Whitman’s administration.

Emergency response and preparedness was the Mission and the Navy’s response, if needed, to the state’s needs as they would arise. Simultaneously, over the years at Praxair, I was in various assignments in Cryogenics and then in Bulk Gas Sales, and ultimately into Welding, Gases and Distributors, which is where I’ve served for over 20 years. My current assignment is Director of Distributor Relations, based in Cary, North Carolina. My focus is the East Coast and the Independent Praxair Distributors who serve as Praxair’s channel to the numerous strategic markets located here.

“Earn Your Bones”
Though I was not consciously aware of it at the time, my preparation for a business career began the day I raised my right hand and swore an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution of the United States, and to obey the lawful orders of the officers appointed over me. That cold January day, I was placed on notice that as a commissioned officer in the United States Navy, my Mission would, for the foreseeable future, be the welfare and protection of my country and the preservation of the Constitution upon which the United States rests. I would be accountable to as-yet unnamed but soon-to-be-identified senior officers who would lead me and my cohorts in discharging our duty.

The conscious awareness of what had actually happened that January day was not long in coming. It was sobering, yet comforting, that we had a clear Mission that would validate and give real meaning to all our activities. Very importantly, we were being inducted into an organization that brought a tradition and history of making all this happen. These people knew what they were about. They were professional in what they did in every encounter, every day. They led by example and that made all of us newcomers want to be just like them. “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” was not a clever mantra. It was how the Navy operated, and it was up to us to learn fast and to learn to lead as well. As in any undertaking, we had to begin with ourselves.

The core values of Loyalty, Integrity, Respect, Ethics and what I would call Decisiveness were demanded. In an operational environment, we quickly learned who it was we were working with. We also found out about ourselves. Achievement was cross-functional. It took many skills and specialties to produce the desired result, and we developed an acute awareness that as individuals we were all accountable. The Team was depending upon us to do it right, and do it now. You had to “earn your bones,” and the quickest way to do that was to have yourself trained and ready to respond. We were all challenged and motivated to find a way to “make it happen.”

Once a person was identified as someone who wasted their life finding reasons why something could not or should not be done, their career was over. Nothing happened unless we made it happen, and there were no excuses. We owed it to each other to do it well and do the right thing. The last thing anyone wanted was to look into the faces of his teammates and see the look of reproach over a false word or a job left undone or left for others to do. The Team knew.

The military was cutting edge in bringing down racial and gender barriers. The Department of Defense (DoD) was light years ahead of private enterprise in recruiting, hiring and promoting a gender-neutral, multicultural workforce, both civilian and uniformed. Awareness and sensitivity training was the order of the day, long before “Zero Tolerance” became a byword inside and outside DoD. Absence of Respect—for authority, lawful orders or each other—destroys effectiveness. It was and continues to be rooted out whenever it is encountered, along with all practitioners of this black art.

Capt. John Gilsenan

Captain John S. Gilsenan, United States Navy, 1996

The Ethics of the Navy and the expected comportment for all its members was always on display. As noted earlier, getting the job done and done right was a given. Equally important was how the job was accomplished. In fact, the Navy required that every reporting senior would take specific note in every Fitness Report for officers and Annual Evaluation for enlisted personnel as to what was accomplished and how it was done. The end did not justify the means. You had to be high performing, but never at the expense of your shipmates or the overall good order and discipline of the Command.

Decisiveness was always valued as essential to good order and discipline. Morale flows from both of those. Leaders who lose sight of the Mission grow ambivalent and ineffective. Keep the Mission in sight at all times, do all it takes to support it, and discard the rest, ruthlessly.

Safety at all times and in all activities was stressed without compromise. We had to be able to take the word of our Teammates and act upon it without hesitation. People’s lives depended upon it. Going to sea is not for the faint of heart even in peacetime, which is most of the time. Ships are engineering marvels, but like so many marvels, they can be dangerous places. The ocean is not cooperative. Combustible fuels and ammunition of lethal capability surrounded us. Hazards to navigation in the form of other vessels or the rocks and shoals commonly encountered during every entry and exit from port all combine to create a degree of life-threatening difficulty that demands vigilance.

As an aside, I often hear business and warfare compared to each other as if they have a whole lot in common. Nothing could be further from the truth. Business does not demand anyone give up their life. Warfare, by contrast, is designed to do so. To compare the two demeans the sacrifice of the people who die in service, the cause for which they did so, and the families that mourn them. I suspect that the speakers who engage in this hyperbole are personally unfamiliar with warfare. They would do well to refrain from commenting about that of which they know nothing.

Tradition of Achievement
I left active service and entered the business world with a keen understanding that in order to achieve anything I would have to start with myself. Did I have a clear picture of what the Mission is for Praxair? What are my Team or Group goals for contributing to the overall Mission, and what is the Strategy that guides our actions? What is my contribution to be? What training do I need to secure for myself immediately and in the future so that I am not found wanting?

Like the Navy, Praxair has a long tradition of achievement and talented professionals who are accustomed to winning and to being a part of a Team – a part of something really fine. As in the Navy, this is a cross-functional opportunity to work and share the ride with motivated professionals, and I was comfortable with the challenge, having done it before.

Getting the Job Done and Getting It Right
In reviewing all the traits, virtues, values and challenges that were drilled into me and which I attempted to describe above, one can readily see the parallels to our Industrial and Specialty Gas and Welding Industry. There is not a businessman or woman in our midst who is not confronted with similar hazards and opportunities of product or environment that our military personnel don’t encounter every day.

We all need to know The Mission and our role in achieving it. We owe it to our people to ensure they understand their role as well. We must do it all with our Integrity intact and our Loyalty to each other and our organizations uncompromised, with Respect for our colleagues and the customers and communities we serve. Again, we must be Decisive in all our dealings inside and outside our company. No one wants to be a part of a lukewarm effort. If you believe in what you do, then act it.

Finally, while doing all of the above, we must do it in a Safe manner. We are all familiar with the hazards and challenges our products present to our people, our customers and our communities. We all have homes and families to go to at the end of each day, and we should all work to make sure we all make it. I believe we as an Industry do an admirable job of doing this today, reflected in the enviable safety record we have achieved. However, we can all get better at anything we do in life and Safe Operation is an area in which continuous improvement is not an option, but rather a noble imperative.

I try to keep the U.S. Navy’s long tradition of honor, courage and commitment as an unfailing part of my daily life, the core of how I operate in business and in life. Just as I learned as a sailor “non sibi sed patriae,” that it is not self but country, I’ve learned in the specialty gas and welding business that it is not self, but customer. For those lessons, I am grateful.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
John Gilsenan Meet the Author
Captain John S. Gilsenan, USN (Ret.), is director of distributor relations for Praxair, Inc’.s Eastern Region. Based in Cary, North Carolina, he can be reached at 919-854-4345 or