A “Young Man’s” Tribute to William Krzciok
The text from my friend, Dan Jaime, hit me over the head like a sledgehammer. Bill Krzciok had passed away.
How do you process it when a friend, mentor, at times a father figure—a guy who’s supposed to live forever—dies on you? Men handle this stuff differently than women do. We aren’t supposed to cry. I’d do that later. At the moment I learned of Bill’s passing I thought it more dutiful to start calling and texting the people that I know loved him too…and that is a long damn list. I poked around and found out he passed on peacefully, in his sleep. Jimmy Hill told me that. My guess is that his heart must have worn out.
I’m 54 years old. I‘ve lost both of my parents, two in-laws and virtually all of the aunts and uncles I was close to. I even lost a younger cousin. The last six years have been brutal, funeral after funeral. But they were mostly all 80 or 90-something. Bill wasn’t that old. It wasn’t his time yet, damn it. There was that visit, the one where Beth and I would go see Bill and Diann in Vegas sometime this summer. But that trip didn’t happen. Life got in the way. I didn’t get one last weekend with Bill. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my buddy and my mentor before his heart wore out.
The first time I met Bill Krzciok was in the summer of 1987. I was a newly appointed sales coordinator with, American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus, Georgia. There was a big meeting and my manager, Jimmy Hill, introduced me to Bill.
“Billy Kraaaazook, get over here. I wantcha’ to meet the guy who’s gonna’ put Los Angeles on the map for American Family.”
Jimmy summoned Bill over. The lights in the ballroom bounced off his bald head as he jogged over. This bearded guy in the nice looking suit pumped my hand like he was looking for water, a big warm smile on his face. He looked me in the eyes and asked me about my background. He asked me if I was married, had kids. He told me how great Jimmy Hill was, but I already knew that. He spent a few minutes with me…told me I looked like a sharp guy, I should call him if I ever needed anything. He even told me to come visit him and his wife, Diann, the next time I was down near San Diego…he’d buy me a beer. I could tell at once his act wasn’t bullshit. He was just a really nice guy with a big heart, one that was working overtime.
I walked away from that brief introduction thinking, wow, that guy doesn’t override me or make a dime off me. He’s either the nicest, sweetest guy in the world, or…he’s trying to recruit me away from jimmy! LOL!
Five years passed before I saw Bill again, it was late October 1992.
During those five years I’d crashed and burned as a “scratch” regional sales coordinator with American Family. It wasn’t the company’s fault. My head wasn’t in the game. I eventually left American Family, made a series of questionable career decisions and then found myself broke, living back in my parent’s house.
I decided to pick up the phone and call my old friend, Jimmy Hill.
I thought that maybe the company that used to call themselves American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus, Georgia (and now called themselves Aflac) had a job for me. They were certainly smart enough to shorten their name, but I was hoping they were just dumb enough to hire me back. Jimmy was happy to hear from me, but informed me that he’d just accepted the state sales coordinator position in his home state of Virginia. He and his wife, Margaret, were in the process of moving back there.
He gave me Bill’s number.
“Hello young man. I remember you. Jimmy said you’d be calling. When can you come down to Vista and talk with me? I need a sharp guy like you up in L.A. When can we meet?”
With that, I borrowed gas money from my aunt Jean (did I mention I was broke?) and I steered my beat up Mazda RX7 south on the 5 down to Vista, California. I met with the bald Polish man with the bushy beard and the heart of gold. I couldn’t say “no” when he offered me the opportunity to build a “scratch” region in Los Angeles. I should have. I failed miserably trying to build a scratch region five years earlier. But I couldn’t turn the guy down.
He looked me in the eyes and said, “You can do this, and I’ll help you. I’ll drive up two days a week and help you…we can work side by side and get your team built. You can count on me.”
That was an understatement.
Not only could I count on him to help me build my team, I could also count on him to teach me how to think as a leader. I could also count on him set an example of how to be a husband, a friend and a caring human being. I could also count on him to always place others first, lead with his heart.
Two and a half years flew by. I was busy building the “team” Bill had promised we’d build, and also busy reinventing myself personally. I had met an angel from heaven named Beth and was bright enough to ask her to marry me.
Bill and Diann were the first Aflac people Beth had met as we began to date. I remember the weekend Bill and Diann invited Beth and I to stay at their home in Vista. Neither Beth nor I had ever been inside a home that big. We were so blown away by the size of Bill’s projection T.V. You have to remember…this was 1995…an 80 inch image on a screen was unheard of. And they had a popcorn machine…who has a real popcorn machine? And the huge kitchen and the pool and Jacuzzi with the views of north San Diego County? It was like we died and went to heaven, for the weekend.
But the thing that really blew Beth away was how warm Bill and Diann were. She was far more impressed with the kind of people Bill and Diann were than what material things they owned. We felt like family that weekend. Those two had big hearts and treated us like their kids. Oh…and it didn’t hurt that they had a wiener dog, named “Heidi.” Beth LOVES wiener dogs!
In November of 2014 I wrote a blog article that referenced Bill. I wrote that he wasn’t a big shot—he was simply one of us. He didn’t SEPARATE himself from the team; he bonded himself to the team, and the team to him. He did this with his inclusive actions, not empty words. He invited people into his home, treated them all like family.
In September of 1995 I received a phone call from the Territory Director of Aflac, Lynn Barnson. Lynn was Bill’s boss.
“We’re creating an operation focused on the Los Angeles market. Bill K. recommended that we split your team off from him. He told me to promote you and create a state operation around you.”
I thought Lynn was joking. I had to call Bill and ask him what the heck was going on, because nobody in sales—in their right mind—splits their own sales territory and reduces their own income. Bill calmly instructed me that I should meet with Lynn. He told me that it was my time to spread my wings and lead at a higher level.
Who the heck does that? Who, in this day and age, leads with their heart and does something that unselfish?
Working alongside Bill K. as a peer was never awkward. He treated me as an equal from the start and even deferred to me in meetings. He’d say things like, “You ought to ask Joe B., his opinion. He’s smarter than me.” We both grew our teams and created the nucleus of what became one of the most powerful growth curves that Aflac had ever experienced. Guys like Bill, myself, Ray Blackshear and Les Heinsen placed California on the map for Aflac. If there was a better, more rewarding time in my professional life, I can’t recall it.
Bill called me one day and asked, “Hey you want to throw out the first pitch at an Angel game?”
I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. Bill K. loved baseball as did I and we were going to be able to throw out the first pitch at a major league game. He told me that we were both invited. I was so stoked. We made our way out to the mound and we both threw perfect strikes to Rex Hudler! Think about it…four and a half years earlier, I was flat broke, borrowing gas money from my aunt to drive to an interview with Bill, and now I was a successful state coordinator for a Fortune 500 company, tossing out the first pitch at a major league baseball game with Bill right beside me!
But there was even more to that story. “WE” weren’t invited to throw out the first pitch…HE was.
Bill was given the invitation…but he wanted to include me. He knew how big a thrill it would be for me. He made a call and wrangled an invitation for me too. Can you believe that? Who has a heart that big to think of other people all the time?
The rest of the story, as they say, is history. The little “scratch” regional team in Los Angeles that became a small state operation eventually became a hundred million dollar block of business for Aflac. I experienced a legendary run, with a legendary team. I became rich along the way and a lot of others did too. I had some decent mentors during the balance of my run, but privately, whenever faced with a leadership challenge, I’d ask the question, what would Bill K. or Jimmy Hill do?
It was those dudes with the big hearts that I strived to emulate, not the colder, more pragmatic leadership style of the day.
They simply don’t make them like Bill Krzciok anymore. And while I am on this subject, that don’t make them like Jimmy Hill, Mike Quinn, Frank Davies or Bill Wenberg. Those people lead with their hearts. They knew that beating up people and muscling the numbers wasn’t the prudent solution. They knew that people drive numbers, not the reverse! Some of the leadership of the moment may be smarter, in fact I guarantee they are, but if they choose not to lead with heart they won’t have as much fun, won’t have sustained success and they won’t touch as many people and won’t leave a great legacy.
And, after all…isn’t that the point of leadership in the first place, to touch as many people as possible…to leave a legacy behind?
In time, I watched Bill K. retire, then un-retire and move to southern Illinois, move back to San Diego County, and then retire again. His lack of ability to do nothing and relax, even though he’d made a lot of money, was something we had a good laugh at, but also something I now understand, all too well.
We used to see Bill and Diann more when they lived in North San Diego County. They eventually moved to the Las Vegas Valley and we didn’t get to see them as often. I retired, un-retired and then retired again between 2008 and 2014.
I guess I just had to emulate my great friend and mentor in that regard as well.
Beth and I tried to get over to Vegas to see Bill and Diann. We’d have a lunch, have a drink, anything to grab a few minutes with them. We went over to their home up in the hills, south of town. They had a view of the Strip, they had the old popcorn machine there in the family room, and they had a new wiener dog. “Fritz” was the latest addition to the Krzciok family.
During the summer of 2014 I traveled to Vegas to compete in a golf tournament. I reached out to Bill and Diann and learned Bill was in the hospital. I drove straight over and spent about an hour sitting on the end of Bill’s bed, laughing with him, telling the old stories again, for about the millionth time. I hated to leave that day, and I told him we’d be back in October for a Jimmy Buffett concert. I made him promise that they’d have a Margarita with Beth and I.
We did get to see Bill and Diann that October. We met up at the Parrot Head party at the Flamingo Hotel and we sat there taking down cocktails making fun of everyone that passed us by wearing beads and pirate hats and coconut bras. As always, we laughed our asses off and had a blast, but I could tell Bill was weary. His damn heart. It was wearing out.
The last time we were with Bill and Diann was a couple of months later, in December of 2014. One of the all-time great guys, Geoff Malais, was retiring. His retirement party was at my house and Bill and Diann drove in for the event. It was so good to see Bill that night, mixing with a bunch of old friends from Aflac, as well as some new ones. Bill loved Aflac people. I was able to introduce Bill to some people that night that he’d never had a chance to meet. These were the next generation of Aflac salespeople and sales leaders. They had only heard me talk about Bill, they’d never had a chance to talk to him.
“Oh, wow…so you’re Bill K.? Joe B. has told me so much about you!”
Just about everyone at the party had a chance to meet Bill and Diann. It was as if those guys were meeting a living legend…and they were. We had a blast that evening and then Bill and Diann drove back to Vegas the next morning. We talked about getting together during the summer. But you know how it goes. Like I said…life gets in the way. And I’m flying all over the country doing the speaking and training gigs. Busy, busy, busy.
I would call Bill whenever I thought of him. When I did reach him, it was hard for him to talk. I could tell it was an effort. He was battling quite a few things along with having a heart that was worn out. The last time I spoke to him on the phone he told me…
…“I’m proud of you young man. You’re so smart and you’re such a good father and husband. Let’s get together this summer.”
And that last visit with Bill never happened. And I didn’t have that last time to say, “thank you.”
And I get the text that Bill has passed.
I received a call from Jimmy Hill shortly after I got the text. I talked to Jimmy for a few minutes. He was devastated. Bill was like a brother to him. I had to end the call. I was going to start sobbing and guys don’t do that in front of other guys.
So I’m left to do this, sit on my couch on a Friday afternoon, alone, trying to work out my feelings. Trying to put some thoughts down on paper because it’s easier for me that way. I thought this guy would live forever…always be there with his big Polish smile and the kind words that made me feel so damn good.
But he isn’t here anymore because his heart wore out before the rest of him did.
And I have a theory on that. In my way of thinking, he simply gave too much of his heart away and overworked what was left. He gave freely of his heart to his family and anyone that was his friend. He left his heart all over his hometown in Chesaning, Michigan and then when Bill and Diann relocated to California, he began to scatter pieces of it all over San Diego, Orange County, the Inland Empire and Los Angeles.
His heart didn’t stand a chance, so on Thursday morning, September 3rd, what was left of his heart just wore out.
But if you look at it the way I choose to, he did what we all should strive to do…leave a piece of our heart with everyone we touch and then die with our hearts worn out.
I think this was Bill’s plan. He knew there’d be a brand new heart waiting for him in heaven.
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Joe Buzzello is a nationally recognized expert on direct selling and sales leadership. He has built legacy sales teams and experienced unprecedented success in individual and business-to-business markets as well as the network marketing industry. Joe has held executive level positions for Fortune 500 companies, but he has never strayed far from the art and science of selling, which he loves. In early 2014, Joe began writing, speaking, and coaching through his proprietary platform, The CAP Equation©. Please visit Joe at: http://www.CAPequation.com