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Blue is the color of money
How twenty cents in blueberries led to billions in funds management. By Mark Dudley
When Catherine was 13 years old, there were no high paying jobs available (like cashier or waitress), so she had to earn her spending money during the summer months working in the blueberry fields, picking berries for 10 cents per pint. The season was limited, from about the second week in July to about the third week in August, when temperatures in the bushes routinely hit the high 90’s. But every morning at 7:00am, before the dew even dried off the grass, Cathy would pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bottle of Dr. Pepper into the basket on her three speed bike, and set off up Tryon St, up High St past the elementary school, across Main St where it was still too early for there to be much traffic, up the long, long hill on Hopewell Road, and finally down the last quarter mile of dirt driveway to the farmhouse. Some days too many kids showed up to pick, and the slow pickers were turned away. Cathy always got there early, and stood in the front, and never got left behind.
A novice can pick a couple of pints of blueberries in an hour, if they don’t stop to eat too many, earning less than $1.60 a day. A good picker can put down five or six pints in an hour, if the berries are in those big, beautiful clusters at the height of the season at first picking. A picker got credit for a full “flat” when all 12 pints were picked full, and so every couple of hours most pickers would deliver a full flat to the farmer’s truck at the front of the field. Lots of pickers tried to skimp on their pints so they could make more money. But the field manager made them keep the pints full, and often took one of the pints to top off the other 11. Cathy once picked a full “flat” of 12 pints, plus two pints for topping, in an hour. Cathy always topped off her flat with two additional pints of berries, instead of trying to get away with partially full pints. She saved the biggest, best berries for these last two pints, and spread them over the top of the first 12. Her flats were always a little fuller and her berries looked a little better than the other pickers. And the farmer noticed! When he promoted her to field manager he told her that he had been saving her flats for his best customers.
Cathy went on to hold more lucrative jobs than blueberry picker. She turned 16 and got a job as a cashier, and at 18 she served drinks as a waitress. Blueberry season was a distant memory by the time she got a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut magna cum laude and then, some years later a CFA, and went on to hold positions like “Senior Portfolio Manager,” and “Senior Portfolio Specialist” and managed mid and large cap funds and portfolios with assets worth many billions of dollars.
The key to anyone’s success is hard to pin down exactly; but maybe some of Cathy’s success came from her high productivity, giving more than was expected, and putting the best products on top? Even at 13 years old, Cathy seemed wise in some undefinable way. Riding bikes out of the farm driveway after a day of picking, gliding more than pedaling down the long, long Hopewell Road hill on the way home, Cathy would smile, satisfied, in the hot afternoon sun. It seemed as though she understood something about blueberries that the rest of us did not yet grasp.