I Negotiated A High Base Salary and It Backfired On Me! - Published by Stephen Viscusi Stephen Viscusi, on March 30, 2022

Dear Stephen,


I have twice started jobs where within 2 years of the start date I lost the jobs as a direct result of asking for, and then receiving, too high a base salary.  I know this because each time I am let go, the owner or CEO will explain my salary is an expense they need to reduce.  Even when I offer to renegotiate the base salary they let me go, for fear I will jump when a higher salary comes along. On the last job I did not meet revenue expectations in that two year period, but I do not think what they forecasted, in terms of sales was realistic.

I feel I was worth what I was being paid, especially considering the companies I was working for.  My job history is that I had been a regional VP of Sales at one of the major contract furniture companies. I have an MBA and I am in my late 40’s. I have the polished demeanor that dealers and smaller manufacturers often lack and it’s hard for them to attract that type of executive.  I bring the pedigree of the fancy “major “ I worked at for ten years.  And yes, and I am a bit arrogant, I will say it before you do, but it seems to work in my favor. 

Like I said, I had a cake job with one of the billion dollar manufacturers and could have just coasted along, but when a smaller manufacturer  and dealer dangled the title of “President “in front of me, I couldn’t resist the temptation.  There was no comparison prestige-wise, but I was never going to get ahead at the big guy - unless I moved to the Midwest.  Not happening.

With these 2 last jobs I had, one a dealer and one a manufacturer, the base salary was 50% more then the base I was making. I knew they wanted me, just the idea that a Teknion or Allsteel or Kimball dealer could get someone like me, and that put me in a great bargaining position. I looked good, I had the image of the leading manufacturer that they so wanted, and if they hired me I would make them seem more legitimate in the market and maybe even attract a better level of sales employee.  You get the idea. Hey, do not blame me for mentioning what we all know to be a reality - you can see it happen at Steelcase dealers, and they are at the top on the dealer pecking order and, for instance, it could happen at smaller players like Allermuir or Friant who may want to magnify their image.

You could think of it this way, sports teams pay up for a star player in football, basketball or baseball and it’s the same here, these companies were trading up and we all know they have to pay.  BTW, I have not worked for the companies I mention here, they simply illustrate my point.  I do not want people to know it is me, but in every part of the country there is a “B” manufacturer or dealer wanting someone from an “A” level company so it could be anyone, anywhere. 

Each job interview was the same, they would make an offer and I keep saying no, the more I said no the more they upped the base.  Then I finally made it clear - if they wanted me I was motivated by a high base not a promise of future incentives, and I always ended up with close to $300K, at businesses that did less the 50 million dollars.  These were jobs that started around $200K or less, when they first called me!

Now in both cases, within two years, the owners did not see the return on the investment they wanted, and they are “over the glow” of the PR they got by hiring me, and I am out.  They said the reason is that the base salary was just too high.

I know I can do this again because there is always a desperate dealer in search of a leader from one of the big companies and I still look and talk and play the part.   Dealer or manufacturer it is the same thing, let’s face it, the worst the line the more I can take them for. 


Even overseas companies and now the private equity companies are buying up in our industry and eyes light up when they see where I worked at that big fancy company, which is now 6 years ago. But this up and down is draining.  Any advice on my next gig?  Should I go for the big bucks and bank it, like I have been doing…. or take a more normal salary and have the job security?



Take the Money and Run

 Dear Money Runner,


First let me say I am glad we have never placed you, and I hate to admit it but what you said has a ring of truth to it.  I would not use your language, but I would agree, the weaker the brand, the more the dealer or manufacturer has to pay in a base salary to hire a major player. Plain and simple.  Yet you sound like you cannot deliver sales results, which is what we advise our clients to pay salaries for, not “pedigree”.  That is ridiculous.
I know candidates love a high base salary, and it is tempting to see how far you can push the envelope.  And, yes, dealers and manufacturers with smaller revenues always look for a wow hire and they always will consider a person who has worked at MillerKnoll, Steelcase, or Haworth.  Less known brands think if you have worked at one of these places it is the equivalent of having an MBA.

Let’s face it if own an Allsteel, Kimball,  dealership…. you are marrying up if you are able to poach an employee in management from the big three manufacturers to lead your dealership.  Not because of the brand or pedigree of those big companies, but because these big companies actively train employees, expect measurable results, and have a culture of mutual respect. (Some of which it sounds like you did not learn!)

I get why you think you can ask for more money, and I even get while you may initially get it, but with all the chaos in the contract furniture world today created by supply-chain issues, the MillerKnoll merger, and private equity firms picking up more companies, I really think there are no 2nd banana manufacturers or dealers.  This is old time snobbery that does not have a place anymore.  There are very few bad companies to work for, there are just bad employees with outdated attitudes. And some stupid owners who may buy into what you said, and will hire anyone with Steelcase, Herman Miller or Knoll or their resume.  What are they really getting for their money? An executive that has sold  a strong brand that almost sells itself. 

You are not arrogant you are just a con artist.  There are plenty of people like you in this industry, and a new one every day. If your main goal is just about making a lot of money, that is…. an above average salary compared to others in the world…would you really choose the contract furniture industry? or Carpeting? Lighting?  Come on.  

Our industry is about sales and relationships, and you are only as good as your last sale.  If your resume or LinkedIn profile is filled with adjectives like: #coaching, #team, #connector, #team building, #storytelling, chances are you are in the wrong industry. And I bet all of those words are in your Linked Profile!

Let me answer your question:  There is nothing wrong with getting a high a base salary if you are delivering the revenue. People like you know how to push and manipulate, but I have never seen that job last more than 2 years. Often even when the revenue is there, the high base, or what it took you to get it in terms of annoying the boss, means you started off on the wrong foot.  Furniture manufacturers and dealers are not sports teams, and you are way off base (pun intended).

Some people do this repeatedly then return back to their original job… say at Humanscale or somewhere else where they are invariably hired back. But if you are a long term player and looking for a job for ten years not two years, go with a reasonable base salary and high incentive and understand that is the way it traditionally works in the industry you are in. The higher the base the closer you are to getting fired at the slightest downturn in business.  And with inflation high and interest rates going up, and then going up again….. a 2023 recession is not impossible. 
I would be looking for a long term job, not a short term heavy cash pay-out because let’s face it even the best salary you get in this industry is still never going to be the same as a sports star or a hedge fund trader.