The Touch Ch. 12byGreenFingers©
WARNING TO READERS - This is a long, rambling, multi-part story and VERY British. The individual chapters will make more sense if read in sequence.
Chapter 12: Family Business
The rest of the week was pretty routine. Maggie and I interviewed a further eight candidates between Tuesday and Wednesday and recruited three more people onto the team.
The first was a very pleasant man, Graham Young, who was 22 and had been working as a labourer and gardener for Southampton City Council, Parks and Gardens Department so had a fair amount of experience and knowledge but no formal training. He had just got married and was a buying house in Laverstock and so was looking for a job move to Salisbury. Both Maggie and I thought that he was probably better suited to a growers position than just a labourer and offered him a post on that basis. He seemed really keen and we agreed that he would give a month's notice and start with us at the end of February.
Steve Underwood, was 24 and ex-army, and had applied for one of the jobs as a yardman, a general labourer, he looked strong and tough and seemed cheerful, willing and intelligent and could start the next Monday. The building work was progressing quickly and that meant that we constantly had to work in front and behind the construction work moving and tidying and desperately needed some extra muscle. I had quite a long chat with him as he was leaving and discovered that he had been a driver in the service. I later suggested to Maggie that if he was still with us when the improvements were finished we might wish to consider him for the regular delivery driver's job.
The last applicant that we took on that week was Josie Dobbs, who was a woman in her mid-forties and had worked all her life in market garden farming. She was large and round with a jovial face and a deep burbling laugh and seemed to know everything there was to know about vegetables and fruit. She was the widow with six children and desperately needed a job that she could fit in around school holidays. We thought that she would be ideal to help run the new farm produce shop when it opened she already knew everything about vegetable gardening and seemed really enthusiastic about the scheme.
We now had three new members of staff starting on Monday which was good as Debbie and Joanna would be leaving on Friday to return to university.
Despite the mess that we thought the garden centre presented during the building work we were actually very busy that week and Maggie and I were run ragged trying to hold everything down at once. Debbie was absolutely terrific and worked like a Trojan with Jack and Mikey to get the greenhouses scrubbed and disinfected. Joanna manned the shop everyday with very little help and without complaint; whilst Emma alternated between looking after the telephone, helping with customers and clearing out the two upstairs store rooms, which Maggie had decided we should turn into an additional office and a design studio. Maggie and I shared the job of mingling with the customers, giving advice and just filled in wherever we were needed. I was out for at least a couple of hours every day making deliveries of plants, trees, sacks of compost or potash and garden furniture. The mild, dry weather was definitely working in our favour.
We had a order for a dozen large, and expensive, winter hanging baskets for The Compasses Inn at Lower Chicksgrove which I had promised to deliver on Friday, Jack already had the baskets planted up with ivy, heathers, dwarf conifers and winter pansies and so I decided to load them into the van and take them out to the customer in the afternoon. I had just finished loading the van when Maggie came out of the office and waved to me to wait for her.
"If you are going over to The Compasses," she said, "I'll come with you, then we can drive back via Wilton, one of the dealers there is advertising a nearly new Land Rover for sale that I think we should take a look at!" The little Morris Marina van was now ten years old and starting to burn almost as much oil as petrol and so we had agreed that it was time to have a serious look at the business requirements for new vehicles. The van was to be replaced with a general purpose pick-up truck, the old ex-army 1970's Leyland Terrier, flat bed lorry was still serviceable and would stay, but we wanted to add in a four wheel drive vehicle and a couple of on site vehicles, a mini tractor and a small fork lift truck.
The fifteen or so mile drive out to Lower Chicksgrove gave Maggie and I chance to talk. One of the subjects that she raised was about the financial side of the business. She told me that the expansion of the business was being financed from her own resources without a bank loan, I knew that she had money, but I hadn't realised how much, this was a mega spend.
When she decided to start the garden centre business after her first husband, Robert, died she had bought the farm which abutted the land on which her house stood, at a bargain price. I had always assumed that the land she had acquired was the plot on which the garden centre compound stood, next to the main road, and the back field which linked the business site and the house. In fact, the old Oakwood Farm had been much larger and Maggie also owned the two massive fields the other side of the back lane, and two more beyond the house, which were rented or leased out to local farmers and provided her with additional income. There had also been a row of near derelict cottages which she had re-furbished as four decent sized houses which had been sold to finance the business expansion. The London commuter belt had expanded out as far a Salisbury and nice properties were at a premium.
I was a bit shocked when she said that she wanted me to come in to the bank with her sometime in the next week so that she could add my name to the company current account.
"Even though the garden centre is a sole trader business at the moment," she explained, "There were always two signatories on the current account who could sign cheques, since Ben left there have only been me, which means that nobody can make any payments if I am not around, so I need you to have that access."
I could see the business logic behind the decision and was really happy with the idea that Maggie trusted me that much. It also gave me an opening to ask a question that had been troubling me for some time.
"Maggie, you don't have to answer this but...." I opened tentatively, "What is happening with 'Ben the Bastard' these days?" I paused and then added, "The girls told me that he had called the other day and they were worried about you ... I am too! ..... If he...!"
"There nothing to worry about... really there isn't," she replied, and patted my leg reassuringly. "He called me because my solicitor had sent him the papers about a formal separation and a divorce notification, but he is gone and will definitely NOT be coming back!"
We pulled into the car park of the Compasses Inn, naturally, being out of licensing hours, the pub was closed. I started to unload the van whilst Maggie went and found the landlord. I helped him to carry the baskets around to the back of the pub and chatted to him about the care of the plants. While he was writing out the cheque in payment to us his wife came and asked if we would like coffees, there was no real hurry so Maggie said yes, and took the mugs and sat outside on one of the garden benches. I sat down beside her; she obviously wanted to talk further now that I had got the ball rolling.
"There are a couple of things that I want you to know." Maggie opened up, "Firstly, I have applied to change my name by Deed Poll from Gregory back to De Vere! Now, I haven't told anybody at all about this yet, not even Lucinda and Lauren," she added. "So it needs to stay just between you and me for now, OK!"
"Yes, of course," I promised, "But I think the girls will be pleased."
"Secondly, and this does effect all of us!" she started, "I have been talking to Uncle Arthur who has suggested that I should change the status of the business to a Limited Liability Company."
I just raised my eyebrows; I wasn't one hundred percent sure how that would change things, so I just kept quiet and listened.
"My splitting up with Ben could really have put the business in jeopardy!" she explained, "He may have been a serial adulterer, but fortunately he wasn't a crook.... If he had have been he could have cleaned us out, before I managed to lock him out of my finances! It made me think that I needed to find a way to protect the business and the people that I care about."
I pulled a face but kept silent.
"I have talked it over with my solicitor as well and he is in agreement that it would be the best way forward," She went on. "It would mean forming a board of directors and issuing shares. What we came up with, as an outline proposal, is that I should continue to hold fifty-two percent of the voting shares, the controlling interest. The remaining forty-eight percent of voting shares would be split equally between you and your mother, and there would be a further issue of investment shares spread between Lauren, Lucinda and Emma. The business would be fully owned by the family, and will provide future security for the twins and Emma."
She leaned up close to me and hooked her arm through mine and hugged it to her then continued, "The voting shareholders, you and me, would be the company directors responsible for managing and running the business on a day to day basis, with Gwen having a casting vote. Uncle Arthur has offered to act as a non share holding Company Secretary responsible for ensuring that the firm remains legal and submits the required government reports annually!"
I was totally amazed. "Maggie..." I faltered, "I'm not sure that I am ready for ....."
Maggie interrupted me. "Don't you dare give me any of that bloody crap about only being a teenager, or not being responsible enough!" she growled, "If I didn't think you could handle it I wouldn't have proposed it! Besides, "she added. "If it was not for you, then none of this could be happening.... I can not do it alone; it's only possible because I have you to support me! I'll arrange for you and I to meet with Uncle Arthur he will be able to answer all your questions better than I can, but, for now, this is something else that must remain just between us two, OK!"
"Fuck!" I exclaimed, "It's a lot to take in Maggie!"
She stood up and clipped me over the head with her hand. "Don't say Fuck!" she said in pretend anger, "For the time being I'm still the boss and I'm the only one allowed to say Fuck around here!" We both laughed. "Now take the mugs back and let's go and look at this Land Rover!" she said, then bent over and gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
We drove over to Wilton and had a look at the Land Rover; it was a year old, long wheel base, 110 model, and the usual dark green, with a canvas cover. It looked pretty good to me, the motor sounded fine and the service record was all in order. It certainly seemed to be just what we were looking for.
Maggie stayed talking to the dealer whilst I took the car for a spin around the local side roads, it handled well and when I got back I just nodded to Maggie and the deal was done. Maggie completed the paperwork, handed over the cheque and the dealer agreed to give the vehicle a complete service and deliver it to us on Monday.
We got back to the office in good time for Maggie to telephone and arrange the insurance on the new Land Rover whilst I went round with the pay packets. Everybody had worked really hard, and as Debbie and Joanna were leaving that night Maggie suggested that we all went to the pub for a drink after work, her treat!
The group of us stayed in the pub for about an hour, the girls sat at a table talking and Mikey, Jack and I played a three handed game of darts. Jack totally thrashed us until Maggie joined in and she and I took on Jack and Mikey for the cost of the next round, cheered on by the girls. Maggie turned out to be quite a good darts player but Jack still wiped the floor with us.
"An' that's why I never pays for a drink!" he laughed.
We left the pub and went back to garden centre; I undid the gate and waited for Jack and Mikey to get their cars and leave. Maggie had said goodnight and was walking up to her house and Emma had fetched her bike and had started for home. I walked over to the car park to say goodbye to Debbie and Joanna. There was no embarrassment between the three of us, we just hugged and kissed and promised to telephone, and they drove off in Debbie's car. I knew that I would see both of them again.
I made a final check that everywhere was secured and then pushed my moped to the gate and locked up and then rode after Emma.
Monday and Tuesday of the following week were mostly spent getting the new staff kitted out and acclimatised to their work. Eileen settled into the shop without issues with Emma to keep and eye on her, and I spent time with Steve and Josie basically showing them the ropes and assigned them to assist Jack and Mikey with the routine tasks of keeping the place running.
It was also time for me to return to college, I was in the final year of my Cities and Guilds course which was mostly practical work experience which it was agreed I could do with my own employer, as Maggie was a Royal Horticultural Society Diploma holder and could adjudicate students' work. I still needed to attend course lectures on Wednesdays and by the end of the days class work two of my course colleagues had approached me about part time work at the garden centre and so we gained two knowledgeable temporary hands to replace the students who had left at Christmas. Maggie had given me carte blanche to recruit any suitable students as they were always keen to learn and as part timers could make up the numbers when we started to open longer hours in the spring, and there was always the prospect that at the end of their studies we could gain a qualified permanent member of staff.
The first was Neville, a 17 year old who was in his first year of the horticulture course and was the son of a regular customer, a very keen local amateur gardener, so had a fair amount of practical knowledge. He was considered a bit of a nerd, but I liked him and thought he would fit in well.
The second was Katherine, who liked to be known as Kitty. She was 22 and was in the same course group as me, and was heading out to work in Australia in September but needed a part time and holiday job until then, she was already doing her two days work experience, unpaid, on a local farm and I said that I would speak to Maggie about her transferring her WE element to us. Kitty was an attractive blonde with an athletic figure who was seriously into sports, running and hockey and spent most of her spare time at the gym working out. As far as I knew she did not have a boyfriend and there was some talk amongst the lads that she was gay. I thought that that would be a real waste, if true, but I was determined to try not to get involved with any girl that I worked with in the future, my relationships with Debbie and Joanna had worked out fine but they were both very exceptional girls.
On Thursday, Maggie and I took the new Land Rover and went into Salisbury to the bank to arrange for my signature to be added to the garden centre bank account and then drove down to Southampton to an industrial clothing company to see about ordering new staff uniforms. We had decided to modernize the look of the staff as well as the buildings when we opened the updated centre at Easter, and had settled on practical dark green working trousers for all staff and red tops, sweatshirts for the winter and either polo shirt or t-shirt for the summer, all with the company logo embroidered or printed on the breast. Looking around the show room I also added some fluorescent safety vests for drivers to wear on deliveries, an idea I had picked up at a recent Health and Safety course that Maggie and I had attended. On a whim Maggie added a dozen red, peaked sailing caps, similar to baseball hats, with the company logo at the front. The initial order would be placed after we returned and got size requirements from all of the existing staff and from then on we would simply re-order new items as required.
Pleased with the deal Maggie had negotiated for the supply contract we stopped off at the White Star Tavern in Southampton's Oxford Street for an excellent lunch and then drove back breaking the journey at a couple of the local garden centres to have a look at the competition. We got back around four o'clock and found that for some unknown reason the garden centre had been flooded with customers all day and everybody had been really busy. What totally surprised both Maggie and me was seeing Lucinda and Lauren helping in the shop, apparently Emma had persuaded them to come down to lend a hand and they seemed to have enjoyed the experience, everybody, customers and staff seemed happy and satisfied, and my respect for Emma went up another notch.
Emma had taken three telephone messages, one for Maggie and two for me. The call for Maggie was from the vehicle dealer in Wilton advising that he had found a local farmer who wanted to sell a compact tractor and trailer and would put us in touch if we were interested.
The first of my messages was from a Mrs. Harvey, who owned a large home for the elderly out off the Old Blandford Road and was looking for a contract gardening company to look after the grounds. Apparently she had been given my name by Georgia Craven which totally surprised me as I did not think that she had been that impressed with me on the couple of occasions that we had met. Emma had marked the message URGENT.
The other call was from Suey, the Chinese girl that I had dated at Christmas, reminding me that I had not called her back. Fortunately I had her number or could contact her at the bank, as Emma had not written it on the note and had put in capitals across the bottom, NOT IMPORTANT!
I waited until Maggie had left for the day with the twins and Emma was down in the shop before making my calls. I called Suey first, I felt a bit guilty about not calling her back but as she was a close friend of Joanna's I had decided discretion was the better part of valour and deliberately avoided calling her until Jo had returned to university. I managed to catch her at home and we arranged to meet for a drink the next Wednesday evening.
Mrs. Harvey was a very pleasant sounding lady who briefly explained that her grounds consisted of about an acre of gardens and lawns which were well kept but needed regular maintenance. Her existing gardener had just decided to retired due to ill health. I told her that I would come out to have a look at the job and give her an estimate of cost on Tuesday next. As an after thought I put a note in Maggie's diary to discuss the job on Monday.
Friday was a special day for the twins. Both had been receiving driving lessons whilst away at school and Maggie had been taking them out in the VW Polo to practice, but on Friday morning they were both booked in to take their driving tests. Maggie took the morning off to take them into Salisbury to meet their driving school instructor and was going to pick them up from the test centre later. I knew that at least one had passed when Maggie's Range Rover pulled into the yard just after lunch with Lucinda driving. As it happened both girls had passed first time and were absolutely full of their selves and ran about giving every one hugs and kisses. Lauren made a special point of catching me behind one of the outside stalls and giving me a long mouth to mouth kiss after showing me her pass certificate. Lucinda was less discreet and waving her paper just launched herself at me in the middle of the yard leaping into my arms and wrapping her long legs around my waist and planting a wet kiss on my mouth. Everybody, including the customers, saw her exhibition but I think it was just put down to enthusiastic celebration and everyone was laughing.