tagNovels and NovellasSouthbound Ch. 03-04

Southbound Ch. 03-04


Chapter 3 A New Career

"Okay, gentlemen," Leo said, "Here's what I've decided. We will order one press now, along with a laminator and a pouch machine. Ralph, you indicated that the laminator and that one larger press were available almost immediately, correct?"

Ralph nodded.

"The pouch machine comes from Japan and delivery is minimum sixteen weeks," Ralph confirmed. "The press and the laminator will be on site as soon as the preliminary work on the building is done. Luckily, there isn't much to do except prepare the floor and upgrade the electrical and emission controls. I'd guess we're three to four months away from having them installed. We're staying with the slitters they have now and won't replace them until necessary."

Leo nodded. "Any questions?"

"Can we start ordering now?" Ralph asked.

"Yes. Make sure they understand to time the delivery with our work in the plant. I don't want crates of new equipment sitting around cluttering up the workplace while we're trying to get prep work done."

"Got it," Ralph said.

"Dave, assign one of your accounting people to manage the cash and invoices. Don't pay any invoices more than a day before due, if then, okay?"

"Sure, Leo," he chuckled.

"Okay, that's it. Andy, stick around. We need to talk."

I saw Dave wink at me as he left the room, closing the door behind him.

"Dave seems to think you can handle the Tracy operation," Leo said seriously.

"If we make Mike Knowlton a regional sales manager it would be doable."

"I'm sure it would be. However, that's not what I was thinking. I was thinking of making you general manager of Tracy. You'd be responsible for the entire operation."

"Me?" Leo had caught me completely flat-footed. I didn't know what to say.

"I gave you this project to see how you worked with Dave and Ralph and to see how realistic your objectives were. You satisfied me that you understand what we are trying to do in the marketplace and know how to go about achieving results. You've already proven yourself as an excellent sales manager. This is a step up and a challenge. Do you think you can handle it?"

"I don't know," I said, shaking my head. "It never entered my mind that you might offer this to me. I'd like some time to think about it. You said Dave thought I could do it?"

He nodded. "Yeah, you impressed him. He's my number two guy in this operation. He's not just some bean counter, he's senior management material. At some point, he's going to be the head guy at Flex-Tek. I'm sure you can tell he knows the business inside and out. I trust him and he hasn't let me down."

"No argument, Leo. Dave and Ralph were great to work with. I mean, I really relied on both of them to make this work. If I was to take this job, I'd need two guys I could count on in accounting and production. I'm not qualified in those areas."

Again, Leo was nodding. "I know that. We wouldn't leave you out there on your own. But in order for that plant to function, we are going to need to build sales and do it as soon as the equipment is installed and running. I can shift some production from here, but that won't fill your press or your laminator. You'll need to get that extra from the market."

"Well, I'd have a two-to-three month head start, so that would help. Ralph also cautioned me that the equipment wouldn't be producing very much finished product to begin with. A lot of training and fine tuning is required. Anyhow, Leo, let me think about your question over the weekend and we'll talk on Monday if that's okay with you?"

"That will be fine, Andy. Take it easy and don't get too uptight over this decision. Dave, Ralph and I think you can do the job, so keep that in mind."

"I will," I smiled, "Thanks."

I was pumped up as I left Leo's office. Susan, Leo's secretary, waved and smiled at me as I walked by. It dawned on me later that she knew what the meeting was all about. And Dave's wink as he left Leo's office told me he knew as well. It seemed I had a lot of support for something I would never have expected to be offered.

I went to my office and sat behind my desk. I wasn't able to focus at that moment. Too many things were going through my head, all colliding with each other. I wasn't going to be much use that particular Friday morning. I needed some advice and I had an idea of who might provide it.

Bill Costello was my largest and favorite customer. He was officially the assistant general manager of Wildwood Coffee, but in reality, he ran the business for his absentee owner. For some reason, this sixty-year-old man and I had hit it off almost right away and developed a business relationship that evolved into friendship. He was a widower for the past six years and had survived a cancer scare himself.

I had visited him in the hospital many times when he was undergoing treatment. We would play cards and generally talk about what was going on in our world. Bill had a common sense perspective about life and business in general and it was that which I sought today.

"Bill, it's Andy. How are you?"

"Fine, thank you. To what do I owe the pleasure of this call," he chuckled.

"Can I buy you lunch and get some advice at the same time?"

"I like the lunch idea," he chuckled, "but you know what they say about free advice."

"Yeah ... you get what you pay for. On the other hand, you're one guy I have confidence you'll steer me in the right direction."

"Very flattering, Andy, but if this is about your divorce, I'm not available."

"No, no, nothing like that. I wouldn't do that to you."

"Okay, just make sure you don't try and manoeuvre me around that way."

"I promise. Scout's honour."

"Were you ever a scout?"

"Nope," I laughed.

"See you at noon," he said before hanging up.

"So, now that I've been fed and you've been dancing around without saying anything, what's this all about?" Bill asked.

"In confidence, Bill, I've been asked if I want to be G.M. at the new Tracy plant. I had no idea I was going to be offered it and I haven't really been able to digest just what it would involve. The last thing I want to do is screw it up for Leo."

"Do you think you can do the job?"

"I don't know. I'm a salesman, Bill. You know that. I know something about how the other parts work, but not a lot."

Bill didn't comment right away.

"When you were doing that proposal, did you understand all the parts that were going into it?"

"Well, some of the financial stuff was beyond me, and when Ralph was discussing the electrical and environmental equipment, I won't pretend I got all of that. Generally, I knew what they were talking about and why it was important."

Bill nodded. "I assume you'll have an accountant and a qualified manufacturing manager there?"

"Yes, of course."

"So ... what's the problem," he said with a slight smile.

I thought about that for a few moments. Bill was right. I would have the support people in place to look after the things I wasn't qualified to do. My job was to give those support people the means to do their jobs.

"I guess that answers my question," I said.

"Since this is in confidence, you should know that Leo called me a couple of weeks ago. He wanted my opinion on your taking that job."

"Oh ... I didn't know that. What did you tell him?"

"I told him I couldn't think of anyone better suited to getting a new operation up to speed than you, given that you had the people in place to get it done. I also told him that he'd better find someone as good as you to replace you. I wasn't going to settle for half-assed representation."

"Oh," was all I could manage in embarrassment. "Thanks, Bill. If I take the job I'll have you to thank again."

"If you take it?" he said in surprise.

"Yeah, well it's a big move. Phil is still living at home. I won't just be moving to another town, I'll be moving to another country. I'm not sure what to do about the boys. And there are the grandparents to think of as well as their mother."

Bill nodded in acknowledgement. "When does Phil finish high school?"

"Next June. He hasn't decided about college yet. Neal is going to continue on at UBC, I'm sure. He'll be gone during the school year and probably somewhere with a summer job. Last I heard, he was thinking about working for the Ministry of Environment in Kitimat next summer. He's almost completely self sufficient now."

"So maybe your only concern is what Phil decides. I take it neither of them knows about this offer."

I shook my head. "You're the only person outside the management group at Flex-Tek that knows. I was looking for an outside opinion and you've helped a lot."

"I was pretty surprised but pleased that Leo asked for my opinion. I'm starting to feel like the wise old sage," he cackled.

"No surprise, Bill. You fit the role perfectly."

The rest of our conversation was discussing timing and where to live and assorted other less pressing issues. I think I knew all along I was going to accept the job, but I wanted to think out loud about my ability to do the job and about how to handle the family issues. Bill was the right guy to share them with. He always has been a good listener as well as a good thinker.

"Phil, I've got some news to share with you," I said as we cleared the dinner dishes.

He looked at me quickly. "Are you and mom getting back together?" he asked with a hopeful look.

I shook my head. "No, sorry, but that isn't going to happen. What I wanted to let you know was that I've been offered a new job. Leo wants me to be the general manager of the new Tracy plant."

"In California?" he said in complete surprise. "General Manager?"

"Yup. It shocked the hell out of me, I'll tell you. I had no idea he was thinking in that direction."

"When's all this going to happen?"

"Early next year if we can get all the construction done and the new equipment by then."

"So ... like ... you'll be living down there then?"

"Yes, I'll be moving there sometime after New Years. So I wanted to talk to you about what you might want to do."

"You mean, if I go or if I stay?"

"Yes. If you decide to go, we'll have to arrange a student visa for you. But I want you to finish your school year here. Your mother could come back and live in the house again. That would probably work for her too. I'm sure your Aunt Ruth would let her stay, but she would have more privacy if your mother was here. If you decide to stay, then she'd be here to look after you."

"I don't know what I want to do, Dad. I know Mom has a job now. That might affect what she wants to do."

"Where is your mother working?"

"At the kitchen shop in Willowbrook."

"She must have just started there," I suggested.

"Yeah, the first of November. I think she was going stir crazy doing nothing at Aunt Ruth's place when she was at work."

"You don't have to decide right away, Phil. As long as I know in time to apply for the student visa. I have to get my papers in order before then."

"What's it like in Tracy?"

"Well, it's part bedroom community, part agricultural, part light industry and distribution. It's right in the middle of central California."

"Maybe I should go down and have a look," he said.

"If you use the Internet, you can find the local colleges and lots of information about the area. That way, you'll have an idea of what to expect."

"I think that's what I'll do. I better talk to Mom too. She'll want to know what's going on."

"Good plan. Let me know if you have any questions."

My forty-third birthday was coming up on the eleventh of December. In the past, Carla and I would go out to dinner at a nice restaurant. That wouldn't be happening this year. My divorce was well along in the system with only two more weeks before it was final. I couldn't bring myself to think of it as an early Christmas present. When I thought about the coming year and all the work I had in front of me, I was grateful that it would distract me from my failed marriage. I had no interest in dating. That might come some time later, but certainly not in the next six months.

"Hello, Andy, it's me."

"Hello, Carla. We haven't talked in a quite a while."

"I just called to wish you a happy birthday."

"Thank you. Phil tells me you have a job."

"Yes, at the Willowbrook Kitchen Shop. I'm glad I have something to do during the day and the job is interesting. I'm actually enjoying it."

"Did Phil talk to you about what I'm doing next year?"

"Yes. That's one of the reasons I called. Congratulations on your promotion. I understand you're moving to California soon. Phil hasn't decided whether to go or to stay here. He told me you suggested I could live in the house if he decided to stay."

"That's right. I'll pay the mortgage and utilities and you can live there. That will give you a lot more freedom than staying at Ruth's apartment."

"Can you afford it, Andy?"

"Yes, I can. If our divorce had been contested, I would probably have had to provide it for you anyway."

"You're being very good about this, Andy. Thank you. I'm not so sure I deserve it, but thank you anyway."

"You're welcome. If Phil moves out and the house is too much for you, you can list it and when it sells, we can split the equity."

"Okay. I'm going to take you up on your offer then. Just let me know when you're moving out and we can meet and get the details worked out."

"Sure. It will probably be in January. I'll let you know as soon as I can."

"Thank you again, Andy. I appreciate your thinking of me."

"Sure, you're welcome, Carla."

As I hung up, I realized I had just had a civil conversation with my soon-to-be ex-wife. There was no anger or recriminations or even snide remarks. It was two adults having a practical talk about necessary decisions. More interestingly, I didn't feel any sense of loss or pain from either of us. Once Carla had decided to act, everything had proceeded without delay.

It was two days later that I got a call from Ruth.

"Hi, Andy. How are you?"

"I'm fine, Ruth. And you?"

"I'm good too. I hear congratulations are in order. Your new job sounds exciting."

"It's going to be interesting all right. I can see myself buried in work for the next year trying to get everything going."

"I wanted to tell you how impressed I was that you offered your house to Carla. She really didn't expect any kind of consideration from you and it came as a complete surprise. I don't know what she'll do if Phil decides to go south with you. She'll be rattling around in that place. She's trying to convince me to move in with her. I don't know whether I want to or not. She's my sister, but she and I aren't exactly alike."

"Well, there's no panic to decide, Ruth. I want Phil to finish school here and that gives you six months to think about it."

"Andy ... you are a special guy, you know. Some woman is going to discover you and make you happier than you can imagine. Carla has made a mistake and just hasn't realized it yet. Don't hide yourself away when you get to California. Get out and socialize. I'm sure there's someone out there for you."

"Thanks for the advice and the vote of confidence, Ruth. It's always a pleasure to talk to you. I'll see you at Christmas, if not sooner."

"I'm making my famous sausage rolls and have a dozen set aside with your name on them."

"Oh, now you're talking. I can be bribed," I laughed.

I hung up with a smile on my face. Ruth was the upbeat half of the two sisters. Taller and older than Carla, and with a sparkling personality as a contrast to her sister. I often wondered why some guy hadn't snapped her up.

Chapter 4 The Big Adventure

I was more than a bit surprised that Phil decided to stay in Langley instead of moving to the U.S. after he graduated. Perhaps it was the fact that his mother would be living in our house once more. That seemed to be a big thing with him and I got a lot of positive feedback about what my family felt was a very generous move on my part. I even got a nice note from Carla's parents thanking me and wishing me good luck on my new job. That was a surprise in itself.

The week before Christmas, Dave, Ralph and I headed back to Tracy to make the announcement of our acquisition of Statewide Converting. We felt it would be a nice Christmas present for the remaining employees to know the business was going to be revitalized in a big way. We would also tell them that each employee would be evaluated to determine their potential and that we couldn't promise that every one of them would retain their jobs. On the other hand, we needed at least fifty good people and each of them would be given an opportunity to earn a place in the new operation.

I was slightly surprised that I wasn't nervous as the former owner, Lorne McDermott, introduced me as the new general manager. I guessed there were at most, thirty people at the assembly, ten fewer than Statewide once employed. We would begin our interviews early in January and begin recruiting additional production employees. We would also need staff for the office. I would be responsible for the sales, customer service, and graphics department evaluations. Dave would look after accounting and Ralph would interview the production and maintenance people.

My first interview with the sales staff was with Fiona Alexander.

"Thanks for taking the time to meet with me, Fiona," I began. "We met briefly when I was here with the acquisition team, but I wanted to talk to you about your role here."

"Do you plan on keeping me?" she asked, showing concern.

"If you want to stay, I want you here. Your performance speaks for itself. With our new capabilities, I think you can be an even bigger success in the future."

It was a barely audible sigh of relief that told me she was slightly worried about her future.

"If what you said about the new equipment and products comes about, I'd be foolish not to stay."

I pulled out some brochures from my briefcase and passed them to her.

"There will be a second press with some special capabilities when we build the business up. In the meantime, this new press will put out almost twice the volume of the two old PCMC units. The laminator will be able to cope with that volume and we can order a second one if business warrants it. The pouch machine is the latest and greatest from Japan, so you'll have a full range of products to sell."

"It's hard to know where to start," she said, absorbed in the brochures. "We've passed up so many opportunities because we couldn't make the product or couldn't make it with the quality the customers demanded. This is like being let loose in a candy store," she grinned.

"I'm glad you see it that way. As I said earlier, we'll be supplying some of our product from the Langley plant until all the equipment is in place here. I'd like you to come up to see the plant and we'll show you what we are already doing."

"I'd like that. The sooner I can get started, the sooner I can be earning some income."

"You're on straight commission here, right?" I asked.

"Yes. My volume has been stagnant for the past year, so I haven't been able to earn more. With Lorne's permission, I have been sourcing some items elsewhere that didn't compete with Statewide, but that hasn't been my first choice."

"What have you been selling from other vendors?"

"Stand-up pouch, mostly. A bit of lidding film and some printed polyethylene. Most of that was to keep the customers I already had from wandering off. With Flex-Tek coming in and taking over, those days are gone," she smiled.

I nodded. "Yes, I think we can give you almost everything you want or need. Let me tell you a little about the company. Leo Cornell and his brother Paul inherited a folding carton business from their parents. Leo could see that it was a mature industry and they were looking for growth. They bought our present Langley plant from another company who decided they didn't want to be in the flexible packaging business. Leo took it over and made it what it is today with a clear vision of what it could be.

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