tagNovels and NovellasSouthbound Ch. 05-06

Southbound Ch. 05-06

bycoaster2©

Primary editing by Erik Thread and DaveT. Subsequent alterations by the author. Any errors or omissions are mine alone.

*****

Chapter 5 Happy New Year

Christmas was awkward. I knew it was going to be and I prepared for it. I sucked it up and phoned Carla, suggesting that I would have the boys at my parents' home on Christmas Eve, while they would spend Christmas Day with her, her parents and Aunt Ruth. I was pleased and relieved that I didn't get any objection from her.

I didn't want to put my mother to the trouble of putting a big dinner together, so I went to my favourite grocery store and ordered a sirloin tip roast beef that I could barbeque that afternoon. I also used the barbeque to roast some potatoes, parsnips, beets, carrots and onions that had been marinating for over a day in a mixture I had learned to make years ago. I weakened and bought a half dozen pre-made Yorkshire puddings from the deli counter. Some fresh hand-peeled shrimp for the appetizer and some of my mother's apple crumble with ice cream and I had a modest feast for the five of us.

I stayed overnight and spent Christmas Day with my parents. It wouldn't be a happy occasion, but I could tell them more about my new job and the impending move. They were pretty upset about that, but grateful at least that Carla hadn't cut them off from their grandsons. I had only one brother and he lived in eastern Canada, seldom venturing to our side of the mountains. We used Skype to stay in touch with each other. Now my parents' only other son would be moving away too.

"You must be pleased that your boss thinks enough of you to give you this opportunity," my dad said as we sipped a pre-dinner drink.

"I am. Surprised is more like it. I wanted to be given the sales responsibility, hopefully for the whole company. I felt I had earned that. But to be given the new plant was not something I had even dreamed about."

"Where are you going to live?" my mother asked. "In Tracy?"

"No ... I don't think so. I've travelled in that area quite a bit and the town doesn't do it for me. It's great as a business location. I think I'll look west of there in Livermore or Pleasanton. It's a more appealing location. At least there are some hills and features there."

"How long do you think you'll be there?" my mother continued with her questioning.

"I don't know that either. Our legal firm in Oakland has applied for a work visa. They don't think it will be a problem since we will be hiring and employing fifty people. It's not like I'm taking someone's job. As far as how long I'm there, I guess I'll have to wait and see how it goes. I'd like to get five years in if I can."

"Oh, my," my mother said in surprise. "That's a long time."

I could see the conversation was upsetting her, so I changed the topic to something more upbeat. I would have to remember not to make a big issue out of my leaving soon. For the first three months, I would probably be living in Tracy, but commuting to Langley every two or three weeks. I'd better make sure I stopped in to see my parents each time.

During the time between Christmas and New Year's I began the process of clearing my desk with Mike Knowlton. Leo had appointed him Sales Manager and it meant a nice raise. He'd earned it and I was confident he would do well. All the pieces were in place for him to succeed.

Leo and Paul held a New Year's party at Leo's home, and many of our staff were invited. It was a Saturday night and about thirty of us were having a good time. I would be getting ready to move to California the following week. Fiona would be arriving on Monday afternoon for her orientation visit, and I planned to accompany her back on the Thursday afternoon flight. I had a suite reserved for the month of January at the Microtel in Tracy, a block off I-205 and barely a mile southwest of the plant. It was quiet enough and I could set up camp there until I found something more permanent.

I would miss many of the people at the Langley plant. We had a tight, upbeat, friendly workplace, and Leo did all he could to keep it that way. I wanted to create the same atmosphere in my new operation. The jury was still out on whether I could pull it together. It would be my biggest test. It was too soon to judge the mood of the people. To begin with they were worried when we first arrived. Rumours abounded about people being let go and the place possibly closing.

When we made the announcement that we would be expanding and modernizing the operation, there was a collective sigh of relief, but it remained to be seen just what the quality of the people would be. Lorne McDermott assured me that they were good employees, having got rid of the questionable ones as the business contracted. As much as I respected Lorne's opinion, I would have to see for myself. I was the stranger among them, the guy who would be giving the orders. How they would react to me was still an unknown.

Fiona smiled as she exited customs in Vancouver on Monday afternoon. Her flight was on time and she looked fresh and energized as she strode toward me, towing her single bag. I was struck once more at how attractive she was. Within a couple of inches of being as tall as I was and with an imposing build. Her hand was extended to me as she approached and we shook. Her grip was firm and dry and her smile was genuine.

"Hi, Andy. How was your holiday break?"

"It was fine, thank you. And yours?"

"I had a nice time with my daughter and my mother. Three hens in the henhouse," she laughed.

"I take it the flight was okay?"

"You didn't tell me the ticket was for business class. I'm not used to that," she smiled once more.

"It's a nice extra once in a while and since I have a boatload of points, Alaska Airlines was happy to accommodate me."

"Well, thank you. I was treated very well."

"We would have to suffer through rush hour traffic if we left for Langley now, so I thought, considering the hour, that we would drive into the city to a restaurant I know and have dinner. Then I'll take you to your hotel."

"Oh my, I'm getting the royal treatment. Lead on, Sir."

It was one of those fortunate January nights in Vancouver where the clouds were well above the mountain tops as we headed downtown to the Vista Towers and the revolving restaurant on the thirtieth floor. The view would be spectacular tonight and I wanted to share it with Fiona.

"This is wonderful, Andy. Thank you so much for bringing me here. I can see the snow under the lights on that mountain," she said, pointing toward Grouse Mountain.

"Night skiing," I explained. "Very popular. We claim you can play golf in the afternoon and go skiing in the evening here. I've never tried it."

"I can see the similarities with San Francisco and the differences as well. I'd love to see it in the daytime."

"If the weather holds, you will," I promised.

The dinner was very good and we shared a half-litre of wine. I drove her to the Microtel and made sure she got the room I had reserved. We agreed to meet at seven o'clock the next morning for breakfast and then on to the plant. The timing was Fiona's suggestion. She claimed to be an early bird. I was one as well.

It took me less than an hour to realize how knowledgeable Fiona was with production equipment and methods. As we toured the plant, she was asking questions about anilox rolls, maximum screen print capability, how solventless laminators worked and other arcane information about our production processes. The more time I spent with her, the more I was impressed with the depth of her knowledge and interest. It did nothing but confirm I had a special employee on my hands.

When I took her in to meet Leo, she charmed him in seconds. It was as if he was a prospective client and she was setting him up for the sale. In this case, she was selling herself and it was all over within a few minutes. Sitting silently while listening to their conversation, it was all I could do to keep from laughing at Leo as he fell under her spell.

"She's something special, Andy," Leo said seriously when Fiona had excused herself to use the washroom.

"Don't I know it," I admitted. "I knew you'd be impressed. Hopefully I have a star on my hands if I'm right."

"I think you're right," Leo said seriously. "Make sure she's well looked after. You don't want to lose her."

"My thoughts exactly. I'll spend some time with her in the territory, especially with her existing customer base to see what they think of her."

"One really good sales person can take a lot of pressure off you, Andy. That's something to remember."

"No kidding. She's already tipped me on the current sales force. I've terminated the father and son team and I'm going to be keeping a close watch on Mendes in Bakersfield."

"It's your ship to steer, Andy. I trust your judgement, but don't be afraid to ask for help. Dave and I will be here to do what we can if you run into trouble."

"I know, Leo. You've given me a huge opportunity and the last thing I want to do is let you down."

Fiona returned to Leo's office and we left to a local deli for lunch.

"Would it be okay if I met some of your customers?" Fiona asked later that afternoon. We had been going through some of the products we made and the demands that we were expected to meet.

"Sure," I agreed, wondering what she was thinking. "Let me make a couple of phone calls and I'll see what I can set up for tomorrow and Thursday morning."

It took no time at all to set up a lunch with Bill Costello, and I arranged a visit to a re-packer in Delta who bought a lot of laminated pouches and film from us. Thursday morning I would take her to my favorite cereal producer and let her see both Paul's specialty folding carton products and our barrier film applications.

I also wanted her to meet Mike Knowlton and get to know him. He had been an important part of our strategy development and listening to them trade ideas would tell me more about Fiona's thinking. The three of us would have dinner on Wednesday.

Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, I was as energized by Fiona's enthusiasm as I was about the prospects she discussed with me. Bill Costello was envious that she would be working in California and not at his account. We seemed to have an unlimited amount of potential new business that we could tap into with our equipment. If we could convert a fraction of the possibilities she knew of, we would fill the Tracy plant to capacity far sooner than my expectations. Mind you, it was all talk at that point. Deeds, not words, would spell the difference.

I packed two full suitcases plus my carry-on and laptop for our flight back to California on Thursday afternoon. Away for at least two weeks this time, as we prepared to get the renovations and changes to the plant underway. Ralph would be coming down with Leo in a few days to sign the contracts for electrical and mechanical work, along with resurfacing the floor. The removal of the old equipment would be done by a contractor under Ralph's supervision. It was going to be a busy two weeks. Our first two pieces of new equipment were already en route.

Fiona would be taking over some of our existing customers and bringing along her client base as well. I was careful to make sure she wasn't overloaded to begin with but she assured me she was capable of handling it all. I met with Rick Mendes early the following week and discussed the changes in territory representation. He didn't seem to be concerned. As long as he had the territory he previously served, he seemed to be happy.

He was a nice enough guy, but I thought Fiona's assessment of him was correct. He wasn't very ambitious. The status quo was fine with him. Spending some time with him later in the month would tell me how his customers responded to him.

Leo and Ralph arrived the Monday following my return and got to work. They brought Cal Dodge with them, another accountant whose sole responsibility would be keeping an eye on the renovation and allied costs. He would commute weekly until the work was finished. We still needed an accountant for the plant who I could trust to keep me pointed in the right direction.

The existing production manager, Darren Ralston, had confirmed his intention to retire and we had to find his replacement soon. Ralph was surveying the supervisors to see if any of them had the potential to run production or maintenance. At first glance, it didn't look like it. Ralph, with Leo's help, put out some advertisements in trade magazines and newspapers looking for such a person. In the meantime, Ralph would remain to keep things under control until we found a candidate.

Fiona arranged to take me around to meet her customers. It would be a good way to see how she operated and confirm my hopes that she was as good as I thought she was. It didn't take long for any concerns I might have had to be banished.

"I'm really pleased to see Fiona's going to get the support she deserves," Brian Agajanian told me. "We have more business available, but Statewide didn't have the ability to provide it. Your plans will open up some new business for her and you. This lady is the best representative we have and it will be nice to see her get the opportunity to grow."

Brian was in his late fifties I guessed, and ran a small pistachio processing plant. He fit our customer profile as he specialized in private label* business. He was buying stand-up pouches from another vendor, but delivery was spotty and their quality was inconsistent. They weren't good enough for the automated filling equipment he intended to buy. The big converters weren't interested in his smaller volume runs, but we definitely were.

*Private Label is the name for non-national branded products specifically attached to a given retailer. Eg: President's Choice, Safeway Brand, etc.

"What kind of filling equipment are you interested in?" I asked.

"I saw some fillers built in South Africa that would fit our business. There are several of them in the U.S. and the feedback I got from their users was all good. They are finicky if the pouch size isn't just right, though. Our current supplier couldn't meet their specifications consistently."

"You won't have to worry about that with our new pouches," I said, passing the pouch machine brochure to him. "You can see on the back the tolerances are very tight and suitable for high speed machines. Your medium speed equipment choice will be well within the capabilities."

"How much is that in English?" he said, pointing to the metric tolerance measurement.

"Roughly a thirty-second of an inch," I answered.

He looked up and grinned. "I guess that will work."

"Some of the equipment our customers are ordering for automated packaging has some very tight tolerances," I explained. "Particularly equipment from Germany, Switzerland and Japan. Our new presses are gearless and can be set for very precise repeats. You won't need that here, but some day you might and we'll be able to handle that."

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Fiona smiling and nodding. This was all music to her ears.

As we made the rounds of her clients, it left little doubt that she was respected and welcomed in their operations. I had a couple of them mention that she paid attention to how they ran their businesses and made suggestions to improve her ability to service them. She was curious enough to want to know more than just "how many" and "how much."

The two days I spent with her that first week convinced me she was everything she seemed to be. I had a winner on my hands and I would do whatever it took to make sure she was happy and supported in her career.

"So, are you satisfied?" she asked as well pulled up to the plant late Thursday afternoon.

"Of course. If your head didn't get swollen from all the compliments you were paid in the last couple of days, then you weren't listening," I joked.

"That was good for my ego," she admitted. "I guess I can count on staying as your representative then?"

I turned and looked her straight in the eye as we sat in her car.

"I'd be pretty unhappy if you didn't. You're doing everything right as far as I can tell. Your customers are certainly satisfied. They want you to succeed and that's a big plus. The only thing I worry about is someone stealing you away from me."

She shook her head. "Not going to happen. You've come along at just the right time. This plant is in the right place and is going to have the right equipment. I can't see myself working for some big outfit that is looking for volume first, last and only. You fit what I want to do and that lets me get close to my customers. Why would I mess up that situation?"

I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together in the universal sign of money.

"Andy, I can make all the money I'll ever want or need right here if I'm reading you right. If I pull in a four or five million dollars of business at ten percent commission, I'll be laughing all the way to the bank," she chuckled.

"I guess you will. That will be a hell of a lot more than I make, I can assure you. However, you will have earned it, so I have no complaint. If you succeed, I'll succeed, so it evens out."

"I keep repeating myself, but I do like the way you think," she smiled.

"I need to do some house hunting tomorrow. Can you do without me for a day?" I asked.

"Oh, I suppose so," she said with mock disappointment. "It'll be hard, but I'll find a way."

Climbing out of her car, she waved and I watched as she drove off. If I was honest with myself, I'd admit I was attracted to Fiona Alexander. She was eye-catching yet professional on the job. Off the job, I might want to learn more about her. She had a daughter that she raised with the help of her mother, but beyond that, little else.

Chapter 6 Settling In

Our new press was in transit and was expected to arrive at the Oakland container terminal at the end of the month. In the meantime, the internal Volatile Organic Compounds oxidizer required to meet California standards was being installed. The previous system had been grandfathered and didn't meet the newer requirements.

The old presses had already begun to be removed and once they and the older laminator and pouch machine were out, the floor would have an industrial epoxy finish applied. Then, an internal ink room would be built with all the safety and ventilation controls necessary. It was hard to believe the inks had been stored outside in a chain link fenced enclosure. Apparently, this wasn't the only plant where that was the case, but as with the VOC control system, that area had been grandfathered too.

Photopolymer printing plates would be supplied from Langley for the time being until volumes supported a separate unit. We used the latest computer-to-plate technology and had plenty of additional capacity. We would be installing a sleeve mounting machine at Tracy to reduce the bulk of shipping pre-mounted plates. Our film suppliers would remain the same for both plants. If small volumes of specialty films were required, they could be sent from Langley as well.

Friday, I set about finding a more permanent place to live. Leo was heading home today, not planning to return for at least three weeks. Ralph would go with him, but return the middle of next week. He was determined to oversee the contractor's work and make sure it was up to his standards. Ralph was somewhat of a perfectionist, but I welcomed that in these circumstances.

Their sign claimed they were the largest real estate company in the county. I wasn't looking for anything special. A three bedroom bungalow would be the starting point. A ranch style home was common in these parts, so I assumed it gave me the largest choice.

I avoided talking to an agent for about thirty minutes until I had a sense of what prices were like. There was plenty of inventory, however I didn't know the neighbourhoods so I couldn't judge if they were desirable possibilities or not. It was time to talk to an agent.

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