Friday, April 2, 2010

Day 82 - The Unbearable Lightness of Almost Not Being

          The drive from Orlando to Clearwater isn’t so pleasant as one might hope. There’s always a lot of traffic in I-4, and everyone is in a hurry. The landscape is flat and overbuilt with strip malls and tourist attractions on the Orlando end, transitions to endless stretches of scrub palmetto in the middle, and finally becomes industrial corridor as you come into Tampa. The only pretty stretch is the bridge over Tampa Bay between Tampa and Clearwater. I had plenty of time to reflect on what my interview with Henry’s son might portend.
          On the one hand it was kind of exciting. I knew it wasn’t up to me to convince them I could do the job. They already knew that I could. The job would be mine if I wanted it. The burden of proof was going to be on them. They were going to have to convince me that the job was worth having. Given my history with them they were going to have to go some distance to make a case.
          I already had a pretty good idea that they had fallen on hard times. The boat industry is particularly sensitive to consumer mood swings in a troubled economy. Boats are expensive and unnecessary. Even for the well heeled, the purchase of a boat almost always requires financing, especially in the market price ranges where Henry operates. While the higher end market is somewhat insulated from downturns in normal circumstances, the current recession is broad and deep and scary, and the financing sources have all but disappeared. The boat industry is comatose. The manufacturers who were setting the world on fire when I first went to Albatross are now reorganized, sold, or padlocked. Henry is still standing, but I don’t think he can be long for this world. If he’s been sensible about managing his cash he may be able to hang on trading used boats and taking orders for new ones from the few customers who are not affected by the economy. If he’s overextended and/or trying to build inventory on spec, he’s screwed.

          I saw encouraging signs and signs of disaster when I pulled onto the lot. There was a lot less inventory on the lot and in the water than the last time I was there, and that is a good sign indeed. Henry always saw inventory as a store of value in spite of my many and repeated attempts to convince him that his inventories were killing him. With low inventory levels he just may be positioned to weather the storm. On the other hand I also noticed several motorcycles, two Hummers, and a sports car out front under the sign. This means Henry and his family are selling their toys. That is a bad sign. Henry is always happy to trade his toys, but he would never put them out front like distressed merchandise unless things were truly…distressed.
          I met with Henry’s son, let’s call him Stew. Stew acted as if he was happy to see me. We’ve never gotten along very well, Stew and I. I always thought he was spoiled and greedy and eaten up with unenlightened self-interest. We had a conversation on the phone once that devolved into name calling and threats of physical violence. When Stew offered to come by my office and whip my ass I told him to come ahead on and try because I would yank his artificial leg off his stump and beat him around the head with it. Yes, that was me, threatening bodily harm to a handicapped individual. When I think back on it, I am embarrassed by what must seem cowardice at worst and a complete lack of sensitivity at best. The fact is that Stew could easily clean my clock any day of the week, artificial leg or not.
          I used to refer to Stew as the poster boy for nepotism. I thought it was hugely clever, and I got a lot of laughs using it around people who knew him. This was before I met the poster boy for ADHD, the poster boy for heartlessness, the poster boy for the listening impaired, the poster boy for misogyny, and others too numerous to mention. Nepotism lost its luster amongst a whole litany of maladies that cause things to go seriously wrong in business. There are way too many poster boys, and it seems that I have met them all.
          Stew got right down to business. Things were as bad as I imagined. Henry’s floor plan lender was pulling his credit line. The bank had given Henry 90 days to find another source of financing before they shut him off. This would put Henry out of business overnight. Henry’s daughter was leaving because she didn’t want to be there to record the end. The ugly truth was that Henry was not in default. In fact the company was actually in pretty decent shape given Henry’s history. I guess Stew had been keeping him honest. The problem was entirely the bank’s, but the bank was going to make it Henry’s by pulling the plug. Meanwhile Henry and Stew want me to help them get out of this trick box. Unfortunately they don’t want to make a serious commitment to me to get me to help them. They don’t want to pay to relocate me. They don’t want to give me any benefits. They don’t want to pay me what I’m worth. They don’t want to give me any staff. They don’t want to make it a permanent arrangement. What they want is to pay me less than half of what I made last year—an amount that adjusted for inflation is less than Henry offered me to go to work for him 18 years ago. And they don’t want to take advantage of my ability to actually help them either. Rather they want me submerse myself again in the daily grind of bookkeeping and meaningless report generation while they finish driving the nails into the coffin. You may have gathered by now that I’ve decided to pass.
          I spent some time with the daughter to get her spin on things. Her biggest problem is that although they’ve cut everyone’s overtime and not given out any bonuses or raises, Stew refuses to cut his enormous salary. I don’t know how much it is, but she seemed to think that it was obscene under the circumstances. Last I heard Stew was knocking down about $250 thousand so I’m guessing that ‘obscene’ must be somewhere north of $300K.
          I went to lunch with Stew and Henry. Henry looks terrible. He is a broken man—a shadow of his former formidable self. He’s had some health issues, and the business has to be weighing heavily on him. He still talks a good game though, and seems not to be overly concerned about the bank's latest play. He may be right. If they’re in too deep, and they may well be, they won’t be able to liquidate Henry’s inventory if they just shut him down. Henry will have to help them, and that means they’ll have to make some concessions along the way. Henry may make out okay in spite of his precarious situation. He’ll just have to do it without me. I could actually help him. I know exactly what to do and exactly how to present it to mollify the bank. It might not work—especially if the bank is motivated by its own troubles, which seems likely at this point, rather than Henry’s financial condition—but it’s the best shot he’s got. He’s too cheap to take it, and I’m too used up to do it for nothing.

          Henry’s wife came by to see me before I headed back to Orlando. Her last round of chemo hasn’t helped her much. She looks good all things considered, but she’s down to about 80 pounds. She was her usual gracious and effervescent self, although she couldn’t hide the strain it is on her to just get around. It’s too sad really to see her like this. I’ll be surprised if she lives more than a few months. One good thing—she’s learned to hug really well. I imagine it has to do with the unbearable lightness of still being when you know you won’t be for long. She should become the patron saint of long suffering wives of difficult men.

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