Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Day 91 - The Forest and the Trees

          This was another day without anything of interest in the job search, although I did get a call from Gina, the HR manager who had to witness my termination. She got canned too, several weeks after my last day. She called to make sure that I had applied for unemployment benefits. I have not. I never have. I never thought I would, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me in any event that I could apply for unemployment while I was still getting severance. Not so, according to Gina. Severance, apparently, is not earned wages for unemployment purposes. Severance is not owed compensation for work performed. Severance is largesse. It is a gift, although I never would have characterized it as such. I might call it hush money, a bribe not to try to do the right thing, but never a gift.
          What unemployment benefits I receive will, of course, be charged against my former employer’s experience rate. Knowing this I have decided to apply. I qualify to receive $275 per week, a paltry sum compared to my former earnings and my severance, but decidedly better than the zero I will be getting after January. It won’t prevent me from having to move, and it won’t even cover my expenses after I move, but it will keep me in groceries and gas money while I continue to look for work. It is surely best to get it in place now before I really need it.
When and if we have to move, there is another place to live besides Brian’s house in Lakeland. That is with Madeline’s dad, Nelson. Nelson lives on Florida’s east coast near one of Madeline’s sisters. He has some fairly serious health issues and he is nearly 90 years old. He doesn’t want to go into a home or an assisted living facility because he doesn’t want to be surrounded by ‘old’ people. If Madeline and I were to move in with him, we could help with his care, run his errands, and otherwise ensure that he is able to stay in the home where he is comfortable and where he can still exert a certain amount of independence and control over his life.
          The practice of mislabeling inventories set Albatross on the path to its first of several reorganizations while I was there. DeLeon acted in concert with his lieutenants, one of whom was the production manager at my division. He was the guy being made to look bad by Ben’s premature completion of parts. What was actually happening was that the cabinetry and other parts for the boats were made in the main plant on one side of the street, then brought to our side of the street to be installed in the hulls. These parts were being shipped incomplete. The boat division was absorbing all the rework hours to complete parts that had been shipped to us in an unfinished state by the furniture division.
          The furniture division looked good. The boat division looked bad. DeLeon had shifted his problem to a place where, if he couldn’t make it go away, at least he could make it someone else’s fault. The boat production manager was complicit in all this. As a reward for fading the heat he was put in charge of a larger plant in the north end of the state, and the boat division got a new general manager. Let’s call him Jim Poole.
          I was actually consulted on this change, although for what reason I have not a clue. The HR director called me one day to ask if I knew anyone who had the experience to head our division. It turned out that I did know a fellow who had impressed me with his background and abilities in production management at Quilnutz. I gave his name to the HR director and then promptly called him myself to alert him to the opportunity. He was interested.
          After a week or so of dithering on DeLeon’s part we hired someone with no boat experience. I had to wonder why. The HR guy indicated to me that DeLeon had never seriously considered the fellow I had suggested. In fact he had already decided on Poole before anyone bothered to ask me if I knew a qualified candidate. I can only assume that DeLeon wanted another name in the hopper to make it look like he had chosen Poole from among a number of qualified candidates.
          As it turned out Poole’s principal qualification was that he was even more ignorant than DeLeon, a happenstance that I’m sure gave DeLeon a comfortable assurance that he wouldn’t have any difficulty getting Poole to buy into his harebrained schemes.
          Poole turned out to be a change agent. It’s hard to believe, looking back on it, that someone so gloriously inept could exercise enough influence to change the course of an entire company, but he did, and not for the better either. That’s another story, though.
          The most momentous thing that happened next had to do with the production manager that Poole replaced—the one who was sent to the North Alabama plant to preside over a doubling of capacity there—the one who along with Ben DeLeon managed to tank the company for the first time.
          The school fixtures business was Albatross’s bread and butter. School desks, lockers, and bleacher sets were the core products and the reason for Albatross’s success and longevity. While Richard Hardin had everybody from the board of directors to the janitorial staff committed to expanding into the commercial fixtures business and doubling the boat business, school fixtures would remain Albatross’s most important segment.
Everyone knew this. Everyone believed in the school business as the bedrock on which Albatross was built. Everyone expected the school business to remain stable, viable and strong. This faith was so deep and abiding that in effect everyone believed that we could royally screw up the commercial fixtures and boat segments, and no matter how bad things got there, the school segment would always be there generating the cash and profits to keep us not just afloat, but healthy. Everyone underestimated Ben DeLeon’s capacity to bring the 75 year old company to its knees.
          The plan was to move production of the largest, most complicated, and highest volume stadium bleachers to the north Alabama plant in order to make room at the main plant for the new commercial fixtures lines. This was to reassert Albatross’ competitiveness in its usual markets, which had been eroded somewhat by the recent entry of two new companies into the school fixtures business.
Moving production to North Alabama presented a raft of problems that it would seem, in retrospect, were not adequately considered beforehand. The North Alabama facility was a sleepy little backwater by comparison to the main plant. It had never produced a bleacher set, let alone anything as complicated as the one we were moving there. It had only ever made our simplest and lowest volume school desks. It had never produced anything in the volume it would now be expected to produce.
If anyone had thought about it at all, they would have realized that they were going to exhaust the available local labor supply to get to the production volume we wanted, and would then have to go in search of production employees at the local rehab facilities, half-way houses, and homes for the mentally challenged. To compound the staffing problem, there were no clearly documented work instructions detailing the processes required to assemble the bleachers.
          To sum up, we were going to double production of a product at a facility that had never built that product before, a facility with inadequate access to staffing resources, with little or no training resources, and with inadequate documentation of assembly processes. This effort was going to be overseen by a manager who had already demonstrated that he was unable to recover from manufacturing bungles and snarls foisted on him by his boss, Ben DeLeon.
          It seems obvious, when you state the problems that succinctly, that this was a disaster in the making. You might be tempted to excuse those in charge for failing to recognize this before the fact because hindsight is always so much clearer and easier than foresight, but the fact is that many people knew this was going to be a serious problem and tried to sound the alarm before the whole thing went off the rails.
          One fellow in particular, the Alabama controller who had hired me and had, prior to assuming that job, been the controller of the North Alabama plant, circulated a memo stating clearly what was likely to happen and why. He was not just ignored; he was roundly spanked by the powers that were.
          No one wanted to hear about failure. Mention of failure was politically incorrect. Probably everyone in a position to do anything about it was afraid to bring the subject up to Richard Hardin because they already understood that the result would be another of his blistering counseling sessions. Eventually the Alabama controller was fired for not being a team player. Talk about irony.
          Like anything huge, this disaster took a long time and a lot of money to build. All the while it was tended lovingly by DeLeon and his new plant manager. There were some sign posts along the way, but they were largely ignored. There were some rumors and rumblings heard occasionally from long term employees in North Alabama who could see what was going on, but who had also seen what happened to the Alabama controller for daring to mention his reservations.
          The biggest, the most glaring, of these sign posts was the huge build up of undelivered inventory at the North Alabama plant. It couldn’t be delivered because it wasn’t finished. It was classified as finished on the balance sheet of course, but it wasn’t—DeLeon’s favorite trick come to roost in a new place.
No one in the corporate finance management group saw this alarming build-up because they were too busy chasing accounting minutia for the UK management group. The UK boys liked a robust analysis. They liked a lot of detail. They liked their charts and graphs and trend lines and a whole raft of other analytical esoterica. It was a classic case of not being able to see the forest for the freaking trees.

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