Charles Boyer, President of Healey Abrasives, was thoroughly average, which in no way set him apart from his acquaintances, a group that included local politicians, professionals, and businessmen. Mediocrity was entrenched both at Healey Abrasives, the corporation which had been his employer these past fifteen years, and in Tollburg, a once thriving but now rundown western Massachusetts mill town he'd called home that same length of time.
What did set him apart was why he was average. He was a sum of physical and mental extremes which, combined together, canceled each other out, leaving him stranded in neutral. What appeared to be simple indecisiveness was really an unquenchable need to succeed, drenched by an overwhelming fear of failure. His apparent simplemindedness was actually a quick but erratic mind held in check by a fear of making conspicuous decisions, while his legendary stubbornness sprung from a deeply ingrained belief he was always wrong, strongly reinforced by the fear of appearing ridiculous if the truth came out.
So when Charles mulled even simple questions at work endlessly, or asked the same questions over and over while never coming to a conclusion, his subordinates debated whether he was dumb, indecisive, or as most thought, both. Drawing an opposite conclusion, his superiors at Omni Publishing and Manufacturing, usually shortened to OPM, the highly leveraged private equity funded firm that had purchased Healey Abrasives a year prior, considered it deep thought going into whatever question they had just posed. In reality neither interpretation was correct--Charles’s mind worked like a pinball machine, with ideas and emotions darting from bumper to psychological bumper, shooting off at random, occasionally hitting targets and scoring points, yet inevitably working their way down to drain past a pair of malfunctioning, frozen mental flippers.
Today Charles was hunched deeply into his luxurious, high-backed, black leather desk chair, staring vacantly, for quite some time, out the floor to ceiling windows that formed the western wall of his spacious office. Nine months ago he'd submitted figures to his new boss, Dave Gifford, the CEO and Chairman of OPM, showing conclusively that they should close their local chainsaw file manufacturing facility and move south for the cheaper labor and rent. Ever since he'd been trying to figure out how in God’s name he'd come up with the numbers. It was obvious he'd made at least one spreadsheet error somewhere, but luckily no one else had caught on, and his plans had proceeded as planned. Dave Gifford and OPM consistently operated at a very high level, leaving the details to the business units, so they probably hadn’t studied Charles’s numbers and the details carefully. Rumor had it that despite months of “due diligence” prior to the purchase, OPM had actually purchased Healey Abrasives by mistake, thinking they manufactured chainsaws, not just chainsaw files. An abrasives company certainly didn’t fit with OPM’s mission statement of “buying vertically into the publishing marketplace”, while chainsaws were at least used in the paper supply chain to cut trees. Giving credence to the rumor was that OPM had changed their name from the more euphonious acronym VPL—Vertical Publishing Line, three weeks after the purchase was finalized.
So the local Tollburg manufacturing plant had been closed, long time employees laid off, and interim foreign suppliers found, but Charles still had to come up with a new location for the factory that would at least appear, accounting-wise, to save some money. He thought he'd found it, in Landover, Alabama, but no matter how often he played with the spreadsheet, the cost per square foot to rent the dump he'd located kept coming out higher than rents in Manhattan. He was doing something wrong again, but with three hundred plus factory workers already laid off he couldn't very well ask someone for help, so he just continued staring out the window: It was early spring in New England, and a light drizzle was misting against his windows, partially obscuring his view of the bare trees and scattered rocks on the low hill behind the building.
Thankfully his windows opened onto the backside of the building, away from Tollburg’s Main Street, or the view would have been decidedly different. Tollburg’s once grand storefronts were now largely vacant, the rare buildings still occupied being rented almost exclusively by various state and federal agencies, some designed to help the downtrodden get back on their feet from whatever addiction or misfortune had befallen them; others to bring business and urban renewal back to Tollburg. Unfortunately, both types of government agencies were unsuccessful, mainly managing to drive more business and well-paying jobs away, while increasing drug and alcohol abuse in a self-perpetuating and mutually reinforcing cycle. Many of the people they tried to help wandered Main Street for lack of anywhere else to go, loitering in threatening groups or standing alone, talking loudly to themselves or the rare passerby, furthering the flight of all entrepreneurs except streetwalkers and drug dealers from Main Street.
Charles considered none of this. It wasn’t his problem. As President of Healey Abrasives, his office contained all the rich accoutrements his title suggested. His leather chair wrapped snugly around him, holding him like a giant hand a few feet off the plush, dark blue carpet. As he peered out his window, his left elbow rested on an oversize mahogany desk, its vast expanse broken only by empty in and out baskets, a green blotter framed in leather, a black phone with the voicemail indicator discreetly blinking red, two oversize flat screen computer monitors, a Dell wireless mouse and unnecessary mouse pad, and a little plastic billboard bearing his name and title. Despite its unobtrusiveness, the small blinking light on the phone was like a strobe light: He’d seen the call come in four hours earlier, and had intentionally let it go to voicemail—sooner or later he’d have to listen to the message and probably return the call to Dottie, his wife, but he was certainly in no hurry.
Outside his window the rain was now picking up in intensity as dark grey clouds blew by in the fading late afternoon light, barely visible above the forest of leafless second growth maple trees beginning five yards from the building. Piles of colored, decaying wet leaves from last fall were gathered along the bottom edge of the plate glass. Charles swung back to face his desk: How in the hell could a building in one of the world's least desirable communities cost $72 a square foot? Obviously it couldn't, so he must have the decimal point in the wrong place. He divided the total by 10, using his calculator just to be sure. Now it was a much more reasonable $7.20 per square foot, not as good as if he’d properly divided by 12, since he had the annual rent confused with the monthly rent, but good enough to at least show a paper profit on the move.
With that finally out of the way, he breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back in his chair to relax, hands behind his head. Relief didn’t last long. Doubts and worries attacked immediately, giving him tightness in his chest and what felt like the beginnings of an ulcer in his stomach. Were his calculations really correct? Was anyone going to find out, since they probably weren’t? What about all the people laid off with tiny severance packages….maybe kids were going to bed hungry in Tollburg tonight because of the shutdown. His mind counterattacked, forcing the thoughts back, but their retreat left him with a headache to complement his other ailments. He stood up to do some Management by Walking Around, a handy, euphemistic reason to go for a stroll around the office that he’d learned while at Harvard Business School, and a good way to relieve stress and take out aggressions.
Standing up from his desk, Charles was average looking, but like his personality, his appearance was a blend of unusual features. He was of above average height and weight, but the pounds were strangely distributed--by middle age gravity, stress, and years of inactivity had rounded his once handsome features and softened his body parts, forcing them down and outward. Even in his expensively tailored suits his buttocks protruded unusually far, making his pants ride high in the back. His Lindberg glasses and lightly graying hair made him look both scholarly and trendy, but could not quite offset the overall impression his face gave when he concentrated, which some of his subordinates compared unflatteringly to a dog trying to read a newspaper.
He strode to the perimeter of the executive wing, where the lush carpet abutted the edge of a worn linoleum floor, surveying the vast, bustling bullpen office area full of working employees, many talking loudly on the phone, their voices echoing off the hard floor. He always wondered how they could hear anything or do any work with all the racket. Where to go first? The order entry department was in the right rear corner behind some old gray cubicle walls, sixty feet away. He liked to see what orders were coming in, but he couldn't get there without walking through the accounts payable department, which he didn't remotely want to see, and besides, he could never remember the supervisor's name--maybe it would come to him by the time he got there, but he didn’t feel like running through the alphabet in his mind until it hit him. He looked to his left, where the customer service group of middle aged, overweight ladies were interspersed amongst old grey, dented file cabinets, fax machines, grayish white network printers, and hand-me-down desks and chairs. He tacked towards Debbie, the supervisor, who was on a call with an angry customer.
"Please hold," said Debbie resignedly, while Charles hovered over her.
“How's it going?" asked Charles in a fatherly tone. In the fifteen years they'd worked together Debbie had learned to never answer anything but 'OK', avoiding a conversation at all costs, but today, in the heat of handling a steady torrent of complaints, she forgot herself.
"Well,” said Debbie, “I certainly am getting a lot of complaints about our chain saw files, sir—they say the quality is terrible. Our rep in CA just told me the best thing about the files we got from China is that they weren’t boxed carefully, so sometimes when you order a dozen you only get 10 or 11 in a box. What should we tell our customers?"
"Oh?" said Charles in a surprised tone. He couldn't believe his ears. If he'd had any inclination she was going to ask a question like this he'd have headed straight for payables. So what if he couldn’t remember the supervisor’s name?
"A lot of our distributors, they don't feel the quality was up to our old standards, and they're especially upset we didn't ship until late December, when the timber harvesting season was over” continued Debbie, almost babbling. “They can't sell them, and want to send them all back for credit."
"Well you just tell them," said Charles, his voice rising in indignation, "that the manufacturer of those files gave me his word of honor that his files were as good or better than the ones we used to make here in the factory, before we shut it down, and that was good enough for me. To me, a man's word is his bond, and that applies to everyone. Just because a man's of a different race, like from Hong Kong, is no reason to doubt his word." He was becoming quite animated and his face was flushed. This was hitting extremely close to home, since he’d not only closed the local factory based on what was most likely a math error, but personally located the foreign supplier. "You tell those customers that the President of this company was personally assured that the files were of top quality, and that they'd be here by September."
"But Mr. Boyer, sir," said Debbie timidly, already greatly regretting beginning the conversation. "They weren't here until late December, right around Christmas time, and the quality’s no good."
"My God, girl”, said Charles with unconcealed and righteous disgust. “Mr. Wong, who by the way is now a close personal friend of mine, couldn't help that. The poor man's mother died, and then his entire factory burned to the ground. He even sent me pictures of it….I couldn’t even recognize the factory or its surroundings, it was so badly destroyed. It's a tribute to his friendship with me that we got the files at all. He must have had to move heaven and earth to get his entire factory rebuilt and those files to us by December."
"Yes, sir," sighed Debbie. The hold button light on the phone was now out, but she knew they'd all call back, even madder, requesting to speak to her by name. Maybe she should lie about her name.
"So you tell them they're lucky to have any files at all, and we're not taking them back," Charles snapped, spinning on his heels and striding off, while Debbie reluctantly picked up the phone to relay the company President’s message to the next irate caller.
That conversation sure hadn't turned out like Charles expected. Now in an irritable mood, he strode towards data entry and Nancy Polanski, a short, heavyset clerk who was currently his favorite target when he strode the office. Nancy kept her eyes on the monitor and her head down, pretending she didn’t see him coming, but they both knew where he was heading.
"What're you doing?" asked Charles loudly enough for everyone around to hear.
"I'm entering orders, Mr. Boyer, sir”, replied Nancy timidly.
“I can see that, obviously”, replied Charles haughtily. “What else are you doing?”
"Nothing else. Just entering orders, sir. That's all I ever do," was Nancy's puzzled reply.
"What are you doing with that ruler, then?" asked Charles slowly, as he moved in for the kill.
"Keeping my place, sir, on the order."
"That's something else, isn't it?" boomed Charles triumphantly.
Nancy didn't reply, but stared down at her keyboard. Her eyes began to water.
"I said, that's something else, isn't it?" repeated Charles loudly, glancing around the room at fifty employees looking anywhere but at him. "From now on, when I ask you something, I want a correct answer right away. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir." said Nancy in a small voice. She kept her head lowered. She was a single mother with two kids in elementary school, and Tollburg was not exactly loaded with other jobs.
Feeling much better now, having forgotten about his miscalculation and Landover, Charles methodically surveyed the office a final time before strutting forcefully back towards his office. Behind him Nancy looked up cautiously and seeing him striding away like a duck, flashed his backside her middle finger. Charles heard the muffled snickering, but assuming it was at Nancy's expense, continued purposefully toward his office.