Most children, when they turn 18, or 21, get a car as a present for their birthday. In fact, I had been hoping, in my case, they would buy me a Ferrari, or at the very least, an Alfa Romeo, blue to match my older sister’s red.
Hope is a horrible thing to hang on to.
Instead, I got a seat at the table.
Not an actual seat but joined the other 7 family members that comprised the management group for the family-run business. One would retire to make way for new blood, as they called it.
“This is how it works and has done for a hundred years. In your case, you will be replacing Grandma Gwen. You will be given an area to manage, and you will be expected to work hard, and set an example to your employees. There will be no partying, no staying home when you feel like it, and definitely no getting into trouble. And for the first three years, you will sit, be quiet, listen and learn. One day, down the track, you will become the CEO.”
“If we’re still in business.” It didn’t take much to see that the company was struggling, as indeed many others were in the same industry, cheap imports and changing tastes taking a huge toll.
But we had been making exclusive and distinctive furniture for a long, long time, and discerning people who wanted a reminder of an elegant past still bought it. Part of my training, before I got that seat, was to learn the trade, and like all members of my family, could build a chair from start to finish.
It was part of the mantra, lead by example.
On the second day in my new role as manager, I arrived at the office, grandma Gwen was throwing the last of 50 years’ worth of stuff into three large boxes.
It was no surprise that she was resentful at being ousted to make way for me, not that she needed the money, but because even approaching 90, the last thing she wanted to do was retire.
I got the cold stare when she saw me, and, on her way out, a parting shot, “Don’t get comfortable, sonny, they’ll be closing the doors in three months, even sooner. Your father hasn’t a clue how to run the place.”
Out on the factory floor, the eight specialist workers didn’t exactly give her the goodbye I expected, showing that she didn’t have their respect. The foreman, Gary, the man who had shown me the intricacies of the work, opened and closed the door for her, shrugged, and headed back to the office.
The others went back to work.
When he came into the office, his expression changed from disappointment to amusement. He had said, years ago when I was very young, I’d be sitting in that office one.
Now I was there, though the chair, plush and comfortable when new about 50 years ago, was now as old and tired as the office’s previous owner, was hardly a selling point for the job.
“Told you you’d be sitting in that chair one day. That day is here.”
“Maybe not for long, though.”
“Don’t pay no mind to Gwenny. She and your father never got along. She wanted to sell the business 20 years ago when it was worth something, but your Dad wanted to keep the worker’s jobs. It’ll be a different story in a few years, once we’ve all gone. No one wants to be an artisan anymore. And wires, it’s all about furniture in boxes, all veneer and plastic, and a two tear life.”
“Shouldn’t we get a slice of the veneer and plastic market?”
“Can’t beat the overseas factories at their own game. The trick is to diversify, but to do that we’d need to retool, and repurpose factory space and that costs money, big money.”
With all that stuff I learned at University, economics, management, and design, it might have been better to have taken the medical path, but I had been convinced to lay the groundwork to take over the company one day.
Back then, it wasn’t a possibility the company would not go on forever. It seemed odd to me that my father hadn’t said anything about the situation Gary knew so well. Did he not listen to those who knew most?
“So, what’s the solution?”
“That depends on you.”
This was not the job I signed up for.
What did I know about furniture?
It didn’t matter.
It was about manufacturing in a world economy, and the point was, that we could not compete. Like the car industry, there was nothing but foreign imports and rebadged imported items made overseas.
So what was my role?
I was sure that every conclusion I had come to, everyone else around the table was painfully aware of too. A short discussion with my elder sister confirmed it.
It was like being aboard the Titanic and watching it sink firsthand.
That seat at the table was in an ancient wood-paneled room with a huge table that seated 24, a table and matching chairs reputedly hand made by the first owner of the company, my so-many times great grandfather, Erich.
The room reeked of wood polish, the mustiness of age, and a deep vein of tradition. Paintings on the walls were of every CEO the company had, and the first time I was in that room was the unveiling of my father’s portrait.
It was like stepping into a time warp.
Alison, my father’s PA was just finishing up setting the table for the meeting that morning. She had Bern around for a long time, so long I could remember her when I was a child.
She looked over as I stepped into the room.
“You’re just a little early.”
“Just making sure I know where I’m going.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No. It won’t be much different from sitting down to a family dinner, only a few less than normal, and I suspect there won’t be too many anecdotes.”
“It can be quite serious, but your father prefers to keep it light, and short. Your grandfather on the other hand loved to torture the numbers with long-winded speeches and religious tracts.”
Small mercy then.
“Where do I sit?”
“Down the end in the listen and don’t speak seat. It’s where all new members sit for the first year.”
That was twice I’d been told.
There were eight family members, the seven others I knew well, some better than others. I’d seen arguments, words said that were better unsaid, accusations, and compliments. I’d seen them at their best and at their worst.
It would be interesting to see how they got along in this room.
It started with an introduction and mild applause at my anointment to the ‘board’.
Then the captain of the Titanic my father as the current CEO, read out the agenda.
No icebergs expected, just plain sailing.
I sat, and I listened. It was easy to see why it was plain sailing. The family had made its wealth generations ago when our products were in high demand, and we had been living off the wealth generated by astute investment managers.
But even so, the business could not keep going the way it was without being an ever-decreasing drain on resources.
We needed a plan for the future.
“Now, if there’s no more business…” My father looked around the table, his expression telling everyone there was no more business, and stopped at me.
Was that my cue?
“I’m sorry, but I can’t sit here and pretend this place isn’t going to hell in a handbasket.”
“It may or it may not be, but that is none of your concern.”
The tone more than suggested that I should stop, right now. Of course, if I had the sense expected of me I would have, but if I was going to make a contribution, I might as well start now.
“Do you have any idea what’s going on here? We need a plan for the future, we need to be doing something.”
All eyes were on me.
I’d never seen my father so angry. At that moment I thought I’d pushed it a little too hard. To be honest I don’t know what came over me.
He glared at me for a full minute. Then as if a thought came to me that moment, there was a slight change in expression.
“Then, I have a proposition for you. I want you to work on this plan you say we need to have, what you think will be best for the company, and the family, for everyone, for the future. I believe everyone here will agree on something, as you say, that needs to be done.”
There were nods all around the table.
Then, looking directly at me, he said, “if there is nothing else. Good. Our business is done.”
© Charles Heath 2022