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Authors: Trevor Cole

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BOOK: The Fearsome Particles
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Watch the slides, reach for the gum.

Thought there was gum in here.

Find that damn gum.

In the seat behind Gerald, Doug Allsop,
VP
of business development, leaned over and whispered, “You okay?”

“Gum,” muttered Gerald.

“You look like you’re in pain.”

Gerald realized only then that he was grimacing. He tried to make his face go smooth. “No, I’m fine.”

Doug leaned in further. “Fruit or mint?” he whispered.

“Hmm?”

Doug held out a furtive hand. “Doesn’t matter; I’ll take whatever.”

Gerald, watching the screen, pulled his hand out of his pocket and shook his head at the same time. His testicles were fine as far as he could tell but there was something about Trick’s slides that confused him.

“Excuse me, um, Trick,” said Gerald, loud enough to be heard at the front. “Sorry, but on the last slide you gave us market share projections for the third quarter, and now we’re looking back at product positioning from Q-one. Is that right?”

Trick, who’d been holding his remote control to his chin like an electric shaver, now established two blocks of air with his hands. “
Where
we’re going.
How
we get there.”

“But we’re in Q-two now.”

“Yeah, I’m getting to Q-two.” Trick was now making an impatient cranking motion with his remote hand. His meeting was an antique truck, apparently. “I’m getting us there. This is all preliminary. You know, just –”

“Could you take us back to the percentages, though? That one went by pretty fast and I think we could use another look.” Gerald turned to include Bishop. “Is that all right? I don’t mean to stop the flow.”

Bishop dropped his hand from his face to the edge of the table and blinked like a man rising out of water. “No, that’s fine.” He smiled sheepishly at Gerald. “I wouldn’t mind seeing it again myself.”

Trick’s head seemed to roll on his shoulders and he began to study the remote in his hand. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know if this thing goes back.”

Near the front, Phil Barbuda,
VF
of finance, who’d been slumped with his arms draped over the sides of his chair and his legs crossed ankle on knee, as if he were watching the Red Sox in his rec room, now started waggling his elevated foot. “It goes back.”

“How?” said Trick.

“Red button.”

Trick aimed the remote, pressed a button, and the projector shut off. “Nope.” He jabbed the remote at the projector again and the light came back on.

“Sorry,” said Phil, foot stilled. “On mine it’s the red button.”

“I could just tell you some of it,” said Trick, letting his remote hand drop from view. “What it said, basically –”

“You don’t have to use that, you can do it with the computer.” This was Sandy Beale, Trick’s second in sales and marketing. Since she had started at Spent Materials Inc. ten months ago just about everybody, Gerald especially, had come to the conclusion Sandy was smarter than Trick and should be Trick’s
superior. Reaching out with two fine-boned hands, Sandy drew the computer toward her across the table. “You just have to hold down shift-control and hit the left cursor button.” She did this. The percentages slide came back.

“Hokay!” said Trick, stopping traffic. “Don’t do anything else.”

“Good work,” said Phil, slappa-slapping the sides of his chair. “That’s definitely not like mine.”

“So.” Trick hooked a thumb into his waistband and hoisted the listing side of his pants. “These are the Q-three share numbers we can expect. Like I said, it shows some boost from the ad spending that … I was going to be getting to.”

What the slide showed was an ugliness that made Gerald’s chest hurt. In dark green, on the left, was an orderly stack of company names; in berry red, on the right, a stack of corresponding numbers. Trick Runiman was fond of Christmasy colour arrangements – silver and gold was another favourite – and seemed to hope that jaunty hues could obscure numeric horrors. But in this case there was no missing the truth: Spent Materials Inc. could look forward, during the three-month period beginning in July, to occupying 3.9 per cent of the national residential wire window-screen market. This would be, as far as Gerald knew, the worst third-quarter share in company history, good for tenth place out of eleven companies producing residential wire window screens. According to this slide, Spent would avoid last place by a margin of only 0.3 per cent over Nu-Snap Screens, a company that had officially gone bankrupt last June and was now, through receivers, simply selling off whatever wire screen inventory remained in its warehouses. They
would barely surpass in market share a company that had been dead nearly a year – and this was presuming Trick’s ad boost happened to kick in.

Gerald glanced over at Bishop in the gloom to make sure he was absorbing Trick’s holly-themed atrocity. Because these were numbers no materials executive could allow. Numbers no board could accept. Gerald knew, because Bishop had told him, that over the past year Spent’s more activist directors had begun to make dissatisfied noises. The company’s stock price was half what it had been the previous decade, and after a long stretch of indifference, attendance at board meetings had started to become more consistent. There seemed to be a certain heightening of interest in Spent’s year-over-year performance. Bishop had even mentioned to Gerald once or twice that the board was looking for “new initiatives” and “new energy.” Yet nothing ever seemed to materialize, and though Gerald – busy after all with matters like plant operations and distribution networks, not sales or strategic planning – had at times felt a worming in his stomach that warned him of trouble, he hadn’t until this moment fully registered the extent of the decline. But there it was.

Spent still had some heft in the other end of its business – washable residential furnace filters – something close to a 9 per cent share. In washable furnace filters they remained players (marginal, but at least in the game). However, no one thought of Spent as a “furnace filter” company. It was window screens in which Bishop Spent had made his fortune, window screens that established the company’s place in the world. If you were talking about Spent Materials, you were having a wire window-screen
conversation. And yet in the past five quarters its market share in window screens had slipped slowly, incrementally, like a toboggan on wet snow, to the point where the company was now as close to comatose as it was possible to get in the residential wire window-screen industry without somebody starting to look for a plug to pull.

Bishop stared for a moment at the image projected before him, with his hands sliding along the arms of his chair. Then he nodded.

“That’s good, Trick,” he said, from somewhere in Cincinnati. “Thank you.”

Gerald noticed that Phil Barbuda, near the front of the room, had both feet on the floor and was sitting more or less vertically, watching him. Sandy Beale, across the table from Phil, was sending up one eyebrow like a flare. Doug Allsop, his mouth half open and his eyes squinting through his glasses at something invisible to everyone else in the room, appeared to be closing in on a thought he might want to express.

No one said anything, however, and before Gerald could figure out a way to politely countervail Bishop’s “Thank you” and get the director of sales and marketing to address these numbers, Trick Runiman had taken up his remote with a two-handed grip and wielded it like a light sabre to slice through every percentages slide that stood between him and his Q-three ad spending forecasts.

“Ho
kay
,” he said then, a little winded, “here’s the direct-mail budget we’re looking at.”

I
n his office, twenty minutes later, Gerald was at his desk studying computer maps, calculating the time it would likely take to get to the
CFB
airport in Trenton to pick up Kyle at two. He’d been warned that the arrival time was approximate, that military flight crews, having no need to keep to a commercial schedule, did things at their own methodical pace. Nevertheless, he’d been told two, it was all he had to go by, and so he was calculating. This was the sort of thing other executives would get an assistant to do, but Gerald no longer had an assistant. He’d given her up willingly – she was working with Doug Allsop now – because he’d never been able to trust her with any task beyond the most menial. It’s not that Monik wasn’t able, she was extremely able, but Gerald couldn’t count on her to take all the nuances into consideration, and he didn’t always have time to explain the nuances. For instance, the drive to Trenton was an hour-and-fifty-minute trip, according to the site he used most, but none of these sites took traffic into account. Traffic out of Metro, even at noon, could be crushing. It could also be good; there was no way to tell. (This was what Gerald hated most about traffic, its caprice.) And there was no being sure, without constant, hostility-creating interrogation, whether Monik or any assistant had factored in the traffic uncertainties. By doing it himself he was able to know, with the highest degree of confidence, that the travel time of one hour and fifty minutes did not factor in traffic, and that it was therefore necessary to build in an extra half-hour for the trip, which meant in this case an eleven-forty departure, fourteen minutes from now. And although his need for these layered reassurances wasn’t something Gerald took particular pride in, each certainty was itself a comfort.

With a small window of time to play with before he had to leave, he began to shuffle through sales reports for January through March with an eye to starting his own market share analysis, because during the meeting it had become apparent that he needed to review all the numbers so that he could advise Bishop, and he could no more trust Trick’s projections than he could expect to stand, unmolested, in his own bathroom. When someone knocked on his door he considered saying he was busy, but the thought that it might be Bishop, come to confer over the market share crisis, made him call out, “I’m here.”

It was not Bishop but Sandy Beale who entered briskly, slipped the door shut behind her, and came to a halt halfway between it and Gerald’s desk. She stood at quivering attention, with her feet together and her arms at her sides, holding a large yellow pad in one hand and a black pen in the other.

“Gerald,” she said. “I think I have a solution.”

“A solution?”

She chopped out a hand. “Nothing against Trick, all right? He’s my boss. But.” She stood there silently, green eyes riveted on him, as if to let their shared appreciation of the
but
and its implications coalesce and drive them forward to a frontier of mutual Trick understanding.

“But,” said Gerald.


Well,”
she started, “there is a problem, don’t you agree?”

Gerald motioned toward a small round table and two chairs by the window. “I have a minute. Did you want –?” She was already sitting.

He came around and eased himself into the seat next to the low shelf of blue binders holding product specifications and
operational reports going back to 1973. The company had moved four times since its founding year, to lower leases farther and farther out on the edge of the city, and each time, someone had packed up these binders, shipped them with the rest of the furniture, and reshelved them in the
COO
’s office. Though he had never more than glanced at their spines, Gerald liked having them there, a kind of bulwark against flux.

Sandy Beale sat at the table in an attitude of fierce sincerity, arms straight out and hands clasped prayerfully. She smiled at Gerald as he settled into his seat and seemed to be awaiting his cue. Good, he thought.

“This is about the market shares?”

“The market shares, yes. I was hoping,
hoping
you would say something to Trick about that because I knew Bishop wasn’t –”

Gerald shifted abruptly. He hated to do it, but he had to pull on Sandy’s reins a bit. “I think we should probably leave comments about Bishop out of this.”

Sandy looked horrified. “Of course!” she said. “No, no, that’s not what I – this isn’t about him. At all. It was just, I was so glad when you stopped Trick and made him go back to that slide because he’s –”

“Trick too,” said Gerald, leaning forward. “I think, Sandy, if you have an idea, that’s what we should be discussing.”

She was already nodding. “Right,” she said, “you’re right. I’m sorry.” As she looked down at her pad her head vibrated slightly. The small features of her face seemed to cinch. She was, in a moment like this, everything Gerald wanted in a subordinate – someone who cared about her job and wanted to do it well, someone whose aspirations were balanced by propriety,
someone who attended to his signals, respected his position, followed his lead. Unfettered ambition was always bad news, in Gerald’s view; it was a wild, bucking thing that could do as much harm as good, and witnessing it made him queasy. But ambition with restraint, that could take a company places. It wasn’t a matter of control; he didn’t want her to think like him, he wanted her to think
with
him.

“You think there’s a way to improve our market share?” he said. “Let’s hear it.”

Sandy took a deep breath, took one last look at her pad, then fixed her eyes on Gerald’s. “We aren’t crazy enough.”

Gerald started nodding, as if this were a reasonable idea.

“Do you think we’re crazy enough?”

Gerald stopped nodding. He made a hand gesture to indicate that Sandy should keep going, and quickly get to the part that would make sense.

“We don’t take any chances, Gerald. We don’t take risks! I was looking back through the files in Trick’s office the other night. We haven’t launched a new product – I mean something really exciting – in like, four years.”

Gerald glanced down at the spec binders. It was an involuntary motion. “What about Teflon-coated screens?” He shifted in his seat. He wanted to reach for the spec binders, for the comfort they promised, but that was just an urge, and he could handle it. “Just around when I moved into this office we were launching Teflon screens for easier cleaning.”

“Right,” said Sandy. “Well, that’s what I’m saying. That was four years ago, and there’s been nothing since.” Her thin, creaseless lips turned up into a thin, creaseless smile. “And it’s
not like Teflon screens went huge or anything. I mean, who cleans their window screens?”

BOOK: The Fearsome Particles
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