I have written before about my Uncle Henri. He was my mother’s brother. I like to joke he fired me three times. Each time, to be fair, with good reason. My friend Steve likes to point out it also means he rehired me twice. I guess that is true. But the three times he fired me, he was never as angry as he was the time because of my expense account.
My uncle called me into his office. He did not look happy. He did not look happy at all. He had one bad eye so it was never clear if he was looking at you. But what I couldn’t see, I could definitely feel.
He opened a folder, I could see it was my expense report folder, removed an item and pushed it in my direction.
“What is this?” he asked.
I picked it up and looked at it. It was a lunch receipt. From Gabby’s Roadhouse in Brampton.
“I marked it down,” I replied defensively. “It was lunch with Derek Dawson. You told me to take him to lunch.”
Derek Dawson was the paint line supervisor for a huge manufacturer. We had been trying to get their account for years. I was the paint salesman in charge of the account.
My uncle snatched the receipt from me and inspected it carefully.
“I told you to take him to lunch. $6.99. What could you possibly eat for $6.99?”
“We shared chicken wings,” I said. “Honey garlic. He said he liked honey garlic.”
“Chicken wings?” My uncle looked like he was going to lose it. “It could be the biggest account in all of Ontario and you took him for chicken wings?”
“I asked him what he wanted. He said honey garlic chicken wings from Gabby’s. We shared a dozen.”
“You shared? You didn’t even let him have his own plate?”
“Well the wings at Gabby’s are really fat. I think that is why he likes them. Plus they come with fries. I only had four. Am sure he was full.”
“It was 20-cent chicken wing day.”
“20 cents for chicken wings.” I was getting worried about my uncle. He had a heart condition.
“The Wednesday special.”
“The Wednesday special?” Now he was only repeating what I was saying. He inspected the receipt again.
“You drank Coke?”
“Yes. We each had a Coke. Gabby’s has free refills. He said he liked that.”
“You couldn’t have a beer?”
Salesmen all over the world were being berated for three martini lunches and I was about to be fired because I only drank Coke.
“$6.99? You submitted a receipt for $6.99?”
“I think I may have tipped $3. But I didn’t expense it. I think I may have left a 10.”
“$6.99. $6.99.” My uncle couldn’t get over it.
I was about to get fired for submitting too small an expense account.
“It was a good lunch.” I was almost in tears. “We talked about fly fishing.”
“Yeah. He likes to fish.”
My uncle, for what I was sure was the first time in his life, was at a loss for words. Which was a good thing, because the next words out of his mouth would have been bad for me. But then the phone rang and there was a crisis in the lab and I slinked out of his office.
My uncle and my father both worked at Sherwin Williams in Montreal. It was a huge paint manufacturer. They were both chemical engineers. My father got out in the early 70s and got a job in Ottawa with the government. My uncle though stayed longer and he became one of the pioneers in developing a new dry paint, powder coating, application which was applied with an electrostatic charge and then baked in an oven. Unlike wet paint, which creates sludge which had to be disposed, the powder paint could be reused and recycled. At the late age of 50, my uncle decided to leave Sherwin Williams and open up his own company. He called it Protech Chemicals. He had two partners. Then one of his partners dropped out. My father came up with the money and became a small silent partner. He remained a very silent partner. My mom, however, would occasionally have something to say. Mostly asking her brother to give me my job back.
That kind of thing.
When I wrote, “Even though my uncle fired me three times, he was still my favorite uncle,” my cousin David, who built the business with his father, was very quick to contact me in order to point out an error in that statement.
“David,” I argued. “Your dad was my favorite uncle.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “I know he was.”
“And I was fired three times,” I continued.
And he said, “That is where I take issue.”
I said, “Why?”
“Because,” he explained, “you say you were fired three times. But you should have said you were ONLY fired three times.”
Ah. Yes. He had a point. He had a good point. There are a bunch of examples. But I knew what he was talking about. He was talking about Ashley Broodmore.
Ashley Broodmore is not somebody’s name. It is the name of a company. The company makes electrical boxes. We have all seen them. The grey boxes which house our fuses. But they made these big industrial electrical boxes. The ones you see in the back of a plant. They painted them with a grey paint. Many of the names of the paint colors we sold were crowned by my uncle and cousin. For example, the bright high-gloss orange paint we sold was called Philly Orange as an homage to the Philadelphia Flyers. My uncle, although a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan, had a joie de vivre sense of humor.
The grey we sold Ashley Broodmore, however, had a name and designation which came straight from the electrical industry. It was called ASA 49 Grey.
It had many specifications. Durability, color, that kind of thing. One of the specifications was gloss. A lay person, one who buys paint for their wall, understands that a paint can either be matte, that is no or low gloss, or high gloss.
Ashley Broodmore’s ASA 49 Grey had a specification of 35-39 gloss. Which is not quite matte and not quite gloss. And they had a high-fangled gloss meter to measure it when the pieces came out of the oven.
One day, the measurement was 41.
They halted production.
They called our office and said get somebody in here immediately.
That somebody was me.
Now the thing was, I didn’t get the message right away.
Because my afternoon tennis game had gone into a third set.
So, by the time I retrieved my seven increasingly irritated messages, went home to shower and change into a suit, and drove the two hours to London, Ontario, it was already very late afternoon and the entire production line had been shut down for the entire day.
They were waiting for me in the conference room. The President and about 30 other people. I made my apologies, did not mention losing in a third set tiebreaker, and asked what I could do to help.
Someone handed me a piece of grey metal. It looked good. Perfect application.
“Do you have a gloss meter?”
I said I did. It was in the trunk of my Pontiac Phoenix. I went to the parking lot, opened my trunk, rummaged through the tennis rackets and balls, and retrieved it. I then went back to the conference room and did a reading.
I asked for another piece.
I asked for one more.
“Forty one.” I declared authoritatively. “Very consistent.”
The President was not amused. “Our specs are 35-39,” he said very firmly. “Your paint is off spec and it shut down our operation. Now what are you going to do about it?”
This was an easy one. We would manufacture a new batch overnight and ship it express the first thing in the morning.
It was a no-brainer.
Ashley Broodmore was a huge account.
It was a total no-brainer.
It was exactly what I should have said.
But I didn’t.
Because I was in a bad mood.
I really hate losing in a third set tiebreaker.
And also driving two hours in rush hour to get dressed down over something that is not discernible to the naked eye. And about having to sell powder paint for a living.
So instead I said, “It’s just an electrical box.” To the President of the company who made electrical boxes and 30 of his employees.
He didn’t say anything. I suspect he was in shock. I took the silence as a sign I could soldier on. “It is just an electrical box,” I repeated. “It goes in the back of the plant. Nobody will ever be able to tell the difference.”
The President nodded and thanked me for coming in. He then called my uncle and told him to never send me in ever again.
The most shocking part of the story is we didn’t lose the account and I didn’t lose my job.
Well, I did, but that was later.
I had written my first children’s book by then and was devoting most of my time to what would become my first company. It wasn’t really until I had my own company and my own lazy employees that I really understood my uncle.
So the third firing was the easiest. We both knew it was time.
Derek Dawson and I talked about fly fishing. I have never fished but I had read a few books. A River Runs Through It. Also, as you may have already guessed, I can spin a tale. I never really liked talking about paint. I would drop by the plant, he would take a cigarette break and we would stand outside near the loading docks and talk about fishing. Which lure to use. Which were the best fishing spots. We never mentioned paint. I discovered that selling was about connecting with people.
I was good at that.
It was the biggest account I ever landed. The competition never had a chance after that.
I actually got a few big accounts that year.
“We had a good year,” I said to my uncle.
“6.99,” he retorted. I would like to think he was joking. But I don’t really think so. He knew I was just phoning it in. Just biding my time. I can’t really blame him.
Selling paint was not my thing. I went on to discover other things. I am still discovering.
We got along much better when we were just uncle and nephew. We played poker. I took him shopping. Then back to return the things he had bought. I let him pick the restaurants. My choices were always shit.
We complained about employees. We reminisced about customers. About sales trips. About the time he told the not-pregnant Lisa that smoking was not good for the baby. I boasted about my sales, my numbers, my successes. I picked up the check.
I call my cousin David while I am writing this story and ask how much we used to sell the ASA 49 Grey for.
25 years later, and I am still saying “we.”
Fired three times and I am still saying “we.”
“You writing the Ashley Broodmore story?” he asks. I say, “Yeah.”
“It’s just an electrical box.”
“Yeah, I dunno. Kinda sounds like something I might have said.”
“You were so bad.”
“I know. So bad. At least it produced some good stories.”
“You tell the chicken wing story?”
“Yeah,” I reply.
“Derek Dawson.” He remembers the name right away.
“I’m impressed,” I say.
“Are you fucking kidding me! Gabby’s Roadhouse. $6.99.”
“It was a monster account,” I say.
“Yes,” he agrees. “It was a monster.”
“Free Coke refills,” I say.
“You ever fish with Derek Dawson?” I didn't answer. He knew I didn't.
“Classic story. You wrote it up?”
“Send it to me.”
So I do. I don’t hear back but a few days later a FedEx arrives at my house. I open it up and there are three loonies—three dollars—and a note.
It is from my cousin David.
“This covers the tip.”
The last meal I had alone at a restaurant with my uncle was at a roadside joint in Hallandale Florida called Big Daddy Flanigan’s. It was a liquor store which doubled as a type of diner. Ribs, burgers. That kind of thing. It was a dive and it wasn't clear why he liked it, but he insisted it was good. We had gone on some sort of wild goose chase looking for a $99 suit he had heard advertised on TV. We stopped at Flanigan’s for lunch on the way back. We both had beers and I ordered the fish tacos. My uncle looked sideways at the waitress. I think he was trying to read her name tag.
“Justine,” I said out loud.
“Let me ask you this, Justine,” said my uncle. “Do you have 20-cent wings?” he said it with a straight face.
Justine was unfazed.
“$9.99 for a dozen,” she replied.
“It comes with fries?”
“Okay. I will have wings.”
“Which flavor would you like?”
“Do you have honey garlic?”
Justine said yes.
“Okay. A dozen honey garlic.”
Justine left. I looked over at my uncle. His face did not betray a thing.
Then he slowly lifted his Corona. It was really only a few inches above the table.
“To Derek Dawson,” he said.
“To Derek Dawson,” I replied.