Monday, March 5, 2012

Distance, Chapter 36


Wednesday evening
April Twelfth,
Des Moines, Iowa
6:30 p.m.

Doug had worked all afternoon with Dowling and a half-dozen underlings. Dowling hammered on some of them that were obviously far out of their depth, while Doug played ‘good cop’. Doug’s role in E Branch was ‘troubleshooter,’ based on the stack of assignments with his name on them. 

Collectively, they’d outlined a strategy to present Regent resources to the FDA—and would encourage their competition to do the same—to help the Feds with the ‘preservation of necessary regulatory oversight of the industry.’  Doug cringed inwardly at the words that he created, knowing that Regent was aiming to do just the opposite.  Rob dug deeper into non-restricted Regent personnel files, and found nearly fifty viable candidates.  The strategy was sent up the food chain for comment from Corporate.

The overall marketing strategy for RNEW was more or less running according to concept…but production was a nightmare. 

Corporate was in fact demanding numbers that could not be met with every factory in the Regent sphere of influence running twenty-four seven. Since his trip north into Wisconsin, the production requirement had increased thirty percent…twice.  The leadership in Columbus seemed to have the same understanding of simple math as the former members of Congress.  The quota was simply mathematically impossible to meet.

Distribution wasn’t much better.  Even with the new contracts to supply half of the M.R.E’s for the Federal government, massive orders for relief supplies and institutional clients, getting materials to the plants and finished goods to their points of destination was becoming a major hurdle.   Most of the shipments had historically depended on long-distance trucking.  With the skyrocketing costs of fuel and unrest spreading, over-the-road trucking wouldn’t remain viable for much longer. Freiland Trucking, one of the Regent contract carriers, had been hit hard, three times in six days. Doug put five people on finding a solution…by morning.

Staffing was a big problem, too.  Administration across RNEW was top heavy; production staff was light…this plant was no exception.  Interviews with line supervisors illustrated the universal opinion that none of them should be assigned to the production end of the business. Doug and Rob Dowling went back and forth on this…Doug finally put out the ultimatum: The company needed help in the production end of the business, and supervisory or admin staff deemed as redundant or excess would be reassigned with a slight reduction in compensation or their position would be eliminated. They could then be put first in line for production jobs….at production staff compensation rates.  If Doug had his way, the Des Moines plant would be just the first to see this change.  He decided to tour the plant to see first-hand if things really were as they seemed on paper. The tour, courtesy of one of the senior shift supervisors, was an unmitigated disaster, and Doug told the supervisor so. Back in the conference room, Doug hit that topic hard.

As the dinner hour approached, Francine Redmond interrupted the conference room meeting and brought dinner menus, printed on fancy paper and tucked into a leather portfolio. Doug was famished, but shocked at the menu. Francine waited for their order.

“OK, I know that I’m new to the Exec Branch. Is this for real?” he asked, trying not to be irritated.

“What? The menu? Sure.  Perks of the job,” Dowling replied.

“Who else in E Branch eats like this?”

“Senior staff only. Like I said, perks of the job—I’m not in E Branch, so I only dine here when a guest of E Branch. Don’t you like New York Strip steak, or the filet? The halibut is quite good too, I hear,” Rob said with a grin.

“What do the line workers get?” Doug asked, incensed. “Francine, what do you eat?”

“That menu is for executive staff only,” she replied. “I usually have a burger, chicken sandwich, wrap or soup. That kind of stuff.”

“Then that’s what we all eat. We’re a team. We work as a team, we eat the same stuff.  We tear down this wall,” Doug said, ripping the menu in half. “Pass the word.”

“Sir, that menu was sent from Columbus.  It’s their directive,” Francine said, as if warning him.

“I don’t give a damn. Where’s the kitchen?”

“Sir, I…” she started before Doug cut her off.

“Seriously,” Doug said, leaning forward.

“Mister Jennings will not approve of this, sir.”

“He can kiss my ass,” Doug answered.

“Sir, Mister Jennings is in Columbus, but this is his home plant. He’s on the board of directors!”

“And all that menu does is put bricks in a wall between production staff and management. If someone has a problem with that, they can talk to me.”  Doug figured that by eating the same food—and working in production on the floor if needed—he’d pick up some points with the employees, or get fired for the trouble, which would get him out of Regent.  “Now—take me to the kitchen.”

The shapely, overtly flexible administrative assistant led Doug to the kitchen…which in fact turned out to be an executive kitchen that was appointed with top-of-the-line everything and a dedicated staff, dutifully waiting for their orders.  Doug informed them that the executive kitchen was now closed, and that all executive staff—including visitors from Columbus—would now be taking their meals from the main cafeteria. 

That brought up a question from the lead chef, regarding the extensive kitchen inventory, which was then shown to Doug.  He thought about this for only a few moments, and remembered one of the corporate-improvement processes used at one of his former competitors.  He’d use the luxurious food for morale building while improving production efficiency…with luck.

“I want the shift supervisors from all production teams in the conference room at eight a.m., no exceptions.”

“Sir, I’d suggest the training room.  We have thirty shift supervisors.”

Doug involuntarily moved backward in surprise.  “We have three shifts. We have four production teams.  You should have twelve people to run those shifts, maybe sixteen considering spares and sick leave and cross training.  Why in God’s name do we have thirty shift supervisors?”

“It’s the Columbus model,” Rob said.

“That changes as of day shift tomorrow.  One supervisor per shift.  The spares go to line duty immediately, wherever the production manager needs them,” Rob looked at Doug with shock, and perhaps some fear. “Make it happen, Rob. I want names and personnel files of all shift supervisors and prior assignments on my desk by nine, along with every other line employee.”

“No problem,” Dowling said.

“Nine, tonight,” Doug clarified. Dowling was now much less relaxed.

Doug and Dowling had a hamburger, canned fruit salad and iced tea, with numerous stares from the cafeteria staff and several other employees who sauntered into the room, took one look and high-tailed it back to where they’d come from. 

“See that?” Doug said. “We don’t have any need for people to be doing anything but working to make this company better.”

Dowling felt better after that.  Doug headed back to the conference room as Dowling rounded up the requested files.

At seven-thirty, Doug took a break and headed back to his suite. The regular plant leadership happened to be in Columbus at a conference, and Doug’s presence seemed to stir up more than a bit of controversy, even before the shift management changes were announced.  He’d been in his room for almost a full minute before the phone rang.

“Doug Peterson,” he answered, noting that the caller I.D. stated, ‘Columbus Headquarters.’

“Tony Jennings,” the man replied, and then waited for Doug to respond.

‘Mister Jennings. What can I do for you?”

“Quit stirring up my plant, for one thing. What in Christ’s name do you think you’re doing?  You’re advanced to E Branch and two days later you’re trashing the entire production system in my home plant?” The man was obviously seething.

“Your plant is inefficient and cannot possibly come close to meeting quota given the current staffing plan.  Production quotas are increasing, labor is unmotivated, the production line is so far below a reasonable quality standard that even a cursory inspection would result in an immediate FDA shut down for health, safety and cleanliness issues. If you are the operating manager of this place, your ass ought to be fired,” Doug replied with all sincerity.

Jennings brushed him off. “You’re ordering twenty of my senior supervisors back to line duty.  I want to know why. Those men earned their place.”

“You have too many supervisors and not enough line. If these were the senior supervisors, you’d think they’d know enough to keep the line free of mouse and rat feces. You’d think they’d know that hand washing is required of employees after using the restroom.  You’d think they’d know that smoking dope on the line would result in immediate termination. You’d also think that there would be some incentive for people to actually do their job, instead of slacking.”

“Those men are friends of mine,” Jennings hissed.

“I don’t really give a damn,” Doug said. ‘In for a dime, in for a dollar’, he thought.  ‘If I’m going to make a career limiting move, this is a good start.’

“I’m ordering you to cease these changes immediately,” Jennings said.

“Fine. One phone call to the FDA, an email with photographs of the plant as of today, and they’re on this place like stink on shit.  And it’s all your problem, not mine.”

The line went dead.

Doug washed up and changed into sweats, feeling perfectly at ease with the dressing down that he’d just given a superior. The plant was a mess. He could help ‘fix’ it to the degree that he had corporate support. Without that, he couldn’t do anything.  He flipped on the flat panel television. Most of the cable offerings were repeats.  All of the news channels focused on the Middle East, with similar footage of burning Israeli tanks.  He switched the television off as someone knocked on his door. Doug looked through the small peephole.

On the other side, Francine Redmond stood expectantly.  Doug noted she’d redone her hair, and changed her blouse.  He opened the door.

“Good evening, sir.  Here are the personnel reports you asked for,” she said, flirt-mode fully engaged.  Doug noticed without noticing, that she was displaying far more cleavage than her ‘workday’ attire. He’d have to find a way to put a stop to this, diplomatically.

“Thanks, Francine. Where’s Rob?”

“I think he’s in his apartment. I volunteered to bring these over,” she said with a slight head tilt, sly smile and bedroom eyes. “In case there’s…anything else you might need,” she added, leaving no room for doubt.

“Thank you, but…I’m in a relationship,” he said quietly, showing appreciation for the offer. 

“Gotta give me credit for trying.  Besides, if you get lonely, it’s nothing serious,” she said with a warm smile.

“I’ll remember that,” Doug said, almost immediately regretting encouraging her.

The personnel files showed that fully two-thirds of the men in supervisory positions were void of qualification or training for their current jobs.  The most senior were over fifty, none with a college education, all seemed to be from the Des Moines area, four with shared surnames. Doug looked further and saw that brothers were in the plant, as well as fathers and sons, none of whom had worked for Regent until the first of January…most came on later. On further inspection, Doug saw that most of the older men came from the same high school. Probably the same school that Jennings attended…he was probably trying to look out for his friends when the economy cratered. It might have been better if he’d actually had them trained for their jobs. From the bar in the ‘living room’, he dropped two ice cubes into a cut crystal rocks glass, and poured three fingers of Bourbon.

The phone rang again, and again the Columbus caller ID came up on the screen.

“This is Doug Peterson.”

“Doug, this is Charles Wilder. I haven’t met you, but I’m CEO of Regent,” the man stated calmly.

“Nice to hear from you, sir.”

“I just got of the phone with one of my directors.  You seem to have his nuts in a vise and a blowtorch in your hand. Enlighten me, if you would.”

For ten minutes, Doug explained the results of his impromptu inspection of the Des Moines plant and the brief review of the qualifications and experience of the supervisory personnel.  He then emailed three-dozen photographs of the plant to the CEO.   The material that Doug had sent would be ‘reviewed immediately’ and ‘corrective action taken,’ since the inspection that Doug had completed was completely counter to the report that Tony Jennings had filed with Corporate.  ‘Chuck’ thanked Doug, and then thanked him again for the FDA brainstorm, and told him to be available for a conference call at nine the next morning.

Doug hung up the phone, sat back in his chair, and finished his cocktail.   He spent a few more minutes reviewing the plant staffing, finally realizing that barely five percent of the staff were minorities.  It hadn’t occurred to him earlier—it was a statistical impossibility that the racial mix of the entire Des Moines plant was so skewed relative to the urban area population. The overall diversity of the plant should have been a solid twenty-five to thirty percent minority employees…not four point nine percent.  Regent’s own policy on diversity encouraged equal representation--another strike against Des Moines leadership, which could result in negative publicity and unwanted attention.

Without historic data on the overall Regent staffing, it was impossible to tell how long the racial hiring had been going on, but it was probably a safe assumption that the change had happened recently. Any cursory review of Regent’s hiring practices by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would have identified a systemic discriminatory hiring practice, had the EEOC been tipped off.  Now though, that commission had been disbanded as part of Federal streamlining, and no state program would likely ever take its place.  Prejudice was alive and well and thriving, it seemed.

8:40 p.m.

Doug had been mulling making the phone call all day. Finally he picked up the phone and called the Farm.

“Hello?” a strange male voice answered.

“Hi. This is Doug Peterson. Is Julie Forsythe available?”

“Please hold,” the man replied. Doug thought that it sounded like a teenager.

“Doug? Is that you?” Maria Segher answered. 

“Yes, Maria. Good to hear your voice.  Is Julie around?”

“I’m afraid not.  She’s at Peter and Molly’s, their phone is down.  Are you home?”

“Not yet.  I’m up in Des Moines. I’m hoping to be home on Friday, if work allows.”

“Good. You come by for dinner, then. It’s Good Friday.  You come for Easter service too, ya?”

“I would love to,” he said. “I’ll try to bring…”

“None of that now. You bring yourself, that is enough.”

“I’ll see you Friday.  Give Arie my regards,”

“I will do that.  You take care of yourself.  The roads are not safe.”

“Believe me. I know,” he said before saying goodnight.

After a luxuriously long shower, he poured himself a short bourbon and turned the television on again for the late news.

The lead network story was from Madison, with video of a smoking, collapsed building, fire trucks playing water over the ruins.  The reporter on scene stated that the refugee center had reported a gas leak, and most of the refugees had escaped before the devastating explosion.  Sixteen people were believed to have been killed, several city employees who were ‘trying to stop the leak’ and ‘ensure everyone’s safety.’ The ‘tragedy was just the latest to befall the City, after a devastating outbreak of influenza tore through the leadership of the City.’

The building shown on the television had been the same one that Doug had been held in.  It was not a ‘refugee center’…far from it. Kevin Martinez and Co. had apparently made good on Pete Bollard’s statement. He had no doubt that the ‘influenza outbreak’ was anything but accidental.  

Doug sat and watched the screen blankly for a few minutes, not really taking in the events in the Southwest, other than American troops scanning the Mexican frontier, now deep inside ‘old’ Mexico.   News from the Middle East and Europe brought him around.

“…massing in northern Lebanese border, with extensive overt support and backing of the United Nations.  Thirty Israeli tanks in southern Lebanon have been destroyed within the past twenty-four hours, apparently hit with some sort of ultra-fast short-range missile of unknown origin. The Israeli Defense Forces, already fully mobilized due to threats from Egypt, have now called up all civilian reserves in anticipation of full-scale war. Syria, with the recent upheaval in leadership, has fully aligned all military forces with those of Iran, sandwiching the fledgling democracy in Iraq between two radical Islamic nations.  Iraqi leaders, meeting in a secure location, struggled to mobilize defensive forces in the wake of threats made by the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The U.N. continued to condemn Israel for ‘aggressive actions resulting in predictable escalation.’  The White House had no comment on proposed U.N. sanctions. That’s it from D.C.”

The broadcast switched back to the network feed from New York.  The anchor didn’t look familiar to Doug, and looked pretty inexperienced and edgy.

“In Europe, in disarray for months following the majority elections of predominantly Muslim leadership, pledged to help defend against any hostile Israeli attack on Islamic nations.  Thousands of protesters took to the streets and were immediately ordered back to their homes under threat of severe punishment.  The U.S. in an uncharacteristically frank statement, condemned the new European leadership publicly, and in separate communications, apparently threatened Europe with U.S. retaliation for any military action against U.S. or Israeli forces. The European Grand Ayatollah in Cordoba, Spain, condemned the United States for more than two centuries of aggression against Islam, calling for Muslims everywhere to unite behind the teachings of the Prophet and to sweep the infidel from the Earth,” the anchor said. “For analysis, we’re going to the Pentagon.”

“Thanks, Michael. We are really looking at an unprecedented alignment of nations against the United States and against Western nations in general.  Decades of in-migration of Muslims into Europe and prolific birth rates finally manifested itself this year with Sharia law in place throughout most of Europe, triggering the exodus of millions of people to Great Britain, Scandinavia, Poland and more far-flung destinations in South America and Australia.  This statement from the Grand Ayatollah is first large-scale flexing of that new power. In the past several months, most senior military officers have been replaced with new men who have pledged allegiance to the new regime. These new officers hold the keys—literally—to the military power held by Europe under the old European Union. Hundreds, if not thousands of men and women in Pentagon and in other locations have been working nonstop to understand and counteract this new threat,” the reporter stated.

“Do we know the location of the President and Vice President at this hour?” the anchor asked.

“No, we do not, officially. Both planes that serve as Air Force One are currently at Andrews, though, and Marine One is currently on standby on the South Lawn of the White House. As far as we know, the President is in residence.”

“Well I sure as Hell wouldn’t be,” Doug said to the television, immediately realizing that should the U.S. come under attack from Europe, Des Moines wouldn’t exactly be safe.

He needed to get home. 


  1. Tom,

    Thanks for the new chapter.

    As usual, I am looking forward to the next one.


  2. imitating life? I.e. middle east....thanks for the great chapter...can't wait to see how Doug leaves the company...if he does that is...

  3. Love that Doug is being shown as an effective business manager, since he has appeared so often as unaware and slightly incompetent. It is good to see him starting to operate proactively...

  4. I am LOVING this storyline!

    Apparently the CEO of Regent isn't on RNEW (yet) because he's still reasonable. Is the Cedar Rapids supervisor on RNEW, or just a nepotistic jerk? It will be interesting to see that unfold.

    Was Francine sent by the deep-darks in Regent to control Doug? Or, is she acting in self-preservation? Or both? Wow, this is getting interesting.

    Good work bringing Maria and Arie back into the story... of course, we are wondering how they are back at the Farm. I fear, however, that the deep-dark evil in Regent listened to Doug's call to the Farm, and may be creeping in as we speak. Scary!

    And, of course, we are three days away from the big big events of Deep Winter... looking forward to how Doug fares through that, and those down on the Farm.

    This is getting GOOD! Thanks, Mr. Sherry!

  5. As others have mentioned "GOOD" "GREAT" "COOL"

    An outstanding story, no matter the adjectives employed. Thank you for your ongoing efforts!

  6. Another great chapter, thank you.

  7. "You seem to have his nuts in a vise and a blowtorch in your hand."
    Love it!!!


Comments are welcome!