Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Distance, Chapter 37


April Thirteenth,
Des Moines, Iowa
11:30 a.m.

Doug’s seven a.m. coffee remained mostly untouched, thirty minutes before the dayshift would take lunch.  He’d been up until one-thirty, preparing for what he knew would be a stressful day, distracted by the doings in the Middle East and Europe.

Word had quickly spread overnight of the imminent staffing reassignments, and fifteen percent of the day-shift workforce called in ‘sick’.  By eight-twenty, they’d been fired and potential new hires called in for interviews with potential immediate employment possible.  The Regent personnel office had six thousand resumes in the database, all fresh since January first.   Personnel knew that with Doug on the phone to Corporate, and no ‘bitch-slap’ coming his way after reaming out Jennings, that he was serious about his work.  The director of personnel told Doug that he’d have a full compliment of workers requiring minimal training by the start of first shift, Friday. Doug gave them complete discretion in hiring—Jennings had apparently exercised privilege in all hiring decisions. Doug just told them to find qualified candidates, preferably with experience in the field, free of drugs, and to be liberal with the compensation package.

That built up immediate confidence in Personnel.  By the time the conference call started, the wheels were in full motion on staffing replacements.  He wished he had time to walk through the short-staffed day shift workers on the line, knowing that had they decided to sickout, they’d be on the street as well.

The video conference had eleven attendees other than Doug and CEO Wilder.  Doug felt like he was under cross-examination by all of them, with some obviously posturing themselves for the camera.  Almost an hour of the call was outspoken criticism of Doug’s proposal on using Regent employees on assignment to the FDA. With five minutes of formal presentation by Doug and support of the CEO, and the decision was made.  Doug realized that the several other board members were on the conversation for the sake of image and would go along with the Chairman. The prior talk had been not directed at Doug, but was put forth in defense of their positions.  Francine, mid-call, passed Doug a note that Jennings had been terminated, his office cleared overnight. Doug raised his eyebrows at Francine, but didn’t mention it to those on the conference call.

Through the first half of the call, when he wasn’t defending himself, Doug had no idea ‘who’ on the board knew ‘what’ about RNEW.  He’d decided to play it as if none knew. It probably wasn’t relevant anyway.

The second half of the call was all about the ‘Des Moines Experiment’ as a female board member in the Nashville plant labeled it. Doug explained that if productivity was to increase, the employees needed incentives to improve. If the line was to produce more, there wasn’t any better way to find was to improve the operations than to involve the workers on the line in the process. The Japanese had done it for years; American businesses had adopted it far later. Kaizen, when applied properly could better all functions through continuous review and improvement--it involved everyone in the organization, from CEO to floor sweeper. Doug had heard of it while he was working at Leinhardt, studied it, and run smack into the union when he tried to see it implemented.  The proposal became shelf-ware. 

Doug proposed that Regent Corporate to have the best trained, most dynamic team leaders across the Des Moines plant get together and start with a fundamental review of processes on the line.  That team would have five days to come up with suggested improvements and an implementation plan.  That team, and subsequent teams made up of other line workers, managers and execs, would be rewarded financially and with a meal created from the E Branch menu, once a week, in addition to financial incentives should the company deem them appropriate. The process would continue, as long as the plant was in operation.  Through the process, the plants efficiency would be improved; the workers would build loyalty in the company and be better workers.

There was little negative comment on Doug’s suggestion, after the tide-shift on the first half of the phone call, and the stark reality that Regent quotas were the priority, not steaks for the executives. 

Doug was given thirty days to show substantial improvement in the output of the plant, sooner if he could pull it off.   When the majority of the video conference attendees signed off, the head of personnel in Columbus told Doug that his new compensation package and terms would be in his inbox within a few minutes.

With that, the call was ended, and the conference room quiet.  Francine knocked and entered, bringing a fresh cup of coffee and a sandwich tray.

“Everything go OK with Columbus?” she asked.

“Yes. Thanks.  And thanks for lunch.”

“Your office should be ready for you any time.  Do you want me to bring this down?” she said, looking at the stacks of reports that covered one end of the conference table.

“This stuff will wait.  I can fetch it later,” he replied. “I have an office?”

“Yes…Mr. Jennings former office.”

“Before I accept that, I want your unvarnished opinion of his office,” Doug said, knowing that there was a high likelihood that she would give him exactly that.

“It’s nicer than most houses.  Three times the size of my apartment,” Francine replied, nearly without pause.

“How long have you worked here, Francine?”

“Five years, three months.”

“And Jennings? How long was he here?”

“Eighteen months, four days,” she replied, again, without much pause.

“Was that office remodeled during his time here?”

“Yes, three times. Always a little larger.”

“OK, as I suspected.  What was that office before?”

“It held half of administrative support, personnel, employee benefits, and part of on-site daycare.”

“And where did those functions go?”

“Into a remodeled part of the plant,” she replied. “Or eliminated.”

“I need about a hundred square feet for a private office and a small conference area. How about you see to it that the rest of that space gets reassigned. Open-concept, partition walls, whatever.  I don’t want Jennings office as-is. Got it?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll get someone on it today,” she smiled demurely.

“Perfect. Find me a temp office while that’s getting done.  I’ll need…”

“I’ll take care of it, Mister Peterson,” Francine said as she swiveled and looked at him over her shoulder. “Trust me,” she said with a warm smile, and left the conference room.

‘That girl is nitroglycerin’, Doug thought as he took a bite of a corned-beef sandwich. He pulled up the email from Columbus personnel, and was pleased he was sitting down when he read it.

His salary had been nearly doubled, was inflation-indexed, and could be payable in paper currency or in precious metals or a combination. The compensation included his home in Fairfield, free and clear, with maintenance and utilities paid for by Regent as long as he was in the employ of Regent or any subsidiaries. He was given a thousand shares of Regent Preferred and two thousand shares of Regent Common, and signing bonus of fifty thousand dollars in United States silver and gold coinage, indexed at current precious metals trading rates.
The remainder of the agreement was identical to his current contract, without the end date of his current agreement. 

“That does beat all,” Doug said aloud, closing the email and leaning back in the chair. “It’s still not worth it, though.”

2:30 p.m.

Doug was running on fumes and coffee wasn’t making one bit of difference.  Falling asleep on his desk wouldn’t be a great example to the plant.  He figured he’d have about an hour, and he’d be ‘done’, one way or another.  A chunk of the afternoon had been spent  reviewing decisions made by the previous management team. Few of them made a whole lot of sense.
Rob Dowling brought in a report not long after lunch covering the transportation task force report. Succinctly, they’d come to the conclusion that by the end of May production and distribution within the current Regent model would probably be at a complete standstill. 
Transportation hinged on two things: Diesel fuel and the safety of the over-the-road (OTR) drivers.  The other perceived issues were all secondary…but could be dealt with.  Fuel was being gobbled up by the military for the Mexican war; fuel from the Middle East had ceased; refineries on the Gulf weren’t anywhere near back to capacity after sabotage and the previous years’ hurricane. Regent’s strategic intelligence team had chimed in, stating that the Saudi Arabian oil fields were in full production collapse six months before the collapse of their government; the established Mexican Cantarell complex was seriously depleted; and Venezuela’s reserves were seriously overstated from the start.  Domestic production from the Dakotas and eastern Montana would be years away from making up the difference.  Reserves in California and off-shore on both coasts, likewise.

The fuel problem aside, safety of the drivers was harder to deal with. OTR drivers were being targeted for whatever load they were perceived to be carrying, or in more extreme cases, for the tractor or the fuel.  Virtually none were being robbed, they were just being killed. Some were shot on the highways—most trucks then crashed.  Many though were being killed in the cities or suburbs, shot at traffic lights or at low speeds.  Mobs would then ‘appear from nowhere’ and sack the trucks.

No one could afford to run armed convoys all the time, even if there were enough armed men.  There wasn’t any such thing as an armored semi, and Regent and her subsidiaries would need hundreds of them, if not thousands. 

Over the road trucking in the traditional sense was no longer an option. With twenty-twenty hindsight, Regent or any other manufacturer should have seen a potential risk in maintaining critical infrastructure within risky areas.  Regent though had grown quickly, and acquired plants—it hadn’t really built anything new, as far as Doug knew.  Rail service to key locations, and limited distribution by trucks was the best option…but the product first needed to be made, and that meant raw materials to production plants.  Most raw materials came in to the plants on rail.  The problem with rail was nearly all production facilities were in the middle of cities, often in the middle of poorer, industrial areas.  A perfect setting for riots.

The Federal Government had started an aggressive new campaign to build new rail lines, also understanding the new thinking that ‘rail makes more sense’. The new lines though, wouldn’t begin to serve the small cities and towns for years.  By investing in the interstate highway system for three generations and abandoning most of the rail network, Americans would be paying a steep price. 

That price would be hunger.

Before knocking off for the day, Doug decided to make rounds through the plant, which was nearing the end of day-shift, under new management. The massive plant was capable of creating numerous products but at the moment was almost completely dedicated to creation of dehydrated drink mixes and shelf-stable foods.  Within a week the plant was scheduled to switch over to large-scale production of relief foods, in plain, military-style sealed plastic pouches. 

Doug was immediately met by the senior shift supervisor, who along with everyone else, was now wearing required hair nets, sterile smocks, gloves, and shoe covers…most missing on his previous walk-through. The supervisor, now largely free of inept workers and an overburden of non-producers, had assigned a number of the day-shift staff to cleaning the production line, top to bottom.  Second-shift would be addressing the material intake area with the same attention to detail. Third shift, the ready-delivery docks.

Within a week, Doug thought, the plant would be at production capacity under old-style thinking.  With constant improvement processes, he thought he might be able to increase production by ten or fifteen percent in a month, maybe a little more. 

By five, Doug was back in his apartment, drained.  He reviewed the dinner menu, provided in an email to the suite- and apartment-dwellers in the factory compound, and ordered the ‘special’. The meal, not typically on the menu, included a bitter herb salad with a vinagrette, lamb chops, rice pilaf, braided honey bread, applesauce with raisins, and red wine. One of the kitchen staff delivered dinner within an hour, along with a description of the significance of the Holy Thursday meal. 

As he ate, Doug was transported back to many Holy Week meals with his mother and occasionally his father, who was aboard ship most of the time it seemed.  The meals, always around the small chrome table in the kitchen, were always special and more significant to his mother than to Doug, but he never told her that.  Although he was raised in strict Catholic tradition, he had long-since fallen away from the teachings, and as he ate, he realized that he never really had an understanding of the beliefs that his mother had.  Neither he nor his father ever talked about their faith; it was simply provided to them at Mass on Sundays, and through years of Catholic school.  After dinner, Doug planted himself in an oversized recliner in front of the cable news channel, and was asleep in minutes.

April Thirteenth,
11:50 p.m.

Doug awoke with a crick in his neck and the Israeli Prime Minister shouting before a large crowd, from a live feed from Tel Aviv courtesy of a British network. He noticed that the Prime Minister, like the President a few days before, was in combat fatigues.  The crawler on the bottom of the screen had three streams running, including reports that the E.U. had voted overnight to enact crushing economic sanctions against Tel Aviv; that Brussels was demanding reparations be paid immediately to Syria; and that all diplomats from the E.U. had been recalled from the entire region.  He couldn’t remember that ever happening, anywhere.
Rubbing his neck, Doug shook off sleep and caught the broadcast in more detail.  The majority of the E.U. was going against Israel, along with virtually all of her immediate neighbors.  The cutaway to D.C. showed the lights in the West Wing burning, as well as rumors of a change in ‘Defcon status.’ The network rolled to various reporters around Washington, filling time with speculation.

Doug’s apartment phone rang at five minutes after midnight, the caller I.D. reading ‘Regent-Denver’.

“Doug Peterson,” he answered.

“Mister Peterson, please hold one moment.  You will be connected to Davis Blankenship. He is the current Vice President, Operations for the Regent Denver facility,” the woman said, not apologizing for the lateness of the call.   He was placed on hold, and took the time to mute the television.  They were either replaying video of a big Israeli tank burning furiously, or the Syrians had taken out another one. This one seemed to have a big hole melted in the side, right at the bottom of the turret.

“Mister Peterson?” a strong voice asked. Doug guessed, African-American.


“Sorry for the late call. I hope we didn’t wake you,” the man said, in a quite conciliatory tone.

“No, actually. I was watching the news.”

“Quite a bit to see there,” the man said. “I understand from the Chairman that you’re implementing a quality improvement program in Des Moines.  I’d like to see a draft of it if you wouldn’t mind.  We’re on the verge of missing expectations on delivery here in the Denver region.  I am looking for better solutions than I’m getting from my staff.”

Almost without thinking, Doug asked, “How many of them are on the full RNEW program?”

A long pause followed, before Blankenship answered. “Production line, lower echelon only.”

“Are you sure about that, sir?”

“I’m reasonably sure. Where are you going with this?”

“I’m quite green in the Des Moines plant—literally a couple of days--but I’ve seen management behavior that make me question the mental acuity of people who were placed in positions of seniority.  Most were replaced or will be soon. We had other problems here, notably a lot of favoritism, nepotism, unqualified people, that kind of thing.  I suspect though, that at least some of the problems here were related to consuming common product,” Doug said, getting no reply. He continued on.

“If there’s a test for the presence of RNEW in the body, you might check. Random urine test or whatever,” he said, again not getting a reply.  “I looked at management records today, decisions that have been made over the past several months, and then checked the personnel files of the people that made what I regarded as bad decisions. I came to the conclusion that the people that made those decisions were too smart to make the mistakes they made. Their qualifications ruled them out.”

“If they’re not taking RNEW, they shouldn’t have made those decisions? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes,” Doug replied without pause.

“Senior personnel are provided the Preferred line of Regent products,” Blankenship replied, with a questioning tone.

“Sure.  Provided but not required? But what if they want to take RNEW?  Do the lower echelon workers get…well, do they get ‘high’ off of RNEW?”

“No. That’s preposterous,” was the dismissive reply.

“OK, is there a particularly pleasant, if somewhat numbing feeling when on a RNEW maintenance diet?”  Doug asked, already knowing the answer.

“There is a calming effect. You’re saying that senior people are taking RNEW to get that?”

“How much stress are you putting them under? I mean, how much stress are they enduring to meet expectations? Is it reasonable? Are they used to it or have they had more stuff dumped on them?” Doug asked, again, knowing the answer.

“Everyone has had more to do,” Davis Blankenship replied, “Myself included.”

“Perhaps some of the side effect of that is staff ‘coping’ with the stress through the RNEW product line, especially if the line workers are working their asses off and are still happy as clams, while management is stressed out.”

“Have you shared this with Chairman Wilder?”

“No, it didn’t come to me until this afternoon. I’m planning on…”

“Let me take care of it, if you would. This won’t wait, and you won’t get through,” Blankenship said.  “This isn’t the conversation I’d expected, Mister Peterson.”

“Sorry about that.  I’ll send you our improvement outline as soon as I get it all on paper.”

“Appreciated.  Good night,” Blankenship said, and ended the call before Doug could reply.

‘Doug, your life would be a whole Helluva lot easier if you’d just shut your big, fat mouth,’ he said to himself, again seated in the recliner before the silent television.

Israeli air-defense missiles fired from their launchers, leaving a series of trails across the bright blue sky.  Incoming warheads tore up the horizon, chewing up the ground in an angry cloud of dirt and smoke. 
The cameraman zoomed back away from the impact area, and left the camera running as they obviously ran for cover. 

The screen went to ‘snow’ as the network lost the signal from the camera, and then went to black. 


  1. Tom,

    Thank you for the new chapter. I am thoroughly enjoying the story as it comes from another part of the country and perspective.


  2. AWESOME, Mr. Sherry! I am LOVING this novel!

    Can't WAIT to see what the next few days bring to Doug and crew. It's about to get awfully interesting in the Deep Winter universe!

  3. AACKK!!! Cliff strikes!!!
    Really looking forward to the next chapter(s)- will Doug manage to maintain his morals, or will Regent make him an offer he can't refuse? Thank you!

  4. Dittos to the above!
    I noticed one misspelling, "full compliment of workers" -> complement

  5. Looking forward to the next chapter!!

    Hopefully the relationship between Doug and Julie will mature and there will be more on their relationship in future chapters.

  6. waiting for a new chapter...thanks


Comments are welcome!