By A.H. Watson
Unable to face his grandfather, as he was worried he would ask how the new company was getting along, Henry waited until he saw him in the rear of the store showing bolts of cloth to a customer he quickly snuck into the store, dug deep in the ice and frigid water, retrieved two large RC Colas and quickly left.
After replacing the borrowed tools behind the store, Henry and Timmy hove up close to the side of Mr. Carnes cotton office. The shade of the large pear tree and the wall of the office itself was deep and offered one of the better promises of a slight breeze.
Much as businessmen the world over, the two boys discussed their difficulties and the now hopeless task of meeting their customers needs come Friday, only two days hence.
Not only had their Production Dept. been unable to produce sufficient product - it seems that the Sales Dept. had enticed more customers than could be supported by the labor force. From nowhere a voice startled both from their many worries.
"You boys step in here for a moment if you please."
Looking up, Mr. Carnes head appeared over them looking down at the boys sitting in the cool shade below. They quickly obeyed.
Quickly finishing their RC Colas, they found a place to hide the bottles from prying eyes. It was one thing to be budding businessmen, but the one-cent deposit return on the bottles was not to be sneezed at or left for others to claim.
"Boys, I couldn't help but hear the fix in which you find yourselves. It was never my intention to listen but the window was open to catch the same breeze you evidently sought and your words fell hard upon my ear. Sorry, but maybe I can help or at least offer some advice to this venture? If you wish."
"I take your sitting there nodding as a sign you wish me to continue?"
Relieved, without discussion or a board meeting; both young men said "Yes," in unison.
Sitting there with his own business papers fluttering in the welcome breeze, Mr. Carnes discussed business as though the boys were graduate students in business; every suggestion and point learned by him, not at Harvard, but rather in the trials and tribulations of building his own highly successful concern.
"Let's start with what you fellows did right. The two of you isolated a need in the community and organized a method of fulfilling it. Any business, successful business that is ? is started with that very same thought. But as you have seen success is more than an idea. It requires detailed planning and understanding of both supply and demand of the intended product. This is where your ox jumped in the ditch."
"You boys jump in the car and let's run out to where your business met a hard spot; thought it would have run aground later based on your pricing mistakes - but first things first."
A mile up the dirt road from the Griffin Highway, Mr. Carnes slowed to a stop in front of a wooden shack. It occupied a hard baked acre with a run down shed, out-house, and a yard full of abandoned junk and trash. The porch, what there was of it, leaned tiredly toward the road and was awash with more junk including a somewhat stuffed sofa and an ice box, open but empty.
Chickens pecked among the trash and a famished, bone weary dog could not decide to leave the shade of the porch ? to disappointedly - go un-fed once again.
When the farmer appeared on the porch, both boys drew back from the window in surprise. It was the same man that had claimed their hard gained lighter wood the day before.
"Howdy, Mr. Carnes, can I hep' you? Been meaning to come see you about that bill at the Sto?."
Never letting him finish, Mr. Carnes, with a sharp tone spoke.
"Luther, did you tell these boys that this was your farm? Did you take all the wood they had worked all day to gather??Answer me man ? is that true?"
Sticking both thumbs in his suspenders as if to hold himself upright, Luther leaned back and whined, "I look after this place real good fer' you Mr. Carnes and I thought that it wa?."
"Did you ask them if I sent them to get the wood? Of course you didn't, you just saw two boys you could buffalo out of more work that you have done this summer."
"Henry, move up front with Timmy. Luther, get every stick of that wood and put it in the back seat ?and feed that damn dog! I brought you fifty pound bags of dog food? are you just too damn worthless to feed him?
Driving home Mr. Carnes sort of turned on me.
Henry, I would have thought you brighter than to let some white trash tenant farmer steal your wood. You know and visit every piece of land in the county Jessie owns. I am surprised you didn't know that it was my land - and if not -that you would have let some trash take your work for themselves. I won't tell your grandfather or others?for what it's worth ? you came to ME wanting your wood back'"
"Why?" Because it sounds better that way; never show a weakness needlessly?that's why."
Back at the Cotton Office Timmy and I learned more about business in a hour than an advanced degree ever taught.
Mr. Carnes leaned back in his chair and over the continual squeaks it made when he moved. Slowly, and with examples, he showed us the many mistakes we had made in our business plan.
"Whose wood is that boys?" ? Carnes smiled gently.
"I want to say ours - but somehow I don't think that is the answer." My partner, smart enough to pick an answer from a list of ONE, chirped up ? "yours?"
"Correct Timmy, surprised Henry didn't realize it."
"Well, us folks got mo' 'sperience with things almost given to us Mr. Carnes." Timmy did smile - but I wondered then ? and now.
"Well both of you know you can have the kindling, however, that is not your problem.
Did you study how much to charge and just how much your customer would use? Did you think of cost of delivery and production or the method or speed of making your product?How about the cost of the raw materials or the tools for manufacturing the kindling?"
"How about payroll or debt? How will you handle unpaid invoices? How will you pay yours?" With this, Mr. Carnes paused, then continued by explaining the danger we now faced as a going business.
"Face it fellows ? you are bankrupt and don't even know it. Henry you remind me - excuse me Timmy ? of that black press foreman I once had ? he was attacked by one of the hands with a sharp knife then turned to me and said, "no problem Mr. Carnes, he never touched me."
"I heard you say you have twenty-five customers and are charging $1.25 a week for kindling. Is that right?"
"Yes sir, it is? But what happened to the foreman?"
"Oh ? you mean old Sam? Not much, when he leaned over to tie his shoe? his head fell off."
"Just how much kindling do they get for $1.25 boys? Is that for all their stoves or just one? Does it matter if they use it all in one fire? How and when do they pay? Where are your contracts? Why did you not go to most of the businesses in town or the Post Office and Court House and School even the Train Station? Businesses are easier to deal with - they have more money and need. When you start trying to please that old biddy Widow Smith, call me, I want to watch you boys in action."
"Boys, it is a good idea but you don't have a business, you have a bottomless pit - damn well ought to apply to be a government agency."
Mr. Carnes went on to point out that at our present rate of production, it would take one month to fill each weeks orders?. if not longer, as we had put no limit on the amount of wood used ?only that we would supply all the customers needs ? each week, for the princely sum of $1.25.
It was suggested, as a quorum of the governing board of "H&T Kindling Amalgamated" was present, we hold a board meeting and issue additional stock; that for a 60% share of outstanding stock, Mr. Carnes would assume present debts and provide the company sufficient lighter wood to meet any new contracts?. once we had cancelled those issued to date.
Having seen the dreary picture presented, Co-President Mr. Tim and I agreed to the stock transfer and learned the single greatest lesson we were to ever experience in the business world. It was a lesson that would prove invaluable in later years.
Immediately upon transfer of the stock, Mr. Carnes called a board meeting and disbanded the office of President and V. President!
Calling "Order," over the loud protest from the so recently demoted, the new CEO and "President for Life" politely pointed out that in the new arrangement he represented 6 votes for the new changes, whereas Timmy and I represented at best 4 votes? but he was more than willing to put it to a secret vote if we so desired.
In the new order of things: I was appointed Sales and Collection Manager; Timmy was made Manager of Distribution and Production.
Mr. Carnes ability to weave a good, but horribly flawed idea into a smooth working machine, was in itself a lesson in business that was to last for a lifetime.
The "production team" consisted of a long time cotton mill employee and his two oldest sons in their 20's. Mr. Carnes kept them on salary during the winter - though there was little to be done at the mill other than cleaning and repair.
The very next day, after the stock split, Mr. Carnes hired the best stump man in the state to blow thirty of the best and most useable stumps in the woods. Somehow they had already been marked with a dab of yellow paint. It showed the dynamite man which stumps to loosen from the soil.
Watching the men with their wagon, mules, chains, saws, and splitting ax, easily pull the stumps and reduce them to 8" pieces of kindling, the size of a wooden ruler, was another lesson: In any endeavor, great or small, there are experts that can achieve results which one could never imagine.
I could see Timmy standing there thinking ? "so you can't use an ax to cut across a heartwood log, a buck saw is the only way. Yet, once cut across? the log splits, almost at will, when attacked vertically as these men have done."
In our efforts two days earlier, for the most part, all we had done was dull two fine axes and turn a small log into wood chips not suitable for sale to anyone.
It would be a long time before either of us would forget the dull pain in the shoulder or the equally dull blade of our ax that after several blows would leave only a dent in the cross section.
Hard won lessons are long remembered. Even forty years later I would find myself learning every possible fact or condition? before beginning a project. It doesn't always stop failure but it certainly reduces the number of bricks one needs dodge.
Though the "Production Department" took two months off to bale cotton, our inventory carried us for that period. On Christmas, the CEO declared a stock dividend and both Timmy's and my account at the bank swelled by some $500 dollars.
At the end of what Mr. Carnes called our fiscal year, he suggested that we call it quits. The Atlanta Gas Company was building a line to Jonesboro and, with the war over, many people would be installing oil furnaces.
In the early fall of the next year both Timmy's and my account had increased by another $2000 dollars!
For one moment (now in guilt), I wondered just how much our boss had made. But even a cursory addition of the units sold and their price, one could see that other than paying the employees for their labor ?.he had transferred all the money to Tim and myself.
The single memory I have of the bank is one of people and their perception of their acts toward us. My first year in Jonesboro, at times, I would enter the bank and be chased out by the son of the President before I could cage a lollypop from the single teller. She seemed to like me - or at least, my grandfather. Timmy, of course, was not welcome in the bank at all.
Then the day came when we had some $5,000 dollars in our accounts. You could not imagine the change in attitude. Not only did the President himself meet us at the door; often we were ensconced in his office where he wished to discuss the news of the day.
Our utter innocence toward retribution was such that we never considered any payment in kind for all the crap we had taken from his son over the year. In fact, the most remembered event was Mr. Carnes teaching us to drive his old Model A to deliver our product - with the understanding we would not enter the highway but stick to the dirt roads and back alleys of the city proper.
The young are craven creatures ? they don't mean to be, but life is so full at that age - growing pains, new sexual thoughts, feelings of confinement and pressure to conform. Yes, even a fear, though never admitted, of growing up? fear of responsibility and choice.
Much as a baby thinks only of its own needs, as it must if it is to grow. Children become self-centered young adults reaching to complete their inner selves? to complete the roots of what they will eventually become. It is a busy time and leaves little room for others.
I moved back to Atlanta after the war. Timmy, I suspect, went to college using the money earned for us by a long time widower with no children.
As I grew, I returned to Jonesboro many times, but never darkened the door of Mr. Carnes small office again. I don't know why. Surely I was grateful, but probably for all the reasons above?. How many times have I thought of him and wished I had thanked him over and over ? not for the money - but how to act around money! To never make it the focus of one's life; to never serve it before your other needs ? friends ? honor ? respect ? all things Mr. Carnes taught by example - not words.
They are all gone now, resting with their fathers and their fathers before them?.I am the sum total of what remains. The knowledge that I have not served their memory well will follow me to my own grave.
But when the evenings close in, I am mollified by the inescapable fact that few of us could, or have, raised the flag higher than the level at which it was received.
It is a universal guilt.
©2007 A.H.Watson,all rights reserved.