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A MATTER OF IMPORTANCEA NOVEL
By GORDON ZUCKERMAN
LIVE OAK BOOK COMPANYCopyright © 2013 Gordon Zuckerman
All right reserved.
Three days after the graduation ceremony, at three o'clock in the morning, a giant explosion destroyed the Sentinel Institute's engineering research laboratory. The shaking of the buildings from the blast's concussion and the sound of glass windows shattering woke even the deepest sleepers in the nearby neighborhoods.
Emergency alarms, sirens, and horns that hadn't sounded since the days of civil defense drills added to the cacophony. West Coast military units were instantly put on alert. Squadrons of defense fighters were prepared for takeoff. Closer to home, residents rushed out onto their front lawns, looking up in an attempt to discover what had happened. Their thoughts were filled with questions. Has some kind of a bomb been dropped? Has a gas main exploded? Has some kind of terrorist act just occurred?
The first firefighting brigade arrived twenty minutes after the explosion. Despite the steady streams of water the firefighters trained on the building, the fire raged until the building and its contents were no longer salvageable. What the fire hadn't destroyed was ruined by water and flame retardant.
The first responders reported that debris from the three-story brick building could be observed three blocks away. Anybody working on the lab's night-shift cleaning crew had been instantly killed. Flying bricks and other debris had pockmarked the sides of adjacent buildings.
The bombing of the engineering research laboratory quickly became front-page news. The destruction of such a large building was a newsworthy event. The press referred to the explosion as an act of terrorism and speculated about who might have been responsible and listed possible motives.
Members of the Sentinel Institute's board of directors were inundated with requests for interviews. The Institute's cochair, Robin Cook, was asked to appear on one of the leading Sunday morning talk shows.
The well-prepared host sidestepped the preliminary formalities and dove right to the key question, "Dr. Cook, what was so important about the experiments being conducted in the Institute's engineering laboratory that would provoke someone or some group to blow it up?"
"The Sentinel Institute was conducting experiments to prove the capability of a new chemical process that would make it possible to burn coal on a cost-competitive basis and would comply with recently adopted EPA clean air standards."
"Even so, why might the successful completion of those experiments encourage such a violent act?"
"The development of a lower-cost, environmentally compatible energy source represents a critical component required to reduce American manufacturing costs. At the same time, if we are able to replace higher-priced imported petroleum products with lower-cost clean burned coal, we could materially reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce a negative balance of payments, and provide employment for a lot of Americans!"
"Dr. Cook, for the benefit of our audience, please explain why the Institute insists that this program of such national importance must be completed within twelve months?"
"Now that we have succeeded in calculating the annual cost to the government of losing one manufacturing job at $80,000, we need to complete our work in time to prevent another wave of major U.S. manufacturers from accepting pending offers from the Chinese government and other lower-cost labor markets. Unless we can demonstrate why it is in the best interests of industrialists to manufacture their products in the United States, how can we expect to stop the continued outsourcing of employment? Any further erosion of manufacturing labor could add an additional economic burden to our wounded economy."
Experienced and usually prepared for bold answers from his guests, the host was momentarily surprised by the boldness of the petite, polite woman, conservatively dressed in a high-collared jade green Mandarin dress, with only a hint of makeup needed to accent the uniqueness of her soft Eurasian beauty and her emerald green eyes.
If the compelling nature of her argument had not succeeded in convincing the audience, the self-confident demeanor of the regally composed woman sitting patiently in the glare of the TV lights would have been more than sufficient to accomplish her mission.
Chapter TwoCHARLEY HUTSON
Charley Hutson had been courting Andi for several weeks before he invited her to join him in his wharf-side penthouse apartment. Stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace, Charley and Andi sipped fifteen-year-old single-malt Scotch, served neat, while listening to Puccini's Madame Butterfly and watching the lights of Detroit and the boats on Lake St. Claire paint their cosmic images on the twelve-foot-high ceiling. The flickering flames in the fireplace made it appear as if angels were dancing through the heavens.
Suddenly a ringing cell phone disturbed Charley's artfully contrived moment. Annoyed, he glanced at the display—he regretfully disengaged himself from the warm embrace of promising possibilities with Andi and hit the answer button on his phone.
He was greeted by the raspy voice of "J.W." Porter, his boss and the chairman of the board of U.S. Motors. "You might want to turn on the news. Something important has happened that may interest you. Can you be at the office by 9:30 tomorrow morning? There are some people who are very anxious to talk to you."
The line went dead before Charley could reply.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, Charley crossed the room and turned on the big-screen TV. "Early this evening, William 'Wild Bill' Reedy, the flamboyant and charismatic president of U.S. Motors, unexpectedly resigned during a regularly scheduled board of directors meeting. A reliable source has informed us that a disagreement erupted between President Reedy and company chairman J.W. Porter about the planned installation of a new manufacturing facility in China."
Painfully aware of Charley's preoccupation with the eleven o'clock news, Andi stood up and began gathering her previously discarded clothing, saying, "Charley, who would have thought you would abandon a partially clothed woman to watch television? Do you mind telling me what just happened?"
"Sorry, the president of U.S. Motors just resigned. I bet the purpose of our meeting tomorrow is to come up with a way for U.S. Motors to keep its car production onshore and replicate the manufacturing costs offered by the Chinese government. I'm confused that the chairman would call me; I'm not even a member of the executive management committee."
"Maybe they need someone who is used to thinking outside the box, someone who can raise important questions and suggest possible alternatives. You certainly appear to be one of those people!"
Andi picked up their cocktail glasses and crossed the room to the bar. She sat on one of the bar stools and patted the one next to her, indicating that Charley should join her.
Still preoccupied, Charley said, "Why would they believe I can solve the same problem in a matter of months?"
Realizing he had been thinking out loud, he paused, "Surely you can't be interested in listening to me talk about work."
"Come on, Charley. Where does it say that because a woman is attractive and a former jock she doesn't have a brain? If, during our last few dates, you hadn't been so intent on impressing me and satisfying your own ego, you might have paid more attention.
"Had you done so, you might've learned I received my doctoral degree in behavioral psychology from the University of Chicago. For the last ten years I have been a practicing behavioral psychologist trying to understand why 40 percent of the turnover of management is the result of faulty hiring.
"They tell me I'm a pretty good listener and ask good questions. Now, why don't you pour me another drink and sit down and tell Dr. Taylor all about your problems at U.S. Motors."
Chapter ThreeU.S. MOTORS
J.W. Porter and the other directors were informally gathered at the far end of the conference room when Charley entered. Several were sitting in the deep leather chairs; one was so relaxed he had draped his leg over the armrest. Three men stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window, quietly chatting. The remaining two were leaning against the small bar, talking about their latest round of golf and enjoying their regular Saturday morning Bloody Marys.
Accustomed to spending Saturday mornings on the golf course, the men had opted to wear cotton golf shirts, brightly colored cashmere sweaters, carefully tailored golf slacks, and highly shined loafers, the kind with tassels. Charley noticed that one of the men even wore black socks with bright pink polka dots.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere, Charley knew that the calm was only an illusion. Why else would J.W. have called a meeting on a Saturday morning unless we are here to discuss something important?
The chairman was the first to speak. "Charley, we assume you've read the newspaper articles or seen the television announcement of Bill Reedy's resignation. I'm afraid Bill and I had an irresolvable difference of opinion over how U.S. Motors should be operated.
"I'm certain you understand my concern. The general public has given our company the benefit of a prepackaged bankruptcy requiring tens of billions of dollars of fresh credit to get us started building cars. The one thing we all seem to be able to agree on is that we are being given one more 'bite at the apple,' and this time we better get it right!"
J.W.'s words reminded Charley of a statement Porter had made in an interview with the New York Times that had attracted Charley to U.S. Motors in the first place. Then he'd said, "The time has come for us to rethink, retool, and reorganize. Consumer tastes are changing, and we are on the leading edge of a new age of exciting technological advancement. How is it that we find ourselves on the brink of a new era of expanding world demand, and all we know is where we have been, not where we should be headed?"
In reviewing his new protégé's first year of employment, J.W. thought, Charley has to be rapidly becoming what we in Detroit have learned to call a rainmaker. J.W. had come to appreciate that Charley, a seasoned executive, did his homework, was not afraid to take chances, and could be relied on to express his unvarnished point of view.
Returning to the issue at hand, J.W. said, "It's absolutely necessary for us to find an acceptable domestic manufacturing solution. Not only do we need to find the answer, it's also important that we provide a living example for other major manufacturers.
"Charley, I know it's asking a lot, but we need someone with your conceptual understanding of our business, someone who is not a product of the 'traditional' car school, and someone who has the ability to find new solutions. You have less than twelve months to complete the job before our option to extend our agreement with the Chinese matures.
"I don't look forward to having to choose between the economic survival of the company and the continued employment of the American labor market. We need to challenge the belief that American manufacturers need to outsource their production in order to remain profitable. There has to be a better answer—we just don't happen to know what it is!"
* * *
Andi was waiting for Charley at Mike's Place, the neighborhood tavern where they had first met. She chose the same bar stool she had been sitting on that night, which also gave her a clear view of the door. When Charley finally arrived, she could tell by the intense look on his face that he had a lot on his mind. Watching him walk toward her, she couldn't help but think, Even with so much on his mind, this tall, athletic, dark-complected man with the curly black hair and piercing brown eyes reminds me of some big cat carefully stalking his prey.
Charley smiled when he saw Andi waiting for him and what must been a Macallan served neat sitting on the bar. "Am I glad to see you! I've had one of those days. But before we get into all that, I want to talk to you about last night. The minute you left, I regretted I allowed the evening to end on such an impersonal note."
"Don't worry about me," Andi said, "I'm the least of your problems. You are clearly preoccupied with what must be a very serious problem. Maybe you better take a sip of that drink and tell Dr. Taylor what has happened."
Andi was fascinated by what Charley was telling her. Having devoted so much study to the reasons people employ other people, she was more than curious to hear about the strategic thinking going on behind the scenes. "Charley, what an opportunity! Surely, it must be a compliment to be asked to solve such a difficult problem."
"Or maybe he's setting me up to fail. My failure could represent the excuse he needs to proceed with the Chinese option."
"Shame on you, Charley! Instead of worrying about what possible motives they might have, why don't you give these men credit for their willingness to consider possible alternatives? Why not give it your best shot? What do you have to lose?"
Impressed with Andi's bold response, Charley asked, "Is there something I've missed about your professional training?"
"My professional training? Are you kidding? This is strictly personal. My father used to tell my brothers and me when we were faced with a particularly difficult situation: 'Don't let those sons-of-bitches push you around!' We always referred to it as Taylor's rule!"
"Taylor's rule, eh? Well, Charley's rule calls for another Macallan. Bartender!"
Chapter FourMEET JEFF MOHR
Jeff Mohr answered Charley's call on his private phone after the first ring. After listening to Charley explain why he had called, Jeff said, "Of course I'm prepared to become involved."
Jeff paused for a moment. "Are you aware of Robin's students' doctoral treatise 'Employ American: A Matter of Importance'? As a fellow director of the Institute, you must have received a copy of it. Their thesis could very well represent the blueprint for a plan of action that could resolve U.S. Motors' domestic manufacturing problem."
Jeff continued, "Charley! I assure you, U.S. Motors isn't the only company challenged to repatriate at least a portion of its offshore manufacturing. If I thought for one moment it was economically feasible, Mohr Electronics would shift a significant portion of its offshore production back to the United States so fast it would make your head spin."
Jeff's comment surprised Charley, and he said, "If our two companies can solve critical problems by repatriating manufacturing, I wonder how many other organizations could become involved? Maybe there are more companies than we realize that share some of our problems and concerns.
"The more I think about the destruction of those research facilities at the Institute, the more convinced I am that one of the reasons behind the bombing might have been to create an inordinate delay. Failure to comply within the twelve month limitation could be as harmful as the failure to produce the right test results with clean-burning coal. Talk about a deal-breaker problem—if anyone other than Ivan Stone were looking for the solution, I'd really be concerned."
Responding emphatically, Jeff said, "That is just one of the reasons why all of us directors need to attend the emergency Sentinel board meeting. I don't know about you, but I need to learn a lot more about their idea that each new production job produces $2 of increased tax revenues for each dollar paid the worker. If they are right, when 35 percent of those savings are to be returned to the responsible employer, I can understand how this reduces direct labor costs by as much as 70 percent. We could be talking about an entirely new ball game. Talk about an assertion that will be challenged, this has to be the mother of all assertions."
"Jeff, we've a lot to talk about and not very long to do it. I'll take the red-eye and be in your office at seven tomorrow morning. That should give us an entire day before the Sentinel board meeting is scheduled to begin."
* * *
Although Charley and Jeff had been friends for many years, this was the first time Charley had visited the Palo Alto headquarters of the internationally renowned consumer electronics company. Two short flights of stairs took him to the top floor of the sprawling three-story building.
Jeff was waiting for him. In his early fifties, Jeff still looked the trim athlete he had been when they had served together behind enemy lines in the Iraqi Gulf War more than twenty years ago. His clear blue eyes, rugged jaw, and short hair gave him a youthful appearance. Jeff still preferred to wear cowboy boots, which made him appear taller than his natural six-foot height. Jeff showed him into the open office space that lay beyond the reception area. Charley thought it looked more like an architect's drafting room than the executive offices of one of the electronic industry's iconic leaders and true visionaries.
Excerpted from A MATTER OF IMPORTANCE by GORDON ZUCKERMAN Copyright © 2013 by Gordon Zuckerman. Excerpted by permission of LIVE OAK BOOK COMPANY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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