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But it doesn't take Jared long to determine that not all is well in this competitive business environment. Top management is pressing the ...
But it doesn't take Jared long to determine that not all is well in this competitive business environment. Top management is pressing the refinery to become more profitable. Downsizing, outsourcing, and neglected maintenance and improvement of the facilities are just some of the tactics employed to save money. Word is out that the plant isn't as well maintained as it has been in the past.
These allegations worry Jared, who has the best interests of the industry at heart. But his misgivings are not taken seriously by upper management, and disaster strikes. Jared is plunged into the depths of the drama of human existence, and he experiences firsthand the power of both human pain and heroism.
Finally he drove through the gate of the Apex Oil Refinery. This was the flagship refinery of one of the country's biggest oil companies. He admired the orderly way in which the tanks and towers and buildings and abstract sculptures made of pipe were built. Jared thought it looked deceptively serene. He knew about the alchemy that was going on inside of those towers and pipes to turn sticky black crude oil into thousands of products needed by the people of the world. By comparison, the plant where his father had worked was much smaller and looked rather old and rusty.
Jared felt fortunate to be going to work at Apex. This had not been his first choice for a job. In college, he had thought about working for a big engineering firm. He had applied to several big firms and interviewed with a few. But the only job offer had come from Apex. Now that he was here, he was getting excited. He thought, All right, this is where I belong!
Jared had been told to meet Al Scardino, the senior process engineer, in the company cafeteria. As he stepped out of his car, he caught a whiff of the smells that always seemed to hover around an oil refinery—smells that sent most people looking for a residence in some other part of town. Jared remembered how his father had always said, "That just smells like money to me." He heard the muffled sounds, the low rumble, and the hiss that let him know that industrial processes were going on all around him.
As Jared approached the glass door of the cafeteria, he thought for a fleeting second that he saw his brother, Arthur, coming to meet him from the other side. He quickly realized that he had caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the glass. Jared thought, Boy, I wish he could be here going to work with me today. I'm afraid it's gonna be a long time before he can go to work anywhere. Jared shook his head and brushed away a tear that had come to his eye. He used the reflection to check his appearance, a habit left over from his navy days. He had tall and athletic build. He had a fair complexion and light brown hair. He knew that many people thought he looked younger than his twenty-seven years, but he had decided not to let that bother him. He wore khaki pants, a golf shirt, and a new pair of oxfords with steel toes. His new plant security badge hung on his shirt. He thought he would pass inspection for his first day of duty. He opened the door and went in.
The cafeteria was a large, pleasant, plain-looking room. A large coffee urn stood next to the door so that those who came early could get free coffee. There was a cafeteria line, and an assortment of tables and chairs. Jared noticed a group of tables pushed together in one corner as if in preparation for a meeting.
One man sat eating breakfast and reading a newspaper. A woman, dressed for office work, sat at another table eating pancakes. The man didn't look up. The woman did. Jared nodded to her and smiled. She nodded back. Jared got a cup of coffee and found a place where he could sit and watch the people coming into the cafeteria without being too conspicuous. He had to wait for Al Scardino. He also wanted to get his first look at the other people with whom he would be working.
As Jared was cooling his coffee, a fidgety little man came in wearing blue coveralls with a company logo over the pocket and a white hard hat, the company uniform. All but the management and technical personnel wore it. Jared knew that the coveralls were probably made of Nomex, a fire-retardant material that was a safety requirement in most petrochemical plants. This man also wore motorcycle boots with his pant legs tucked into the boot tops to make them more conspicuous. He glanced around as if he were looking for someone, filled his cup with coffee, and sat down at the group of tables that were pushed together.
People continued to drift in alone or in small groups. Some filled their coffee cups and then left the cafeteria. Some sat to visit. Jared noticed that a group of men had joined the man in the motorcycle boots in the corner. Eventually an older man came in wearing the blue Nomex coveralls. He seemed to be an especially energetic person for his age. His grey hair was cut in a military burr. The little man in the boots called out, "Ten-hut!" and stood and saluted. Everyone else laughed. The older man sat down, and the conversation in the corner got a little livelier. Jared heard the men poking fun at each other, each one determined to give as good as he got.
The cafeteria was gradually filling up with people and the sounds of conversation. Jared heard an explosion of profanity from behind him. The man who had been reading his paper when Jared came in had stood up and was shouting at another man, who was filling his cup at the coffee urn. The man by the coffee urn answered with a blast of profanity of his own. He advanced across the room toward the other man. His right hand was clenched in a tight fist, and his arm was cocked as if to deliver a knock-out punch. His left hand held a cup of coffee. As he advanced across the room toward his adversary, they both turned the air blue with cuss words. Jared noticed that everyone was watching this display and smiling. Nobody seemed worried. When the man reached the table where the other stood, they sat down and drank coffee together. Jared imagined that this might be a traditional ritual for these two friends.
Jared went to get some more coffee. He bent over the coffee urn to refill his cup. When he stood up and turned around, he found himself looking at two young women in blue coveralls who had just come in. One was a pleasant-looking redhead, a little overweight but attractive. The other was a real beauty, a brunette. Her company coveralls really showed off her spectacular figure. She had dark brown hair that had been brushed until it shined and a face that looked like a model in a cosmetic commercial, even though she wore no makeup except a little lipstick. Jared thought she was even prettier than Judy, his ex, had been. The thought of Judy still stung a little bit, but Jared reminded himself that he had decided to put that behind him and move on. That brunette sure looked good to him.
Jared stood facing the two young women and feeling a little taken aback. They both smiled at him and said, "Hello." He said, "Hi," and there was an awkward moment when Jared thought about starting a conversation. But he settled for saying, "Have some coffee. It's good." Then he turned and went back to his table. He heard the ladies giggle softly behind him. They went to sit down with the first woman Jared had seen, who he assumed was a secretary. As they sat down, they looked at Jared again and smiled. Jared smiled back and nodded. Jared told himself that he would have to try to get acquainted soon, but right now, he had to meet Al Scardino.
Jared heard the little man in the motorcycle boots making another announcement. "All right, you guys, clean it up. Here comes the plant hypocrite."
Another older man came into the cafeteria and stood by the coffee urn. He was a little thicker through the middle than the other one. He put down his cup and stood staring at the man in the boots making gestures of mock exasperation. As he walked toward the table, the man in the boots said, so that everyone could hear, "Hey, what would you do if I slapped you in the face?"
The other shot back, "I'd knock a knot on your head, that's what I'd do."
The self-appointed MC said, "See! See! That proves you're a hypocrite. The Bible says you're supposed to let me hit you again."
The older fellow said, "Baloney! I'm religious but I ain't stupid." Everyone laughed.
Jared sat watching the antics of the people who were gathering, and he smiled. They reminded him of his father and his father's friends. He had been thinking a lot about his father lately. His father had really wanted both Jared and his brother to go to college. He had planned the family budget to make that possible. He was proud that Jared had become an engineer. That is what he had wished that he could have been. Jared knew his father was feeling good about the things his son was doing now.
Suddenly, all of the conversation in the cafeteria stopped. Two men walked into the cafeteria, caught up in an animated conversation. They wore slacks and short-sleeved dress shirts. Jared guessed that the taller and older of the two was the plant manager, Joe Summerfield. And he assumed that the other man might be the assistant plant manager, Michael Miller. They filled their coffee cups and continued across the cafeteria, still deep in conversation. Summerfield was doing most of the talking. He had a mellow baritone voice and was impressive in his appearance. His hair was grey and thinning, but Jared thought that, as a younger man, he had probably been quite handsome. He moved with self-confidence. But he seemed to be all worked up over something. Michael Miller was shorter, younger, and solidly built. He was mostly listening and nodding. Just then, they noticed Jared.
The taller man asked, "Are you Jared Philips, our new engineer?"
Jared stood and said, "Yes, I am." Now everyone in the cafeteria knew who he was.
"I'm Joe Summerfield, and this is Michael Miller. We're glad to have you aboard. We've been looking forward to meeting you." Jared noticed that, even though the conversation Summerfield had been having was still obviously on his mind, he had put it on hold to give his full attention to meeting a new person.
Jared shook hands with both men and said, "I've been looking forward to meeting you too. I'm really glad to be here at Apex."
"You met Al Scardino yet?"
Jared said, "I'm supposed to meet him here this morning."
Summerfield said, "Good. He'll get you oriented. He's supposed to bring you by to see me later. But just in case something happens and I miss you, my wife and I want to invite you to dinner at our house on Wednesday. We have three new staff members coming on this week, and we want to get acquainted with you."
"That's very nice of you. I'll look forward to it."
Summerfield smiled and said, "See you later," and then the two men went on their way, taking up their conversation where they had left off.
Jared felt a wave of anxiety wash over him. He reminded himself that, like all new employees, he had been hired for a six-month trial period. If he could not meet the expectations of these two men and Scardino, he might be unemployed again in a very iffy job market. He had confidence in his ability to do the work. But experience had taught him that lots of things can happen that are beyond anyone's control—and he had to have this job. He didn't want to let his dad down. And he felt that it would be important for him to be able to help his brother, Arthur, get through college if he needed help. Arthur who was married and had a little baby with Down syndrome, had joined the National Guard to meet his military obligation while being available to the family. Then the local Guard unit had been activated. Arthur had just come home from his second tour of duty in Iraq with a serious injury. Since Jared's dad had lost his refinery job, he would not be able to help Arthur as much as he had hoped to. Jared felt it was his obligation to step in and help his brother if help was needed. Jared really needed this job.
Jared realized that gloom had settled over him as he remembered all of the things that had gotten in the way as he was coming to this place in his life. He felt a knot forming in his stomach. He started talking to himself. Hey, you can do this. Just play the hand that's been dealt you, and you can do something that will make your dad proud. Now suck it up and get ready to do whatever you have to do.
Jared saw from the clock on the cafeteria wall that it was almost time for the plant whistle to blow. People began to get up and leave the cafeteria. The two pretty girls looked at Jared and smiled just before they left. Jared smiled and nodded. Then he heard someone behind him calling his name, and he turned around. A short, balding man with a belly that hung over his belt gave Jared a friendly smile, held out his hand, and said, "Al Scardino, the guy who's looking forward to making you do most of the work." They laughed and shook hands. Then Al said, "Come on, let me show you what you are getting into."
The conversation between Joe Summerfield and Michael Miller continued down the hall and into the office suite. They went into Summerfield's nicely furnished office. There was a desk of dark wood and upholstered chairs. A large framed picture of the company's founder hung on the wall. But the office was dominated by a large window that offered a panoramic view of much of the refinery. Joe closed the door and handed Michael a letter on company letterhead, saying, "This is the letter I've been talking about. I've highlighted the parts that bother me most."
Michael read the whole letter. The highlighted parts read, "It is common knowledge that we work in an increasingly competitive business environment. We would like for you to submit plans for increasing the profitability of your installation. One of the things that you should do is to seek ways to decrease the cost of operation, especially in the areas of employee compensation and maintenance expenses. Look for ways to replace older employees, whom we must pay premium wages, with employees who can be compensated at a lower rate. Also look for ways of outsourcing work to contractors. Finally, you need to minimize the maintenance expenses for non-essential equipment." The letter was signed by William Stone, Assistant to the Chief Executive Officer.
Michael nodded, "I've been telling you this was coming. When I went back to work on my master's of business administration degree, I was surprised at how much they talked about this. I thought I was going to learn more about running a refinery, but all they wanted to talk about was what a company has to do to make its stock attractive to investors."
"Do you know anything about Stone?" Summerfield asked.
"I've met him. He's an arrogant little guy. Graduated at the top of his MBA class at Harvard. The company hired him and fast-tracked him right to the top. I expect that they're counting on him to reorganize everything."
"The MBA seems to be the key to the executive office everywhere. You know, I'm the last plant manager for Apex who has an engineering background. I'm glad to have a guy like you around who has both."
Michael smiled and said, "I'm glad that you're glad."
"But you tell me, what will it mean to have a company run entirely by people who know how to inflate stock values but don't have the foggiest notion about how to run a refinery?"
"That question keeps me awake at night."
Joe began to walk around the room and wave his arms as he spoke. He was trying to get something off his chest. "These people don't seem to realize that some of those older guys they want us to get rid of have a lot of expertise that can be valuable to the company."
"It worries me too. But I'm just telling you that this is the way that the industry is going, and we're going to have to work with it."
"I know that, but I think we should try to stay ahead by reaching for excellence and for creative new solutions and processes. Look at the American steel industry. They didn't modernize their plants. Now a major American industry is just about gone. And the same thing has happened to most of American manufacturing. I could see the same thing happening to the refining industry. Oh, hell, you've heard me make that speech a dozen times."
Excerpted from Refinery by Jim Killen Copyright © 2010 by Jim Killen. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted June 11, 2011
Having spent nearly 30 years working in refineries, this book was a validation of what I know of the industry. I hope that a sequel is in the works. I didn't want to book to end. Jim Killen is the best.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.