|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
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A Harvest of Thorns
By Corban Addison
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Regulus Books, LLC
All rights reserved.
PRESTO TOWER, 16TH FLOOR ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA NOVEMBER 5, 2013 12:06 P.M.
The desk was a statement of pride, a great slab of black walnut from the Berkshire Hills of Cameron's native Massachusetts, ten feet wide and four feet deep and burnished to a red-brown shine. Upon it stood the usual accoutrements of a corporate executive: a widescreen iMac, a stainless steel desk lamp, a multiline phone, a container for writing implements — and a few more personal pieces: a baseball signed by the Boston Red Sox after the 2004 World Series, a Montegrappa fountain pen, and a glass globe his wife, Olivia, had bought in Prague. The rest of the vast surface was uncluttered, like the office that surrounded it, its only other furnishings a leather executive chair, a walnut file cabinet, a laser printer and scanner, and a pair of colonial-era wingback chairs arranged on the far side of the desk.
Cameron stood beside the floor-to-ceiling window, eating salad from a bowl before the draft minutes from a recent board meeting called him back to work. His office, located on the top floor of Presto's global headquarters, was a perquisite of his position as senior vice president and general counsel. It was also a gift from Vance Lawson, the company's CEO and Cameron's best friend. Steps away from Vance's corner suite, Cameron's office faced east across the Potomac and overlooked the most famous skyline in DC — the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and Capitol Hill. In the evening when the building was quiet and Cameron was working late, the otherworldly glow of the monuments offered him a measure of solace. But in the forge of the workday, with two hundred fifty in-house lawyers to manage, five board committees and a dozen senior executives to advise, the view was just part of the background.
He turned his head and saw a ghost of himself in the glass — the arrowshaped nose and sturdy chin, the moustache and thoughtful eyes, as dark as his ebony complexion. He was the only African American in the C-suite and one of only eleven black executives in the building, despite the diversity initiative Vance had instituted in his first week as CEO. But Cameron had never allowed his minority status — or the occasional discomfort it engendered — to affect his performance. He had grown up in a world of white privilege and learned early on to master its rules of success. While his skin was one of the first things people noticed, it wasn't what they remembered. They remembered his eyes and his mind, the sterling clarity of his judgment.
"Cam, will you come in here, please?" It was Vance on the speakerphone, his voice uncharacteristically grave. "We've got a problem."
Cameron put down his lunch and walked next door, tossing a wave to Eve, Vance's secretary, before entering the CEO's office through double doors. The corner suite was twice the size of Cameron's office and was laid out like a drawing room with artwork on the walls, two sitting areas, a wet bar and liquor cabinet, and an array of flat-screen televisions. The desk was almost an afterthought. Vance preferred to work standing up, conferencing with his team, or on the couch, documents spread out on the coffee table. It was the way he had been when Cameron met him at Harvard Business School, the way he had been for thirty years.
"What's going on?" Cameron asked, taken aback by the distress on Vance's face.
His friend was standing in front of the televisions, his lake-blue eyes moving from one screen to the next. There were four TVs, each tuned to a different news station. Ordinarily, their coverage was diverse, but occasionally, when a story was big enough, they became a refracting chamber, drawing light from a single source, as they were doing now.
The source was a burning building.
"It's a factory in Dhaka," Vance said as CNN zoomed in on flames shooting out of an upper-story window. "They'll show it again ... There." He stabbed a finger at the screen. "I don't know who took it, but it's going to go viral. The whole world is going to see it."
In the frame was a photograph of a young Bangladeshi girl lying in the dirt, one arm splayed out at her side. The factory was behind her, engulfed in flame. There was blood on her forehead and a mask over her face. No, not a mask — a pair of child's pants. Cameron looked closer. The pants had a silver label. The photographer had caught it cleanly. At the center of the label was the letter P. It was the logo of Piccola — one of Presto's apparel brands.
Cameron's jaw fell in silent alarm. After three decades of dueling and deal making in the Beltway swamp, he had developed the carapace of a crocodile and a monk's sense of poise. The picture, however, left him wordless, thought- deprived. But only for a moment. Then the poise returned, along with the instinct for self-preservation.
The iPhone was in his pocket — his digital leash. He called Presto's senior vice president of communications. "Kristin, we need you in Vance's office. Now."
"Coming," she replied.
His next call went to the legal department, compliance section. "Declan, there's been an incident at an apparel factory in Bangladesh. I need you to find out if it's one of ours." Cameron saw the words at the bottom of the BBC feed. "It's called Millennium Fashions."
When Declan came back with the answer, Cameron spoke to Vance. "The factory is on our Red List. We deauthorized it six months ago because of safety concerns."
Vance's eyes flashed. "Then what the hell are our pants doing on that girl's face?"
"I don't know," Cameron replied, struggling to remain calm.
A moment later, Kristin Raymond appeared at their side. Sharp, sassy, and supremely qualified, she had a master's degree in communications from Columbia and an extensive resume in both network and cable news. Cameron briefed her in three sentences.
"We need to get out ahead of this," she said. She took out her phone and called her secretary. "Leslie, assemble the critical incident team in the fourteenth- floor conference room. Put all calls through to my mobile. No one talks to anyone on the outside except me." She hung up and turned to Vance. "We need a company-wide lockdown. All information needs to go through my team. Cam can draft the e-mail, but it should come from your account."
"I'm already typing," Cameron said, his thumbs flying across his iPhone's touch screen. "Short and sweet. Circle the wagons. No breaches." He read the message out loud for them to hear, then hit Send. "I copied Eve."
"We'll get it done," Vance said, walking toward the door. "Kristin, keep me posted."
Cameron turned back to the televisions, acid churning in his stomach. It was a nightmare scenario. Only three days ago, Presto had released an abysmal third-quarter earnings statement — eleven points below estimate. The spring and summer buying seasons had been soft. Store traffic was anemic, and online had barely seen a bump. Analysts were speculating about Presto's viability. And Class-A shareholders who had never been denied a dividend were wetting their pants. To appease investors and pundits alike, Presto needed a near miraculous fourth-quarter rebound. Ads were already running across the country fueling the holiday frenzy. Black Friday promotions would be historic. On Vance's orders, Presto had bet the house on the compulsive spending of festive consumers. If they didn't contain the damage from the fire quickly, heads would start to roll, and those in the C-suite would be first in line.
"I'm heading downstairs," Kristin said. "I'll start drafting an investor memo, but I don't think we should put out a statement until we see how bad this is going to get. It's still nighttime over there. We have no idea what we're going to see when the sun rises."
"Stay positive," Cam said, feeling just the opposite.
"I'll get out my ruby slippers," Kristin quipped, breezing out of the room.
Vance returned a moment later and wandered over to the window. Cameron followed him, knowing he would speak when he was ready. Outside, the November day was golden, the forests on Theodore Roosevelt Island flecked with color.
"This could eviscerate our market cap," Vance said, his voice whisper-quiet. "Our customers could bolt. God knows how many options they have."
"We shouldn't overreact," Cameron countered softly. "We have a solid foundation, and consumers have a short memory. If it comes to it, we can do what BP did — hire a PR firm and do a glossy ad campaign. 'People First.' It's always been the core of our business."
"It's a good idea," Vance said. "But it's not enough. I want answers from Bangladesh." He took a ponderous breath. "That girl is Annalee's age."
Cameron nodded, understanding. Gifted with limitless advantage, a magnetic charisma, and an indefatigable will, Vance had only failed at one thing — family. He was an inveterate philanderer. His exploits were Solomonic. Not even Cameron knew the whole of it, but it was his job — first as Vance's attorney, now as his general counsel — to keep the women distant and quiet. Vance had only been married once, an ill-fated experiment with a French supermodel that had imploded after two years. But the union had produced a child, Annalee, now thirteen and living with her mother in Paris. She was the love of Vance's life, and also his greatest wound.
"I want this to be top priority," Vance said. "Bring the Risk Committee up to speed, but don't involve the full board. When the time comes, we'll go to them together. Paper the file. Make this about liability and keep it confidential. I want to know how this happened. And I want to know what we can do to prevent it from happening again."
Cameron took a long, slow breath. "I'd like to know that too. But there's a risk to asking questions. We don't know what we're going to find."
"It doesn't matter," Vance said with a shake of his head. "You've said it more times than I can count — integrity is essential to performance. Someone needs to take responsibility for this."
Cameron stood in silence, vaguely disquieted by the exchange. In the corner office, there were moments when deliberation was more valuable than decisiveness. For Vance, however, patience had never been a virtue. Eventually Cameron asked, "What's the time frame?"
"Whatever it takes. The same goes for resources."
Despite his reservations, Cameron gave his friend a cautious smile. "Consider it done."CHAPTER 2
PRESTO TOWER, 16TH FLOOR ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA NOVEMBER 5, 2013 5:15 P.M.
The story of Presto was a legend in American business. Like Romulus and Remus, the myth had its twins — the husband-and-wife team of Hank and Dee Dee Carter — and a birthplace in the Roman countryside. On a visit to Italy in 1962, the Carters had discovered that commerce in the villages was both communal and centralized. Shops were arranged around piazzas where friends met and musicians played. It was shopping made easy. Everything in one place. But the dance of buying and selling was more than materialistic. It was organic, personal, and enjoyable.
Upon their return to the United States, the Carters had a conversation that reshaped the world of retail — or so went the legend. Hank was an entrepreneur with half a dozen variety stores in his portfolio. At fifty-five, he was ready for a new challenge. Dee Dee, too, was in transition, her children all married and starting lives of their own. Over pasta — could it have been anything else? — the couple charted a new course. They would bring Italy to America in a novel kind of store, an "omnishop," as Hank christened it. Its departments would be organized around a plaza that, while enclosed by a roof, would feature greenery, benches, and sunlight. They would call it Presto, after the Italian word and the magician's invocation. But their motto was quintessentially American: "Everything you need at the snap of your fingers."
In an era of profound social transformation, when department stores were old news but shopping malls were still on the horizon, Americans greeted the first Presto omnishop — opened in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1963 — as a vision of the future. They flocked to its resplendent displays and kaleidoscopic wares and lingered to eat ice cream in the plaza. In 1965, Hank opened three more stores. When they succeeded wildly, he became more ambitious. Over the next ten years, he launched thirty-eight stores in twelve states. By the time he died in 1984, Presto had grown to one hundred stores in thirty-two states. But it was still a family-owned enterprise with only two shareholders — Hank and Dee Dee. They had resisted the gilded promise of Wall Street because they had no interest in building a corporation. They cared about community. Their goal was to give Americans access to quality goods at an affordable price, and to donate a portion of their earnings to charity. "Invest in people," Hank often said, "and people will return the favor."
It was all in the company handbook, hand-delivered to new hires on their first day. Cameron had received his from Vance, along with a flippant "Read this. Inspiring stuff." In truth, it was more hagiography than history. Hank Carter was not a saint. He had driven countless Main Street retailers out of business. But this much was true: Hank never wanted his company to become the behemoth his son, Bobby, created after his death — with two thousand five hundred stores across America, three hundred fifty thousand employees in thirty-three countries, and annual revenues over one hundred billion dollars.
Cameron opened the black file folder on his desk and slid the memo he had just written into it. Beneath the memo were e-mails from Vance and Blake Conrad, chairman of the board's Risk Committee, formally requesting an inquiry into the fire. The documents were critical to preserving the confidentiality of the investigation. As long as Cameron was rendering legal advice, not business advice, all of his communications within the company were privileged. Yet the distinction between the two was notoriously shifty. It was his job to make sure that anything that went into the "Black File" — board's eyes only — stayed there.
He donned his suit jacket, stored the folder in his filing cabinet, and locked the drawer with a key only he and Blake Conrad possessed. Then he headed toward the door, briefcase in hand. Behind him, the shadows of dusk stretched across the rooftops of Washington, and lights winked on in buildings and monuments.
In the hallway, he spoke to his secretary, Linda. "I'm headed to the conference room. Please forward all calls to Anderson."
He walked briskly down the hallway, past the wood-paneled executive lounge with its Pellegrino-stocked refrigerator and Italian Nespresso machine, past framed portraits of Hank, Dee Dee, and Bobby Carter and the two CEOs who had succeeded them — Rick Mason and Vance Lawson — and entered the C-suite conference room, the site of executive strategy sessions and meetings of the board. The room had three predominant features: a black granite table with twelve high-backed chairs, a wall of windows, and a massive flat-screen television. Two people were seated at the table — Declan Mays, director of global compliance, and Manny Singh, Presto's director of sourcing for South Asia.
Cameron dropped his briefcase in front of them and then switched on the TV, tuning in to CNN. "This is what millions of Americans are going to be watching tonight," he said just as the network cut from Wolf Blitzer's face to live footage of the Presto Tower. "As you can see, we are the lead story. It's our job to find out why."
He took a seat and turned up the volume. Blitzer was in front of the camera again, introducing Karen Hwang, assistant director of the Global Alliance for Worker Rights in San Francisco, and Beatrice Walker, a spokeswoman for the US Chamber of Commerce.
"Karen," said Blitzer, "let's start with you. Seven months ago, the collapse at Rana Plaza claimed the lives of more than eleven hundred Bangladeshi garment workers. Now a garment factory in Bangladesh is on fire. We've seen gruesome footage of bodies on the ground, including a photo of a young girl that everybody's talking about. We don't have a lot of details yet, but I have to ask: Why are factory disasters like this continuing to happen?"
"Unfortunately, Wolf," said Hwang, "this tragedy was entirely preventable. The global market for consumer goods — slothing, toys, electronics, et cetera — is fueled by a system of labor that is, in many cases, as exploitative as the sweatshops that existed in this country at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire a century ago. The primary driver of this exploitation is economic. Corporations like Presto thrive in environments where labor protections don't exist. They go wherever they can get the lowest possible price."
"That's quite an indictment," Blitzer said. "Beatrice, you represent the business community. What's your response?"
Excerpted from A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison. Copyright © 2017 Regulus Books, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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