“A man's bookcase will tell you everything you'll ever need to know about him”
― Walter Mosley
March looked Thurmond in the eyes. “Sure, it’s a business. But, what’s the backbone of any successful business?”
Thurmond smiled. “Sales.”
“We’ve been through this before, Joe. “Sales are the bloodline, not the backbone.”
“I can’t afford to run a business on integrity!” Thurmond’s voice rose slightly with each word. Seth March said nothing. He sat motionless with his fingertips pressed together. Thurmond finally said in a resigned whisper. “I know. I can’t afford not to.”
Thurmond gingerly rested a cigar on a massive crystal ashtray, looked up and studied March’s face, “How many employees have you trimmed from our ranks within the last few weeks? Six? Seven?”
March watched the smoke dance upward from the cigar’s tip. It was steady, relaxing. “Nine, but who’s keeping score? I’m not sure how much longer I can do this, Joe. It doesn’t get any easier, does it?”
“No,” responded Thurmond, “it doesn’t. I don’t have the stomach for it any longer. Funny thing, there was a time I had no problem letting people go, you know, those that couldn’t cut it. This is a business. I slept like a baby no matter their sad tales of woe, and there were some beauties. No more. It isn’t for me. That’s why I pay you the big dollars. But you’ll burn out soon. It’s already beginning. I can see it.” Thurmond pulled from his desk a sheet of paper and handed it to March. “There you go, Sherlock. Seven cubicles. Seven names. Have at it.”
March reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a pair of reading glasses. He placed them low on the bridge of his nose. It was a diagram of the cubicle positions in Thurmond’s Worldwide Real Estate Metropolitan Division sales office. A list of employee names, one name to each cubicle position was handwritten.
March studied the layout. “Four men, three women. I really hate this.”
“I know, I know, but you do it and you’re good at it.” Thurmond admired the man in front of him. The feeling was mutual.
“That’s it. I’ll have a look around at their desks before heading to the hotel,” said March. “I will take a second look at their cubicles tomorrow before meeting everyone in the conference room in the afternoon.”
“Fine. Fine. That’s fine,” replied Thurmond. “I’ve already instructed them that you will be snooping around the office prior to the meeting and that they should make sure their cubicles are clean and neat. They all know you’re here!”
With that, the two men shook hands and March departed. He walked through a well-lit hallway, its walls covered with photos and diagrams of residential and commercial properties, homes, office buildings, and vacant lots. Standing before a wood-framed sleek glass door, “Metropolitan Division” stenciled in block lettering, he yawned, glanced at his watch and entered. It didn’t take March long to soak it in. He’d been doing this long enough. He made the following mental notes:
Cubicle 1 (Guy Smith) - Polished. A place for everything and everything in its place. Contracts were stacked neatly. Perfectly squared off. Pens and paperclips were lined up. Books stood tall and straight. March felt as though it would be safe to eat off the desk’s surface.
Cubicle 2 (Elyse Fischer) – Blue. Nothing but blue. Blue flowers in a blue porcelain vase. Blue construction paper covered each side of the cubicle’s walls. A blue seat cushion rested on the chair.
Cubicle 3 (Brent Ward) – Messy. Stray pencil markings defaced the desk. They were accompanied by an old-fashioned calculator and two empty plastic water bottles. The small trashcan under the desk was nearly overflowing.
Cubicle 4 (Rebecca Sussman) – Kindergarten. Drawings of a young child decorated this cubicle. Crayon depictions of a house, a sun with rays, and Mommy and Daddy.
Cubicle 5 (Freddy Wallach) – Religion. March’s eyes went directly to a small decal placed in the far corner of the desk of a fish with a small cross near its head.
Cubicle 6 (Steven Merryweather) – Stark. It was if the cubicle was vacant, waiting for a new employee, with one exception. Hanging from one wall of the cubicle was a classic car calendar. This month featured a 1948 DeSoto.
Cubicle 7 (Tina Mabe) – Cats. The entire cubicle was covered with cat photos, cats of all sizes, shapes, and colors.
Early afternoon the following day, feeling slightly more refreshed and spry following breakfast and a spa session at the hotel, March took another look around at the cubicles. This was minutes prior to meeting with everyone in the upstairs conference room. He didn’t notice much change. In fact, cubicles 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7 were exactly the same as March had seen the previous night. Cubicle number 3, Brent Ward’s workspace, had been cleaned up. The pencil markings had been scrubbed off. The water bottles and calculator were gone, the trashcan empty. Two small changes were made to Steven Merryweather’s cubicle number 6. A new copy of the Thurmond Worldwide Real Estate Company Policy Book stood in a corner of the desk. And, a photo of an apartment building complex in downtown Durham, NC replaced the 1948 DeSoto. It was the photo of the month on an official Thurmond Worldwide Real Estate Company calendar.
When March entered the conference room, the seven employees were already seated around a large, rectangular table. A portrait of Weldon Thurmond, Joseph’s grandfather and founder of the firm looked down at the proceedings as if he was still keeping an eye on things. Joseph Thurmond stood up and greeted March.
“Good afternoon, Seth. Good to see you again.” Motioning with his hand, he said, “May I present to you the Metropolitan Division sales force.”
The seven employees smiled nervously, each one deep in thought about their jobs.
“Don’t get up,” said March to the group. “Let’s get right down to business. You all know why I’m here. It’s no secret that Thurmond Worldwide Real Estate has fallen on tough times and that in a number of our other locations we’ve had to trim staff. That’s all true. What is also true is that this great company will emerge from this temporary slump and become a leaner, more efficient company servicing our worldwide clientele. Now, I’ve looked over the numbers for the Metro division here, and quite frankly, we are not bringing in enough income to sustain seven sales people. At least one, maybe more is going to be leaving today, and my decision has already been made.”
The senior looking one of the group, Brent Ward, fidgeted with his pen and without thinking, blurted out, “This is like The Apprentice.” The look on his face indicated that he wished he could take back the comment. Nervous laughter followed which seemed to make Ward that much more uncomfortable.
March took it in stride. “Mr. Ward,” he addressed the man who spoke.
“Um yeah. How did you know my name?”
“I’m good at that. It’s one of the reasons why I’m here. We’ve never been introduced, but I know each and every one of you.” March adjusted his cufflinks and continued, “As I was saying, the numbers do not add up. I’m looking at potential revenues and market share, and there is only enough work to properly support five or six salespeople in this division. Only one of you out of seven is making your sales plan for this year, and it is not you, Mr. Ward. In fact, I’m embarrassed after looking at your sales results. How many years have you been with Thurmond Worldwide Real Estate?”
Ward cleared his throat. “Next year will be my 20th. Last year, I was…”
March cut him off. “What do you like most about working at Thurmond Worldwide Real Estate?”
Ward thought for a moment. “I go back to the policy book. It’s like a guide to success, not only here but in my personal life outside the office.”
“Tell me more, Mr. Ward.”
“For example, the policy about teamwork. I’ve been here long enough to know that no one can do it alone. We all need to learn from each other’s point of views and experiences in order to succeed. We all need to work toward common goals.”
“Excellent. I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you for your 19 years of commitment. I’m sure Mr. Thurmond is very much looking forward to signing your 20-year certificate. You do plan to be here next year and beyond, yes?”
With a huge sigh of relief, Ward practically shouted, “Sure. Sure!”
“Good. I’m confident you will turn things around.”
March squinted and looked at the cubicle diagram Thurmond had given him the day before. He looked up from it and stared into the eyes of Guy Smith. “Mr. Smith, you sit in the very first cubicle?” March thought about retirement. He wasn’t enjoying himself.
Smith stood at attention. “Yes, sir.” The response was firm. Forceful.
“Well then, tell me why you are not on plan and why I should keep you employed.”
“With all due respect, sir, I am nearly on plan this year. I have made my commitments the past 3 years and I have no doubt that I will be on plan next year.”
“Thank you, Mr. Smith. By the way, if you don’t mind my asking, in what branch of the military did you serve?”
“United States Marines, sir.”
“Thank you for your service to this country. Let’s give Mr. Smith a round of applause.”
The group clapped. Guy Smith nodded his head to everyone, grinned and sat down.
March next looked across the table toward Elyse Fischer. “Ms. Fischer, that is a very pretty blue dress you are wearing. I trust I’m not being too forward?”
Elyse Fischer smiled. “No, not at all Mr. March. Thank you. I sewed it myself.”
“Well, it shows a great deal of style and I hope you will keep up the great work here. You know, you are a vital member of this sales force.”
“Thank you, Mr. March. Thank you very much.” Elyse Fischer looked around the room at her fellow sales partners. None returned her glance.
March leaned toward Thurmond and whispered something in his ear. Thurmond shook his head in the affirmative. “Where was I? Oh yes,” as he turned toward the young man whose pinstripe suit would have been out of place on a retail rack. “Mr. Merryweather, do you own a vintage car?”
Steven Merryweather swallowed hard. He hesitated before answering. “I do. It’s a 1965 Ford Mustang.”
Merryweather nervously rubbed his chin. “Not at the moment, no. I had an old Karmann Ghia I was restoring, but I sold it to a collector.”
“One of these days I’ll take up that hobby. I remember my first car. Who doesn’t?” March’s face took on an earnest demeanor. “I see that you are the sole member of this sales team currently making plan. How do you explain that?”
Merryweather hoped he had weathered the storm. He was ready for the question. He ran his hand through slick backed black hair. “Hard work. There’s no substitute for it. I do my job to the best of my ability. I’m clicking on all cylinders, if I must say so myself.” Merryweather couldn’t figure things out. He was the only one exceeding his sales goal, yet March hadn’t told anyone yet that they were canned.
“I see, I see,” responded March. “Very interesting. Tell me, Steven, that is your policy book I noticed at your cubicle this morning?”
“That it is,” beamed Merryweather.
“Good. Would you mind telling the group one thing written in that book?”
“Excuse me? Please repeat what you said.” Merryweather was visibly shaken.
March looked Merryweather in the eye. “I asked, would you mind telling the group one thing written in that book? Anything at all will suffice, other than the teamwork policy mentioned earlier by Mr. Ward. One of the basic requirements here is familiarity with our policy book. Everyone is told that day one. You did admit it was your book, correct?”
Merryweather was stammering. “Why, yyes, it is. I don’t remember anything. I can’t think of anything right now.”
“Nothing? Not a sentence? Nothing? Was the book placed there for show, for my benefit? Were you trying to impress yourself or me? If it was me, you failed miserably.”
Merryweather tried to regain his composure. “Mr. March, I’m on plan this year and in fact I’m bringing in more revenue than my plan calls for and I promise to do the same thing next year.” Beads of sweat dripped off Merryweather’s forehead. Thurmond looked away.
March folded the paper containing the office layout and carefully placed it in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. “That won’t be necessary, Mr. Merryweather. Thurmond Worldwide Real Estate no longer needs your services. As of this moment, your employment is terminated. You will be given a fair severance package. Please, clean out your cubicle. You are done here. Please leave.”
Merryweather was about to say something, but thought better of it. He walked slowly out of the room, never taking his eyes off March. March returned the stare. When the conference room door closed, he continued. “We are not yet done here, folks. Ms. Sussman. I couldn’t help but notice your daughter’s drawings. You know, the ones you have hanging in your cubicle? How is your little girl? What’s her name and what grade is she in?”
Rebecca Sussman blushed. She was young and attractive. March pictured Sussman’s husband as a computer programmer who enjoyed playing softball on weekends. Visions of a freshly painted white picket fence surrounding a well-trimmed lawn on a tree-lined street also popped into his head. She had to clear her throat before speaking. Her heart was beating twice as fast as normal. A transplanted southerner, she responded “Why, thank ya’ll Mr. March. Her name’s Jenna and she’s the reason I’m here. That, and the benefits, of course, and the money.”
“It’s always about the money,” said March, sneaking a quick sideways glance at Thurmond. “I appreciate your honesty. Tell me more about Jenna.”
“She’s just a fine little girl. She’ll be starting in the first grade next year and we’re all so proud of her. Ya’ll have any children, Mr. March?”
For the first time, March was taken aback. He looked a little uncomfortable. A sharp twinge in his chest caused an involuntary reaction, as if he had reacted to a chill. It was no secret he’d spent more time in airplanes than with his two daughters. He quickly regained his composure. “I’d rather not say. That’s a discussion for another day.” How do you expect to make your sales goals next year?”
“Well, with the proper support and training I’ll be good to go!”
“That’s good enough for me,” said March. “Who’s next on the hit parade?” March looked over the room. His eyes were drawn to the woman wearing several bracelets that clanged against the table every time her hands moved. He ignored the scratches on her wrists and hands and looked directly at Tina Mabe. “How many cats do you own, Ms. Mabe?”
Tina Mabe appeared surprised. She never expected the question. She was still thinking about Merryweather. “Um, well, right now at the moment, I own six adorable cats, Mr. March. They are like my children. It is tough keeping them all happy at once.”
“I’m sure it is. Six? That is a lot. Well, Ms. Mabe, you are very close to making your sales plan this year and for that, Mr. Thurmond and I thank you. Keep up the good work, and with just a little extra effort, I’m sure you will exceed plan next year.”
Tina Mabe folded her hands. “Thank you, Mr. March. Thank you very much. I feel certain I will make my sales plan next year and the year after that and I won’t let you or Mr. Thurmond down.”
“That leaves only Mr. Wallach.” The five sales people who had already been spoken to and survived sat back in their chairs, a bit more relaxed now that they knew they were staying for at least another year. Freddy Wallach wore a gold ring with a small cross on it. March had spotted it the moment he entered the conference room. He looked in Wallach’s direction. “What do you enjoy most about working at Thurmond Worldwide Real Estate, Mr. Wallach?” Freddy Wallach stood at his seat. He adjusted his tie, and with conviction, said, “The people. I enjoy working with each and every one of my colleagues. I learn something new everyday from each one of them. It’s a blessing and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
“Thank you,” said March. “You can sit down, now. It’s been a pleasure meeting each of you. On behalf of Mr. Thurmond, I’d like to wish you all success next year. With everyone pulling together and working toward the same goal, we can’t help but succeed. Thank you again for your time.”
Joseph Thurmond and Seth March sat quietly in the backseat of the company limo on the way to the airport. They drove several miles without a word until Thurmond broke the silence. “I knew it. Merryweather. Jesus, he was the only one on plan!”
“Integrity trumps numbers. I didn’t like the policy book trick. It’s dishonest. Backbone, remember?”
The car eased into a spot under the departing flights sign. The two men shook hands. Seth March walked through an automatic glass door and disappeared into the terminal. “Sometimes, the employees fire themselves,” he thought. Next stop, Minnesota. March hesitated. The security line snaked around a maze of nylon three times over. Toward the rear of the line, a little girl sat giggling atop her father’s shoulders. March turned and retreated to the ground transportation area and hailed a cab.
Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type (available at www.batteredbox.com).