Three Obstacles

Whether to keep up the equanimity of emotions and act silently? Or to make some noises to be heard? This has been the main question that has dodged me always.

In the past, I have seen that making noises usually does not work. It only puts off people. It does not make the shouter to be one of the team members. But again to be accepted as team member even if one is docile is also sometimes a bit tricky.

We have two bosses who either do not know how to drive the business or just want to maintain the status-quo to make sure that they continue to stay in their respective positions. If that be so, why should I be hired then? The management may genuinely be aiming at increasing the business volume. CEO may have mooted the idea that he needs one more business development manager to contribute more.

What he has not done so far is to make the working smoother by opening the gateways of information. The cartel’s insecurities have kept the gate closed and even if the gate is opened – only slightly. The VP’s presence is causing more confusion. Under these circumstances, getting any type of sales support or directions or decisions from either VP or CEO has become a strenuous effort. I also suspect that the ants are being influenced by the Cartel not to be very free-flowing on my informational needs.

My instruction to M (one of the Ants) to give me the customer-wise pricing data went unheeded. While I kept reminding her politely, she kept saying she was busy and would take out the data as soon as she gets a bit free.

I needed to quote for a particular product to a domestic customer. As no transparent costing were made available, I had to be reliant on B who informs me the price for individual product before I quote to any customer. On this occasion, I was given a US dollar price on Cost and freight basis and was told to work backwards. Accordingly, I quoted Rs 145 for that item. Customer promptly asked if we can agree at Rs 125. I got stuck. B informed me that we sell that item to MNO at more than Rs 160, so further discount to already quoted lower price would not be possible. If it was Rs 160, why was I given a mis-leading basis to work out the price in the first instance? Either B was being casual earlier or he gives me a wrong information now to discourage me in cutting the price and in the process not being able to finalize the business.

VP was causing commotion differently.  A few deals were at the stage of finalization and some operational issues had to be addressed. VP was non-committal and said it can be solved only over a medium-term, so finalizing the business may not be immediately possible. I was not sure if the customer would be ready to wait.

On another potentially large business opportunity, VP kept repeating like a parrot that he would need buyer’s specifications. The buyer was not to be bothered for these paper work, as I know from my experience that he never has any written specs for his products. He had given us only the photo images of the products which I am sure would be adequate for the factory team to start working on it. But VP would not listen and this time he blamed ISO 9000 procedure for insisting on buyer’s specification.

CEO had not time for taking business decisions. He is busy meeting either advertisement sales representatives from a web portal company or home brokers for buying a property for himself, or making H (the secretary) sitting in front  of him to listen to flirt talks. My email reminders to him seeking approval for 7 days credit terms for XYZ Corp remained unreplied. After a few days, I went to his cabin personally to ask him about it. He went on with his usual irrelevancies. When I asked him specifically towards the subject, he admitted that he has sent the mail to the Finance Manager for decision-making.

B’s blocking of smooth flow of information, VP’s intransigency, CEO’s complete refusal to take decisions even if it costs only a rupee…. the three things I am confronting with!

A close look at The Cartel

I spent relatively long time with the Cartel members when I got a chance to visit factory on the occasion of XYZ rep’s visit.

The Cartel comprises of 4 members – B, Finance Manager, Production Manager and QA Manager.  While the Cartel members have their own personality traits, they are united by common causes – to perpetuate their stay in the company and make them immune from changes happening at the higher levels of the company.

They all hail from the nearest town close by and have started working with the company around the same time. In all they have spent more than 15 years to-gether ; have not worked with any other company.

These managers, I observed, were not too ambitious. In a way, they are very content about their life (unlike me?). They get to live in their home town and be with all their relatives and child-hood friends. Their respective jobs did not carry much burden as they have mastered their respective role expectation (which I believe have never been too high) from the company. In a way, the company’s systems have started depending on these people very much.

B joined the company as dispatch clerk, but stuck to the company despite changes happening in the top. Many work managers and Vice presidents came and went. The customers saw different men at the helm of affairs, but B, QA Manager and Production Manager were always around. So these 6 customers have found it safer dealing with the known faces of the Cartel. B became the Dispatch Manager in a few years, hence had been the key contact for these customers for so long. The then business manager who developed these businesses met with a tragic road accident when he was on an overseas trip. There was a vacuüm till a new manager could be recruited. B used the vacuüm wisely and assumed the role of Export Business Manager.

The Director found it convenient then as he need not have to deal a new power structure in the office as he would have found it safe to elevate B whom he viewed to be loyal and long-serving. Moreover B had complete understanding of the operations and so he could envisage problems and issues well.

The Director did not feel the need appoint a new exports manager until the CEO (who entered the scene only about 10 months back) saw the need to have one more Exports Manager and hence I was recruited.

I have started developing self-doubt on seeing the Cartel Members and their complete control of things on factory and operations’ side. Would I ever be able to acquire such a self-assured attitude leaving my vulnerability aside!

Are they viewing my joining as a threat? I could not get any clue from the members, as the talks were at superficial level only. While they sounded nice to me, I could sense an invisible wall wherein the deliberations were never free and open.

I did observe during  my interactions that  out of 4 members of the Cartel, the 3, with the exception of B, were not very fond of VP.  The Finance manager was loud about it. I also observed that while production and QA managers too did not like VP much, they sounded hesitant to be viewed as disobedient to VP. So that explains the delays or no replies to my various emails. They expected to be told by VP to reply to each emails.

When compared to the other three, B is totally different. The closeness and camaraderie he has developed with the 6 overseas-customers must have given him the enormous sense of command over the scenario. The VP (who is a complete new-comer from a different industry all-together) has to be dependant on B and Like-wise CEO also (whom, as we have seen in many episodes before, has no grip on the proceedings except raw usage of positional authority).

They both perhaps might have intended to please B as their survival depends on him indirectly, and denied me any interface to the existing customers. Is it a good place to be in personally? – As I have to work from scratch to develop all new customers with no handle on what’s happening on the current business front.  B will run so smoothly with the well-set business. I must admit B is in an enviable position – reward for staying with the company for Long? Is there a lesson here?

Working Holidays

The CEO meets me almost daily – either uttering irrelevancies or issuing stale instructions or stating the obvious – but he sees to it that he sounds sweet.

B wants to work with only 4 existing customers. With this, the CEO had got opportunity to see only Belgium and Germany, whereas yours sincerely (that’s myself!) work on widening the market base. Inquiries keep flowing in from Israel, Italy, USA UK and Spain.

This sincerity of work helps the CEO in two ways. Firstly, it enables him boast-of with tea-drinking Director (who is too tired to manage things!) thereby earns him some browny points.

Secondly, the CEO gets to see new destinations. Mind here, the poor export manager should stay back in the office to make sure that things are under control, so he will not be traveling. Moreover, Directors and CEOs are expected to utter only niceties and not specifics when meeting customers in their own countries. So the export manager who knows only details need not travel. Of course, the export manager will get the reward of eating in expensive restaurants when the customer visits here.

There are pitfalls if new customers are not discovered. That means that the export manager is useless and will need to be replaced. Nowadays CEO finds it convenient to continue with B only. New candidates nowadays are so demanding that they do not join unless they are assured that they will be allowed to travel overseas.

With people like B, around there is no such problem, you see! B will be content not to be traveling as meeting overseas customers means that the sentences in English have to be completed in English only and Hindi words also cannot be mixed into to the sentence to make sense. Very inconvenient!

Sometime back, I had requested H (CEO’s secretary) for CEO’s tour notes when he visited Germany in October last year. She gave a note-book, whose pages were totally blank and only three business cards were posted on the first two pages. No scribbling, no notes. After a few pages, a City Map of the place he visited was there and some spots have been circled in them. This map must have been torn from the tour directory that must have been kept in the hotel room he stayed. In another page, a scribbling pad was inserted. I am sure he must have taken the ball-point pen also from the hotel room. Most probably, his son must be using the pen to write the notes in his college.

H further revealed that during last trip three big-wigs visited Europe – Director, CEO and VP – together. They travel in groups only, so that one guy speaks and the rest listens. Since the Director himself was present throughout, CEO and VP are not answerable and held accountable for the success or failure of the trip made. Very convenient, isn’t it?

Day 32 – The Cartel and the Ants

Despite completion of the first month in the organization, I am still to become part of the team. What are the reasons? Do I not reach out to people? Have I tried that sincerely?

Initially when the environment was unfamiliar, I tried to evolve some strategy. In the first few days and on the days I spent in the factory, I went out of my way to be pally with the people there. Was I being fake? I think I was.

Subsequently when email wars started, I was wondering how to react. Now the CEO reads my mails which are on copy to him, briefs the Director on daily basis and they both talk to the concerned persons in the factory over speaker phone.  After this phone call, B, QA Manager and Supply Chain Manager are prompt in their replies. A complicated sales support system, but it works for the moment.  

The cartel (consisting of B, Production Manager, Finance Manager, QA Manager and Production Manager) in the factory appeared to me initially to be difficult to crack. It now appears that what it needs is call from the Director. I would like to reach a stage where the Cartel replies voluntarily on reading my mails. I would like to know what the Cartel is thinking about me.

Who are the weakest and the strongest link in the Cartel? Are there gaps among the managers in the factory? I spent far too less time to come to any conclusion on it.

My impression is that even CEO has not gained complete control of the managers in the factory. That’s why he makes all the calls to the factory only when he is together with the Director. Out of the people in the factory, it is only two managers with whom CEO gets along well – Supply Chain Manager (not a part of the Cartel) and Finance Manager. This could be inferred from the various meetings I had with CEO and at every opportunity he preferred to talk to only these two people, even if it is VP who will be in a better place to answer all operations-related issues.

Is VP part of the Cartel? As far as I can see, he wants to prop up B only and always like to ride on his shoulders.  He does not seem to be having any special bonding with other Cartel Members. VP senses a threat in me for the reasons best known. How to read the VP?

I would like to introduce another group of people at this stage. There are a host of support staff who sit outside my chamber (whom we call The Ants).We had already met one of them, Ms.M of Export documentation (Day 22 – CEO’s War and Love). These guys are world unto themselves, very lowly paid clerical and assistant cadre staff. Frustrated souls! They are keen observers of power-mongering managers and hook on to whoever has the power. These support staff is headed by an assistant manager whom we call as VN.

VN is with the company for more than 18 years. After serving in the factory for 8 years, he was transferred to corporate office. A sweet talker! But he seems to hold many knots with him. The managers based in the factory keep close ties with him, because he would know well what’s happening in corporate office. CEO also keeps good relations with him, because he is a distant relative of Divisional Director.  Support staff (which also includes Ms.M – the Documentation Girl) swears allegiance to VN.  

VN and his staff are generally friendly to me, but they refrain from talking anything official. Is it because they are gauging me if I am loyal to the coterie of factory manager or to CEO Or to VP? Another reason could be that they would prefer to report to CEO like they do now, so shun any deal with me fearing I may try to boss over them.

Hmm…endless list of questions! My mind is going over-board with thoughts….am I being objective here? Or am I being biased due to insecurity or fear of failure ………Let me start meditating on clear blue sky now to seek some clarity!!!!

Day 31 – The events on XYZ imbroglio

Let us return to XYZ Corp. Their proposal still remained indisposed – to visit the factory first and then to decide if the business can be done with us or not. My constant efforts to make either VP or CEO to take a decision on the matter were not fruitful.

XYZ’s buying representative based in a small town in Gujarat in the meanwhile started showing signs of impatience. I realized during one of my conversations that he finds our price extremely attractive and is keen to finalize. Being a buyer’s representative (who is paid only a nominal service charge by XYZ), he does not get fixed pay or perks. So he made an overt (unreasonable! in my opinion) demand that he would like to be reimbursed for air-fare to and fro the nearest city close to our factory. The customers do want to be unduly pampered even before they start the business relationship. Would I do that?

His demand helped me to a large extent to cover up the indecisiveness within my company on their proposed visit. I used euphemisms such as company policy, CRM procedures etc and said this needs to be discussed with the Divisional Director. Conveniently, I made the director disappear to an unknown European destination during the course of my phone call with XYZ rep and told him that I would have to discuss the request with him on his return. Actually the Director was very much in the office, happily sipping the bitter tea in his cosy chamber.

At last, the VP budged suddenly, mailing me that we can ask XYZ to come to the factory. What could have prompted the VP to be positive on XYZ now? I got the answer in the afternoon while being a witness to a phone conversation. This happened during a tête-à-tête with CEO and Director. Both of them were on speaker phone talking to VP. It appears that MNO are very upset that only 30% of the contracted volume was produced by us. They now threaten to cancel the contract (which by the way has a fine-printed clause that at least 50% of the volume should be produced, if not MNO has the right not to lift any quantities….wow…big companies!).

By evening, XYZ rep called. His boss in USA had instructed him to cover as much material as possible quickly, due to the big shortage of the product in the market. So the rep wanted to make a dash to the factory on his expense now.

It was almost as if I made no effort in all these. Things change constantly. Some times to our advantage and sometimes otherwise. But situations change for sure.

Day 22 – CEO’s war and love

While I was contemplating on what can be done to clear the stocks as was asked to by VP, he was very prompt to send me a reminder early this morning– “any developments? Pl inform asap.” I replied nonchalantly to VP – “No developments so far. Shall inform you as and when things develop”.

Is he trying to push me to a corner? What are the benefits for him to be nasty with me?

I always sensed that there is cold war between CEO and VP. While both do not know what each of their role is, they want to finish off each other for unknown reasons.

Had a casual chat with Ms.H who is the secretary for the CEO.  She narrated what happened a few days back.  The CEO had asked one of the HR assistants to find a suitable candidate to replace the VP. CEO naïvely believed that the petite HR assistant will find the candidate and come to him directly without discussing anything with her own boss. But the girl directly went to HR head and presented the papers. HR head as per the HR procedure sent the paper to the Divisional Director (with whom I had tea earlier!). The Director had no clue about why replacement is being sought for VP and asked the CEO – “what is happening?” who must have felt embarrassed and muttered sorry. CEO then vented out all his anger on the HR assistant and tore up the papers.

The HR assistant is a dear friend of M, the girl who does export documentation in the division. She must have narrated the episode to M, who has a few friends in the factory. We can safely guess that this must have reached VP’s ears.

While telling the above, H suddenly showed her mobile phone to me. I initially thought that  she is showing off her newly bought phone. She asked me to go to the messages folders and read them. I was hesitating. She herself opened the folder and made me read the messages. Shockingly, her mobile is full of lewd SMSes from CEO; some of them were indeed in bad taste!

She did complain about this to one of the HR managers, who himself got sacked in the meanwhile for harassing a female receptionist with suggestive email messages and salacious email forwards. So H is still contemplating whom to complain and take this further.

She did hint CEO that she would complain about it to Chairman. But he did not seem to be perturbed. In retaliation to her threat, he started dominating her even more by finding fault with her for nothing and shouting at her in front of others for feeble reasons.

H in the meanwhile managed to find some poise and was getting on with him. His SMS have not stopped yet though. When I asked her how long can she bear with this, she grinned and said that she has to bear it until she gets a better job.

Day 21 – Email wars.

XYZ corp issue will have to wait for a while, as I would like to see how the events unfold eventually.

I started focusing seriously on work. To my delight, the potential customers showed interest in our company. In a matter of few days, more than 10 purchase enquiries piled up.

Now the question is who will be my sales support. The complete sales support framework is missing. How do I get started?

One of my ex-bosses used to say there is a power in the written word. He always used to suggest that if guys do not respond well over phone, then emails and letters work like magic.

Started mailing to practically everyone in the company – VP, Mr.B, Production, QA, Supply chain. All mails copied to CEO as well. While I rattled out emails busily, no replies were forthcoming.

It is in my nature to lose patience quickly. But this time I decided not to give-in. So I decided to reach out to B (the sales colleague who is based in the factory) and seek his assistance. On day 19, I called him up more than twenty times on phone. Not even once the phone was answered. At around 6.30 pm, B called me back apologizing profusely for not being in a position to call back earlier. I asked him if he was tied up with some important work. He said whole day VP kept him busy for nothing. On day 20, I did not contact him much and restricted the calls to only thrice. No reply as usual. But this time he was really nice and he emailed to say that he will reply on pricing etc on day 21.

Today, I anticipate costings, specifications, replies on technical clarification sought by customers, etc.

At around 3 pm, one by one, the mails started pouring in – from B as well as from VP.

“We have unsold stocks of 700 tonnes (produced in 2007) which need to be cleared off. Can you please do the needful?”

“We had produced some stocks for customer 123, and he did not lift it yet even after 1 year. The order got cancelled last week. Do you have any buyers for it?”

“We have a contract to buy 600 tonnes raw material from a producer by the end of next week. Can you find customers for the end product in next two days”

Emails were coming in at good speed. I mailed them back asking replies for my customer enquiries. I got out of office messages from both.

What is the message being conveyed here? That Do not expect replies and support for your new sales initiatives? Or do not go so fast and we are not ready yet? Or is it B’s insecurity showing up? If it is B’s insecurity, why is VP backing him up?…hmm… too many questions to ponder on!  Food-for-thought ? or sure-fire way to lose motivation?

Day 16

Yesterday I could not reach the VP with whom I was to consult the stalemate over whether to allow XYZ corp to visit the factory or not. I spoke to him today.

him –         yeah CEO told me that you will call me.

me –         XYZ corp wants to see the factory and if satisfied will confirm 50 tonnes business.

him –         Which XYZ Corp?

me –         The one for whom you advised me that we would be offering some material, since MNO Corp are delaying the call-offs.

him –         Oh..yeah. but remember MNO Corp is a reputed and large company. We should not be upsetting them.

me –         Absolutely. But what do I tell XYZ Corp who has already shown interest on  50 tonnes that we offered?

him –         You confirm that. What is the issue?

me –         They would like to see the factory. I discussed with CEO on it and he said that I should speak to you.

him –         I now remember. That’s not possible.

me –         Why not?

him –         The customer will come here and we have to make them stay in the Hotel. There will be expenses.

me –         True. Pls remember the value of the order is Rs 2.5 million. Good profitability. No headaches. They will send their own truck to the factory for picking the goods.

him –         Do you know how expensive the Hotel Tariffs are nowadays?

me –         OK. I will tell them we cannot entertain the factory visit. They either confirm the order without conditions or we are not selling to them.

him –         You cannot take such a rigid view when doing Sales. One has to be flexible.

me –          ??

him –         You have to be methodical when handling such customers. That’s what I did when finalizing MNO Corp deal. There was no glitch. Done deal.

me –          ??

him –         See we have produced 150 tonnes already.

me –         But we took order for 500 tonnes.

him –         It happens in processing industry. When the raw material is short, what can we do?

me –         What about delaying the call offs?

him –         It happens in business and we have to accommodate customers sometime. Remember, we get our salary because of customers. We should never forget that.

me –     Well said. What do I tell XYZ Corp now?

him –     Why don’t you discuss these matters with the CEO to whom you are directly reporting?

I could not get any decision from either of the two big-wigs. I should think of a strategy to get this business going. Any ideas?

Day 15

Excerpts from a phone conversation

–         Saw the mail from XYZ corp. How much volume are they talking?

–         They are ready to lift 50 tonnes at our price, subject ofcourse to approval of the factory. They would like to visit us.

–         Hmmm…no issues…but we do not want to be taken for a ride!

–         I’m not sure I follow, how can we be taken for a ride in this?

–         It has happened in the past, where the customers have visited us, but never bought anything after they left.

–         That means they did not approve our facilities.

–         Remember that you have to have eye in your head while talking to me (What is the meaning of this expression? I have never heard it before)

–         Hmmmm

–         Are you clear?

–         Should I tell the customer that they cannot visit us and they have to buy without seeing the factory?

–         Listen…you are not allowing me to talk.

–          ??

–        There is no harm in having them visit the factory. But we should make sure they buy good volumes.

–        As I said earlier, this customer buys in excess of 2000 tonnes from the industry. The list of items and quantity they buy is already with us which I have shared with you. If you want, I can ask them to send an email confirming all the items they are interested to procure from us.

–….dont do that….we may not be in a position to do all the items they buy.

–     then what should I tell them?

–     See I have no issues in talking to them…but 50 tonnes is nothing. MNO corp wanted 3000 tonnes, we said we can give only 500 tonnes.

–     Ok, then let me tell them they can’t see the factory and 50 tonnes is too less.

–     no. You are hurrying again. I have no issue with 50 tonnes….but the price they give is less….see we have negotiated so well with MNO corp and got a good rate.

–     I have quoted Rs 5 per kilo more than that, sir.

–     yeah yeah….tell them 50 tonnes is too less.

–     But I understand that we will not be able to produce the full qty of what we agreed with MNO, this 50 tonnes we have offered only because XYZ is ready to pay better price….

–      is it?  We should be talking to big guys.

–      XYZ is the largest wholesaler with national distribution in USA. You can check about them in the market. You will know.

–      Yeah I know…I know them very well….They are based in London. I know.

–       No sir, they are in New York.

–       Yeah yeah you are right.

–       I dont understand why they want to visit the factory. All these buyers are silly. They waste our time and energy.

–       Let me tell them then we are not interested.

–  You are hurrying…..I have no issue….am I making myself clear (Note : all his favourite phrases! He has uttered them in one go!)

–          ??

– Do one thing! Talk to VP and then let me know what he says. I am about to board the flight. I am headed to Bangalore for a lunch with Jt.Secretary.

I then dialed the factory to talk to VP.  The operator told me that he has gone to attend a “mundan” ceremony of one of the staffs’ son. It took sometime to collect my thoughts. What should be the line of action now?

I am not hurrying. I have no issue. It is clear that I am going to continue reading the e-Book that I was reading earlier (before I received the call from the CEO!).

Day Six

At last, I could meet up with the man I dreaded about very much – the colleague who is handling the existing customers, basing himself in the factory. Let us call him B for identification. B did not have two horns as I thought. No, not even long teeth, protruding the lips…or black face!….he looks normal…having a country charm about him. Shook hands with him, and he did not utter a single word…just smile that’s all….he seems to be a man of few words…

The Vice President was also there. This time he spoke animatedly, unlike in the first meeting when he sounded very reserved.

CEO was mentioning earlier that I will get a chance to say hello to the visiting customer from Europe. Like all other things, this time also he did not surprise me. I was neither called for the meeting and I did not know when did the visitor come, whom all did he meet with and what were discussed.

By 1 pm I was brooding if I should exit the cabin for going to lunch or not. I was hesitating because they might call me over the intercom. While I was being indecisive, suddenly the Vice President entered the room…saying goodbye. He informed that they are all going for lunch with the visitor. Now I too, could have mine at peace, without the nagging worry of being called while out on lunch.

I like this company…no pretensions…no intellectual talks…what you guess is what you get…I did not expect to be called and it happened exactly.