Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Patrick Flynn and Ronald Tipton, 2016.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Waters Rose, Factories Close, So It Goes

There is a great similarity between this year and June of 1972 in the upper central portions of Pennsylvania.  Land covered by flood water. In 1972, Wilkes Barre, Pa. found itself devastated by a little lady called Agnes. The storm and those floods were to have a direct effect on the course of my life.

That particular year found yours truly gainfully and happily employed by Olson Brothers, Inc. aka Olson Farms, Inc. We broke eggs.

Yes, there is an industry known as Egg Breakers.

The name is pretty much self-exclamatory. We would buy eggs, we would break eggs and we'd sell whatever we could get out of those eggs.

My position there was Office Manager/Cost Accountant. At the end of that year I was Assistant General Manager, but that was a brief tenure. The whole experience was somewhat weird, I suppose. In that year I learned a lot about corruption, bribery, stupidity, bullying and never putting all your eggs in one basket.

CORRUPTION

("Broken Eggs", Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1756)

They say getting there is half the fun. My half of the fun got lost somewhere along the line, replaced by a lot of anxiety.  I had been working for a bank, but my managers lied to me. I don't take being lied to lightly and I resigned. But before I dove off the deep end, I did go out and seek another job. I was able to be offered a position within two weeks of looking, and then I quit my banking job.

But then I wasn't hearing anything from my new boss. Time passed and I called the man and a person answered and said he was unavailable. This was not boding well. I had been told he wanted me to start before the person I was replacing had left, so I could get some training. But now the days ticked away and I had still not been told to report and the last day for that guy came and went. Finally I received a call and was told to report on the next Monday.

When I came to work that first day what did I find? A lot of missing people is what I found. The person I replaced was already gone. The General Manager, who had hired me, was gone. The new General Manager was gone, apparently to Puerto Rico although why or for how long was not known.

Eventually all this became clear. The man who had hired me had suddenly quit and disappeared to parts unknown. It was a mystery because he was something of a legend in the industry at that time, well known and the company was certainly showing a profitable operation. I know, because one of my duties was to do the Profit & Loss Reports each month. Each month our statement of condition certainly showed us well in the black and we were running at full production. However, this seemed odd because we didn't seem to be selling a whole lot.

I was to unravel this conundrum, conscientious accountant that I was. I decided to take a physical inventory of stock. Most of our product was frozen egg, frozen whole egg, frozen yolk, frozen white, frozen salted egg and frozen sugared egg. If their was a part of an egg you could freeze, we froze it, excluding the shell. So at the back of the plant was a huge freezer where all prepared egg product was stashed until sold.

Except it wasn't being sold.

I crawled about over and under and around all these big containers of frozen hen fruit, counting and checking off my list each drum there. Well, what do you know? No wonder the old General Manager was looking good. He was running at full production alright, but he was simply storing all that outcome away. We weren't looking good on the bottom line because of our low per unit cost and brisk sales, we were just carrying a very high over valued inventory, most of which would never leave our freezer.

Thus what product that did dribble out to customers was being sold way below cost.

This discovery was one of the nails in our coffin.

BRIBERY


There is no better way to learn a job than to be thrown into it with no one around to tell you how to do it. You just do. With the old boss out the door and the new boss on a distant shore and the once-upon-a-time holder of this job on to his next, I had to pretty much teach myself the egg business. The production manager certainly helped me on that and in the absence of the General Manager, who was officially the wheeler and dealer of the place, we had to step into the gap.

We did pretty good even though neither of us had any experience in buying and selling. We did have one philosophy about it, buy low, sell high. You'd think that was obvious, but I'll come back to this in a bit.

You'd be surprised (or maybe not) by what comes about in the egg business. Eggs are pretty durable product actually. You can store them for like six months if kept at the right temperature and a lot of eggs that look ugly are perfectly fine. Farmers sold us the eggs the supermarkets wouldn't carry. They might be oddly shaped or discolored. Some might have hairline cracks. Some were too small or too big. Mainly they just didn't look all nice, even and pretty sitting in a dairy isle.

You candled every egg that passed through the doors. Mostly you are checking for any fertilized eggs or eggs with blood. Such things would not please the Rabbi.

I guess I should mention the Rabbi. The Rabbi came around  couple times a year and wandered though the plant. If he liked what he saw, he would certify your product as Kosher. Now lets be brutally honest here. We knew when the Rabbi was coming and the day before arrangements were made, or should I say rearrangements, so nothing was touching anything that would perhaps conflict with the Laws of Moses, at least not until the days after the Rabbi left again. And also, the rabbi didn't spend a lot of time on his inspection. He tended to whisk through the place until we handed him the check for his services. His services did not come cheap. That check had a one on the left and a whole lot of zeros to its right.

Now, I'm not saying that transaction was a form of bribery, but I will say this next instance probably was.

Representative of a big time chicken guy came in to visit one day, trying to make a deal for us to take more of their eggs. Eggs weren't what they built a reputation upon, it was the chickens that lay the eggs that they concerned themselves with. They sold some pretty good tasting roasters, but I will tell you, they shipped us some of the worse eggs you'd ever lay your eyes on, let alone smell with your nose. Although I had the "white-collar" job of Office Manager and Cost Accountant, there were times my duties extended to a more hands-on approach.

Not that I wanted to lay hands on that companies raw materials, but I was out there unloading their truck and what I unpacked was black eggs, rotten eggs and eggs with maggots.

Now here comes this representative wanting us to take more of this stuff from his company. He came in like a movie cliche, big old cowboy hat and a sur'nuf down home good ol' boy accent, with y'alls and back slaps all around. "Want you boys to come visit our plant," he says. "We'll take good care y'all. You come on down. We'll get you a woman and a good bottle of bourbon."

STUPIDITY



Remember that thing about buying low and selling high? Well, after a few weeks our new General Manager finally shows up back from Puerto Rico. He's all proud because he made a deal to sell the people on the Island a lot of egg white to make meringue.

Now that he had returned, for the moment, the buying and selling was back in his hands. He apparently hadn't read any pillows stitched with the production guy and my philosophy, because he bought high and sold low.

Now, and maybe this will surprise some, but there are consequences to buying high and selling low, and to having an overstocked inventory, and of running full bore full productivity when your sales are underperforming. It is called, NOT MAKING MONEY! Now that the inventory ploy was exposed (by yours truly) and the valuation reevaluated our bottom line so it didn't look so great. It looked a little red in the face. Things needed tightening up and our General Manager's idea of tightening up was not paying our suppliers.

This resulted in some suppliers refusing to sell us anything and those who would demanding a premium to do so. In other words, our buying high got higher.

Then one day, this new General Manager was gone. It really wasn't unusual for him to be gone. He was gone a lot, a la Puerto Rico, but he wasn't selling more meringue this time. Oh no, turned out he had another business on the side and he was devoting more hours to that business than to our eggs. And like our egg products, he was canned.

I suppose this belongs here under stupidity, but I thought I had a bright future with that company. I liked working there, liked my job, liked the people. It looked like we were going to expand. They were going to buy a bigger and better plant in Blue Anchor, New Jersey, move operations out of the confines of North Philadelphia. They had big plans, big dreams and here I was in on the ground floor of all this expansion.

I revisited my old employer, the bank, and discovered those managers who had lied to me were gone. In their place was the former auditor and he asked me if I would come back to work there. He even asked me to name my own salary to do so. But I told him I had a great opportunity where I was and turned it down.

Then my wife and I moved to New Jersey. C'est la vie.

BULLYING



Despite the corruption and the stupidity, it actually looked for a while we might turn it all around and get that dream factory over in Blue Anchor. But something else happened, which I'll get to later. The result of what happened I will deal with here. Basically, we tanked.

When things became clear that hope was going south, the company stopped production altogether. Everybody in the back was laid off, all the sorters and the sniffers, the washers and the breakers. These people weren't paid a lot to begin with, now they were getting nothing.

It wasn't long after the workers were laid off that there came a loud knock on the office door. I happened to be there with my secretary and no one else. We answered the knock and there were these gentlemen standing there who would have made find cast members for The Sopranos. These were guys who instantly made you wonder just how much broken kneecaps hurt. They were Teamsters, the Union that represented our now laid off work force.

Were they here to plead for the works jobs? Not exactly. They wanted us to know that they expected us to make sure these workers continued to pay their union dues.

I told them we couldn't do that. They would have to deal directly with their members.

As you can see I am still around and my kneecaps are fine. I can't speak for those long ago workers.


NEVER PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET


So what happened to finally kill that job? What promoted me from Office Manager to Assistant General Manager helping to oversee the dismantling of the plant? A sweet young thing known as Agnes.

This hurricane came up the Eastern Seaboard and inundated upper Pennsylvania with water, lots and lots of water. Much of the same area was flooded by Agnes as suffered the same fate last week. Up in Wilkes Barre was a big company called Interstate Bakeries. Interstate Bakeries was our biggest customer, too big to fail, at least too big to fail us.

In reality, Interstate didn't fail. They had an old factory in Wilkes Barre and it was destroyed by the floods. Rather than rebuild this ancient structure, Interstate decided to pull up stakes in the region and as a result, they no longer needed our egg product. And without Interstate, we had no reasonable chance to make a profit.

Good bye Blue Anchor. Goodbye Philadelphia. For me, hello unemployment. No company, if smart, should ever depend too much on one large customer.



One other lesson I learned there. Never eat dog food. Eggs rated not fit for human consumption went into big barrels and was sold to pet food manufacturers.

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