It was early morning and I was already in sweat, having just had one of my most unpleasant telephone conversations ever - about flooring that is not my company’s! The caller would not have it and preferred to shout and rant instead of accepting the truth. Trying to relax, I switched on some soothing music - Chopin is one of my favourites - and tried to relax. And as always, I started to philosophise.
One of the fallacies of being a company representative was that outsiders sometimes thought it was a cushy job, driving around all day, wearing a business suit, talking with architects, flooring contractors, Government departments and hospital engineers, sipping coffee and looking stupid! They never seemed to perspire was the general opinion, always had a clipboard in their hand and business came easily to them! These were also my observations when I worked as a retail salesman in carpet shops. I had lived an harassed existence then, with customers coming to me, several at once, with their flooring needs and the boss was breathing down my neck all the time. Oh, to be a company representative! I had always thought at the sight of one of those privileged creatures entering the retail shop to talk to the store manager. What a shock it had been for me later to experience the reality of being one myself. For example, the worst task for me was to visit, for the first time, a Geriatric Nursing Home or a mental institution. I am not ashamed to admit that I had not been able to sleep properly for a few days after each such visit. It is amazing how complacent one can become after a while and now I could wander about in such institutions as if I were employed there, or one of the inmates as my so-called friends would tease me.
Strange things have happened to me, like the incident of my visit to ‘Peaceworthy’ a large mental institution in Woodburn, a bustling town with several different types of health institutions. There were always large building projects going on in Woodburn and I had established a good rapport with the local architects, hospital engineers and project managers. The institution, ‘Peaceworthy’, was a large, sprawling complex of single-storey houses and one tall office block for the administration. The institution was almost like a suburb, nestling in hilly surroundings and looking to me ‘peaceful’ indeed – until one day I encountered something really strange.
Let me first explain the situation and the goings-on there and then the part where I came in. Heading towards the office building, I had walked past inmates (sorry) patients and tradesmen as there were constructions going on all over the place. Some patients seemed to dress according to their fantasy. One person looked like a boxer, with protective headgear and boxing gloves, with shorts to match. His headgear had one ear protection flap pulled up, like a Russian fur cap, and on the other side had the ear padding pulled down, flapping against his cheeks as he walked - as if he’d just lost a fight, I thought. Another one was screaming at visitors about what he was going to do to them: terrible things, he threatened, but never explained the details and never did anything else. However, it was still unnerving to walk towards the main office with him following close and screaming!
One fellow played a foreman or supervisor of workers and he really looked the part with his dust coat, pencils and ballpoint pen in his breast pocket, necktie and white shirt, a clipboard in his hand and an incredibly authentic supervisor attitude. Also, his thick glasses and almost hypnotic stare helped to reinforce ‘authority’. He would go to a plumber who was crouching on the floor, fixing a ducted heating radiator, and say ‘I want a good job, you understand?’ And the tradesman, playing along, nodded submissively. ‘Yes, Sir!’ Then he rushed to a group of bricklayers who were extending a building ‘I want this over there!’ He pointed to another building opposite their workplace. ‘Sure, of course. No worries.’ Good natured, they knew the game too! Obviously, people who worked there daily knew what was going on and they all humoured him. But what about first-time visitors? I thought. Who would tell them of this place’s peculiarities?
I had called on so many similar institutions that I knew what to expect upon entering the premises, but outsiders? Walking past patients shuffling about, busy tradesmen, and the ‘supervisor’ supervising, I entered the administration block. Once inside, I found myself in a large room with lots of desks and a counter, which was obviously a reception. There was a hum in this place indicating a big workload and intense concentration. A woman looked up from her desk as I bent over the counter for attention. ‘Yes?’ she asked. ‘Where can I find the maintenance engineer?’ Instead of answering, she shot sideway glances at her co-workers and they, too, looked at each other in a furtive way. But nobody said anything. ‘Where is the maintenance engineer?’ I repeated. It became very quiet in the room. Everybody stopped working but kept looking at each other. ‘I need to see the maintenance engineer,’ I said waving my clipboard agitatedly, as I ran out of patience. No reply from anybody. They just sat there and gave each other knowing glances. It was really spooky, giving me the creeps. Pulling myself together, I found in my breast pocket my business card. ‘I am from this flooring company and have an appointment with the maintenance engineer. He is already waiting for me in his office - somewhere!’ I emphasised. The lady at the desk closest to the reception counter reached out, took my card and read it carefully. She looked at her colleagues and nodded. This was the signal for everybody else to nod and resume their activity. ‘He is in the next building, second door to your right,’ she directed, quite friendly, but slightly exasperated. ‘Thanks for helping me.’ Giving her a quizzical look I walked out of the building and found the office of Mr Bob Thwaite, the maintenance engineer. As predicted he was already waiting for me and welcomed me with a cup of coffee.
Having concluded my business with Bob, I left the complex in a hurry. On my way out, the ‘supervisor’ with the clipboard and pen, nodded at me in a collegial gesture. Obviously, since I too had a clipboard, he perceived a kinship!
Bill Setton was the main flooring contractor in the town, with a large warehouse and a number of floor layers employed. He was the only flooring contractor in the town, who, in my opinion, could handle major building projects, ensuring a very high standard. ‘Hello, Peter, you are back in town!’ he greeted me cheerfully. ‘Yes, Bill. And on my way here, I stopped at ‘Peaceworthy’ to meet with their maintenance engineer. As you know, they have a lot of new building projects and alterations going on. However, I had a strange experience there,’ I shuddered.
‘What was that? I mean the whole place is strange, but once you know everybody from the administration, you’ll find they are decent people.’ ‘Well, I don’t know, Bill. I went to administration to inquire where the maintenance engineer was and the lady at reception did not want to talk to me. In fact, nobody did. They all looked at each other but nobody answered. I had to give them my business card before they helped me. Why? What’s the matter, Bill . . . what’s so funny . . . hey Bill . . . tell me!’ Bill had broken into loud laughter, leaning back in his chair and would not stop. His mouth was wide open and I fancied I could see his tonsils and beyond. In such a situation, you had to let him be. After a long while, his merriment abated and, wiping his tears, he offered me a seat. ‘Do you know what happened there yesterday? You won’t believe this. It’s a beauty.’ I sat down in a comfortable chair and while his pretty assistant made us cups of coffee, Bill enlightened me as to the previous day’s happenings at ‘Peaceworthy.’
‘You probably noticed how some people there walk around in funny clothes, acting out their fantasies? Did you notice somebody dressed like a foreman - with a white shirt, tie and clipboard? Yes? Well, you’ll never guess what he did yesterday.’ A few more tears of laughter were wiped away before he continued.
‘A large truck with sand arrived and this “foreman” directed it to reverse into a corner of the place, away from the building site. “Back, back” he shouted, waving his arms and his clipboard. “Are you sure?” the truck driver shouted out the window. ‘”Yes, I want the sand over there!” ‘Anyway, the truck driver, reversing as directed, knocked over a fire hydrant and there was water spouting seven metres up into the air. The sand was dumped at the wrong spot and promptly washed away by all that water.’ ‘That’s an incredible story. Didn’t anybody . . .’ ‘Wait, that’s not the end, let me tell you! That same afternoon a gigantic semi-trailer arrived from Melbourne, which is a five hour trip as you know, and our “foreman” confronted the truck driver as soon as he climbed down from his cabin. ‘”What do you want?” he shouted with booming authority. ‘”I’ve come to deliver the stainless steel kitchen sinks for the new kitchen,” the burly driver grunted aggressively. He was tall and towering over that skinny runt of a “foreman”. But the latter was un-perturbed. ‘”What again?” he yelled. “I got them yesterday - everything!” ‘The truck driver jutted his chin out and, flexing his muscles, he snarled: ‘Look mate, I’m only delivering that stuff!’ ‘”Why would I want it a second time? Why? I am asking you!” ‘This was too much for the truck driver. Mumbling “nobody tells me anything,” he climbed back into his semi-trailer and drove off, back to Melbourne on another five hour drive.’
‘That’s incredible, Bill. It is . . .’ ‘Wait, let me finish the story, will you? So, this morning, there were furious phone calls going back and forth: “Where are our kitchen sinks?” ‘”Stuff you,” was the answer, we tried to deliver them yesterday but you didn’t want ‘em.” ‘”Says who?” ‘”Your foreman on the building site! He would not accept them!” ‘”What foreman?” they shouted back. And so on. I heard them scream on the telephone because I was there on business.’
Bill took a long sip from his coffee. I did not dare interrupt him this time, but rather waited. And Bill continued: ‘There was a hell of a commotion about the fire hydrant, the sand delivery and the stainless steel kitchen sinks and it was decided that nobody - and this meant nobody – is to be believed. Everybody had to identify himself first at the office and establish his bona fide.’ He looked at me, this time waiting for my reply.
‘Oh, and that’s when I came in, I guess! What with my shirt, tie and clipboard; they were not going to fall for another trick.’ ‘And your phoney accent,’ Bill roared again, ‘they were not going to fall for it - nobody talks like that!’ So we had several more good laughs and I left with a feeling of having been well entertained, except for one nagging question which kept going round in my head: ‘What,’ I thought, ‘would have happened if I had run out of business cards and had been unable to prove who I was?’
Johnson & Bailey was a real
old-fashioned department store right in the heart of Melbourne. It had many
floors with great merchandise and extra friendly sales personnel, who gave good
service in a courteous and relaxed way which suited their many loyal customers.
The sales ladies wore white crocheted gloves and the salesmen, in their dark
suits and conservative ties, exuded dignity and utter integrity. The store was
laid out with parquetry flooring which was well-maintained and soft
passageway-runners with Axminster patterns led to the various counters. In the
lifts and the display areas was linoleum flooring with antique, old-fashioned
colours and streaks.
Sir Robert Menzies may have approved of
this retail institution, I thought when calling for the first time. I liked to
visit there because it was always like calling on friends. Their carpet
department used to order from me mainly rugs and carpet squares. It didn’t
matter to me that their floor covering department was on the fifth floor and
that I had to physically drag enormous big rugs into the lift and to the top
floor. One reason for this was - yes, I must state it again - the sales staff,
especially their department manager, Mr David Sussmann. His staff were two
young lads, but there was no trendiness in their dress code nor in their
manners. Joe and Alfred were very quiet and unobtrusive in their ways of going
about their business.
In other stores, I always encountered a
bit of eagerness for sales figures and perhaps some aggression. However, at
Johnson & Bailey, pleasing the customer was considered of paramount
importance and their sales technique was very ‘soft sell’ as far as I could
observe. They had their own clientele who came back to them time and again. Most
were rather middle class, solid citizens who commanded respect and, in turn,
respected the sales staff.
The department manager, Mr Sussmann, with
his grey, wavy hair and pin-striped suit and waistcoat, was always extremely
correct to his staff, never giving an instruction without explaining why it was
necessary. He had impeccable manners and an elegant command of the English
language, mixed with a very strong German accent which I pinpointed as from
Berlin. I always treated him with the greatest respect because not only was he
a fatherly figure, he went out of his way to be ‘correct’. This applied to his
customers, his staff and also to the sales representatives who called on him.
He had noticed that I exchanged his
slow-selling rugs with ones that were more popular in patterns and sizes,
without being asked to do so. As a result, he was never ‘sitting’ on any slow
stock. Huffing and puffing, I dragged rugs upstairs and when ordering his
merchandise from me, I occasionally advised him of a better selection. When he discovered
that my advice was always correct, he often asked me outright which rugs he
should select. For example, I advised against selecting oval rugs, as round
rugs were outselling them by far! Sometimes he would insist on ordering against
my advice because he knew I would exchange them if his chosen merchandise did
not sell. With this arrangement, he could not possibly make mistakes in buying!
And he was turning over his departmental buying budget many times more than his
As mentioned before, Mr Sussmann always
spoke in a precise way, never raising his voice. That fact, plus his extreme
correctness made everybody in his team love and respect him. I also noticed
that his staff took more interest - and responsibility - in their work. He was
a superior who would not hesitate to stand up for the ones who worked with him!
This kind of loyalty also applied to suppliers who were reliable and did the
right thing by him! Let me illustrate Mr Sussmann’s correctness with an
example. Sometimes, he would phone me in my car: ‘Good morning, Peter, how are
‘Very well, Mr Sussmann. It’s nice to hear
‘Peter, the reason why I am calling is
this: I understand you want to visit me this week with your latest, imported,
rugs. Is this correct?’
‘Yes, it is, Mr Sussmann. We’ve got a
whole range of new rugs I wanted to show you.’
‘Excellent! However, I have already spent
my entire buying budget for this month, therefore I cannot buy anything at the
moment. But next week is a new month so I will have a new budget and will need
to buy merchandise. I shall give you a ring when I am ready to buy and then you
can come and show me what you have. I thought that would save you coming in for
Now, anybody who has worked in this trade
will know that this was an extraordinary relationship I enjoyed! Whenever I
went holidaying overseas, I always brought him something from Germany: a pocket
calendar or some other souvenir as sold to visitors there. He always thanked me
very formally, perhaps too formally, I thought at times. Then he would quickly
glance at it and put it in his pocket and change the subject. He obviously
valued the thought behind my gesture more than the actual souvenir! He never
told me anything about his background and despite our excellent relationship,
we kept it on a strictly formal and correct basis. But I always wondered about
One day something cataclysmic happened in
his department! Apparently, there was a competitor of mine from Bach & Co,
who was, at that time, the largest rug supplier in the trade. They had a much
larger range of rugs than I could offer because rugs were their sole business.
They really specialised in them and, yet, Bach & Co were not getting any
business from Johnson & Bailey. Several of their representatives had tried
in succession to call on Mr Sussmann and had offered their wares, but had never
been able to obtain an order. And they knew that I was getting the business
almost exclusively, despite the fact that my company handled rugs only as a
sideline to PVC floorings.
Since Mr Sussmann was a very correct
person, who would not even think of discriminating against a supplier, it must
have been the good service I gave. My competitors could not or would not
compete with me in this. That may have been the reason why Mr Sussmann
preferred to team up with me. Only after this terrible incident I am about to
relay, did I obtain all the background and facts and was able to piece together
the whole picture. But I shall list the events that led up to this in chronological
Bach & Co, the big rug supplier,
plotted an assault on Johnson & Bailey. It must be possible, they may have
reasoned, to dislodge me from my position as preferred supplier. They
advertised and employed a new sales representative, somebody with used-car
business as his background, and with corresponding sales skill and drive - one
who knew all the sales techniques, how to probe for sales, understood ‘buying
signals’ and was not afraid to ask for an order. (‘Closing the sale’, we call
I never met this man but heard that Nigel,
for that was his name, had called once and had introduced himself to Mr
Sussmann, who received him with his usual courtesy and utter correctness. Mr
Sussmann had a short conversation with him in his quiet voice and precise
grammar and a day of product presentation was arranged. This salesman took
notice of Mr Sussmann’s German accent and plotted to ‘win him over’. Knowing
little of Europe, Germany or particularly Berlin, he must have read some
encyclopaedia or had asked his mates. Anyway, he had absorbed everything on the
subject and, equipped with this knowledge, he tried to ‘buddy up’ as Americans
would call it.
Nigel leaned back in his chair, folded his
hands, observed his fingertips meet, and started his conversation:
‘Some of these rugs come from Germany!’
There was no reaction from Mr Sussmann, who kept leafing through the catalogue.
‘They are, of course, of top quality’, Nigel continued. No reaction. ‘Like
everything else they do, the Germans are good! No doubt about it.’
Still no reaction. Mr Sussmann was
engrossed in the catalogue, and as an expert, he was interested not only in the
size and price, but also in the composition of the fibre, the density of the
pile, weight of the cloth, colour fastness etc. That’s why he kept perusing all
the technical data as well. This made Nigel lose his patience and he went on
with his carefully prepared talk:
‘I mean, it took them six years to win the
war! They were holding the world at bay for that long!’
‘I beg your pardon, what was that?’ Mr
Sussmann looked up briefly but immediately returned his gaze to the photo pages
Having mastered the opening, Nigel was
unstoppable: ‘That’s right. And Hitler had many good points, you know, I mean
there is a lot of propaganda against him . . . ’
‘Oh yes?’ Mr Sussmann interrupted,
probably for the first time in his life.
‘Of course, look at the autobahn in
Germany, what a great idea, and the Volkswagen and . . . and really, all he
wanted was the German territories back that had been given to Poland after the
‘You don’t say!’ This was Mr Sussmann’s
second attempt to interrupt.
But Nigel pressed on: ‘And his Minister
for Armament, Albert Speer, was a genius! Why, they had the highest production
figures in 1944. I mean, despite all the bombings . . . ’ Nigel was proud of
himself, remembering all the names and their correct pronunciation. But then
the storm broke loose; the unbelievable happened.
‘Will you stop and talk about something
you know?’ Mr Sussmann shouted at the top of his voice! It boomed across the
fifth floor and even reverberated in the stairs leading below. People had never
experienced anything like that and certainly had not expected this from the
reserved and correct Mr Sussmann!
The representative of Bach & Co.
somehow disappeared. Nobody noticed him slinking away. Perhaps he had sunk into
the floor or had crept down the stairs in snake-like fashion.
These were the facts as I had gathered immediately
after the event. And then I came into the picture. I happened to call on the
Rug Department as a routine visit, to say hello to my friends there, hoping for
a cup of coffee. Arriving at the fifth floor, I noticed a strange atmosphere.
Staff were walking around pale and clearly shocked. Obviously something was
‘Hello everybody? How are things today?’ I
received no answer - just a grave nod.
‘What happened, Alfred, what’s wrong?
There is a terrible atmosphere on this floor.’
Alfred gazed at me absentmindedly and
resumed staring in the direction of Mr Sussmann’s office.
‘What happened?’ I pressed on. ‘I can cut
the air with a knife.’
Alfred was in no mood for conversation. He
used the minimum of words to put me in the picture.
‘Mr Sussmann shouted!’ he hardly got the
‘What? Never!’ I refused to believe it.
That’s when Mr Sussmann’s secretary came
out of the office and called the staff of the floor to a short meeting.
Everybody was glad to be able to do something instead of standing around in
‘Alright, you go into the office, and I’ll
mind the floor for you. There is no need to miss any sales because of a
meeting. After all, I am a salesman too, you know.’ I attempted to jest.
As everybody started to file into the
office, Mr Sussmann came out. ‘And you too, Peter!’ He waved me into the
office. Normally, I would have been honoured to be included in my customers’
sales team, but this time I was not so sure. Mr Sussmann addressed his team in
his exact manner: ‘You may have been wondering what happened just now and I’d
like to fill you in so that you may understand my reaction’. And then he told
us his story.
He was part Jewish, living in Berlin
during the war, and had spent time in jail, a victim of anti-Semitism, although
only for a brief period because it was discovered that he was a carpenter by
trade. So he had to work for the infamous Gestapo, boarding up bombed-out
windows, reinforcing ceilings, partitioning rooms etc. Since he was a very good
tradesman, he was kept working as slave labour right to the end of the war. But
in any case, he would have never gone to a Konzentration Camp because he knew
how to escape in the event of an immediate threat of deportation. Being a child
of Berlin, he knew all the back streets and underground hiding places and also
the deep forests around the city, every lane and hidden path, ditch and cave.
‘They could have never taken me anywhere’,
he assured us. ‘I knew the area too well!’ The irony was that the more bombs were
falling, the busier he was. The prisoner rations he got kept him barely alive.
The man responsible for the provision of slave labour had been the very same
man Nigel had praised so much, earlier that morning.
Towards the end of the war, in April 1945,
he noticed that prisoners were about to be transported somewhere else; the time
had come to abscond! Hiding in the darkest cellars and attics, he lived in
constant fear of being discovered. When he ventured out into the streets in
search for food, he met people he knew and who knew him. However, they all
pretended not to recognise him and walked right past. He had to sustain himself
by eating incredibly filthy scraps of food and even those he found only
When the Russian soldiers closed their
ring around Berlin Mr Sussmann broke out of his hideaway sneaked through the
front and headed towards the Russian line, making his way through all the
hidden paths in the forest he knew so well. He was in extreme danger because
unexploded bombs and mines were everywhere and Nazi military police were
combing the area. He hardly dared to breathe and he prayed to meet Russians
soon, because then his nightmare would be over, he thought.
There was a wide river he had to cross but
to his horror, he found that the bridge was being defended by a unit of
Hitler’s Youth. They were actually children but very fanatical. Isolated and in
a hopeless position, they were determined to defend no matter what. Alert and
armed to their teeth, they would have shot him without a qualm. So he hid in
the forest, near the bridge as the Russians were sure to arrive at any moment.
But they did not come for some reason and he had to hide in the forest for two
weeks during April, after a severe winter and living on virtually nothing!
Finally, a Russian army unit came and took the bridge. His freedom had come at
last! Coming out of the forest, barely alive, he surrendered to the Red Army,
but they wanted to shoot him immediately as they suspected him of being a
German soldier in disguise.
As Mr Sussmann explained this to us, my
hair was standing on end. Other people also had an understanding by then of
what he was saying and why the incident had happened that morning.
‘And that’s why I wanted you to know all
this to understand my reaction to this young fool who did not know what he was
talking about!’ Mr Sussmann concluded his meeting with his usual soft voice.
As everybody filed out of his office, he
turned to me: ‘Thank you, Peter, for attending this meeting as well.’ Walking
with me to the stairs, as polite as usual, he shook my hand and bid me
‘Goodbye’. I was then able to grasp his reaction to the little presents I had
brought him from my trips to Europe!
And the unfortunate salesman? I was told
that he left his employment three weeks later and I have not encountered him
since in any other shop. He certainly did not seek a career in the flooring
Johnson & Bailey do not exist any
more. Mr Sussmann has probably retired and his staff have ‘gone with the wind’.
It was after I had returned from a week’s country trip that I was told that
Johnson & Bailey Department Stores had closed down. I went to say goodbye to
Mr Sussmann and to thank him for the good working relationship we had, but
everybody was already gone and I stood before a boarded-up entrance. Suddenly I
felt very sad, as if I had lost something. And in a way I had!
Upon arriving in the town of Barerra near the border of
NSW and Victoria, I glanced, again, at my list of appointments. My itinerary was
to call on all the architects in this town, the government departments, the
flooring contractors, inspect two large flooring installations and maintain
contacts with the end-users of our PVC floor coverings.
The first visit in Barrera was at a flooring shop run by
Frank Cleary. It was at the edge of the town and Frank was an old friend of
mine. I had supported him for a long time because he always made me feel
welcome. There was a friendly smile, a cup of coffee and intense
listening to any new knowledge I had to pass on and he happily accepted
new catalogues and samples. It was amazing how few flooring retailers treated
visiting company representatives as part of their team!
‘It’s just a rep!’ they would mutter when they saw
somebody in a business suit and holding a folder enter their establishment and they would continue with
whatever they were doing. Obviously they considered people like me an
interruption to their work!
However, Frank Cleary was different. He would sit down
with me and we discuss his business and I would point out where I could
help him with a special discount when his competition was too tough or I might
offer to recommend him to a builder to help him win a contract that way.
On this visit, however, he informed me that things had
been very quiet. ‘There is a large building project in town, Peter, and despite
our keenest tender, somebody from out of town is quoting cheaper, with a different
brand of flooring - I don’t know how they do it!’
Since business was quiet due to a downturn in the
economy, I realised how much he needed to win this contract. And he certainly
needed my help. Plus, of course, I wanted to see my own brand of flooring
I thought about this and hit on an idea: ‘I tell you what
we could do’ I exclaimed. ‘My company could donate 10 sqm of a Safety Flooring
as a test installation. We always do this when a client needs convincing. This
offer is only available to you! Your competitor from out of town will not be
able to offer the same. Would this help you?’ I asked.
‘My word it would’ he sighed with relief and his
tiredness seemed to disappear. He clearly saw the proverbial light at the end
of the tunnel.
‘Also, mention that, if you win the contract, you would
train the maintenance staff in the proper cleaning procedures, thereby ensuring
that the ongoing maintenance costs are kept to a minimum.’
‘Hang on - who would do the training?’ he sounded alarmed
as he did not wish to promise more than he could keep. He was truly a decent businessman.
I touched him soothingly on the shoulder: ‘I would come
from Melbourne, upon your completion of the installation, and conduct a
training seminar for the cleaners. As you know, I always have floor cleaning
equipment, like a buffing machine, in my car. For now, Frank, follow up your
original tender for the project with a “Letter of Amendment” and list the
extras we just discussed. I shall speak later on today to the manager of the
project and recommend you.’
‘This may help’ Frank said quietly.
I had known Frank for almost 30 years and was aware that
he would have liked to have sold his business and retire as he was getting on
in years. But he had no son or other family members to hand over his business
to. He was a bit tired but had to keep going, competing with big and
well-established businesses from as far as Sydney. In my opinion, he belonged
to a disappearing breed of flooring contractors: hard working, doing their own
installations, giving good customer service, and yet being squeezed hard by big
and rough-working competitors.
My next call in Barerra was to the large private hospital
where Carl Boswell was the maintenance engineer. Right from our first meeting,
about two years earlier, we had gotten on extremely well. So much so that at
Christmas time I always brought him a bottle of wine or company give-aways,
small attention-getting trinkets, like an attractive-looking ball point pen or
a set of golf balls. In return, Carl would present me with a Christmas pudding
that he’d cooked himself, as he was also a qualified chef and in charge of the
The hospital, Star of the Sea, was run by nuns and always
had a peaceful atmosphere. So, with pleasant expectations, I entered the hospital and asked at the
reception for Carl Boswell.
‘He will be with you in a moment’, announced a serene
lady at the reception. She had a very friendly face, with a happy smile that
seemed to radiate cheerfulness. This was in marked contrast to some other
health institutions, where the receptionists were overburdened and their smiles
strained. Still, they all were doing a good job and doing it with dedication. I
thanked her and relaxed.
A sister came by, clearly in a hurry, but stopped
suddenly and asked me: ‘Are you the representative of the manufacturer we got
the new vinyl flooring from?’
Realising that she was in a hurry, I answered ‘Yes. I am
Peter Frederick and call here regularly to make sure everything is alright
flooring-wise.’ I tried to hand her my business card.
‘Well, we are not happy with the floor - it stains
terribly in the operating theatres. They are full of iodine stains. Terrible.’
And then she rushed off and was gone.
This surprise attack had taken my breath away and I had
to gather my wits to say: ‘I am sorry to hear that you are not happy with our
vinyl flooring but frankly, iodine will stain any flooring. There is, however,
such a thing as iodine stain remover and I shall give your maintenance
engineer, Carl Boswell, the details!’
But I had not been able to voice this because, like I
said, she was long gone. Just by uttering an accusation whilst rushing past, she had
deflated me somewhat. I felt this was terrible: being wronged and unable to
defend myself! I must have shown a long face, because when Carl arrived he went
out of his way to welcome me and cheer me up.
‘Nice to see you again, Peter! How are things with you?
Are you having a good day?’
‘Well, just so-so, Carl, and how is your day?’
‘We are very busy at the moment,’ he explained as we
walked automatically to the hospital canteen. ‘As you know, I am also in charge
of the kitchen and do the cooking plus I’m in charge of the hospital cleaners.’
‘Then you probably get two pay packets, I guess.’ I had
found my cheerfulness again. This had made Carl laugh and when we arrived at the staff canteen, we went through a well practised routine - Carl
filled up the coffee mugs from an enormous container whilst I selected scones
for both of us.
‘There was this lady, Carl, who rushed past me and
criticised our flooring for accepting iodine stains and before I could reply
she was gone.’ Carl giggled and waved a resigned hand - he was used to
rough stuff. ‘Are you are aware that there are very good iodine stain
We had continued talking ‘business’ and I handed him an
information sheet on stain removers. ‘Here is one company you could try.’
Carl was a man of action. He excused himself for a moment
and went to the nearest phone. Coming back to his coffee and scone he smiled.
‘I have just phoned the company you recommended and they are sending me a
sample bottle to try out.’
‘Here is something for you, Carl,’ I said, reaching into
my carry case. ‘It's French wine, all the way from Burgundy - for you - with
best wishes from our company and me. Thank you for all your cooperation and
hospitality during the year.’ Carl, a keen connoisseur, perused the label with
‘Well, thanks, Peter! This is a real surprise! I shall
enjoy it with my family, if I get a spare minute with them!’ He giggled in
expectation at the thought of sipping it.
Suddenly he jumped up, rushed into the kitchen which was
adjacent to the staff canteen and returned with a great smile on his face. In
his hands he carried a Christmas pudding! ‘Here is something for you, Peter. I
cooked it myself.’
I knew from the previous years that his Christmas puddings
were always very tasty and I accepted his gift with humble gratitude. After
all, I knew of no other company representatives receiving a Christmas present
from a hospital! It’s always the other way round.
‘Thank you very much, Carl, but you didn’t have to do
this - I wasn’t expecting anything . . .’
Carl laughed and took the drained coffee cups to a
special tray for washing up. ‘You deserve it, Peter. Whenever I need help,
advice or whatever, I can always count on you. You’ve never let me down.’
We took the lift to the second floor, where new vinyl
floorings had just been installed. It looked great; smooth like a billiard
table because Carl took care to supervise the subfloor preparations as I had
advised. Only when the concrete was smooth ‘as per the Australian Standard’ and
therefore to his satisfaction, did he let the flooring installer proceed with
the next part of installation, the actual PVC.
Carl was a smart man! Normally, tradesmen were let loose
with a minimum of supervision - and an installation could go wrong in a big
way. This always amazed me as the installation of flooring is a major project
and the costs are massive. Therefore, I have always felt that tradesmen should
be supervised with the utmost attention. But in Carl’s hospital, everything,
whether flooring or cooking, was perfect. He made sure of that!
We looked into the operating theatres: The good doctors
had been very generous with the iodine. They were obviously splashing it about with wild abandon. They
must shower in it, I thought, judging by the enormous stains on the floor. Of
course, nobody can tell a doctor how much to use. In Europe, however, they use
another substance, chlorhexidine, which is colourless and leaves no marks.
‘I guess our doctors believe that sterility has to be
seen to be effective!’ Carl muttered.
After discussing with Carl the excellent installations, I
met with his cleaners who wanted to know some details regarding cleaning
methods. I left that friendly hospital in high spirits. I always did.