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 installed.
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 hospital’s kitchen!
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 removers available?’
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 deep appreciation.
‘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.