Follow by Email

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Chris Weeda - December 1989 - Fall 1991

It has been almost a month since I have had time to continue writing. I have been extremely busy with our business, trying to get to a point where it can sustain our life here in Saint John, New Brunswick.  I was in the local dollar store this weekend when it hit me that it was high time for me to write another story.

This one again will be about one of my mentors in the world of stamps - a man who went by the name of Chris Weeda. His real name was Kryn, but like a lot of immigrants who came to Canada in the 1950's (Chris had come from Holland in 1957), he Anglicized his name. He was an interesting looking man: tall, and slender, with a stern looking face that looked out at you from behind his half-rimmed spectacles. He usually wore a dark navy blue pinstriped 3-piece suit, which looked odd because he also had long grey hair which he kept in a ponytail. I have a hard time comparing him to other people that you might be familiar with. The closest likeness I can think of that he was similar to is this man:

Image result for william hartnell

For those of you who are not Doctor Who fans, this man was the English actor William Hartnell who played the very first Doctor. Chris looked a lot like him, but with blue eyes, long hair in a ponytail, and an ever-present cigarette in his hand, or in his mouth. 

Anyway, Chris was the owner of what was at the time, my favourite stamp shop - Weeda Stamps. I went to Weeda's several times to buy stamps for my collection, which at the time was mint Canadian singles. Back then I was an extremely fussy collector, and would often want to rummage among a dealer's stamp stock to find the exact stamps that I wanted. Chris did not take too kindly to my pickiness, and if he was in a bad mood, could cut my shopping trips short by snatching the stockbook out from under me and declaring that I had looked at enough stamps, and if I didn't want the first stamps I looked at, then he didn't want me going through them all and handling all his stamps. Eventually he softened his stance as he got to know me, and his wife at that time, Beverly was always nice to me. But there were several instances where he let me know that I was not exactly one of his better customers. 

Anyway, one of the things that Weeda's did, which no other stamp dealer in Vancouver was doing in 1989 was an unreserved weekly auction, which he called his "Bidboard". It was a wall of his shop, on which he would pin up 40 good items from around the world. Most was Canada, and most of it was consignment material from his customers. However, some real bargains could be had. The rules were simple - each item had a small card next to it where you entered your bidder number, and then your bid. There was no minimum bid. Every Saturday at 3pm, he would hold up a small alarm clock which would ring and he would announce "Every lot is now sold to the highest bidder without a reserve.". His board was legendary, and would attract crowds of 60 plus collectors, who would pack themselves into his small, smoke-filled shop to try their luck at whatever bargains they could get. By 1991, other dealers were copying Chris and hosting auctions of their own, but Chris was the first to do it. He also had a clever newsletter, which had a byline column on the last page, which was cleverly titled "Weeda's Digest". 

I had been a customer of Weeda's for several months, when one day, just before my fateful suicide attempt that I wrote about in "Of Unrequited Love and Attempted Suicide", I decided to try my had on a nice mint example of this stamp:

Image result for Canada #57

This is the 10c Jubilee Issue of 1897. It is one of 16 stamps from half a cent to five dollars that was issued to honour Queen Victoria's 60th year on the throne. A complete set is every Canadian collector's dream, and a pristine set will cost you $20,000 easily. This stamp at the time was about $100 retail. Being a complete neophyte to auctions, and really wanting the stamp, I bid $85 for it, figuring that getting $15 off was a good deal.

Well after my suicide attempt everything changed. I was going to have to go back to Hong Kong to recover and was going to have to save my money. All of the sudden I couldn't afford the stamp if I was successful. I phoned Weeda's to ask them if I had succeeded that week. I was told that I got the stamp for $75. I explained my situation to Beverly and told her that I didn't think I would be able to afford the stamp after all. She asked me to wait a second and put Chris on the phone. Chris wasted no time in tearing me a new one:

"We had a bad feeling about you when you placed that bid. You have put us in an awful position because this was a consignment, and now we are going to have to tell our consignor that we can't pay him after all. Do me a favour. Don't come back."

I was beside myself. What was I going to do if I couldn't visit my favourite stamp shop? I pleaded with Chris to just forget what I said and told him that I would come up with the money and would be down to pick up my stamp next week. I managed to convince my aunt Melanie to loan the money to me. I went down the following week to pick up the stamp and was well received by Chris and Bev. Chris had gotten over his anger from the previous week and was quite conciliatory. I asked them if they had any interest in me coming to work for them for free. They couldn't pass that offer up, and so began my employment with Weeda Stamps at the end of 1989. Chris did offer to pay me for my work, which made me very happy, and after I came back from Hong Kong, in February of 1990, I started my employment with Weeda's on a full time basis. The rest of this post are what I consider to be some of the funnier and serious stories about Chris and my time working with him.

1. Thank You For Smoking

Chris was a lifelong smoker, who loved his American cigarettes. I can't quite remember now what brand he smoked. I think it might have been Kent of Mild Seven. Anyways he loved 100's - the extra long cigarettes that took 5 minutes to smoke. On the counters of his store he had two large glass ashtrays, and a large coffee can under the counter that he dumped the butts into at the end of the day. At the time I was a smoker too, and Chris would buy on my behalf, cartons of Salems, which were menthol cigarettes. I too had a large ashtray on my desk with the freedom to light up anytime I wished while I worked. Of course, my consumption went way up along with copious amounts of coffee. No wonder I couldn't get a date back then - my breath must have stank something horrible. But I was completely oblivious of course.

He had this sign on top of the stock cabinets that read:


I thought this was especially clever, not to mention tongue-in-cheek, given that practically every store, restaurant, or public place had a sign that would thank people for not smoking. Most of his customers did not complain about the smoke. A few younger ones didn't care for it, but most of our customers were over 60 and were from a time when most people smoked, and in fact many of them did as well. So most did not complain.

One day this man with short, dark brown hair and glasses comes into the shop and takes a seat on one of the stools. He asks to see the book of Labuan and North Borneo. Labuan is a territory that is now part of Malaysia, but during the British Colonial times, it was its own territory that issued its own stamps. Collectors often collect it and North Borneo together because Labuan simply took North Borneo's stamps and overprinted them "Labuan" for use there. They are beautiful but expensive stamps that look like this:

Image result for labuan stamps     Image result for north borneo postage stamps

So for about 5 minutes, the man is glancing through the stockbooks, slowly turning the pages, while Chris was standing over him, lit cigarette in one hand, with a trail of smoke wafting up behind him. Every so often you could see the man gently wave his right hand to the side to wave the cigarette smoke away from his face. He didn't complain about the smoke, or ask Chris to put out the cigarette. He just gently waved the smoke away from his face.

Without any warning, Chris starts to speak to the man:

"Now there is something I should tell you. You and I are going to get along, much, much better if your don't do this." And with that, Chris swivels to his left and extends his arms out and begins bowing up and down. He does this for at least 30 seconds and then turns back to face the man. "Yeah don't do that."

The man looks mortified. He calmly closes the stockbook that he was looking at, and walks out without buying a thing. Gee, I wonder why.

2. The Penal System

Chris had other people who liked to work in the store as well as me. One fellow who came in on a regular basis, and eventually every day was a guy by the name of Geoff Jacobs. Geoff was a postal historian whose expertise was in stamps on cover. You could show Geoff a cover from practically any country, from any time period, and he would know what its value was. He was very meticulous and very critical of young people. He would always complain of how irresponsible he thought "kids today" are and would always tell anyone who would listen about the latest example of irresponsible or entitled behavior he encountered. So he was not someone afraid to speak his mind.

One of our customers, who was a regular fixture in the Vancouver stamp scene was a guy named Leslie Upton. Leslie looked a little like the guy on the left:

Image result for clockwork orange cast

A little like that guy, but a bit goofy and nerdy. Leslie collected British Commonwealth, and the word at the time was that he was dating a Japanese woman. He came into the store one Friday and sat at the counter closest to the door. He started to look at some stamps from Japan, and was quietly turning the pages with Chris standing in his usual spot.

Suddenly Geoff gets up from his desk and comes over to Chris with a serious look on his face. "Chris, did you know that in ancient times, Japanese warriors would cut off the dinks of their enemies and wear them in a belt around their waist?". He looked straight at Leslie as he said this. Without missing a beat, Chris lets out a guffaw and exclaims "Well that gives a whole new meaning to the penal system!"

Leslie looked decidedly uncomfortable, calmly closed the stockbook, and after a few minutes, got up and left, again empty-handed.

3. You Can Always Tell a Dutchman 

Chris was fiercely proud of his Dutch heritage and was pro-anyone who was Dutch. The premier of British Columbia at that time was a guy by the name of Bill Van Der Zalm, who was famous for his smile which just rubbed people the wrong way.

Image result for bill vander zalm

The "Zalm" as he was known on campus was a reviled figure because of his conservative policies. Tuition fees skyrocketed while he was premier, and it was during this time that many BC university students began to get into serious debt. Van Der Zalm was of Dutch extraction of course, which immediately meant that he was #1 in Chris's book.

One of the things that became apparent as I worked with Chris more and more was how convinced he was about his opinions being right. It was actually something that he shared in common with a guy like Van Der Zalm. You know how Donald Trump never apologizes, or admits that he might be wrong, but just doubles down every time he is challenged? Chris was a little like that. It didn't matter what the subject matter was, Chris always had a strong opinion. Needless to say, we disagreed about a lot of things.

One day a customer of ours, Dave Forester comes into the shop, back from a trip to Blaine, Washington, which was a little more than an hour from Vancouver. He says to Chris, "Hey Chris, I picked up a little something for you that just describes you to a "T"". He opened his attache case and pulled out a bumper sticker that read:

But You Can't Tell Him Much!

4. We'll Make You Rich Yet..

Chris had a very subtle way of insulting people he didn't like. He was old school. So to him, one of the worst insults you could level against a man was to suggest that he had no dignity, or to imply that he was cheap or small-time.

We had this one client, Jack Grange, who had owned a very successful stationery business, and was now a millionaire who lived in the British Properties in West Vancouver. Jack was a bit of a cheapskate who would come into the store, look at items on the bidboard and then place low stink bids on a few items. He never bought anything of course, and every time he would check to see if he was successful, Chris would make some remark about who low his bids were. Jack, in an effort to save face at the remarks, would toss his head back, laugh and say something to the effect that he "never thought for a minute that the item would sell for that". Occasionally, he would buy a stamp from stock, but would aggressively negotiate the price down. Chris would respond by saying "We'll make you rich yet Jack!", which to Chris was a huge insult, since Jack was rich and was haggling over a few dollars.

Another time, a guy comes into the store and walks over the the display of children's packets. Chris had a rotating display of various packages of different stamps, such as 500 different world, 100 different mint Canada, and so forth. Most of these packets sold for between $2 and $5, with the occasional one selling for $19. This fellow stands and looks them over for 20 minutes or so, before finally selecting one $3 packet. He walks over to the counter and asks Chris what is his best price on this packet. Chris looks straight at him and says "Here, this is a present. But do me a favour. Don't come back!" As the fellow, dumbfounded, thanks Chris and is walking out the store, Chris is shaking his head and looking at me. Finally, he says "Gosh! You can't insult some people no matter how hard you try!"

5. The Sins of the Fathers Will Befall the Sons

Chris was born in Holland in 1934, so he was there when the Germans invaded Holland during World War II, and lived through the occupation. He never spoke much about it though, preferring to talk instead about life after he came to Canada in 1957.

One day, these two tall German tourists come into the store looking for some stamps. Chris spoke to them and was unusually curt. Eventually, as it became clear that Chris couldn't help the two young men. they politely thanked him and left the store. "Bloody krauts! Chris said under his breath as the door shut behind them.

I looked up from my desk. At the counter was one of our elderly British customers looking through some Malta. I asked Chris why he had been so curt with them.

"Do you have any idea what the Germans did to my country?"

"Well yes Chris. I studied modern history quite extensively. I know what Germany did. But that was 50 years ago - way before these men were born."

"It doesn't matter! The sins of the fathers befall the sons!"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Just then, the old British customer piped up:

"Hear! Hear! I spent a year in a Japanese POW camp in Hong Kong. I will NEVER collect anything to do with Japan or Japanese Occupation!!"

The look of anger, disgust and hatred on this old man's face was undeniable. It was at this moment that I realized how enduring hatred can be.

Chris and I worked together for about 18 months, from February 1990, to the end of 1991. It was a happy time for the most part, and was instrumental in solidifying my love for the stamp business. Sadly, Chris and I had somewhat of a falling out, and we parted on bad terms, though eventually we started speaking again. He and his third wife Bev, split just after I left their employ, and Chris retired. Bev and I are still friends to this day, and she went on to run the business after Chris retired and has grown the bidboard into a 200 lot auction that is very successful, with her new partner Andrew. Chris eventually moved to the Philippines where he married wife #4 and had a child. He died though on Valentines day sometime in 2009 or 2010, I think. I can't remember the exact year, but I often think of him and wonder what he would think of my efforts to become a stamp dealer now.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Cheque - Happened December 2005

This is the first story I have written in nearly 2 months. The long hiatus was due to our move from Toronto to Saint John, New Brunswick, and the fact that it has taken me a long time to give myself permission to begin spending time on non-work related pursuits.

This is a story about determination in the face of fear. Have you ever been in a situation at your job where you were fairly sure you were going to be in a world of shit if you couldn't pull something off? That something seems nearly impossible, but you have just long enough to give it a shot, and your stomach is in such tight knots that you can't help but try, as it is all you can do to keep your mind off your impending doom. This story is about one of those very moments.

In November 2004, I had moved from Bathurst, New Brunswick to Toronto, after being unceremoniously fired by my employer, Gary Lyon over what amounted to a personality clash. In retrospect, I accept more of the blame for what happened than I was prepared to do at the time. Despite the horrible situation that this presented my family with, I did manage to land a good job, with a mid-sized accounting firm within 3 weeks of our arrival. This firm was called EvansMartin, and it doesn't exist anymore, having been acquired some years ago, by a growing national firm. However, it was a fantastic job, in which I grew tremendously, and nearly made it to partner, before I left in frustration in May of 2009.

However, my first year there was not all rosy. Although I had some early successes, I also found myself in some shitty situations that had the potential to cost the firm money, or a client. As many of you reading may know, once you have an established rapport with the partners, and once they have decided they like you, you can usually weather these situations. But when you are relatively new to a firm, not so much: you can very easily be blamed and find yourself either out on your ass, or pigeonholed into the "do not promote" category. You know this category. Every office I have ever worked in has the "non-promotable lifer". This is the man or woman, who occupies a somewhat senior role, is fiercely loyal to the organization, works five times harder than anyone else at the office, including the owners or, in this case partners, and never, ever, moves up. Their very existence is confounding, when you first see them - until you realize that at some point early in their career, they got pigeonholed for an unfortunate situation that they were just never able to live down.

Just before I reached my first anniversary I was given the responsibility for a new corporate client. This was a guy in his late 50's who had formed a pharmaceutical partnership with another guy 20 years earlier and had just sold his interest in the partnership for 25 million. He was the type of guy who had never had a lot of money, worked really hard and was now suddenly rich. His company was really a holding company to manage his investment portfolio. I was to be in charge of giving him tax advice and looking after all his filing obligations.

In this previous year, his company made a TON of money and was facing a significant tax bill. Naturally we were looking for ways to defer payment of the tax. A common way this is done is by bonusing out the company's income. Usually there is little to no overall tax advantage to doing this, but in 2005, with this particular client's situation, there was a slight overall tax advantage to be had in doing this. So we bonused out all $3,000,000 of the company's income to the only shareholder - the client. Now, whenever a company pays a bonus to an employee or  shareholder, it has to send the required tax and source deductions in to Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) no later than the 15th of the month after the payment was made. This bonus was paid at the end of November, so the payment for the $1,600,000 of source deductions was due by December 15. I had met with my client and the partner on the file, on December 8, which was a Thursday. I still remember the trepidation that I felt when I tucked the cheque for $1,600,000 into my Daytimer to be dealt with the following day.

At this point, I should mention that EvansMartin had three offices: one in Etobicoke, one in Brampton, and one in North York. I worked in all three offices, moving back and forth between them. This particular client was an Etobicoke client, and that was where I met with him on the 8th. However I had to be up in Brampton for a number of client meetings as well as to supervise on some files that the Brampton staff were working on in the afternoon of the 9th.

So I worked for the morning of the 9th in the Etobicoke office. Our receptionist, Janis was away for that week, and the only other person was a young intern, named Paul. So before I left, I gave Paul the envelope with the cheque and explained that this was an important tax payment that had to be received by CRA by December 15. He assured me that he would make sure that they got it. I left the office without giving it much thought and drove up to Brampton. Now, CRA levies a flat penalty equal to 10% of the payment amount any time a source deduction payment is late. What's more, they don't consider it to be made on time unless they actually receive and cash the cheque by the due date. Just getting in the mail by the date doesn't count. So just bear that in mind.

I spent the afternoon reviewing various audit files and other work that my team was doing, and was in my office at about 4pm when the partner on the file, Mr. Martin, who looks exactly like Bill Gates, walks in and asks me how everything is going:

Mr. Martin: "Chris, did you get that source deduction cheque off to CRA?

Me: Yes, I left it with Paul who said he would send it to CRA today.

Mr. Martin: "Umm, Chris, I do hope you had him send it by courier or registered."

Me: "Well, I didn't specifically tell him to do that. I told him that it had to be to CRA by the 15th."

Mr. Martin: "You must be kidding me Chris. This is $1,600,000! The penalty on this is going to be $160,000 if they don't get it by Wednesday. Today is Friday. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't be real sure that something sent regular mail on Friday would be processed by them on Wednesday. Unbelievable! Well if you want to gamble on this you can explain to the client if it doesn't get there on time I guess. I just don't know about your judgement sometimes."

You know that moment on Titanic, where first officer Murdoch first sees the iceberg and realizes that if he doesn't act fast, the ship is going to hit? Well that was a pretty good approximation of exactly how I felt at that moment. My ass was on the line - big time.

I looked up at John and all I said was "John, please do not worry. I will handle this.". I said it in the calmest voice I could muster, with my best game face on. There would be many more times like this in my professional career where my mettle would be tested like this. The only to pass this test is not to panic, to take charge, to reassure, and then to figure out what the hell to do, and just do it. John looked at me for a few seconds and said "Fine, I will leave it with you." and then he walked out the door.

I immediately call down to the Etobicoke office, where Paul confirms that he had indeed dropped it into the building's mail slot at the end of the hall. My first thought was "I have to get it back out of the mail stream!". My second thought was "OMG! How can I possibly do that? There must be millions of mail items going through the Toronto postal system each day. "Think!" was my next thought. So I thought for a few minutes and realized that the mail for that building would be collected between 4 and 6 and taken to a sorting facility. It was about 4:30 now. If I could just find out where the sorting facility was and I could speak to someone there, I might just be able to intercept it - that is, if I could speak to a government employee who was actually willing to bend the rules to help me out of my predicament.

So I start calling all of the postal outlets near the office. I ask each person if they know where the local sorting facility is, and if they have a telephone number for it. All of the outlets I call confirm that the local sorting office is just down the street from the office and they all give me a number all right, but it leads absolutely nowhere - a series of menus that end in a voicemail box, with no option to speak to a real human being. Then, after calling 10 outlets, I call the last one in the area, and an east Indian man answers. I ask him the same question, only this time he gives me a different number, saying that he knows one of the employees who works there. I call the number and a very co-operative man answers. He tells me that he is one of the sorters there and that this is his cell phone. I apologize and explain that I work for one of the mid-sized accounting firms. I tell him that we had accidentally mailed a $1.6 million cheque to CRA instead of couriering it and that the consequence for doing so could be $160,000 in penalties. I ask if there is any way to get it back from the mail stream.

Surprisingly, he listens and is very sympathetic.

Mail sorter: "I'd like to help you, but I don't know if we will be able to locate it. We have over 100 bags of mail sitting on the floor in the plant from today's collection. I'd be happy to try and find it if you can tell me what I am looking for.

Me: "Oh thank you! I will come down and help you.".

Mail sorter: "I'm afraid that isn't allowed.  We work until 8pm tonight, so if I can't find it before then, I'm afraid there won't be much else I can do. Do you know what the envelope looks like?

Me: "Yes, it is a white #10 envelope with our logo, EvansMartin in the top left corner. Our logo is just our name in bold Times New Roman black letters - nothing fancy.

Mail sorter: "Ok, I will start looking for it. What number can I reach you at?"

Me: 416-628-7716.

He then wishes me luck and hangs up. I look at my watch and see that it is 6:50 pm. I figure that there is nothing more I can do, except pack up. My mind is racing the entire time. I keep thinking that he probably won't find it before quitting time. I finish packing up, posting my time, get my coat and leave to go to my car. It's now 7:15 pm.

I get into my car, place my phone on the passenger seat, and then begin to make my way down Queen St. East in Brampton, toward the 410 south, that will take me to the 427 south, which is they way to the Etobicoke office, and finally home. Just about 2 minutes after I leave the onramp onto the 410, my phone rings. I answer it. It is the guy from the sort facility telling me that he has found the envelope, but I have to get there by 8pm to pick it up. I look at the clock on the dashboard - 7:25 pm. It's going to be close - rush hour is normally over by now, but it's Friday night. So I step on the gas and take my speed to 125 km to try and get there as fast as I can.

I manage to get to within 2 km of the exit that will take me to the West Mall, where the sort facility is and the traffic slows to a crawl. I look up at the dashboard in panic: 7:49. Fuck!! I can't believe this! I am so close and yet so far. So I wait for what feels like 10 minutes, when suddenly the traffic starts to move quickly again. I am able to accelerate and I very quickly reach the exit to West Mall. I look up at the dashboard, and see 7:55. Then I remember that Funke drove this car usually and purposely set the clock fast by 5 min. So it was really only 7:50. I was going to make it. I drove with purpose and care, pulling into the driveway at 7:55 pm. I called the number back on my phone and said I was there. A balding Japanese Canadian man came to the door and handed me the envelope with the cheque. I couldn't stop thanking him. All he said was that he was glad he could help, as he shut the door and wished me well.

The relief that came over me was beyond description. No moment in my professional career even comes close. I got in the car and drove back to the Etobicoke office just up the road. As I pulled in, I could see John Martin and another client talking in the conference room. I parked. got out of the car and went into the office. The conference room door was shut. I knocked and John answered.

John: "Yes Chris?"

Me: "I got it!"

John: "What? How? That's not possible."

Me: "Oh yeah?", as I waived the envelope.

John: "How did you?"

Me: "With great determination and a lot of luck",

John: "Here, give it to me. I will courier it to CRA tomorrow. I have some things to do anyway. Seems I underestimated you."

Yes! I thought, as I walked out of the office and back toward my car feeling triumphant and secure in my knowledge that my path to promotion wasn't blocked after all. I got in the car and drove home. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Mr. Willis - May 2009 to Present

So far, I have told stories about two of my mentors and both have been employers. However, the people who have had a profound influence on my life are not just limited to people I have worked for. Teachers, clients and other people have all, collectively had a significant impact on me. This story is about one of my clients who has, over the years, become one of my mentors. His name is John Willis, and he used to run one of the largest trucking companies in Southern Ontario. He is retired now, but when I met him, he was still very much in charge.

In May 2009, I left the accounting firm that I had worked for nearly 5 years since moving to Toronto, EvansMartin. It doesn’t even exist anymore, having been bought up by one of the expanding regional firms in this country. However, at the time I left, I was on the quest to make it to Partner: “the Brass Ring” as it were.  I joined a firm called Sloan Partners, who were looking for someone to come in and manage their team.  The prospects for upward mobility were excellent, and one of the first clients that I was given responsibility for was John’s group of companies.

The first time I met John was at the meeting to deliver the financial statements. I was with my partner, who at the time was one of my bosses, and we were waiting in the company’s meeting room, discussing what we were going to review and who was going to talk about what, when the door opens and in comes John. He was deeply tanned, with dark brown hair that was brushed neatly back into a perfect coif. He wore one of those patterned, 1960’s knitted polyester shirts – the kind with the buttons down the front, and the short sleeves.  It was a very distinct look, one I had not actually ever seen in living memory, and had only seen in old TV shows and movies. He shook my hand and said “where did you go to school?”. Then, before I could answer, he looked at my partner Jerry and I and said “I just need to establish that Mr. McFetridge has the right credentials to be discussing such complicated financial matters”. He then winked and flashed a smile that let Jerry and I know that he was just kidding.  The meeting went well, and I didn’t think much of it, but not long after that, I had to deal with a difficult accounting issue and had to call him with some rather bad news. I was terrified, as he was an important client, and I was so new in my role.  After much thought, I decided that being completely honest and upfront with him about what the problem was and how it came about was the best policy. He took it very well, but asked some tough questions, which I answered without wavering.

A day or two later, the managing partner Allen, called me into his office. I was pleasantly surprised when he told me that John had called him and told him that he wanted me assigned to all his accounts, as he admired my honesty. My relief was palpable, and I remember mentioning it to a headhunter friend of mine that I meet for drinks every few months or so.

John and I had a very good working relationship over the ensuing years and although I didn’t see him often, he would always take a personal interest in how things were going for me when I did. For the next three years, I managed the financial reviews of his corporate trucking group and his personal income tax affairs. But then in my fourth year of managing the financial review, I got into a major argument with his CFO. For some reason, she decided that she did not like my approach to the work and took me to task on it when we had the year end review meeting. I mean, I got my ass handed to me in front of John and his main operations guy, Walt.

The next year, I was anxious to avoid a repeat of what had happened a year before. So, I contacted his CFO well in advance and told her that I wanted to do the work more efficiently this year and could I please send her many of our review questions in advance so we would be as well prepared as possible when the time came to commence the review. She agreed, but then when I sent her the questions, she only answered half of them. I should digress briefly and explain that this a common problem when you perform year end reviews or audits as an accountant. The main problem is that the client has usually known you for years and expects you to bring your intimate knowledge of their business and its history to bear on your approach to audits and reviews. What they often do not appreciate, or adequately understand is that your requirement to remain objective and skeptical means that you must purposely disregard your past knowledge and ask the same questions every year. It’s like the insurance salesman that asks you “so you held a policy with us last year?” when they clearly know you did. Clients can become quite annoyed by this and many of them respond by simply ignoring the questions they feel you already know the answers to. This effectively becomes a cat and mouse game that often ends with a higher than necessary bill, though most often, as the accountants we are forced to “eat” the extra time we have incurred on a job because of having to approach the client multiple times for answers to the questions we should only have to ask once.

So, this year, things went even worse than they did the year before, with the CFO telling me that we were fired in the middle of the job. I went to her office to try and talk her down, but the whole thing degenerated into a shouting match. John heard the whole thing from his office, which was next door. He called me into speak with him. He explained that although he liked me very much, he trusted his CFO, and was not going to intervene. He urged me not to take what was happening personally, and suggested that with time, I might see things from his CFO’s perspective. In my mind, I was so completely 100% right, and she was 100% wrong that I pounded his desk with my fist and said something to the effect that I would never see it her way. I was that comfortable with John that I did that, as I would never have expressed myself that way otherwise.  But 30 seconds later, I regretted it and was waiting for John to tell me to leave. He didn’t. He just calmly said that he was sorry that I felt that way, and hoped I would reconsider and said he had to go outside for a cigarette and invited me to join him.

As we stood outside he asked me how things were at home and what my plans were for the summer. I talked about the renovations on the house I owned with Kay. It was a nice conversation amidst a very unpleasant situation.  At the end of it, we shook hands and he told me that he was going to continue to have me work on his personal work. This had a huge impact on me. The situation must have been awful for him as he liked us both. But his integrity and sense of loyalty to his CFO was such that he could not override her decision to replace us. He managed to maintain his frame and sense of integrity, while doing as much as he could to soften the blow on me. This was the first time I had seen anyone handle a situation like this.

We continued to enjoy a very warm and cordial working relationship for the next three years. John was the first to console me when was going through my divorce with Kay, and he was genuinely excited for me when I told him that I would be leaving to start my stamp business. He completely surprised me by offering to lend me money if I needed additional capital. So now, along with Mr. Willoughby, and my former Partner, Allen, he is one of my major investors.

We have since developed a closer relationship, with me meeting his wife Linda and both of them meeting Steph and coming for dinner. I sometimes can’t help but think it would have been nicer to have developed this relationship earlier, now that we are having to leave for New Brunswick. However, I try to simply appreciate the fact that we have this relationship with them now, and hope very much to maintain it, even though we are far away. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mr. Willoughby Part 3 - 2002 to Date

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Don Willoughby. I’m from the west coast, so hopefully you can understand me.” said Don with a wink as he looked out into room of faces. “I came to know Chris when he came to work for me as a junior accountant in 1994. I don’t understand why everyone is giving him a hard time about getting old, but one thing about getting old is that you dwell less and less on it as time goes on. He was a strange fellow back then. Worked very hard and even though he was in his 20’s, he came across as a man in his late 30’s. He had a hard time relating to people at the office. But because of this we became friends and have remained so since. It gives me pleasure to wish both him and his lovely bride many years of happiness together.”

It was October 1, 2016 – over 22 years after he and I first met. Here he was, with his wife Bernice at my third wedding, wishing us well. Although he and Bernice had met and gotten to know all three of my wives, my wedding to Steph was the only one that they attended. As I sat there during his brief speech I was awaiting some embarrassing tale about my time working for him. However, it never came. He later said to me that “what happened in Vancouver should stay in Vancouver.”. I was really touched that he and Bernice came, because for the 10 months leading up to the wedding, I was fairly certain that they would not be able to. It turned out that Don’s nephew had a wedding in Austin Texas that week and in order to make it to ours, they would have to have taken an extra trip up here. But they did make the extra trip and it is a testament to a friendship brought back from the brink of destruction. As I sat at the dinner table listening, my mind wandered off and began to remember how this all came about.

Back in 2007, after my infidelity to Kay came to light, I almost immediately joined a 12-step program for sex addiction. I worked the program hard – attending meetings nearly every night for a month, and then every week for nearly three years; worked all the steps; performed service for the group and so on. The success rate of most 12-step programs is low only because the steps after step three are hard and require a lot of discipline. I’m not sure now that I was ever a sex addict. I do think, as I have alluded to in my other stories, that I was someone who handled my marital problems very badly and engaged in behavior that was clearly wrong. However, my involvement with the program would be responsible for some of the most profound personal growth that I have experienced as an adult.

One of the key steps in the program is step 8, and in this step you are encouraged, with the help of your sponsor, to contact those you have wronged, that you identified in step 4, and to attempt to make amends. Of course, some of the people on your list may no longer be reachable, or may be further harmed by contact. This is why you work this step with the involvement of your sponsor: to help you judge who should be and who should not be contacted.

Anyway, Don was on my list because of the way in which I ended my employment with him all those years ago. He and I had not spoken for nearly 5 years when I e-mailed him in 2008. I can’t quite remember the exact wording of my e-mail, but I remember I was no-holds-barred contrite and apologetic for the way I acted. I did tell him about the addiction and my involvement in the program, but only as information and not to elicit any sympathy. I may even have said so explicitly – I don’t quite remember.  His response was classic Don. He brushed it off, said that he recognized my potential as someone who worked very hard, told me not to worry about what had happened and wished me well. But you could tell that he was happy to have had the acknowledgement. We had no further contact until 2009, when a trip to Vancouver brought us back together.

In 2009 Kay and I decided to start taking separate vacations. The reason was mainly that we both liked different places and different kinds of travel experiences, though in retrospect, this was perhaps the first indication that we were not compatible over the long term.  My destination of choice was Vancouver, where my one of my oldest friends Nicole lives with her husband and two children. With my very busy lifestyle, I never really got a whole week to myself unless I was on vacation, and I was working on a comprehensive study of Nigerian postage stamps at the time. So I came up with the idea to spend one of my four weeks vacation in Vancouver working on my stamps and visiting Nicole and her family. That year, I stayed with my mother out in Mission, which was about an hour outside Vancouver.  I was still actively involved in program at this time, so I decided to contact Don while I was out there and take him out to dinner. I e-mailed Don before I came and said I was coming to town and offered to take him out. He graciously accepted, and while I was there he made the reservations at Gotham Steakhouse in Vancouver.

I remember being very nervous in the bar at Gotham, not quite knowing what to expect as I waited for Don. I hadn’t physically seen him in eight years and I just wasn’t sure what to expect. Eventually he came and greeted me with a handshake and a “Hi old man.”. The dinner was awkward though as one would expect after so many years. We ate the meal, had a quick dessert and parted ways after not having spent much more than an hour and a half together. During the meal I had told Don that I wouldn’t give up on our friendship and had hoped that this could be a new beginning for us. He seemed about as enthusiastic as lieutenant Dan on Forrest Gump, the first time that he saw Forrest after the Vietnam War.  I was glad to have seen him again though, and felt that with persistence on my part, we could form a solid friendship.

We didn’t really have any contact until the next year when I went back to Vancouver for my annual trip. This time I was staying in a hotel downtown. I had again suggested that we do dinner while I was there and he said that this time it was his turn to take me. We met in English Bay at the Fish House and had a lovely meal. This time he was more relaxed and we spoke about the book I was working on for Nigerian stamps and the business that I had started on the side selling stamps. We spent much longer together this time, enjoying wine with dinner and coffee with dessert. He gladly paid the bill and I went on my way feeling like our relationship was definitely on the mend.

The following year in 2011, it was my turn to take him out and he did not hesitate to accept my invitation when I contacted him. By now our two dinners had now morphed into a ritual. This time he suggested we meet in Yaletown at a very upscale oyster bar, whose name escapes me at the moment. The final game of the Stanley Cup was underway between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins and Vancouver was down, but showed some promise.  Dinner was even more relaxed this time, with us ordering and finishing a bottle of wine. The conversation was more personal as well, with me telling Don about Lea’s death just a few months before. The game was on in the restaurant, so we followed it as we ate and we watched as the situation went from bad to worse, and were just finishing dinner and getting ready to have dessert when Vancouver lost the game. As we headed out, Don remarked “I hope people behave themselves this time.”. He was of course referring to the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in which businesses were looted and there was widespread unrest after Vancouver lost to the New York Rangers. I told him that I was sure we wouldn’t see a repeat of 1994.

As we walked up Seymour St. towards Georgia St., we noticed people being rowdy and chanting things like “Burn that truck!” and “Let’s go riot!”. I looked at Don as we walked up and said “I may have spoken too soon”. “Yeah I think so” he said. As we approached Georgia St., we saw an overturned car on fire, right in front of the main post office. There was a group of people surrounding it cheering and clapping. We both knew that we had to get out of there fast. So we sped up and headed over to the Skytrain station where Don shook my hand before descending the stairs. I continued north down to Hastings St. where I waited over an hour for a bus to get back to Nicole’s place in Burnaby where I was staying. I will never forget the sight that greeted me as I got off the bus in Burnaby: looking west down Hastings St. all you could see were plumes of smoke from the many fires that were now burning downtown.

The next year, 2012 was the second last year I would be able to make the annual trip to Vancouver as my marriage to Kay would implode in only a few months time. I was completely unware of this at the time and I booked the trip with great excitement and Don and I decided this time to meet at Bridges restaurant on Granville Island. Again, I stayed with Nicole and toward the end of the week, I made my way down to the restaurant. This time Don suggested we have cocktails as our table wasn’t ready when we got there. My father had passed away a few months before and we talked about that over cocktails and about the troubled relationship I’d had with him, as well as how I had only heard about his death two months after it happened from his oldest friend.  Over dinner he talked about his challenges with the sale of his practice. I talked about my stamp business and how well it was going. He asked me if I could use an investment of $5,000. I was very honoured that he believed in me enough to invest his money in the business. I accepted and immediately began to go to work trying to grow his investment. I was successful, but found that with my work in public accounting I had very little time to devote to the business, so growing Don’s investment was challenging. I saw this quite rightly though as a real turning point in our relationship.

Less than six months after that meeting, my marriage lay in ruins and I was moving out of my family home and focused 100% on rebuilding my life. Soon after I moved out, I met Steph, and we very quickly fell in love. That is the subject of another story for another time though. That summer, my mom was anxious to meet Steph, and her best friend Beth, who was dying wanted to meet her too. So Steph and I took a series of two trips out to Vancouver to meet mom and also my friend Nicole. We went at the same time of year that I would normally have gone on my trips out west. So I contacted Don after we decided to go and made arrangements to see him again for dinner. We decided to meet at Bridges again, but this time I brought Steph with me. He was a little less comfortable given that he was meeting Steph for the first time, but he did manage to crack a few jokes and overall the dinner went well. We did discuss his investment and how I had managed to do with it, and he asked Steph a few questions about where she was from and what she did.  Steph held her own and I was very glad to have introduced her, though she always made a great impression on anyone that I introduced her to.

It was after this dinner that I saw the greatest change in our relationship. Don began to call me every few months to check on me and see how things were going. One night while driving home after a particularly difficult day at the office I got a call from Don. He had caught me on a day when I was really tired of public accounting. I told him how I felt and then he completely shocked me with what he said next. He asked me if I wanted to leave public accounting to become a full time stamp dealer. I told him that I was actually thinking of doing so and would have to prepare a business plan, but figured that with $200,000 of additional funding, I would have more than enough to become full time. He said that he would be willing to increase his investment to $50,000 and thought he could find 2 or 3 more people who would do the same thing. I was completely speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. For the next few nights I couldn’t sleep as I pondered what he had said. He actually believed that I could do it - enough to put his own money on the line and enough to try and convince others to do the same. How could I not accept his offer?

Not long after that I started earnestly preparing a business plan for a full time stamp business.  I began working on it in the summer of 2014 and by November, it was complete. My analysis indicated that my plan was not only viable, but that such a business could be very successful. Now I had a very difficult decision to make: do I buy into the partnership? Or do I leave and accept Don’s offer and pursue my dream? After much discussion, Steph and I decided that pursuing my dream was more important, and since July 2015, I have been pursuing the dream. I couldn’t have done it without the help and assistance of this man who saw the potential I had when I was a young, awkward man of 22, and decided to give me a chance when no one else would.  He and I now talk every few months and after 22 years, have a really genuine friendship.