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Monday, September 5, 2016

Mr. Willoughby - July 2, 1994 to Present Part 1

After my graduation from SFU in April of 1994, I began the brutal search for employment in my field. Articling positions were extremely hard to get in 1994 due to a glut of graduates at that time and the fact that the big firms were laying off large numbers of staff. It was the exact opposite environment to the one that the Enron scandal created in the early 2000’s and the one that exits today, where university graduates make good starting salaries right out of university. Back in 1994 you were lucky to make just enough to pay food, rent, transportation and have just a bit left over.  One of my first stories, “The Fart”, gives a humorous account of how I managed to blow my first job interview of that summer. I sent out over 100 resumes in May and June of 1994, and I can remember that at a cost of 63 cents each to mail, it cost me the last of my spare cash just to send out my applications. This is why being poor really sucks: you notice the cost of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and even the smallest unforeseen expense can cause the whole house of cards to come crashing down. Most of these were met with no response at all, and maybe about 10 or so sent rejection letters, which felt like torture: I’d see the envelope in the mail, get my hopes up, only to open it and be disappointed – again.

When I was sending out these resumes, at Lea’s boutique on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I was working at her front counter and going down the list of accredited firms to ensure that I hadn’t missed anyone on the list. My finger stopped at a name that elicited derisive laughter from me: “Cinnamon, Jang, Willoughby”. I said to Lea “What kind of a name is Cinnamon, Jang, Willoughby? Like I’m going to tell people, I articled at Cinnamon Jang Willoughby! They’re probably going to ask me if I worked for Mr. Bunn or something.” Lea was not impressed by my making fun of the name. “Chris, you haven’t gotten a job yet have you? For all you know they might be the only firm who will offer you one. What then? Will you turn them down because of their name?”

About two weeks after I sent out my last round of resumes, and we were almost completely out of money, the Vancouver Canucks played the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup and lost to them in game 7, after which we had the famous riot on Robson St, downtown. It was the biggest riot the city had seen and would not be equalled until the 2012 riot, 18 years later. I remember watching the game at my best friend Nicole’s place and being totally despondent because I had no money to pay for my own food when we all went out after the game. The entire time I was a wet blanket, moping about how badly I needed a job and how tired I was of being rejected. Sometimes I don’t know how my friends put up with me, but they did.

With just about a week to go before our utility bills were due again, a letter arrived in the mail from none other than Cinnamon, Jang Willoughby. With the now familiar sense of dread that I felt every time I saw a letter from an accounting firm, I opened it and unfolded it and began to read:

“Dear Mr. McFetridge,

We thank you for sending us your resume for our consideration. Our personnel partner, Mr. Doug Frew would be pleased to arrange an interview with you. Please give us a call at 604-435-4317.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Could this be? Could I actually be getting a second chance? Without wasting any time, I called the next day, while I was tutoring an SFU student in one of the courses I had taken. I was doing this as a way to make ends meet while I looked for work in accounting. I spoke to Mr. Frew, who sounded very upbeat and told me that my GPA was what caught his eye. "We like bright students" he said.  I came in for an interview and met with him the next day or the day after. He was an athletic looking middle aged man, about 6 feet tall with grey curly hair and wore a grey double-breasted suit. He was very friendly and spoke excitedly of the opportunity that working for the firm would afford me. He did not seem at all fazed by my lack of volunteer experience and the interview seemed to go very well.

About half way into the interview, a tall man with short, dark brown hair and glasses knocks on the glass door to Mr. Frew’s office. “Come in Dave” Says Mr. Frew. In walks Dave Harlos, a manager at the firm that I would eventually learn much from in the brief time we worked together. He saw me sitting in the chair and briefly introduced himself, before turning to Mr. Frew to discuss the issue at hand. I couldn’t really follow everything they were talking about, but at one point, I heard Dave say: “Doug this number in the shareholder loan account sticks out like a dog’s balls.”. They continued to discuss this file that Dave is clearly working on, before he finally tells Mr. Frew: “There is just no other way to put it Doug. When a set of books is fucked, it’s fucked.” I remember well the feeling of shock that I felt at hearing two senior members of a firm talking about their work this way. It completely flew in the face of everything the firms recruiting on campus had portrayed about themselves. However, I could tell that if I was hired, this was a firm I would enjoy working in, and I could tell, just from a few minutes in that room, that I would like working for Dave.  The interview continued more or less uneventfully and ended with Mr. Frew saying “It was a pleasure meeting you Chris. We have a few other applicants to see, but we should be in touch within a week or so.”

Three days later, I returned home from tutoring another student to find a message on our answering machine from Doug Frew. He had called to say that the partners had decided to select me for a second interview with the managing partner, Mr. Don Willoughby. I didn’t own a computer, and the internet was a very new thing at this time, so I could not just hop on a website to see what Mr. Willoughby looked like, or read about his background. So I just waited patiently for the day to arrive when we would meet. It came soon enough and before I knew it I was back in the elevator at tower 2 in Metrotown centre, heading up to their 9th floor office. I greeted the receptionist, Elaine and asked to see Mr. Willoughby. I was asked to sit and told that he would be with me in a few moments. After about 10 minutes or so, while I attempted to calm my nerves, a short, bespectacled, pigeon-toed man of what appeared to be Chinese descent appeared in the waiting room wearing a bright blue and white striped dress shirt and a lavender and blue checkered tie. I was impressed. I knew little about fashion, but from what Lea had taught me about fabrics, I could tell that this man’s shirt and tie probably cost more than most of us rookies would spend on an entire suit. “Mr. McFetridge?” said the man.” Yes?” I said. “Come this way please. I’m Peter Cha, the office partner.” “Pleased to meet you”, I said shaking his hand.

He immediately led me into the main boardroom, which was a somewhat dark room that faced the eastern part of Burnaby and had a large solid wood boardroom table. Seated at one end of the table was Mr. Willoughby. He was an older man, maybe in his late 40’s or early 50’s, who also appeared very fit and athletic, with perfectly coiffed dark brown hair, that betrayed just the smallest hints of grey. He wore glasses and no suit jacket. The cuffs of his dress shirt were rolled up slightly and what was striking was his watch, which he wore backwards, with the face on the inside of his forearm rather than on the outside. I would later learn that wearing a watch this way made it easier to see, at all times, what the time was. It would be years before I would realize how a person could be so busy as to require that level of time management. Mr. Willoughby, got up and introduced himself with a wry little smile and motioned me to sit. He was very imposing and at first intimidating, but almost immediately, I could sense a mischievous gleam in his eye and his smile. I didn’t know whether to trust my perception or not though, and I had no intention of blowing this interview, as it was now my only chance to literally keep a roof over our heads and the lights on. “Michael Ashby asked me to send you his regards.” I said as I sat down. Mr Willoughby acknowledged with "How is Mr. Ashby?" "Fine" I said. Michael Ashby was a customer of Weeda Stamps where I had worked a few years before. He had helped me get my resumes together and assisted with other aspects of my job search. When I told him I would be seeing Don Willoughby, he said he knew him and told me to send his regards.

I sat down and the interview started. Mr. Willoughby cut straight to the chase.

Mr. Willoughby: “I see here on your academic record there is a semester where you had all “WE’s”. Can you tell me what happened?”

Me: “I started university at 17, which in hindsight was way too young. As you will see there, I went through three semesters without a break and by the fourth, I struggled. I got sick and fell behind. I had tried to finish my courses, but I knew that the impact on my GPA would be disastrous, so I decided that it would be better for me to withdraw and come back when I knew I could finish my courses to the best of my ability”

Mr. Willoughby: “I see. What about your social skills? You don’t seem to have a lot of experience in clubs or other extracurricular activities.”

Me: “I am different from other people. I have always struggled with that. But I have worked hard to be able to fit in with normal people. I usually do OK, once people get to know me.” He didn’t look so convinced or impressed.

Mr. Willoughby: “So why did you choose our firm.?”

Me: “I wanted to be in an environment that values one-on-one working relationships. I have always had a close working relationship with all my instructors in university and I just don’t think I would be able to have that at the big firms. However, I think in a smaller firm like this that might be possible.”

Mr Willoughby, winking as he spoke: “We’ll offer you $15,000 a year and great relationships.”

Me: “Ok, that sounds terrific”.

With that he indicated it was time to go and we both got up. I had completely failed to see that Mr. Willoughby was kidding with that last remark and in true Aspie fashion, I took it literally and responded accordingly. He was completely unfazed by my reaction and never let on that I had just missed his joke. I shook his hand and left the office, with much anticipation. I really could not tell how I did, and therefore had no idea what to expect. Within two days I had received a call from Doug Frew that they would be making me an offer and could I come in to sign my acceptance. The relief and excitement I felt was indescribable, as I realized that our power wouldn’t be cut off again and as I realized that we would be able to afford our rent, no matter how badly Lea’s boutique was doing.
I went in the next day and signed my acceptance of the firm’s offer and was scheduled to start the day after Canada Day – July 2. Lea was right: this was the firm that offered me the job. I worked on Don Willoughby’s team of accountants, and occasionally did work for other partners, but not often. I loved this structure, as opposed to a pooled staff structure, because it meant that I was able to develop a close working relationship with Don.

My relationship with Don was complex. At first, I did not work very closely with him at all. He gave out the work and I sat at my desk doing it and only responding to him when he came by my desk to check on things. Unlike other people I had worked for before, Don was very good at giving feedback that had exactly the motivational effect he was looking for, but not in a way that made you feel he was being a jerk. About 2-3 months into the job, I had a file I was working on that he told me should take 2-3 days to complete. I was still working on it at the end of the week. On the Friday, Don called me into his office, shut the door and sat behind his desk and said: ”McFetridge, you have been working on that file I gave you all week. I’m just not sure that you are cut out for accounting unless you can complete that file soon. And, you may want to do something about that fuzzy hairdo.” Of course, I thought he was basically threatening to fire me. So I stayed late that night and came in the following day, on Saturday to finish the file and turn it in. He seemed genuinely surprised when I appeared at his office door on the Saturday afternoon and handed him the the completed file.  His review notes on the work I did were extensive and written in the most exquisite cursive I had ever seen. Here was somebody who learned how to write at a time when schools tested you on your handwriting – the slant, the style and clarity of the letters. It was, and still is the most incredibly distinct handwriting I have ever seen.

After that file, Don began to notice how hard I was working and he responded well to my work ethic. He was very receptive to discussing his review notes with me and slowly, but surely he started making small talk with me near my desk and in the lunchroom. This was the beginning of a long and close working relationship that would last the better part of seven years. 

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