By Hugh Aaron

Year Zero

     I have heard that only about 10 percent of the population possesses the qualities necessary to be a leader. Among other things a leader is a risk taker. And a risk taker is a kind of fanatic. Fanatical, risk-taking leaders are basically insecure, untrusting bastards. We weren't born that way, but something happened in our early lives that made us think we couldn't trust. Maybe we felt we weren't loved. Then the things we often do to get love just aren't very loving. So we keep trying anyway even if it's hopeless. Basing our actions on the premise that love and survival depend on success, those of us born with the gift of competence make it.
      I had this dream of owning my own business ever since I was a kid waiting on the counter in my father's neighborhood convenience market. Most men have this dream too, at least most men I know. Even those who are too fearful to take the risk, and know deep down their dream will stay only a dream, hang onto it like life after death. As for me, I knew that owning my own business was in my destiny. Basically I was a loner, an iconoclast, despite my conservative suits and low-key selling line to the contrary. Everyone took me for a don't-make-waves guy, definitely not the uptight, introspective power-mad renegade I really was.
      But let's start at the beginning, when I was a salesman. I loved my job out there on the road, free as can be, selling plastic materials to manufacturers of all kinds of plastic items, from rope to frames for sunglasses, toys to radio cabinets. I say free because Cal, our vice president and manager of the New England plant, gave me complete autonomy, as he did all his employees. Never raising his voice, never critical, a compulsive optimist, he was, in short, an ideal boss. Because of him I learned a skill, a specialty, which is what you need in this world to make it.
      Those were great days back in the sixties. The plastics industry was booming and MPI (Majestic Plastics Industries) was riding the crest.
On a snappy January morning in 1964, I called Cal at the office from an outdoor phone booth, as was my custom every day when I was on the road.
"What do you think about our getting into the color concentrate business?" Cal asked. I had spoken to Cal several times about the appearance of color concentrate on the scene, and suggested that it might well be the wave of the future. Couldn't we manufacture and offer such a product, if only to protect ourselves? Cal always seemed receptive but noncommittal. I figured I was only talking against the wind.
"You know what I think," I yelled excitedly. "I'm sure I can sell tons."
"Hell, you won't be selling color concentrate," he responded.
"What do you mean?"
"You'll be making it. It'll be your baby. A separate division."
"Making it? I don't know how."
"Nobody else does either. You'll have to learn."
"I'm a salesman, Cal. You've got the wrong man."
"I don't think so. And Henry [our president at headquarters in Chicago] thinks you're the best man too. It'll be a challenge, Harry, and I believe you're the sort of guy who likes a challenge."
By putting it that way, he hit me where I'm most vulnerable. I opened the door to the phone booth for some fresh air.
"When would I start?"
"Right now. Drop what you're doing and come on in. Let's talk some more."
On the forty mile trip back to the plant in my Chevy station wagon, I broke every speed limit. Cal somehow looked smaller than he was, always spoke in a measured, gentle, sincere way. He seemed wise for a man not yet forty. Over lunch at a local restaurant he said, "You'll be responsible for everything: production, sales, hiring, firing-the whole shooting match."
I was euphoric. Even though it wouldn't be my own business, it was the next best thing.
"I appreciate your faith in me, Cal."
"Henry's giving us a year. If the division doesn't make it, he'll shut it down."
"A year. Christ. I don't know."
"I told him you can do it."
"Boy, oh, boy."
Cal grinned. "Yeah."
During that first year as a semi-entrepreneur-that is, risking someone else's money rather than my own- I couldn't have been happier. I was making a new business grow and building an organization from the beginning. After six months I hired Francis, the local salesman of a competitor in New Jersey. A very high-powered man in his early thirties, Francis was tall, sharp featured, a good- looking all-American type with a butch haircut. He talked in a precise, authoritative way that impressed our customers. But underneath he was a controlled Vesuvius. "My life's on a definite schedule," he announced one day. "I plan to be a millionaire by the time I'm forty."
"I don't believe a man can plan his life," I said. "Or should."
"Watch me, Harry."
I wondered whether he meant "watch out." Anyway, though I thought his schedule for success was ridiculous and possibly dangerous, I was pleased with his performance.
By the year's end my division had made it: a million dollars in profitable sales. But during that first year, the rest of the company had been sinking. The division's profits were not significant enough to offset MPI's total losses. If Cal was a good boss, he was a bad manager; by January 1965 the operation had run out of funds, had exhausted its bank credit, and was no longer able to support its enormous receivables. Our runaway finished goods inventory, consisting mostly of returned defective or obsolete plastic materials, was worthless. We were in serious trouble. For two days and one night the auditors huddled with Cal behind the closed door of his office, which had a private shower and bar. Then in April, three months later, Imperial Oil took us over after paying a ridiculously high figure. The negotiations had been conducted in secret. The employees didn't know until the sale was a fait accompli. Some of us were sad, others pleased that now we were rich.
Money was everything when we didn't have enough. But after we had more than we needed, we lost something more valuable: our independence and with it our entrepreneurial spirit. Imperial's management people were all sharp-eyed, smiling eagles in dark suits. They told Cal when to visit the john. His freewheeling days over, he became serious and secretive, even conspiratorial. The rest of us, too, laboring under the corporate yoke, were no longer a happy crew, except for Francis who was strangely turned on.
After eight months, in December 1965, the chief eagle down on Wall Street asked Cal to resign voluntarily-a face-saving sacking. I was very upset; Cal was the only reason I had stuck around. He had shielded me from the bullshit that was issuing from headquarters.
The day he departed, he said to me: "I don't think you'll last much longer around here. Look me up before you do anything. You know where to find me."
I heard that Francis was behind Cal's demise. Ostensibly he told the eagles in New York that Cal had intentionally misrepresented the value of the inventory when they bought the company and that it was Cal's mismanagement that had almost brought MPI to ruin.
Francis was then appointed Cal's replacement, thus becoming my boss rather than, as before, the other way around. This was hard to take, particularly after what he'd allegedly done to Cal. Could I trust him? He seemed ambitious only for himself. I considered my career at Imperial stymied. Cal was right: I had to quit.
Five months later in May 1966, finally working up enough courage to take a leap into uncertainty, I visited Cal at the marina he'd bought after his departure from Imperial. We sat on a bench on the dock staring at the big white power yachts heaving in their slots.
"Were you serious about my seeing you before I did anything?" I said.
"Well I'm thinking about getting into the color concentrate business. It's all I know."
"I've been waiting, Harry."
"Keep this under your hat. I own a piece of Magic Colorants with Rob Starr."
This was stunning news. Magic Colorants Inc. was a small dry-color house founded two years before by Cal's former production manager, Neil. Handsome, only in his twenties, a barfly and womanizer, Neil didn't tend to business, so his company was losing money and the banks were breathing down his neck. He sold the company to Rob Starr, a customer, for the assumption of the debt.
"Yeah, I signed a three-year, no-compete agreement when I left Imperial," Cal said.
"But Magic Colorants only makes dry-color. Magic isn't competing."
(Dry-color is a recipe of pulverized powdered pigments formulated to match a color target. It is a simple and cheap way to color plastics, but it is not always the most effective way.)
"But we will be," Cal explained, "when we begin making color concentrate. I have to stay silent for another eighteen months." He smiled in oily satisfaction. "I own 25 percent, Rob Starr owns the rest. Randy has a stock option on 25 percent. You could have a 25 percent option too. How's that sound?"
It was more than I thought I would ever have.
"What's the money situation at Magic?" I asked.
"Terrific," Cal said convincingly. "Rob's loaded and his father-in-law is on the board at the bank. We've got all the money we need. The company's losing a little, but once you're aboard that'll change."
I knew I couldn't miss this opportunity to be my own master. No longer would I have to put up with other people's incompetence-just my own. Seeing the mistakes made all around me at MPI, I knew what not to do. I thought I could perform better than others, and I was willing to pay if I couldn't. Of course, I was naive about how high the price would be.
Trusting soul that I was, I never asked Cal to see Magic's financial statements. I wanted a piece of Magic Colorants so badly that I would have dismissed bad news anyway.
My wife, Janet, cautiously supported me in the venture. While not a risk taker, she was a blind believer in me, though I couldn't imagine why. For the first five years of our marriage I rarely held a job for longer than a year. And we had three small children to think of.
"With our savings and a small salary, we'll have enough to last a year," I said. "But we'll have to tighten our belts, eat hamburger instead of steak, give up going out to dinner and movies. It's now or never."
I was forty-two and thinking that I was starting late. Janet was willing to sacrifice. Material things weren't important to her then. Only the kids were, and me.
"If that's what you must do, then do it," she said.
"For a year," I promised.
Janet gave me all that I asked for. After ten years of marriage, we were still devoted to each other, holding the conviction that our being together made us stronger. I needed her love in the early years while I was unemployed and felt worthless. When people would ask, "And what are you doing now?" I was humiliated. Accepting anything available, I was often reduced to waiting on counter, mopping floors, and cleaning restrooms in a restaurant. It wasn't what I'd had in mind doing when I was a serious college student. I felt demeaned and cheated. Believing a man's purpose is to support his dependents, and ashamed of my failure, I had asked Janet to leave, to go to live with her rich sister where she would be more comfortable. Instead, she hired a baby-sitter and returned to being a nurse to keep us going. Janet was good when I was down. I believed in her as much as she believed in me.
In June, Janet and I and the kids went on a two-week vacation at the seashore, where I walked the beach formulating plans to make Magic Colorants grow and prosper. When I returned to Majestic Plastics, Francis angrily confronted me.
"I hear you're giving notice." He was sitting stiffly on the edge of his chair behind Cal's former desk. His secretary, ten years older than himself, with whom he had a suspicious rapport, was at her desk, which was butted up to his.
"Where'd you hear that?" I asked, puzzled and annoyed that the word was out.
I hadn't planned to leave until the end of summer, until all future plans for Magic were mapped out and agreed upon and the necessary legal papers for my participation were drawn up. Furthermore I wanted to accumulate several more weeks of salary.
"Is it true?" he asked.
"Kind of."
"Kind of, hell. You're a partner in Magic Colorants."
The accuracy of his information was uncanny.
"Well, I don't want to leave you in the lurch," I responded. "I intend to stick around as long as you need me-within reason. Although I didn't admire Francis, I found him likable. My offer was mostly sincere.
"Then I've got it right-it's Magic Colorants."
"Who told you that?"
"Randy told his cousin, who works here in production."
Randy was a color technician who used to work in the lab at MPI. When Neil was fired from MPI and formed Magic Colorants, he persuaded Randy to join him.
So Randy talked despite our agreement that my participation must be kept secret. Randy had been running Magic. Rob and Cal depended on him alone. Perhaps he resented my coming in and diluting his indispensability. Why else would he talk? Trouble already before I had begun.
"I'm not giving notice, yet, Francis."
"Oh, yes you are. I don't want you around anymore."
I was astonished at his reaction. We weren't close, but he knew me to be honorable and considerate.
"Do you really think I'd do anything to harm Majestic? You know you can trust me." My eyes were watering.
"You sonofabitch. Why didn't you tell me you were looking to be on your own? You could have approached me. We could have worked a deal together. I'd stay here while you got things started. We'd have formulations, prices, all kinds of valuable information at our disposal."
I thought Francis was a corporate thoroughbred and Majestic was his future. I never imagined he'd be disloyal to his company, nor that he'd take my departure as a personal betrayal.
"You're my boss," I said. "How could I tell you?"
He stared at me with contempt. After I cleaned out my desk I walked through the plant and the lab and the office and said good-bye to everyone, realizing sadly that from then on that team would be the other side and wishing it could be otherwise. Life is so full of opposites. So long everybody, so long. I was kissing off six mostly happy years. It was 1966. The country was consuming itself in Vietnam and business was rocketing to new levels everywhere. It was a great time to be an entrepreneur and I didn't think about much else.

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