A Critical Path
"The CEO wants to see you at eleven-thirty tomorrow," said Jean as Nick walked back into the office from visiting a site.
Nick stopped in his tracks. The CEO wanted to see him? Why for Heaven's sake?
"Do you know why?"
Jean shook her head. "I only spoke with Ann and that's all she said. In fact, if she was telling the truth, that's all she knew because I asked her and she said she hadn't got a clue."
Nick snorted. "Being economical with the truth, I'd guess."
Jean smiled. "So would I."
"Does Pete know?"
"Yes but Ann says he doesn't know why either."
Nick grinned. "I'd better go and confront my lord and master then," he said. He hung his jacket and hard hat on the peg. "And the sooner the better: like now."
Jean smiled back but said nothing. Nick knew though that by the time he reached the manager's office Ann would know he was coming and would hold him up until she was ready to admit him to Peter Holdsworth's office.
He was right. She smiled warmly at him.
"Take a seat, Nick. He's on the phone at the moment."
Nick did so without even the flicker of a knowing smile.
"Where have you been, Nick?" Ann asked insouciantly.
Nick grinned at her. "Come on, Ann," he said. "I've known you long enough. You tell me."
She chuckled. "The supermarket."
"How did you guess?"
"Is it going all right?"
"Yes, providing the suppliers go on delivering on time."
"So you're happy with the work we're doing."
"Yes. The project team is good and our own workforce is doing well too. So are the sub-contractors. Fingers crossed, we'll be on time and to price."
Ann smiled and nodded. "Pete'll see you now," she said.
Nick smiled inwardly at Ann maintaining the keys to her boss's office. He supposed that the telephone light might have been on.
Pete welcomed Nick with a smile and gestured towards a chair at the conference table.
"Why have you been summoned?" he asked with a smile.
Nick smiled back. "You tell me, Pete," he said. "You haven't bollocked me lately so I can't believe I'm in trouble."
"No, I don't think you are. Frankly, I don't know either. It may be that he wants your brilliant, far-seeing thoughts on the way ahead."
Nick snorted. "Oh yeah!"
"He might accuse you of making a pass at his wife or eldest, unmarried daughter."
Nick laughed humourlessly. "Fat chance!"
"I really don't know. I can only guess he's going to offer you a new job but what I've no idea and I'm not even going to hazard a guess. If it's promotion I shall be delighted even though I shall miss you. If it's a sideways move I'll still miss you. You're doing a great job here, Nick, and you know it."
"Thanks, Pete. I enjoy my work here and I like working with you so he'll have to offer me something that really grabs me."
"Same here, Nick. I'll miss you but don't let your personal feelings get in the way. If you opted to stay here doing what you are I'd personally be delighted but you're still young enough to go a long way. Consider what you're offered objectively."
Nick looked at Pete. He had got to know him well over the last three years and admired him for his engineering knowledge, his management skills, his integrity and his warm personality. If he was due for a move he would miss this man as a mentor and a friend.
He nodded. "I'll let you know what it's all about as soon as I can," he said.
Pete smiled back. "I knew you would, Nick," he said. "Best of luck tomorrow."
Both valued the other. Each was secure though in their own ability so Pete realised there was no threat to his own position. He had a fair but not intimate or detailed knowledge of Nick's background but both men knew that this was the end of a professional relationship. He did know though that Nick was not as happy as he might have been.
Pete stood and offered his hand. "Good luck, Nick," he said.
"Thanks, Pete. I'm obviously going to be moving. Thanks for all your support and your friendship."
He was surprised at the strength of his feelings so he merely nodded, smiled at Pete and left the office quickly. He waved at Ann as he went through and went back to his own office. Jean looked expectantly at him.
"I'm not going to be sacked," he reassured her, "but I suspect I'm going to be sent elsewhere."
Jean's eyes clouded. She would miss him. She had no designs on him. She was probably ten years older and very happily married but she really liked him. He was friendly, polite, supportive, funny too and yet slightly withdrawn. She had never found out what caused that reticence and was intrigued. She knew nothing of his private life and he had never volunteered anything. Beyond normal female inquisitiveness she was not drawn to investigate so he remained an enigma: polite, gentle and considerate but never a glimpse of real warmth or affection.
"I shall miss you, Nick," she said honestly.
"And I you, Jean, but I know I'd never be able to wrest you away from your husband to come and work elsewhere. Nor would I ever want to. On the few occasions I've met him I've liked him a lot."
"He's not so bad," she smiled.
"I must look up trains to get me to and from Reading tomorrow," he said.
"Why don't you ask Ann? She probably knows the times off by heart from sending Pete up to head office."
He went back to see Ann and of course she did know. "It's a company journey so you can claim First Class," she added.
"Cor!" said Nick. He decided not to joke about it. Somehow he felt that Ann would not be amused by a dig at privilege.
Inevitably for the rest of the evening his mind was occupied with what tomorrow might hold. He did not want to assume that the interview would be about promotion but he found it difficult to believe that the CEO would summon him if it was only a sideways move. Human Resources, how he preferred the old term, Personnel, would have dealt with that. Unless it was a tricky replacement but he had heard nothing on the grapevine that one of his fellows was failing. Then again he had heard nothing about higher vacancies.
Subconsciously he reviewed his life since leaving school. He had been right to apply to the Royal Engineers for a university bursary. It had meant he could read Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge without causing his parents further financial outlay. He was immensely grateful to them for all they had done for him in terms of private education. Then he had thoroughly enjoyed his time as a troop commander and had practical experience of the leadership theory he had been taught at Sandhurst. He appreciated that leadership was much more than executive management. One had to set an example to start with, then one had to show management skills but the most important thing was to be there for one's soldiers: selfless, encouraging, a respected friend without undue familiarity and then, as had happened once, be prepared to risk one's life for them. That permeated everything, he thought, because, if you had a really good troop, every man jack would do that for a comrade: Lance-Corporal Skinner, his radio operator, had covered him when he fell in Kuwait. He had not been hit, merely tripped but Skinner had reacted instinctively.
He had been promoted to captain after that and had done the Civil Engineering course. That had added practical experience to the theory he had learned at Cambridge and he had had the secondment to Marshall Bros, the firm for which he was now working. That had been thoroughly worthwhile not because he had subsequently joined the company but because he had been involved in a major project with all the planning, the costing and the implementation: invaluable.
He had then had a run of civil engineering jobs with the Sappers. They had cost him his marriage. During his Civil Engineering Course he had fallen in love with his Chief Instructor's daughter, Veronica. She was no beauty but she was pretty, vivacious and had a Humanities degree from Oxford. They married at the end of the course and moved into an army quarter in Cambridgeshire. Three months later Nick was sent on a six month tour to former Jugoslavia. Their reunion was blissful. Six months later he was posted there again. Veronica was stoical but their reunion was little more than happy. After a further six months, during which he was often away for a fortnight or more, he was once again posted to former Jugoslavia. When he came back Veronica had gone. He contacted her but she was not prepared to live a separated life and had found someone else who could provide stability and, as Nick found out, more money. They divorced. It was painless to the extent that they fought over nothing and there were no children but Nick was devastated.
Veronica was an army daughter and knew all about unaccompanied tours. He was sure that her mother would have reminded her of them when it became clear that he and Veronica were growing closer and closer. It was not as though their courtship had been rushed or their love merely physical infatuation. He had missed her badly when they had been separated. As far as he was concerned she was a part of him, admittedly a part he had to neglect when he was working but once he was off duty again she was foremost in his thoughts. He wrote her long, loving letters on a daily basis telling her of his day as if he had been at home with her. She had always responded similarly until that final tour when her letters became weekly and finally ceased.
He had been delighted for her when she had landed a job as an arts reporter with the area television company during his first tour in Bosnia. She had talked about her boss in glowing terms from the very beginning: how pleasant he was, how he encouraged her, how constructive his criticism was. It was for him that she had left him. He would never know if he had deliberately set out to woo her or whether her loneliness had pushed them towards each other. At least he was single and had not deserted a wife.
However hard he tried he could not get Veronica out of his mind nor could he rid himself of the bitterness. That bitterness had turned into a wariness of all women. He would never trust his heart to one again. This is what Jean had seen but not known the reason. Nick kept his bitterness to himself. Only his family realised how deeply he had been hurt but they knew that there was nothing they could do to help other than continue to give him the love they always had.
Nick's commanding officer was obviously aware of the divorce. He was saddened by it because he had thought that they were a delightful and well matched couple. When Nick asked for a posting elsewhere he was quick to respond and Nick was sent on attachment to the US Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He spent two years there. Its remoteness appealed to him but he also made lifelong friends and enjoyed teaching bridge design.
When he returned to England he had completed the mandatory period of service following his Civil Engineering course. He resigned from the army and joined Marshall Bros, a national civil engineering company. He was sent to the Bristol branch and joined the bridging office. He had started as a site supervisor and then quickly became a designer. After two years he became Head of Buildings, a post he had held for three years. The whole time Peter Holdsworth had been the Bristol Area Manager. Now it looked as though he was going to be promoted again. He had not done badly apart from Veronica.
He arrived punctually for his appointment at Head Office and at the appointed time was shown into the CEO's office. Trevor Kirkwood was a big man in his early sixties with a shock of silver hair. He could look forbidding but the smile on his face as he held out his hand to Nick was wide and warm.
"Hello, Nick," he said shaking his hand. "It seems an age since we last met. You're looking well."
"Thank you, sir. It's good to see you again."
"Sit yourself down. Margaret will bring us some coffee in a moment. So, I gather you've got the supermarket nailed down."
"I think so, barring fire or floods. Our sub-contractors are doing good jobs and our suppliers are on time and up to quality. I won't make any bets on the unexpected though. I just hope that the three weeks' leeway I've got built in will be enough to deal with any surprises."
Margaret brought in the coffee and biscuits. Mr Kirkwood did the honours.
"Right, Nick," he said. "The reason I asked you to come here today is to offer you a new job. Pete has consistently and frequently said that you are worthy of promotion and it seems that way to me too. I'd like you to take over the Liverpool operation."
Nick's jaw dropped. Liverpool was bigger than Bristol, in fact it was second only to London. He was speechless. Mr Kirkwood chuckled.
"Thought that might floor you," he said. "Take a deep breath and tell me what you think."
"Yes, please and thank you very much," replied Nick smiling back.
"I'm not sure you'll be quite so enthusiastic when I tell you more about it. I'll be quite frank with you: it will make you or break you. It has broken Mervyn Reid who you will be replacing. The turnover and therefore the profits have been declining over the last three years: one, three and now six per cent. I have to be fair to him. The recession hasn't helped but it shouldn't have had that big an effect. Your own Bristol branch has just about held steady. London had a blip two years ago but is back to where it was. Glasgow is down one per cent over the three years. I'm looking to you, Nick, to turn Liverpool back to growth."
Nick nodded soberly.
"I don't expect you to manage that necessarily in your first year but I will expect you to stop any further decline over two years. You will need to recover any further losses built into this year and be starting to make a profit again by then."
Nick nodded again. It was going to be a challenge. "That means we're going to have to find some new, big projects quickly," he said, "because we make no money while we're designing and tendering and that can take nine to twelve months."
"That's right. I'm tossing you in at the deep end, Nick."
"Have you any idea where things have been going wrong?"
"Yes. There's some dead wood there which Mervyn either lacked the will or the nerve to root out. You're going to have to be thoroughly unpleasant to a number of people and if they don't respond you will need to get rid of them."
"Without them running to the employment tribunal."
"Resignations rather than sackings."
"Yes. You'll need to get into cahoots with your head of HR."
"Is he OK?"
"She, Melanie Stubbs. Yes, she is. She knows the rules and how to use them. She's also as tough as old boots. Elaine Marchant, our HR director, thinks very highly of her."
"Good, I imagine you have your own ideas who the weak links are."
"Yes, I have and I don't think it'll take you long to spot them but I'm not going to give you my thoughts. You're going to be the boss there and must make up your own mind who needs the boot or who merely needs a fire lit under them."
Nick smiled. "Or I'll get the boot."
Mr Kirkwood smiled back. "Correct but, from all that Pete has said about you and from what I know of you, that won't happen."
"No, sir, it won't. When do you want me to start?"
"Monday week or is that too quick? Mervyn will be out by Friday."
"No, sir. I imagine the company will foot a reasonable hotel bill for a few days while I find somewhere to live."
"Certainly it will. I think a celebratory lunch is called for now. Come on, Nick."
It was a very good lunch and Mr Kirkwood was a delightful host. They both shared a passion for rugby football and cricket.
Unused to a large meal in the middle of the day Nick fell fast asleep in the train back to Bristol. He made his way back to the office and went straight to see Pete.
"Liverpool," he said.
"Well done, Nick! Congratulations! You're going to have your work cut out though. They've been in the doldrums for the last year or so."
"So I was firmly told."
"When do you start?"
"Monday week. Who do you want me to hand over to? Roger?"
"Yes. How long do you think it will take?"
"No more than a day. He's pretty well aware of everything that's going on."
"Right. I'll get him up now and you can get it done tomorrow. I'll get Ann to organise a farewell party for you at six tomorrow evening. Oh dear! I'm going to miss you, Nick."
"Well don't forget I'm always the other end of the phone."
"I won't, Pete. I'll send Roger up to you."
Nick went back to the Buildings Office and told Roger that Pete wanted to see him.
Jean and the others looked expectantly at him. "I've been asked to run the Liverpool branch," he said.
There was a moment of silence and then everyone came forward to congratulate him. There was much back-slapping and hand shaking. Jean gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Then came the questions such as why and when. The why was a little tricky but Nick covered it by saying that the current manager was moving on. Nobody was particularly interested in where. The answer to when brought the follow-up as to his farewell party. That was easy. There were no questions as to who was going to succeed him. Roger's summons to Pete's office answered that. They all liked Roger and knew him to be capable so it was not a worry to them.
Roger returned a few minutes later looking very happy. He shook Nick's hand and congratulated him. Nick returned his congratulations. Roger was quite content that they only spend the next day handing over. He had virtually been Nick's second in command for the last two years and there was little he did not know abut current commitments or the hopes for the future.
The farewell party went off well. Pete made a short, kind speech and wished him well. Nick responded with what he largely considered were platitudes and left clutching a large bottle of malt whisky. He could not help but feel that it would last him several years. He had to admit to being touched by Jean's farewell. It was fond, genuine and with a hint of tears.