Chapter 1: The New Neighbours
"God damned sanctimonious jerk!" I mumbled.
"Who are you upset with this time?" my wife asked with a weary tone.
"The Right Righteous Richard Robillard, that's who."
"Oh ... him." Her interest was noticeable.
"That son-of-a-bitch is trying to shut down the seal cull. Half the fishermen on the coast are losing their boats trying to make a living while the seals harvest the salmon and anything else that's edible."
"I'm sure his heart's in the right place," she said absently.
"Too bad his brain isn't," I mumbled.
"What was that?"
I'm not a commercial fisherman, just a guy who likes to get out on the water now and then and do a little salmon fishing. And it isn't like the salmon have become an endangered species. That by itself was almost amazing since a combination of spring floods and warmer water temperatures have done their own damage to the salmon returns. At least that is natural. Letting a population of seals in our little area grow from five thousand to over forty thousand is something else.
You could tell the frustration was growing when seal and sea lion carcasses were washing up on the beaches, riddled with bullets. You could easily guess who was doing that. It seemed like a futile effort to cull them anyway. If they didn't have any predators besides the Orcas, their population would just grow back to where it is today. They say only the transient killer whale population took seals. I wasn't convinced.
So what was I bitching about? Just about anything these days. My job was driving me to drink and it was spilling over into my home life. My wife had reached the absorption point and was often tuning me out. There were days when I thought my two kids were on a mission to aggravate me. I was getting to the boiling point and I didn't know if it would occur at home, at work, or ... both. And when I stepped back and looked at the cause, it was all because of me and my situation.
My name is Gerard David Saunders, Gerry to my friends. I'm just about to turn 41 and I've started to think maybe it's time for a change. My wife, Helen, is a year younger and is a stay-at-home mother. She's a good cook and a meticulous housekeeper. She keeps busy with volunteer work, lately acting as support for the re-election of said Richard Robillard, our local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). That's our provincial government. Helen makes me proud of her and I love her to death.
I work for North Island Building Supplies (NIBS) in Courtenay, as an outside sales rep. My job is to seek out and sell a wide range of materials to the builders and contractors within our British Columbia trading area on Vancouver Island and across Georgia Strait in Powell River. We can do it all, we claim, even to supplying and installing the appliances, storage shed, or light fixtures. Naturally, we use sub-trades for the professional work. We are good at service too, and get very few complaints either about quality or follow-up. So why am I so frustrated and unhappy? Simple. My boss.
Thomas "Turkey Neck" Thompson is the general manager of NIBS, Inc., the holding company his father had created years ago, well before I joined. Big Mike Thompson was the founder and originator of the company. He was known, respected and liked throughout the mid and north Island and built his business on the back of his reputation. When he retired, he turned over the reins to his son, Thomas Norman Thompson, the aforementioned Turkey Neck. He set the template for micro-managing a business.
No matter what anyone did, Turkey Neck would tell them that it could have been done better. He used to brag that this initials said it all: TNT. In his mind he was dynamite. Most of us thought of using dynamite on him, putting it in a strategic location up his backside. He claimed that the success of any business is attention to detail, but Thomas carries that to extremes. He is the only manager in the business. He is General Manager, Sales Manager, Accounting Manager, Shipping Manager, Purchasing Manager ... well ... you get the idea. He doesn't do the work, just makes sure everyone who does reports to him. Look at all the money he saves on unnecessary management people.
I was luckier than the other staff. I could get out of the office most days and be free of him looking over my shoulder and wondering if I was doing anything useful. I'd worked at North Island since I'd finished school twenty-two years ago. I started with counter sales, then Mike gave me a junior territory. I did well enough that he improved my territory and elevated me to senior account rep status. I had a decent base salary, plus commission and it provided me with a nice income. Enough so that I could get married, buy a house, and have two cars. Not bad, in my view, considering I was a high school graduate who left school with no idea of what I wanted to do for a living.
A little over two years ago, Mike retired and moved to Kelowna with his wife, Sharon. When Thomas took over, everything began to change. He had to have his fingers in everything. He had graduated from Simon Fraser University with a business degree and instantly knew all there was to know about running a business. Naturally, he felt obliged to share that knowledge with us.
He became increasingly more involved in my side of the business, insisting on weekly reports. Activity reports he called them. He wanted to know where I went, who I called on, and what we talked about. On top of that, Thomas had to check my estimates before quotes were presented to any potential customer. I hadn't had to do that since my rookie years. Big Mike had never asked for any of these kinds of things. He looked at the weekly and monthly sales figures that the accountant gave him and could tell from that who was working effectively and who wasn't. If he had a question about something, he came to me and asked.
I found I wasn't enjoying my job any longer. I was still successful, but got little praise from the boss. I began to think about changing jobs, or maybe changing careers. Only one problem. North Island was unique in the business and there weren't any likely competitors whom I would be satisfied to work for. To find something similar to what my job used to be, we'd probably have to move. That would provoke a full scale revolt. Not just from Helen, but from our daughter and son, Dionne and Mike. Yes, Michael was named after Mike Thompson, his godfather.
Dionne was eighteen and just about to finish high school. She was set on going to college, but hadn't decided if she'd attend North Island College here in Courtenay, or Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. Part of her indecision revolved around her latest boyfriend, Graham. He was a nice enough kid, but had already decided that college wasn't for him. He was going to work for his father in their irrigation and landscaping business. I suppose he expected to inherit it someday.
My Mike (I quit calling him "Little Mike" some years ago) was about to enter grade eleven and hadn't really chosen a path yet. I'd like both my children to get a college education, something I regret not having now. Mike was a big kid, and I mean that in both senses of the phrase. He was six-foot one and, I think, still growing. He played basketball and football for his high school team and was a regular, even though he was just a sophomore. He was fun-loving and good natured and always into something with his friends.
Hardly a day went by when I got home to hear Helen ask me, "Do you know what your son (daughter) did today?" I would then be filled in on their various misdeeds, ranging from a bad grade on a test, not cleaning their room, getting a speeding ticket (Dionne), or other assorted crimes and misdemeanors.
Dionne had a part-time job that kept her out of mischief most of the time. It also provided her with spending money, although to hear her talk, it was a pittance and we needed to supplement it with an allowance. I was against that, but Helen was for it. Dionne now had a job and an allowance.
Mike was hoping to get on at one of the gas stations, but they'd all gone self-serve and he was out of luck. He had his name in at a number of places, but interestingly enough, one of them wasn't North Island Building Supplies. I assume he was listening to my rather chronic complaints about Turkey Neck, a nickname that never failed to crack him up.
In March of Dionne's senior year she came rushing into the house, breathless with news that we were about to have new neighbours. The house next door to us had been up for sale for several months, and we wondered if it would ever sell. The previous owners were senior citizens and when the husband's dementia developed to the point where the wife couldn't look after him any longer, they moved into assisted living, putting their home up for sale.
It was a very nice home with a professionally landscaped yard, some lovely big cedar trees in the back, a great deck and an open concept interior. I had always liked the house for its simple design that could easily be cared for by two people, yet have room for several overnight guests. I considered putting an offer in on it, but the thought of moving, even that short distance, put Helen off, and I had to admit we weren't ready for that kind of house yet.
"So what's the big deal about the new neighbours?" I asked my daughter.
"There's a hunky young guy with them," she said with a big grin.
"Oh, oh. Graham doesn't cut it on the hunky scale, huh?" I said.
"Graham is nice, but this guy is the next level up," she said with a star-struck look in her eyes.
I had been the typical father of a teenage girl from the time she was about fourteen until now. Dionne was turning into a very attractive young woman and had caught the eye of more than a few boys. I made sure she knew what Helen and I considered appropriate behaviour until she was of the age of majority. I figured that would be about thirty, but Helen shot me down, saying nineteen was both legally and practically appropriate. I lost again.
I took a look out the front window and saw an Alberta moving van backing up into their driveway. It looked like they were from Edmonton according to the mover, but that was no guarantee. I would wait a day or so to allow them to get moved in before I went over and introduced myself. I liked to have friendly neighbours and it usually started with getting off on the right foot.
The moving truck had arrived on Wednesday afternoon and by that evening, Dionne had introduced herself to Mr. Hunky and appeared to be prepared to spend some time with him. I would no doubt get a blow-by-blow no later than tomorrow morning. In the meantime, Mike was minding his own business once he established there was no young lady involved.
I caught a glimpse of the new occupants as they motored back and forth to various stores for supplies. They both looked to be our age or thereabouts. The guy drove a pickup truck which looked new. His wife drove a SUV ... a big one. The son, if that's who he was, drove a reasonably new mid-size pick up. All of the vehicles wore Alberta plates.
That evening, I was informed that our new neighbours were Al and Marion Goshulak, and they were indeed from Edmonton. The hunk's name was Rick, and he worked for his Dad in their granite business. From what I saw of him, he was a big, strong boy, at least as tall as our Mike. I could see the Slavic lines in the father's face, but not the mother or son. I guessed his family origin would be Ukrainian, like so many others in north-central Alberta.
Dionne was smitten. We'd seen this before, so it wasn't new, but I had to admit, Rick Goshulak was likely to turn the head of many a young lady. It would appear our daughter wanted to get her bid in for his attention at the earliest possible moment.
I waited until the weekend before I approached the Goshulak house. Saturday afternoon seemed like a good time, so I walked across the property to their front door and rang the bell. Mrs. Goshulak answered.
"Hi, I'm Gerry Saunders, your next door neighbour," I said, pointing to our house.
"Oh yes, you must be Dionne's father," she smiled.
"That I am. I hope she hasn't been bothering you. I know trying to get unpacked and everything put in its place is a big job."
"No," she chuckled. "Come in, Gerry. I'm Marion. My husband, Al, has gone down to sign the lease on our new store. He shouldn't be long. I'm ready for a break. Would you like a coffee?"
"Yes, thank you, but I'd like you to meet my wife, Helen, too. Would you mind if she came over?"
"No, of course not," she said with a big smile. "I'm glad you took the opportunity to introduce yourself. I always want to know my neighbours."
"Great. I'll just go and get her and we can be properly introduced," I said, turning to jog back to our house and get Helen.
We were back in less than five minutes, four of which were involved in Helen's "fixing her face."
Al Goshulak arrived home just in time for the introductions. I introduced Helen and myself, and he nodded, recognizing our last name and Dionne's regular presence around the house.
"You have a very nice daughter," Marion said. "I understand you also have a son."
"Yes, Mike is sixteen. You'll see him around, but probably not as much as Dionne," Helen joked.
"Dionne said you were in the granite business, Al." I mentioned.
"Yes. I sold my partnership in Edmonton and came here to the Comox Valley to start my own business. We did really well in Edmonton, and my survey of the pricing in this part of the Island indicates we can do very well here too."
"So, I gather you are talking about countertops and that sort of thing?" I suggested.
"That's right," he nodded. "We sell direct to the consumer. We also provide a complete service, including removal of the old counters and installation of the new."
"I'm in the building materials business as well. We don't have a lot of granite customers. It's usually too expensive for many of them. Do you make the counters yourself?"
"Nope. I have about four key suppliers of granite who will manufacture to order. We probably have about a hundred and twenty or more different selections. We also do quartz and marble, but that's a minor part of our business."
"What made you choose the Comox Valley for your business?" I asked.
"No serious competition, and the fact that it's a fairly upscale community, especially the newcomers. Lots of retired people with money to spend," he smiled.
"There are several people offering granite countertops here, my company included."
"Who do you work for?" Al asked.
"I'm a sales rep for North Island Building Supplies. We offer a full range of products and services."
"I'm sure you do," Al said, "but it won't be at prices like ours. We'll be twenty to twenty-five percent lower than the usual pricing here."
"That's a big amount. How do you do it?" I asked.
"We sell direct and we offer the complete package. We have specialists who take out the old counters and sinks and properly installs the new materials. If we get a referral from a company like yours, we take the project from start to finish and offer a ten percent finder's fee."
"Man, we're lucky to make ten percent on some of those jobs," I said. "I'd love to increase our counter and kitchen sales, especially if we can really be competitive with the best prices."
"I've spent a lot of time cultivating the suppliers," Al said. "They know me and the kind of volume I can put through. The operation in Edmonton did over ten million last year. A lot of it went north. We won't do that kind of volume here, but it will be a very good business just the same."
"Let me know if you need a salesman." I chuckled. "I may want to apply,"
"I'll do that," he replied, looking me over.
I imagine he was wondering if I was even partway serious. I cast a glance at Helen and she had a surprised look about her. I know she hadn't expected my last remark and it caught her off guard. The truth was, if I was looking for something that I could do and do well, Al Goshulak might hold the key.
"Did you mean it?" Helen asked as we lay in bed later that night. "Would you really leave North Island and work for Al?"
"It's possible. I'd like to see how he does in getting established. He's pretty optimistic about the market and I'm not so sure he's right. But if he is correct, it might be the answer to my problems with Thomas."
Helen didn't respond, but I could tell she was thinking about it.
I continued to do my job as well as I could, and my sales were steady and consistent. I'd picked up a contract for a couple of new condominium projects, along with a new hotel being built on the south end of town. I didn't get any "attaboys" from Thomas. He was too busy going over the contracts, looking for any mistakes that he could rant about. I was hoping that I'd checked my work enough that there would be none, and so far, no screams had come from the corner office.
I wasn't getting any joy from my job, despite my success. I liked what I did because I was selling tangible products that customers could see and touch. Whether it was new kitchen cabinets, locksets, windows, doors, or just lumber, insulation, or siding, it was real and customers could judge the quality and performance for themselves. We were in a very competitive market and we had very little room to move. From the big box stores to the little independents, everyone was out scratching for the available dollars. We had to be good at what we did, and we had to give customers fair value for their hard-earned dollars.
North Island built its business on top quality at competitive prices. I know that's a common cliché, but Mike Thompson really believed it and practiced it. The business was lean on overhead and Mike watched the costs like a hawk. Margins were necessarily slim on big building projects, but Mike knew the real risk in the business was slow pay. It was far too common for contractors and trades to stretch thirty day terms out to as much as ninety days and sometimes beyond. Mike patrolled that religiously, personally phoning customers who were dragging their feet on paying. He was quick to tell them that he wasn't running a lending institution. He left that to the banks.
In fairness to Mike's son, he also took a very tight-fisted approach to costs and receivables. I was lucky because a lot of my income was on commission, so it didn't really affect our bottom line. The aggressive money management was a benefit as my commission was paid when the customer paid. My salary had been frozen for three years, but I was still earning more each year as my sales crept upward. I was always on the lookout for more. Either a new project, or a new product. Al Goshulak might not have a new product, but he might have a method to improve my sales that much more. I'd be keeping a close eye on the progress of Granite Giant Ltd.