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A Game of Chess
By Sona Maniar
The stress had been building up for some time, but still the final meltdown was rather dramatic. As Hemingway put it in The Sun Also Rises - How did you go bankrupt? Two ways - gradually and then suddenly. We had been locked in a very heated discussion for nearly three hours and getting nowhere. Dan and myself represented the management of Atco, an engineering equipment manufacturer with a global presence. Across the table were Barry and Ian, union representatives from the Ellesmere Port plant facility. The facility had not been performing well and the last quarter results had been particularly dismal. The CEO of Atco, Greg Cook, had decided that the way to restore profitability at the plant would be by cutting costs, i.e reducing staff numbers and lowering the pay packages. The unions were dead set against this proposal. Since two months, the management and the unions had been going back and forth on the negotiations. This October meeting was supposed to be key in reaching at least a basic framework of agreement. I was the Vice President of Manufacturing for Europe; a 40 year old high potential talent tipped to join the board of the firm shortly. A blonde who defied convention and was not just another pretty face. I had strict instructions from Greg not to leave the meeting room without a basic agreement.
“Rebecca, you’ve got to get the union leaders to agree to our package. We do not run a social organization,” he had said to me repeatedly. However, the mood inside the room was very somber. Neither party was budging much from its stand. It felt like being inside a pressure cooker and the arguments in the room were making my head hurt. At one point, Barry got up from his seat and paced across the room. He was a bulky man in his late forties, having spent his entire lifetime at the plant. "Do you understand the human angle to this proposal?" he thundered. Then returning to the table, he came real close to my face and started banging his fist on the table. "If you did, then you wouldn't be lobbying for this farcical package!" he shouted. "Do you understand?", he repeated, banging his fist on the table again. As he searched my face for a response, the unimaginable happened. Tears started streaming down my face. I buried my face in my hands.
"Go away," I howled loudly. Barry shrank back in utter surprise and shock. Dan hurriedly lifted me by the shoulder and escorted me out of the room, as I continued to cry inconsolably. He parked me in the adjacent meeting room and shut the door.
"What's going on, Rebecca?", he asked in a very concerned tone. "I don't know, I don't know," I replied, struggling to gain some kind of composure.
"Well, the meeting is off for now. I'll make arrangements for you to get home," Dan replied.
After a week of absence, I found myself sitting opposite Greg in his big corner office on the 34th floor whose full length windows overlooked the Southbank. It was a miserable day in London, cold and grey and rainy. I watched the rain beat hard against the windows as Greg worked through his emails before turning his attention to me. The grey clouds clustered together outside the windows just like balls on the billiards table and then gently scattered in random directions. Greg was in his mid-fifties, very fit in his physique and had thick brown hair. Lately though he had been mildly alarmed that his hair had started thinning at the back and that regret got voiced at meetings occasionally. He had just finalized his second divorce and was back on the dating scene, which explained his heightened concern about his appearance. Finally he pushed his laptop to the side and focused his steely gaze at me.
“Sorry to hear about what happened at the plant.”
“It was unfortunate. I am disappointed,” I replied.
“Look I don’t want to beat about the bush here, but the board has reached the conclusion that your current position is untenable.”
For a moment I was left speechless. Then gathering my thoughts, I responded, “That’s harsh.”
“Well the board has decided to offer you the position of Head of Manufacturing for Latin America.”
“But that is completely insignificant,” I answered back, struggling to suppress a violent reaction and an equally strong urge to punch his nose.
“The board’s decision is final. It’s up to you to accept or not.”
“You know I cannot accept it. You are in effect asking me to resign.”
“It’s your choice and decision, Rebecca.”
“In that case you will have my resignation by tomorrow.”
With that I left in a full daze, feeling angry and short changed and outmaneuvered. My 15 year career at Atco had just met with an abrupt full stop. And I had to figure out what to do next.
The following few days were spent in deep despair, given that the wheels had effectively fallen off my career wagon. I had dedicated my entire adult life to carving out a future beyond my working class background and the sheer thought of returning to that dump made me shudder. That was when I received an invite for dinner from Alex Wilson, a board member at Atco. Alex and I went back a long way. He was an alum from my business school and had been instrumental in my recruitment at Atco. Over the years, he had monitored my progress at the firm and had provided strategic guidance from time to time.
I was greeted with a warm hug from him at his lovely house in Sloane Square. He was a tall man in his late 50s with peppered hair and a thin face that had gained a distinguished look with age and success. The interiors of the house had morphed some since my last visit there. A native Indian mask now held a place of pride in the living room, the center table boasted of a Japanese vase and there were some miscellaneous artifacts that seemed to have been picked up during recent travels to exotic destinations.
“Alex, it’s indeed so kind of you to have me around,” I said, tucking into the potato gravy.
“Rebecca, the family and I were away on holiday in Borneo. Else, I would have intervened.”
“Well, I was defenseless in light of the breakdown before the union folks.”
Lowering his voice to nearly a hush, Alex leaned forward towards me and said, “There is something you need to know. My sources tell me a different story.”
I was very surprised. “What is it, Alex? I’m intrigued.”
“You were setup by Greg for this unnecessary showdown with the union leaders. He knew all along that the proposal he was forcing you to pass on would never work with the staff. In fact he has lined up a Chinese buyer for the plant. Atco is poised to make an exit from manufacturing in the North of England, and mind you, with a hefty profit and he will come out on top.”
“That..that’s unbelievable.” I struggled to process the information in my head.
“Greg is a very shrewd businessman. Your entry into the board would have diminished his authority. But with this move, he has effectively killed two birds with one stone. Eliminated your threat and scored brownie points with the shareholders with the plant sale.”
“That common rogue!” I exclaimed loudly, shocked by the revelation.
Alex got up from the dinner table and motioned towards the study. As we settled into the soft leather arm chairs by the glowing fire place, Alex lit up his pipe and said, “Rebecca, business is but a game of chess. It’s all about strategic moves, the willingness to do the inconceivable and blending intelligence with audacity.”
“Wow, clearly I need to familiarize myself with the shenanigans of high power play.”
Alex poked hard at the logs in play and stoked the fire. “Lasker was this great German chess champion and he once said: When you see a good move, look for a better one.”
“What do you mean, Alex? The die has been cast. I’m out of Atco now.” I was beginning to feel like a true victim here.
“Rebecca, that still does not mean that you can’t outdo him.”
“I’m listening. What do you have in mind?”
“A private equity investor is putting together a portfolio of equipment manufacturing plants in Europe. The integrated business will rival Atco’s and the intent is to make it bigger. They are on a lookout for a CEO to run the operations.”
“Are you suggesting that it should be me?”
Alex smiled and swung his left leg over the other as he reclined deeper into the armchair. “Now are you going to grab this opportunity to get back at Greg?”
I sensed a surge of excitement within me- similar to the one I had experienced when I had first signed up to work for Atco as a graduate, then when I had pushed the start button to initiate operations at the plant in Driebergen, Netherlands and more recently when I had been made the youngest VP. A new challenge was unfolding before me and this one would be played out on a chessboard in full public view. “Absolutely, Alex. The game’s on!”
The newly formed company was named Alpha One and a press release announcing my appointment as CEO of this company sent out by Ralph Cox, the managing partner of Alpha Capital, the private equity firm. And I braced myself for the general reaction. The news was met by the trade with surprise and skepticism in equal parts. When Greg was asked if he perceived a challenge to his company, he responded, in his typical indomitable style, that while I had good technical skills, honed of course under his tutelage, he felt that my ability to deliver under pressure was suspect.
This was my first exposure to high media coverage. Bruised and stung by the negativity, I decided to pour all my energy in proving my critics wrong. I sat down with the team and did a detailed survey of all our assets. Most of them were hemorrhaging money, which is why Ralph had bought them in the first place, to turn them around into profit making entities and reap benefits for the investors. I drew up an extensive productivity enhancement program for the plants, harmonizing processes and operations and improving efficiency by streamlining the organization. We also sought to restructure the debt and optimize our tax payouts. Gradually the efforts began to bear fruit. Two plants managed to break even within six months, by year end the integrated business yielded a tidy profit and in 18 months, the returns at Alpha One beat the industry average. This became a cause for much celebration, for what we had achieved and in anticipation of what we could yet accomplish. Alex sent over a bottle of champagne and a bouquet of orchids with a note that read: Bravo, Rebecca. Am starting to hear the merry tune of lolly. And it makes me smile.
It was a moment of vindication for me. I had a vision of a very panicked Greg stroking his ever thinning hair in wonder and shock and it made me chuckle. He had recently started dating a twenty something Russian bomb and the duo were spotted at charity balls and clubs, occasionally getting quite cosy. Trouble began to brew though when the Russian was caught snorting cocaine in a nightclub and pictures of her in the act were splattered across the tabloids. Greg then sought to distance himself from her and her peccadillo to avoid awkward media attention. But typically when it rains, it pours. Soon enough, problems cropped up for him on the work front. A multi-million dollar contract of pipe spools made to specification for a Korean company fell into jeopardy when the Asian company suddenly announced bankruptcy. That translated into a fire sale for Atco and a massive loss. Greg faced a great deal of ire from the shareholders for not having conducted a strict due diligence and for not hedging the risk adequately.
The recent sequence of events made him irritable and volatile. While talking to some journalists at the sidelines of an industry conference, he attempted to downplay the competition by saying that we at Alpha One were celebrating Christmas early before slipping into a long winter hibernation. He seemed terribly amused by his quip and but when a journalist asked him whether his personal life was adversely affecting his professional judgement, the color drained off his face and he shouted: Wanker, do your homework first!
Clearly I was winning against Greg. I was going over the estimated figures for the coming quarter and we were set to clock in a record profit. I felt like a rock star. A rainmaker. An empress. I immediately called Ralph to give him a quick heads up on the good news.
“Rebecca, there has been a development”, he responded and seemed to be searching for the right words before laying it out flat. “We are selling Alpha One to Atco.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Ralph. No, you wouldn’t”, I replied in utter disbelief.
“It’s true, Rebecca. You should check with Alex. He’s carved out a deal with Greg.”
“How is Alex involved in this deal?”, I questioned practically screaming into the phone.
I heard a sharp intake of breath on the other side. Ralph was about to reveal something I should have known all along but was clearly unaware of.
“Alex is the key investor in Alpha. He’s decided to cash out.” Ralph’s words rang loud and clear in my head. I didn’t wait to hear any more and hauled myself over to Alex’s.
He was in his study, smoking his pipe as usual. He appeared as though he was expecting me.
“How could you stab me like this?”, I hollered feeling truly betrayed by a trusted aide.
“It’s nothing personal, Rebecca. Just business,” Alex replied calmly, drawing hard on his pipe.
Then with a wink he added, “and chess.”
“You’ve manipulated me like a lowly pawn.”
“I knew you would deliver but you still have a lot to learn about the game.”
“You used me to get Greg into your territory and play the game your way.”
“Grow up, Rebecca,” Alex replied raising his voice as he rose from his desk. “I offered you a lifeline, a second chance in this industry. Ah and about the game of chess I had mentioned earlier, there were two grandmasters sat across the chessboard- Greg and myself. ”
He then turned towards the window and started humming softly, as I stood there - mind and body- fuming. How odd that I should feel this intense rage while a merry tune was being hummed.
Done by the devious and reduced to a dupe.
That would be my lot.
#Unreal #Fiction #Strategy #AGameOfChess #Pawn #King #Queen #Trade
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