Episode 8 – Standard Ink

“That took some balls, dude,” Benji said to me when he sat down at the conference table in our tiny, glass meeting room on the tenth floor. “I mean, no one else had said a thing about Chad’s ideas, and you popped his bubble in your first meeting.”

“My idea wasn’t that outlandish,” I replied. I looked at my phone, which flashed a time of three minutes past three in the afternoon. Sabrina was late and she hadn’t emailed or texted or anything. I could criticize Standard and its employees all I wanted, but they were never late for meetings. Most showed up five minutes early to meetings, so Sabrina’s absence surprised and annoyed me. Now, I was stuck talking to Benji, who wasn’t as bright as he first appeared when I met him a week ago at my first project meeting.

“No, but Chad didn’t think of it. He was pissed. I could tell. He grinds his teeth when he’s angry and it makes his cheeks swell up.”

“So no one had brought up online sales before I joined the project?”

“Nope.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Well, I take that back. Bob did.”

“Bob?”

“My colleague, Bob.”

“Why didn’t you guys present the idea.”

“Chad dismissed it. He said Standard’s DNA was face-to-face sales.”

I couldn’t help but smirk. “The entire 15th floor is dedicated to phone sales.”

Before Benji could respond, Sabrina pounded through the glass door out of breath. “Sorry, I’m late. I had another meeting run over.”

She took a seat across from me, cast a smile at Benji, and gave me her business face. I wasn’t sure about the vibe she was sending me. I’d only met her once and other than the introduction, I’d had no other interaction with her.

“So what are we doing?” she asked. She cocked her head to the side like a pug that heard a noise, and I wanted to laugh. Actually, I wanted to come clean and say that I had no idea what we were doing, that I had just blurted out an idea because I hadn’t been paying attention to Chad’s droning summary, but instead, I opened up my notebook and made a big show of clicking my Standard Ink ballpoint pen like I was about to write a novel or something.

My mind scrambled around my idea. Benji and Sabrina kept their eyes on me, and once again, I could feel the pressure building with each ticking second. The clock in the small conference room was suddenly very loud.

“What would we need to do to move Standard’s entire business online?”

They took their eyes off me and I almost sighed in relief.

“Standard doesn’t have any online sales presence right now, so that’s a big ask. Shouldn’t we start smaller?” Benji asked. Sabrina shook her head in agreement.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“Chad doesn’t think the company has the capacity to do online,” Benji said.

“How hard is it? Every company does it, even small ones,” I replied.

“You don’t know the company very well. How long have you been here?” Sabrina asked.

“A few months.”

“I’ve been here two years, and I just don’t think it’s ready,” she stated with a tone of authority that wasn’t warranted.

Sabrina didn’t look much older than me, so I wondered how much wisdom she could have garnered in having a year and a half on me. Nevertheless, this volley continued for the whole meeting with me serving up balls that both Benji and Sabrina thwacked back at me. We didn’t accomplish much of anything other than establish that I didn’t know the company very well. By the end of the meeting, I felt discouraged and deflated. I sat back in my chair and stared out onto the open office through the shiny glass after they left to go to their next meetings.

This work thing had me down. I thought about quitting, but the rent was coming due, which reminded me I’d have to move back home if  I quit. I couldn’t give my dad the satisfaction of crawling back home like that, but the urge to walk out the door was overwhelming. I wasn’t enjoying work, and this project didn’t get me closer to Julie as I had hoped. I’d barely seen her in the week since my first project meeting.

I closed my notebook on an almost blank page when the glass door clinked open.

“Are you free?” Julie asked, smiling like she was happy to see me.

“Yep,” I said enthusiastically. I hoped she wanted to grab some coffee in the lobby or something. In the briefest of moments, I imagined us taking the rest of the afternoon to sip our coffees and talk about anything other than this project.

“Great! Let’s go to another meeting.”

“Another meeting? I don’t have another meeting on my calendar.”

“You weren’t invited to this one until just now.” She chuckled as if she told a funny joke. “We’re meeting with some investment bankers who want to talk about strategic options.”

“Oh.” I followed her out of the conference room and toward the other side of the building. A meeting sounded about as exciting as helping my grandfather pull on his sweaty compression socks.

I could see in the conference room before we entered. On one side sat three men in suits and on the other side sat Mr. Rich, our CEO. They all had muted smiles on their faces similar to the smiles my fraternity brothers and I wore when we met professors at school parties.

I could feel the sweat pooling in my armpits as Julie opened the door and confidently introduced me to the men in the room. She was impressive. She glided effortlessly from me to the CEO as if we were just a couple of guys on the subway. She showed no outer fear or timidity. I, on the other hand, struggled to keep a good grip as I shook Mr. Rich’s hand.

Mr. Rich was every bit as glamorous as he was on the company promotional videos. He was shorter than I thought he’d be, but he had a big, firm handshake that would have toppled me over had he not braced his other hand against my forearm. His graying hair was slicked back and impeccably cut. He was tanned and solid for an older gentleman, nothing like George or Swanson in my department. He had an affable, credible demeanor that assured me he was in charge.

The bankers were a different story. The older man in the middle clearly outranked the two younger guys on either flank. He had a fake smile that barely covered his impossibly white teeth, and his suit had all of the little accouterments that my dad had said were not worth paying for when he taught me how to buy a good suit. He had fat rings on one finger on each hand, one of which pinched my finger when he squished my hand in his. I’d seen a few mob movies, and he looked like he could have been an extra in one of them.

The two guys on either side of him looked almost identical, mere decorations in this power show. They mostly kept their eyes on the iPads in front of them, but when they shook my hand, their hands felt limp and insubstantial as if they didn’t want to show up their boss.

The mobster was named Steve, and his associates were Eric and Marvin. After introductions were over, Mr. Rich and Steve chattered about golf, a terribly boring game, for a brief moment before Julie saved us all and started the meeting.

“We’ve been doing our research,” Steve started as he pushed bound booklets across the table at us, and we think you have some excellent strategic options for your company.”

I took the booklet from him and pulled it closer to me. The cover felt like leather with raised borders and the logo of the investment bank embossed in the center. I rubbed my fingers across it like one would rub a nice piece of leather. It seemed wasteful to use such a material on a report.

“We’ve identified three options for Standard that we’re prepared to advise you on should you choose to bring us on, and I’d like to take you through them,” Steve continued. His confidence bubbled over. He seemed like a boastful uncle who was doing us a favor by sharing his thoughts. I thought of my crazy uncle Charlie who never met a situation that didn’t require his ill-informed opinions.

I flipped open the report to the first page after I finally unglued myself from the supple cover. Once I paged past the table of contents, an endless biography for Steve, and a smattering of overly-indulgent quotes about the investment bank, I landed on the first page of any substance. The color graphs and diagrams were beautiful, an artful mix of colors and perfect text that almost seemed too well-designed to be true.  I couldn’t understand whatever it was the graphs were communicating, but maybe that was the point.

Steve tugged at his tie at one point as if he were loosening it to let out more hot air. The more he talked the less I believed what he said. He seemed smug and condescending without even trying. Meanwhile, his minions fingered their iPads occasionally flipping to another screen that I couldn’t read from where I sat. Neither of them looked at us.

“Where did you get these numbers?” Julie asked.

I looked over her shoulder and spied the page number she was on. I flipped to the same page, which was nothing more than a table with comparative financial numbers for Standard and several other companies.

“From our models,” Steve replied.

“They don’t make sense,” Julie said.

Mr. Rich leaned forward as if he had just found the error himself. “She’s right, Steve. Our profit margins are better than that.”

Steve garbled his response with some nonsense about risk-adjusted returns, but Julie wasn’t convinced, and I secretly cheered her on. I wanted to see Steve squirm. I had just met the guy, and I already didn’t like him. He wasn’t a likable character. He seemed too full of himself to be likable.

Steve shot a glance at one of his minions who frantically tapped on his iPad like the answer was hidden somewhere beneath the glossy screen.

While Steve and his colleague searched for answers, I turned to the other pages in the report, which read like a marketing pamphlet that hoped to convince you to buy something that you didn’t need. I thought about those slick brochures my dad brought home one day before he moved my grandfather into an assisted living home. The brochures made the places seem like resorts, but when I helped my dad move my grandfather into one of them, it looked nothing like the convincing brochure.

Somehow, Steve got past the bump in the road and resumed his pitch. Julie kept a skeptical eye on him, peppering him with questions and disrupting his flow. Mr. Rich seemed to be encouraging him, and I thought maybe he and Julie had some good cop-bad cop routine going on, but they didn’t seem that coordinated.

Mercifully, the meeting sputtered to an end. Mr. Rich had a flight to catch, and Steve, not to be outdone, had to be back in New York to meet with some big-name clients. I didn’t recognize the names of the clients, but he sure seemed proud to be associated with them.

After Steve had prattled his way out the door and followed Mr. Rich to the elevators with his minions in tow, Julie sat back in her chair and smiled as she turned to me.

“What’d you think?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. Their presentation seemed all form and no substance.”

She laughed. “They think our business can be reduced to a spreadsheet. Reality is not that simple.”

I nodded as if I shared her perspective, but the truth was that I hated spreadsheets.

“They just want to convince us to do something so they can collect fees, but we don’t need them. I believe in our project team.”

I loved her optimism, even if it felt a little mislaid. After my meeting earlier, I certainly didn’t share her confidence in our project team. I decided not to share my earlier experience with her. Hopefully, the other members of the project team were experiencing better success.

She stood up and paused for a moment. “Do you want to go out for a drink after work?”

I hesitated only because it caught me by surprise. “Sure.”

She smiled again. “Great. I’ll meet you in the lobby in at 5:30.”

She left the room, but I stayed behind enjoying the moment. I didn’t care about anything else because whatever discomfort or annoyance I felt dissipated along with my thoughts of quitting. I lingered only a bit longer before I rushed upstairs to finish my work before it was time to meet Julie.

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