Friday, February 15, 2008

Curse of the Swamp Creature

This is Part 2 of the Swamp Series. You should read Part One first, if you haven't.

When we last left our heroes, they survived being stuck out on a road in the swamp, inside a federally designated high drug traffic zone, only to face the wrath of their justifiably worried wives. Just when you thought it was safe to take a drive in the swamp. . . Months later, we have worked very hard to build a 6'x9' plastics thermoforming machine from scratch, started making sales and marketing calls, developed an automotive accessory to be manufactured from recycled plastic. Not grocery bags but we did try recycled diaper material once. Luckily, it was post-industrial scrap rather than post consumer. Ironically, it had too much sag. So much for Huggies.

We had gradually gotten the idea, with strong hints of independent verification, that our financial partner's money was dirty. See the previous post. We began negotiations to buy him out. He wasn't happy. Begrudgingly, he blessed a deal and told us to have our lawyer write it up. Presented with the paperwork, he got frustrated all over again and tore it up - twice.

Then, over Memorial Day Weekend 1990, the financial partner changed the locks on the building where we were subleasing some space from him in back of a boat plant. He had had a secret, and illegal meeting, changed the Board of Directors of our company; locked us out of that too [he thought]. We could now work for him or we could stuff it.

At the time, we had a kid working for us. It was a state sponsored program for displaced workers. Florida was paying half his wages. Dale was a good kid and a great help. Don and I knew right where he had lunch every day. A plan was hatching and we needed Dale's help.

Lucky for us [do I have to say it again? I'd rather be lucky than good], the evil financial partner had, just that morning, refused to pay Dale for some overtime he had worked for us. There was no documentation. We were always there longer than Dale because the company was our baby. We knew what we had asked him to do and how long he had been there. Down off Cattleman Road, in a deli attached to a gas station, we found Dale still simmering. He was all too happy to help us out.

The building we were locked out of had long been a boat plant. In the boat business, small and medium sized companies come and go like the tides. In building boats, there is yard work and shop work. In this particular building there were two bathrooms. Each had two doors; one from inside the shop and one from the yard. Dale helped lock up that night. As we discussed, he folded the hasp on one of the outside doors back on itself, and "dummy-locked" the padlock. That was all we needed.

Meanwhile, Don and I had assembled a crew. We had three pickup trucks and two tandem axle trailers. At dusk, they rolled to a grocery store parking lot nearby. Don and I, in his famous powder sugar encrusted truck, drove to an orange grove next to the shop and staked it out. We could just see the glow of a light in the office. Our financial partner's senses must have tingled. He never stayed late, but there he was. Typically, he and his aging hunting dogs would hang around, "stupervising" his boat boys. Then, on some signal, he would load up the dogs and head south. This night, he just hung around.

We stood next to a chain link fence in an orange grove; swatting mosquitoes. Yeah, my life then was plagued by mosquitoes. We walked back and forth trying to keep warm. Waiting. Swat. Smack. Wait. Swat. Smack. Wait.

Finally, the office window went dark. The middle stage of the plan went into action. We heard the truck rumble and pull away. Don scaled the fence, slunk across the yard and tried the door to the john. It came open in his hand. Dale was our hero. The first thing he tripped over in the dark was a case of toilet paper. He grabbed a half dozen rolls and quietly opened the interior door.

We were fairly sure that Dale was on our side completely. We thought that he knew he shouldn't talk about the plan. We also knew, however, that he was pissed about the money. He could have boasted back at the shop to the boat boys that he was helping us. Don was leery of an ambush. Inside the shop, he lurked in the darkness; listening. He started pitching toilet paper rolls around in the dark to flush out the ambush. Each roll slammed into something in the dark shop and was met with silence. After what seemed an eternity, Don came jogging back across the yard.

"Go get the guys," he panted, "I'll meet you out front."

I ran back to the truck, roared out of the grove and found the crew milling around a parking lot. The shop was at the end of a dirt cul-de-sac on the outskirts of town. we came down the road as a convoy. I lead the way, flashing my lights near the end of the street. Don had moved some hull molds out of the way, and seeing my signal, he rolled up the overhead door by the office. All three trucks, the second and third with trailers, fit inside the building. Don closed the door behind us.

We turned on lights in the back half of the building and began collecting our stuff - stealing from ourselves. A drill press, a mill/drill, all kinds of tools, the molds we had built, plastic sheet stock, files and furniture. We worked all night. Everything we wanted was loaded except the machine we had built. We were going to try and wrestle it onto one of the trailers, but it was bigger than we planned.

Just then we heard a car pull into the cul-de-sac! Whispered screams got the lights doused and everyone quiet. We crept through the shop to the office. Peeking out the window, a nondescript sedan sat there idling. It was not a new car, but just new enough to worry us. Had someone called the cops?!? Was this the ambush we feared?!? Which would be worse? It just sat there. Five of us huddled in the dark office. Ready for the worst. After almost an hour, the sedan suddenly started moving. It circled around and headed out to the main road. To this day, I think it was just a couple of teenagers necking. They weren't the only ones getting hot and bothered that night.

There first boat guys came to work about 6:00 am; it was 4:30, we had to make some decisions. Most of the money in our machine was in the control panel. This was no garage built vacuumformer with visegrips for clamps. Thanks to Don's previous life selling machines, we had built a thoroughly modern machine with solenoid controls for vacuum, air assist, and to control the movement of two platens. We unceremoniously chopped through the air lines and vacuum hoses with a Sawzall. The electrical lines were cut and the control panel unbolted.

We relocked Dale's dummy locked door. The overhead door threw open and our convoy headed out. There was a personnel door right next to the main overhead door out front. This would have been the last door our evil partner left and locked. Leaving, we left that door unlocked just to plant the seed that he had forgotten to lock it.

Our convoy careened across town. We had breakfast with the crew and our wives; whose heads were spinning. "If taking all that stuff is the right thing to do, why did you have to break-in in the middle of the night to take it?" That night, the line between right and wrong got paved over. My ex-wife never trusted the efficacy of the business or my intrepid business partner after that. Or me for all I know.

After breakfast, the convoy headed to a building we had already rented. We rebuilt a new machine with our precious control panel. Back in Business! A little while later, the evil partner sued us.

In Florida, in certain civil matters, you can sue for treble damages; three times. We had signed promissory notes for $70,000. Somehow, with shared building expenses and lost revenue or some other crap, he had worked our tab up to $200,000; and sued us for $600,000!!

Now imagine being married to me for just eight or nine months [i know i've lost some of you already], having already been through, among other things, the long night along the old swamp road. And the night we stole stuff from ourselves. Then a sheriff, different county, knocks on the door while I'm at work at serves HER with a lawsuit where I'm getting sued for over a half million dollars! Count 'em; 600 - extra large.

Turns out that that lowly sheet of notebook paper saved our bacon. The partner hired the biggest bulldog hard ass lawyer in the county. Our first lawyer peed all over himself and suggested we figure out a way to settle. I spent two days in the county law library reading. We were right, dammit! We found a couple lawyers who were done in by a partner once. They took the case, just above pro bono, just on principle.

We settled out of court for $40,000. A win; but a win that had to be paid. The evil partner hired the Big Gun, but only paid him enough to write letters and file motions. Not only did that piece of notebook paper show that all three of us were officers of the company, it also showed that he had lent US the money; in our names not to the company. The judge rebuked him and the Bulldog harshly. She stated that he loaned us the money. We were free to to with it as we pleased; as long as we paid it back. As their case began to crumble at their feet, they offered to settle out of court.

I learned so much about business law that year, I should have just gone ahead and finished law school. I was to learn even more, and a little about life, with the rest of my time with our company. At the risk of repeating myself, that is a story for another day.

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