My varied work life

My very first “job” was plowing fields for our neighbor, Ernie Brocklebank for fifty cents an hour. I learned to drive a tractor and it was gruelling work, but it was nice to earn my own money. I might have been about fourteen at the time.

My next job was part-time because I was still taking school for half a day. I delivered newspaper bundles off the back of a truck around what was Cooksville at the tome, now part of Mississauga. I forget how much I was paid, but I do remember one fateful day. It was raining and the step at the back of the truck was very slippery. As we rounded a curve I fell off and slid several feet on the road. Luckily is was wet so I didn’t get major road burn. I do remember that the driver was terrified that he had killed me.

After quitting grade thirteen I got my first full-time real job working for what was the Toronto-Dominion Bank, where my mother worked in Streetsville. She thought it was a good way to start a career. I had always wanted to be an architect but, of course, there was no money to send me to university back then. I started at the branch in Cooksville at a whopping fifty bucks a week. I had one suit that I wore every day. I had also started playing in a local band during this time and at one point we were the house band at the old Club Bluenote at Yonge and Gerrard in Toronto. We played the after hours floor show backing up major entertainers who played regular gigs at major places then came over to the club after their shows. We started at one and played ’til around four in the morning Thursday, Friday and Saturdays. After the show Thursdays I would drive home, grab an hour of sleep, take a shower and go off to work at the bank. I was so dead tired that I was always worried that I would give someone too much money or make stupid mistakes. I was on what the bank called their advanced administration officer three-year course, but I finished it in nine months and ended up being transferred to nine different branches in just over two years. I was working at the Keele and Wilson branch when we were robbed by the infamous Montreal gang. At my last branch at Jane and Steeles I was the Administration Officer at only nineteen years old, with everyone at the branch working for me. When my manager went on three weeks vacation there was supposed to be another manager coming in to cover for him, but the day he was to come I got word that he had died! They had no one else to cover so they asked me if I could handle it until they found someone. What choice did I have? I called the staff together and asked for their help and they were all amazing. Over the three I wrote over a quarter of a million dollars worth of loans, which today would be multiple millions, with a default rate of zero. I often looked back and wondered what those poor people meeting with a nineteen year old thought about our meetings, especially those that I turned down.

Another kind of major issue was the day I heard a customer arguing with my head teller. I intervened to see what the problem was and learned that he had bought five thousand dollars worth of traveller’s cheques the week before planning on going on holidays, but that had been cancelled and he wanted to return the cheques. Anyone dealing with traveller’s cheques knows that there is one rate for buying and a lower rate for selling, and this guy wasn’t happy about that. It turned out that he was a very rich customer with a lot of money in our bank and he very loudly threatened to pull his accounts if I didn’t give him back what he paid for the cheques. I told him that it was the same policy at all banks and for every customer so it did not matter how rich he was. He said he would call our Head Office and stormed out of the bank. My staff who had been listening to this whole discussion virtually applauded me for standing my ground, but I hoped I wouldn’t get fired for it. The next day I got a call from the Vice President of the bank who asked me for my side of the story. When I finished he congratulated me on not giving in to the customer and said he had told the customer he could leave. I was very relieved.

Shortly after this experience a customer met with me and asked me how much I was making. When I told him fifty dollars a week he offered me ninety dollars to work for him as his accountant. With a young family to support I couldn’t turn down the idea of making almost double, plus back then working for the bank was considered more of a calling so I knew that I was never going to make any real money. I gave my notice. But after only a couple of days working for this new guy he started asking me to do things that I knew were wrong, like writi8ng off his new home stereo as office equipment. I wasn’t any kind of chartered accountant but I knew if this guy got audited and charged I would be implicated so I quit.

Things got a little hairy after quitting. I remember living on Main Street in Brampton and Gary and Brenda lived upstairs. One night we put dinner together and all we had was some potatoes and onions and some cereal. I don’t even remember how I found the job but I worked for Dominion Glass. One day they asked me to go down to the end of the recycle line and break milk jugs that were too big to go down the chute. That was bad enough but near the end of my shift the foreman came and asked me if I would work another shift because no one would do what I was doing. I guess no one else was as stupid as I was. I survived but went home more dead tired than I had ever been. After only a few shifts they went on strike so we couldn’t go to work. At one point the company said they would secretly hide us in rail cars to get in to work, but I wanted no part of that. I remember having quite a fight to get unemployment because they said I was on strike which I was not. Somehow we survived.

Next I landed the longest normal job I ever had in my life, working as the Production Scheduler for Emco Plastics in Brampton. I started with training at Emco Limited in London, Ontario, a place I would return to many years later. I worked at Emco from August 1971 until June 1976. A highlight of my time there was designing and implementing a whole new visual production scheduling system which worked very well and solved a lot of problems. The Manufacturing Manager, Morris Cook, was very pleased with me and that would soon be good for me. Earl Lince was the General Manager. Doug Bryant was their Engineer. Frank Cook, Morris’ brother, was the Shipping Manager. Partly getting a little bored with my job and realizing that there was no future for me I started looking for another job and found a similar job as a Production Scheduler at Able Plastics. It was owned and run by a older couple who I soon learned spent the day fighting. I barely lasted six months before I couldn’t take it anymore. I was then interviewed by Hilti Canada to be their Customer Service Manager. The reason I got the job was because of the wonderful reference I got from Morris Cook. When I went to thank him he said he knew he would miss me when I first left but agreed that I had no future with Emco.

Hilti turned out to be a mix of great things and nightmares. I completely reorganized what had been a clerical function to be an integral part of the sales team of four Area Managers and twenty-six sales reps. The bad part was that our office was at the back of the main Hilti building and Head Office was at the front. Every time there was any meetings with them, usually run by a Tony Leckie, the worst manager I’ve ever known, it was a disaster. He was like your worst school teacher, always talking down to people and screaming at them. At one point he came up behind one of the Area Managers, Jim Young, who he thought wasn’t paying enough attention and he slapped his ruler down on the table, jumping Jim out of his skin. Shortly after that Jim left the company and he called me to tell me to follow him out the door. I had lasted just shy of two years with Hilti but, again, I started looking around. That’s when I found what was probably the most secure job of all. Customer Service manager at Indal Products.

Indal was great. My six staff joined me in my enthusiasm for being a bigger part of the sales function. They were a great group of people. Heather, Marie, Dave, Frank, Doug, even Jon. We all worked hard and ended most days by going up the street for a beer. I had a lot of history with this company, most importantly the support from Jon LeHoup when things went bad for me. One of our customers, Ciro Guchiardi, the President of Extrudex Aluminum, approached me one day and asked me to be the General Manager of another company he owned, Dural Patio Doors. Being somewhat secure in my job at Indal and really enjoying working there I was hesitant to leave, but I sensed a big opportunity. Ciro said the division had lost a hundred thousand dollars but he hoped that I could turn it around. I wrote the most generous employment contract ever with bonuses for increasing sales of both the patio door and sealed glass units, reducing costs and increasing profits. I still remember the lunch we had to sign the contract when Ciro said he doubted he would ever pay me any bonuses but he hoped that he was wrong.

I threw myself in the job. Shortly after I started a bunch of computer equipment showed up. When I called the company to ask when they were going to install everything they said Ciro had just bought the equipment, no installation and they wanted two hundred dollars an hour to install everything. There would go my profit bonus, so despite not knowing a thing about computers or, more importantly, networks, I opened the first of thirteen Novell Network manuals and started reading. Six weeks later after working seven days a week we had a fully functional inhouse network.

My foreman, Joe, was Italian, as was most of the production staff. Walking the plant I could see that a lot of things weren’t being done right, but I didn’t want to interfere with Joe and I couldn’t talk to the employees because they wouldn’t understand me. I got some Graff paper and went out in the plant at night to measure all of the equipment, then cut-out little pieces of cardboard to represent the machines. I then told Joe to invite the employees to a meeting in my office after work. I couldn’t pay them but I would provide pizza. Joe said he doubted anyone would show up but the room was packed. I explained that I wanted to totally reorganize the plant and that the employees were the best ones to know what to do. Joe then said everything in Italian and I could sense how enthused the employees were. No one had ever asked them before. After a flurry of activity production more than doubled and the employees were really happy. Because we didn’t just build patio doors plus I saw a far bigger market for what was called Heat Mirror from Southwall Technologies in California I convinced Ciro to rename the company Clearview Industries. a name that still exists today. Joe and I traveled to Southwall to learn more. After we returned and retrofitted the production line we got the contract for the Motorola Head office which was all glass. It was a very big deal.

Just when things could not have been going any better (yes, I had been paid every one of my bonuses) I got a call from a friend of Ciro’s inviting me out to a fancy lunch. He started by saying that Ciro could not be happier with what I had done to turn things around and make a substantial profit. He said he was very surprised at the things I had done like getting all the employees together to reorganize the plant, not to mention installing a complete computer network when I had known nothing about it. After heaping all the praise on me I wasn’t sure where this was going. I was thinking that this guy must own some similar business that was in trouble and he wanted to hire me, but I could not have been more wrong. Again he stressed about how I had made the business very profitable, so profitable that he was going to buy it. Okay, that’s cool. Then the other shoe dropped. Not only was he going to buy the business but he was going to run it! Not cool! My contract was about to come up for renewal so I had no choice other than to just leave.

While I was sitting at home contemplating my future I got a call from what had been one of my patio door dealers, Recom Windows and Doors. They said that they heard that I had installed the computer network at Clearview and that they were getting their first computer and wanted me to come in and set it up and teach them how to use it. It was one of those life changing moments that would set the course of the rest of my life. I have often wondered what I would have done had that phone call not come. For the next sixteen years I ran my own consulting company, originally called KISS Consulting and then Contact Associates, doing everything from supplying computers, software, network installations, computer room design, cabling and even supplying computer furniture. I had over fifty very happy clients over the years, all of which came from referrals. I never once ran an ad. I also came too close to total burnout when I billed ninety-six hours to three clients in one week. My last contract was for Fellowes Manufacturing in Markham, the makers of the BankersBox, installing thirty-five work stations and moving them off a server in Itasca to an inhouse system.

This was the point where my life took some major turns. Near the end of working at Fellowes I had finally made the years overdue decision to end my loveless marriage. I had been staying at the Journey’s End motel in Markham plus still paying all the bills for the house in Brampton. My ex had done nothing to get a job and was only too happy to have me pay for everything and give her money. More importantly my mother had been diagnosed with fifth stage melanoma and given less than six months to live. Having been apart for so many years I wanted to spend whatever time she had left with her so I went to BC. I really missed my kids but I had been making appointments to see them anyway. I figured if I moved to BC they could come out for vacations like they did before and that would be better. I decided to sell the house. My parents drove down with me in the van and my Dad spent three weeks selling everything in a garage sale. My ex had laid claim to anything of value like all our furniture and gone was the idea of fifty fifty split. She wanted everything using the guilt trip of supporting my daughter. When all was said and done I ended up leaving with my last cheque from Fellowe4s and nothing else. My ex got every dime of the equity I had single-handedly built up doing all the renovations over the years. I didn’t want to see any money go to lawyers so I just gave up and didn’t fight.

Once settled in BC, originally living with my parents, I quickly learned what the sunshine tax was all about. On my last contract with Fellowes I was charging sixty dollars an hour, plus half that for travel. I still can’t believe I was ballsy enough to ask for them to pay for me to come from Brampton to Markham. In BC it was all very complicated because a lot of people were doing consulting for free hoping to land a paying contract. I also found people installing demo software which was totally illegal. It was an uphill battle to land any work until I decided to partner with local accountants. That got me the contract at Central Valley Trucks, although only at nineteen dollars an hour, a far cry from sixty. That whole job turned into a nightmare when they took me to court to get back what they had paid me, almost eight thousand dollars. They lost.

After fighting a losing battle on my own I finally gave up and took a job with Northern Computer. Can’t beat em, join em. Although my time with them was short I did land the largest contract in their seventeen year history when I got the contract to upgrade the entire system for a local law firm, Salloum Doak, against thirty-five other competitors. I had known that Dell had bid on the hardware, basically buying the business as they often did back then and that we would not be able to match them. At a critical meeting with all thirteen partners of the firm I was asked if we would partner with Dell? Without hesitation I answered “no”. A scary silence fell over the boardroom and I worried that I had blown it. Then the controller asked me how much of a deposit I wanted. Phew! When I got back to the office, cheque in hand, I told my manager what happened. I looked very sad and when I got to the part where I told him they asked me if we would work with Dell and I had told them no he had a look of terror on his face. Then I smiled and handed him the very large cheque. We all hooped and hollered and high-fived a lot that day. It was a great career moment.

Shortly after this rather major accomplishment a lady from Shaw Fiberlink invited me out to lunch where she explained that she was moving back to Vancouver to be with her family and she had recommended me for the job. Soon I was off to Calgary to meet who would be my manager. He explained that the job was basically selling their new business modem to small business and developing a market for fibre connections that were about to be installed in the valley. I got to work and soon not only set a record for business modem sales but also made tremendous inroads with fibre. I had met with the manager in charge of the installation plan and we had worked together to come up with a total plan to connect what was called the Interior Health Region throughout the valley. After a big presentation to a senior manager he gave us a contract to connect two hospitals with the rest of the entire contract based on meeting the standards of the first connection, which we exceeded. The contract was huge and I stood to make about eighty thousand dollars in commission. I had also been working with people like Interior Savings to connect their branches in Penticton, Kelowna and Vernon. I knew it was only a matter of time before I had landed every major contract. I had also managed to join the new Okanagan Science and Technology Counsel who were going to promote the area as a major tech hub. They were thrilled at what we could do for them.

Just when I thought my life could not get any better my world came crashing down. There was a big announcement coming from the President of Shaw and my manager (the ninth in a very short time) was coming from Calgary to our office. The announcement was that Shaw Fiberlink had been sold to a company called Group Telecom, who were basically a hedge fund like Goldman Sacks. The sad part was that they had no interest in laying fibre in the valley because it was “too expensive” so our office was being closed and I was out of a job. Some time later they had laid off all hundred and thirty-five employees of Shaw Fiberlink. Even at that point I figured they owed me at least twenty thousand dollars in commissions but they refused to pay me a dime. I was beyond devastated. I spent months renovating my girlfriend at the time’s house and struggled with what to do. After that ended I took at a job with Pacific Cellular selling for Rogers AT&T and then moved to Sunwest Cellular. Neither was a great job so I started looking around again. I found FBC, a company selling tax and estate planning services.

With FBC I covered the South Okanagan, meaning I put on a lot of miles. At one point they lost their rep for the North Okanagan and I covered the whole territory until they hired someone else. During my not quite two years with them I sold more than they had ever seen in their fifty year history and I never lost a prospect. What turned out to be my last contract was with a guy who owned a helicopter company and his wife owned a retail store. Their numbers were high and my commission was nine thousand dollars. The deal with FBC was that within thirty days after I signed them our tax consultant would meet with them. I was starting to get annoyed calls from my clients saying that they had heard nothing from the company. My manager said the company was having trouble hiring and training staff to do the work. He actually said that it was partly my fault for selling so much. Not funny. Then I got an angry call from that last big contract, demanding their money back which would mean I would need to return the nine thousand dollar commission. I quit.

I then got a job as the Regional Manager for a new business publication, Business Thompson Okanagan. It was an interesting job and I did have some success, like getting John Thomson to do a full page report in our paper, and signing  Envision Credit Union to a two page spread. I worked very hard but my manager did not understand that it takes time to build relationships in the Okanagan. I would never have landed John had I not known him for years. My manager and I agreed to part ways. The publication is now called the Business Examiner.

In May of 2005 came another one of those life-changing moments. My father died in my arms, leaving my mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s in need of care. My father had done nothing to get her into the type of care facility she needed, and my brother and sister were useless so I was the one who gave up my life to live with my mother and care for her, which was the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life. No one who has not been directly involved with Alzheimer’s will ever understand how incredibly difficult it is. In addition to spending every day trying to get her into a care facility I also finished the renovations getting ready to sell her place as soon as I got her into a facility. After months of trying I finally got her into Winterhaven but my sister pulled her out and that ended in disaster with my mother dying.

I was then self-employed as a contractor renovating a manufactured home in West Kelowna. When that turned into a total disaster I moved to Panama, where I built city portal websites and also renovated a three story apartment house. Yet another disaster and I was forced to return to Canada, originally offered refuge by my cousin in Toronto. I then moved to London, Ontario, following a new love and started working for Phoenix International at a call centre marketing an international trade show in Toronto. It did not go well.

I then spent several months living out of my car and in various group homes like the Centre of Hope run by the Salvation Army. Certainly the low point of my life. Despite living in a group home in a dormitory I managed to get a job at Home Depot. Lousy shifts. Lousy working conditions. Lousy pay, but it was a job. Then about a hundred of us got laid off. For a very brief period I worked for the worst company I had ever worked for, Stream Global Services (now Conversys). Enough said.

I got accepted into a build your business program and managed to earn enough to survive for a little while. When that was coming to an end I again started looking for somewhere cheaper (and warmer) to live out my life and found Ecuador. After moving to Cotacachi I again started building city portal sites for various towns around me. Unfortunately I got screwed by my government when I did not get my GIS pension for six months. It left me penniless and I was borrowing money from a friend to survive. I knew that I had to return to Canada and my friend offered me a place owned by her son north of Belleville. Yet another turning point. Belleville.

Now technically “retired” but still searching for somewhere cheaper and warmer to live I moved to Mexico where I again worked building city portal sites. One of them, for Ajijic, was the best site I had built in my life, but despite that I still never made a dime. After losing my GIS pension, which was a third of my limited income, I had to go back to Canada yet again. I tried to get back to BC but that proved impossible so back I went to Belleville to again live in a group home. Now I finally have my own apartment and I continue to work all day, every day, building websites, praying that someday I will make enough money to live somewhere else.

Well, believe it or not despite the many, many jobs I’ve listed here I left out a few, like GlassVision Solariums where I thought I would make my fortune and be set for life. For a breif time I worked for a company whose name I think was Canwest something, selling home phone systems. I’ve also done a number of home renovation contracts for various people. Nothing of any consequence. I’ve also had numerous business ideas over my lifetime, many of which were eventually developed by someone else. My biggest was inventing what today we know as The Cloud but thirty years ago I developed as InTouch Networks. At the time after assembling an amazing group of partners Microsoft wouldn’t agree to something that they did agree to years later, and the whole concept died.

SIDEBAR: In May of 1978 I started working for Gerry Waterhouse as Sales Administrator for what was then a start up, the TCM Division of American Hoist, in a small warehouse with limited office space. Over a very short time I managed growth from less than an original quarter of a million dollars to over six million dollars. Unfortunately American Hoist couldn’t handle the growth well. We built a network of dealers partly by offering a good floor plan financing program, but after I did the contracts and sent them to American Hoist for signing they just sat there. I remember having a meeting with the Vice President in his office and saw stacks and stacks of these contracts piled up everywhere. He didn’t seem to care. When the dealers would visit us they would ask me where the contracts were. Some would even admit to me that the fork lifts had been put in their rental fleet or even sold, meaning they needed to pay for them. Gerry and I soon realized that it was a house of cards which would soon come crashing down and we would be out of a job.

One day he brought me a brochure for a different kind of fork lift, called NYK, and asked me if I thought we could put something together. After a lot of hard work we were on our way to Chicago to sign the papers to become the national distributor for these fork lifts. I remember on the flight down Gerry asked me what our “company” was supposed to be and I suggested Canada Lift, which we instantly became. I got an incredible floor plan with the Bank of Nova Scotia. I organized a meeting at a resort in Caledon and invited all the dealers. They all came and all ordered product. The next thing we knew we had a quarter million dollar order to soon be on its way, with every unit presold. We found an office in Oakville and got ready to receive the order. Although this sounds like a very bad soap opera we soon got word that there was a big investigation by the RCMP about some conspiracy by Gerry and I. Although nothing to do with handling the new line of fork lifts, which American Hoist was prevented from doing because of their contract with TCM, there was one deal made with one dealer on TCM lift trucks that had been ruined in a shipping accident, for which American Hoist had been paid in full by insurance. Soon Gerry and I were being escorted off the property and charged with criminal offenses, for which we would pay dearly soon.

Obviously it wasn’t great being led off the premises or, much worse, being charged, but we had our new company and sold lift trucks on the way on which we were going to make great profits and order more trucks, right? We also knew that being charged was just part of this giant conspiracy theory and we were only guilty of stupidity, nothing criminal. One dealer told me that he heard we were only charged because the RCMP had spent two million dollars doing a national investigation, only to find nothing about any conspiracy. If we had only known what was about to happen.

I got a call at our new office in Oakville to come to the Head Office of the Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto. When we arrived we were ushered into the Executive Offices on the top floor where we met with a roundtable of the most senior executives of the bank. They informed us that the floor plan financing program was cancelled immediately, along with the one hundred and eighty day line of credit they had extended for us to buy the trucks from NYK. Obviously shell shocked I reminded them that they had signed contracts with our dealers to finance their purchases plus the trucks were on a ship arriving shortly. With stone faces they said there were no options here and the decisions were final. It was the death knoll to our business. Everything we worked so hard for was gone. It was the worst day of my life.

As I picked myself up and thought that maybe I needed to do something that only I could control I thought about Real Estate. I took the course and came in third in the class. I became a sales agent with Kyle-Jamieson Real Estate. Until the market crashed because of absurdly high mortgage rates I really enjoyed what I was doing. I still managed to sell some properties for wonderful clients and I worked for six months putting a mall expansion project together, which all fell apart when one idiot refused to sell a property he hadn’t even moved into yet for double his money. This was not the career for me, although I have always regretted that.

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