Business as unusual

It is 1995. Kirk Mitcham, a CEO who built his multi-million dollar toy business, singlehandedly from scratch, may be very successful, but his brusque, uncompromising approach has made him many enemies. This does not bother him, but when SmallWorld Ltd., a UK business he has recently purchased, is not performing how he requires and he risks losing a lot of money with it, he does get concerned. Not satisfied with how Gwen Ames, the financial director he placed in the company, is handling things, he decides to fly over to Birmingham find out for himself. He takes with him his son, George, whom he wants to learn the business. There they meet up with the three founding directors of SmallWorld, Rex and Jennifer Cousins and their business partner, Vicky Ryan, together with Charles Xe Hong, a long-standing friend of Rex and Production Director of SmallWorld’s Manufacturing unit in Malaysia, Stefan Olufsen a Norwegian entrepreneur who has just sold his virtual reality business to SmallWorld, Rose Cousins, Rex’s daughter, who works as Distribution Manager and deputy to Matt Rogers, the Birmingham unit manager. Also present at the meeting is Juliet Holmes, Rex Cousins PA, who aspires to become a leading West End Actress.  Although he intends to stir things up, little does Mitcham realise he is about to kick over a cauldron of seething resentment, fraud, deceit and infidelity. ​​​​​​​The consequences are not what he expects.  

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Chapter 1 – 09:30 am 12th October 1995 Birmingham

Rex Cousins opened the management meeting of SmallWorld Ltd. at its UK headquarters.

‘I’m very pleased to welcome Kirk Mitcham, Managing Director of our new parent company, Kids Inc., for his first visit to our Repair and Distribution Centre here in Birmingham.’

Mitcham interrupted.

‘It’s Chief Executive Officer. We find your British titles a bit stuffy and ineffective. Carry on.’

‘Thank you for your useful clarification, Mr Mitcham. I should like each of us to introduce ourselves, telling him a little about our responsibilities.’

He turned to his wife.

‘Perhaps you would like to start, my dear?’

‘I am Jennifer Cousins, Company Secretary. I handle the legal side, wages and personnel. I used to run the financial side until Kids Inc. took over.’

‘So, it was you who screwed up the business so much we had to rescue it.’

‘Well really, I …’

Seeing his wife flush with justifiable anger, Rex Cousins interrupted.

‘Certainly, the injection of resources from Kids Inc. was most welcome, but let’s move on. Vicky perhaps you would like to go next?’

‘I’m Vicky Ryan, Design Director for SmallWorld. I am a founding partner with Mr and Mrs Cousins.  Our designs have always proved popular and our latest, the Straits MiniRider, is our best so far.’

Mitcham interrupted again.

‘We’ll get to that later. Who’s the production guy around here?’

‘I, sir, have that honour. I am Charles Xe Hong, Production Director, responsible for our factory in Malaysia. We are very proud of our facility, which was built with the help of Malaysian Government money. It is a showpiece of Malaysian-British co-operation. Our workers enjoy the same safety standards as those applying in the United Kingdom and the USA. It’s part of the agreement.’

‘How much longer before we can get out of that agreement? Those workers cost more than the guys in Illinois. We have spare capacity there.’

‘There is six months to run.’

‘Good, who’s next?’

‘Perhaps I might introduce my UK managers, who operate out of this facility. Matthew Rogers is in charge of the Distribution and Repair Unit.’

‘Good morning, Mr Mitcham. As Charles said, I run both the Distribution and Repair units.’

‘You look after repairs.  How does that keep you busy? Are you selling poor quality products?’

‘Taking your comments in turn. Yes, I do look after repairs and yes it does keep me busy.  We have 350 Penang Pedal cars coming into the Distribution unit every week. We assemble and test one as a quality check. Returns in warranty average two per week, which is only half a percent of the total import.  We also average five repairs per week on out of warranty goods, for which customers pay, allowing the unit to return a small profit, including covering the costs of warranty repairs and testing.’

‘How about the Straits MiniRider?’

‘It’s a new product, so I’d expect warranty repairs to be a little higher.  It’s only been in production for six months, with 150 tricycles coming off the production line in that time.

‘Perhaps I could now introduce my deputy, Rose.’

‘I’m Rose Cousins. I run the Distribution unit and cover for Matt when he’s away.’

‘Cousins? You’re Rex and Jennifer’s daughter?  Don’t expect any family favours or nepotism from Kids Inc.’

‘I would not, Mr. Mitcham. I expect to be treated like any other employee, which is with respect, as I am sure George here does too.  I left school at eighteen and took a five-year degree and apprenticeship with an electronics manufacturer before I joined this company as a trainee manager. I spent another three years doing all the jobs in the factory. This has enabled me to understand the problems the employees whom I manage might face. Only then did my father consider I had sufficient experience to take on my current role, which I did when the previous manager of the Distribution and Repair unit left and Matt was promoted into that role.’

She turned to George Mitcham.

‘I’m sure Mr Mitcham junior can expect the same treatment. Would that be right, George?’

‘Quite right, Rose. Clearly our fathers have the same view and I would not expect it any other way.’

‘Perhaps I will see you in the Distribution Unit for a few weeks?’

‘That would be up to my father, but I’m sure I would enjoy working with you if he does so command.’

‘And I with you, George.’  She then addressed Kirk Mitcham.

‘There is one other point, Mr. Mitcham. Mr Cousins is my father and Mrs Cousins my stepmother, but that has no bearing on my employment with SmallWorld.’

Rex Cousins decided it was time to intervene.

‘Thank you, Rose. Moving on. Gwen Ames of course you know.’

‘Welcome, Kirk; what would you like to know?’

‘What’s this litigation all about?’

‘That was quite a shock. It appears that several British children have been injured by the Straits MiniRider. The parents have got together to sue us.’

‘Why wasn’t this picked up in due diligence?’

Jennifer Cousins saw her opportunity. She responded, with scorn in her voice.

‘All the information was available, but your team didn’t seem interested in it.’

‘How convenient.’

Anticipating criticism, Ryan responded immediately.

‘We have already developed an adaptation to make sure the injuries cannot happen again. A recall is well underway. Charles?’

‘We’ve had the factory working flat out to produce the kits. 90% of the requirement has already been shipped to the UK.’

Rex Cousins added, ‘Most of that is already with the dealers.’

‘Well done the Brits. Gwen, what’s our exposure?’

‘The recall operation will cost around $50,000. The parents are going for between $50,000 and $1,000,000 per child. They are trying to get their case heard in the Illinois courts.’

Rex Cousins shook his head.

‘I don’t think the parents have much chance of success there. Figures are much lower in Britain.  We might even be able to settle out of court.’

‘Gwen, what do our legals say?’

‘They’re not so sure. Putting it at fifty-fifty of getting to the US courts.’

‘Moving on. Tell me about this virtual reality business you’ve purchased.’

‘Over to you, Stefan.’

‘I am Stefan Olufsen, the inventor of the virtual reality game, Wand of Thraag. The game is in the Dungeons and Dragons mould, but instead of rounds on paper, it is all enacted in real time, with participants experiencing the whole thing using VR headsets and suits. I’ve organised a demonstration for you this afternoon in our Leknes suite.’

‘Suite? I hear it’s nothing more than an empty warehouse.’

‘If it were, why would SmallWorld have bought my business? I can assure you it is very far from empty in both the physical and mental senses.’

‘That’s what I’ve come to find out.’

‘And what I’m here to show you. Juliet has arranged everything, so you can see and judge for yourself this afternoon.’

‘SmallWorld didn’t buy the patent, did it?’

‘No, but you can if you wish.’

‘Or I could just fire you.’

‘If you wish to pay me 20,000 Euros, you could. I have a legally binding contract with SmallWorld, which you now own and are responsible for.’

‘We’ll see about that. I can tell you now, if this is all just hot air then I will fire you.’

‘You will see what we have. Only you can decide what you will do then. If it involves any change in the terms of my contract, I strongly suggest you ask, rather than demand. Otherwise, I might get fired, but you will be the poorer for it.’

Rex Cousins detected the tension. He knew Olufsen had a short fuse and Mitcham was a rude bully. This was not a good combination. One likely to see them part ways, but now was not the time to let that happen. Olufsen had a good product. The creation of a sharp and inventive mind. He wanted to pick his brain before the inevitable disappearance of Olufsen. He interrupted.

‘Perhaps this is a good time to break? Vicky has arranged to take you for a tour of our centre. The staff are keen to meet you. We would like you to present the quarterly staff awards in the canteen.’

‘No time for that. George, you do it. Let’s just have coffee and sort this mess.’

Rose spoke quietly to George Mitcham.

‘There’s nothing like a bit of training in addressing the troops is there, George?  It ought to be part of every apprenticeship course.’

A quiet voice broke the silence.

‘If I may. I’m Juliet Holmes, Mr Cousins’ PA. I shall be pleased to get your refreshments. I know what the others like but what will you have, Mr Mitcham?’

‘Bring me coffee; black.’

‘Certainly, Mr Mitcham, since you asked so nicely. Herbal tea, Vicky?’

‘Please, Juliet.’

‘Fine, diet coke for Mr George Mitcham and tea and coffee for everybody else I think, not forgetting the lemon for Charles.’

Holmes went to the kitchen, returning with a tray of mugs, a small bowl containing two packets of Transcontinental Airlines sugar, another with two slices of lemon, a can of diet coke with a glass containing ice, a glass of water with ice and a small jug of milk.

She then brought in a flask of coffee, a pot of ordinary tea and a mug of herbal tea which she handed to Ryan. She passed the coke and glass to George Mitcham and the water to Olufsen, then poured five black coffees which she gave to Rogers, Kirk Mitcham and Rose, Rex and Jennifer Cousins. She poured three black teas which she passed to Ames and Xe Hong, keeping one back and putting milk in it for herself. She passed a bowl to Mrs Cousins.

‘Sugar for you, Jennifer.’

‘No thank you, Juliet, I’ve started my diet. I have sweeteners’.

Jennifer Cousins took a pack from her bag, simultaneously passing the sugar bowl on to Kirk Mitcham, who used the two packets.

‘I’m sure you won’t need me anymore, but I’ll be just outside in case you do. Why don’t I take Charles with George to meet the team? You won’t need us, will you?’

‘Sounds good. Okay with you, Charles?’

‘My pleasure Rex, I should like to meet your team. One point before I leave. Matt and Rose, I’ll see you both in here with Juliet for our safety test this afternoon. I’ll bid you all farewell for now. George, shall we go?’

‘Fine by me, lead on please, Miss Holmes.’

‘Thank you, Juliet, what would we do without you?’

‘Buy a vending machine, perhaps?’