Sunday, 24 March 2013

tough times

I was sorely tempted to call work and suggest I didn't bother going in, faced with the prospect of another cold day, melting snow soaking my gloves, few customers, and not enough to do.  Taking a purely short-term view of it, the owner would probably have been happy enough to save a little on the wages bill.  I didn't make the call.  Taking the longer-term view, once you start deciding to not turn up to work on days when you don't really feel like it, or your employer decides to start standing you down at short notice to cut costs, you are both on a slippery slope.  Another time, I might decide I'd got other things I'd rather be doing on a day when my services were badly needed.  Small teams need everyone to be utterly reliable.  In the past decade I've missed a handful of days at short notice, through illness, and once when a tree collapsed over the front garden and it wasn't reasonable to leave the Systems Administrator working alone with a chain saw.

It wasn't very nice, though.  I finished putting the plants from the red trolley out for sale, except for one tray of Polemonium.  To make a space for them required me to move all the rest of the Jacob's ladders, and they were so covered in snow that I really couldn't see which was which or what I was doing.  Once the snow melts it will be the work of two minutes to sort them into the right order.  I removed the shrink wrapping from a delivery of plastic-coated obelisks, being careful not to damage the plastic, or lose the screws and wing nuts from the larger designs that come in two parts.  One finial was badly scuffed in transit, a great flap of plastic coating scraped away from the underlying metal, and will have to go back to the supplier.  I assembled the two-part obelisks, and stuck prices on packs of flexible plastic plant ties.  I searched through the list of plants people are waiting for and made phone calls, shamelessly ringing about enquiries dating back a full year, which drummed up a couple of prospective sales.  I was as nice and helpful and enthusiastic as I could be to two couples who were both making their first visit to the plant centre.  It snowed all morning and half of the afternoon, while the wind whipped the lying snow around.  It wasn't fun.  It wasn't what people dream of, when they imagine a fulfilling job working with plants and people who are interested in plants.

It is even less fun for the owners.  We have stocked up for spring, and need to start converting that stock back into cash.  There are suppliers to be paid, not the mention pay-day for the staff at the end of the month.  The growers we get the plants from must be pretty anxious too, since if retailers aren't shifting the stock they've already got, they won't be re-ordering.  The growers started propagating and potting months ago, and are now sitting on peak stocks themselves.  They equally need to start converting that stock back into cash, besides which plants will only keep for so long in pots before they start to deteriorate.  It isn't a business anyone would be in unless they really liked plants.  Or at least, they shouldn't be.  Digging out my ancient and moth-eaten investor's hat, it's an industry I would only put on a very low PE ratio.

It has its compensations, though, as a way of life.  Last week a friend from our City days parted company with his investment firm rather suddenly, and the SA suddenly realised that the only e-mail address he had for someone we've known for nearly thirty years was the office one, which had already been stopped.  And last night we watched Margin Call, a financial thriller released with little fanfare in 2011, that opens with a mass-sacking, immediately before the firm discovers that its holdings of complex financial instruments may have pushed it into insolvency.  The head of risk management was one of the staff to be fired.  His former bosses cannot call him to ask for help because when they fired him they cut off his telephone.

One of the things I decided when I left the City was that I was going to own my own life.  No corporate phone, no corporate e-mail, no corporate hospitality, no corporate lunches.  My social capital would be my own, my address book would be wholly mine, no employer would be able to cut me off from anyone I knew, and anybody who chose to spend time with me would do so because they wanted to, not because they were after my firm's business.  It is a decision I have never regretted, even on days like today when it left me trudging about lining up rows of geraniums in a snow storm.

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