TOBIAS FOX, VICE president of sales, arrived at our Canberra sales office by taxi. This was the last stop on his nationwide recession-chasing tour. For some weeks prior to his arrival, motivated by primal emotion, our team pored over spreadsheets, deals and opportunities, trying to construct a future. Our creatively optimistic forecasts failed to obscure the fragility of our predicament. The numbers looked terrible, and for Tobias the numbers meant everything.
Growth is a fundamental imperative of capitalism, and for some it is an end unto itself. For more than a decade the world forgot that endless growth is unsustainable. That's why we have great recessions – to remind us. Since the late 1990s my wife and I had reclined on a bed of puffed-up middle-class comfort. Like so many we were oblivious to the growing troubles and ignored the debt hole beneath our mattress: a mortgage, school and university fees, HECS debts, tax debts and big-boy's-toy debts.
Before the recession, Australia's economy roared. In Canberra, industry flourished with ripe government contracts. Companies grew fat; sales managers made fortunes and some entrepreneurial ex-public servants even made BRW's rich list. Most ignored the faint voices warning of trouble ahead. And for a while Canberra was sheltered by its isolation and the public service; but eventually the financial plague came to its bushland suburbs.
MY COMPANY EMPLOYS several hundred thousand people globally and reaps tens of billions in revenue every year. Tobias rules the Australian roost; our clients are mostly government departments and agencies. In October 2008 business started to recede. The recession sucked the marrow from some of our most loyal clients. They delayed, reduced or abandoned acquisitions. Profit and loss ratios and budget cuts dominated boardroom discussions – survival plans replaced expansion strategies. The Rudd Government set forth on a crusade early in its tenure: bands of bureaucrats and high-powered consultants roamed Canberra's byways, lanes and alleys, seeking out inefficiency, duplication and waste – and there was much to find.
When the crisis hit, our company's corporate surgeons panicked and cut deeply into muscle and bone. The first to go were the middle managers, followed by the backroom sales support, administrative people and the inventory they managed. The sales force thinned as revenues declined. Senior managers celebrated the profit savings that buttressed their own positions, but they mortgaged common sense and forced untenable sales numbers onto the few ragged troops that remained. Some of the slack was taken up by low-paid Malaysian and Philippine workers, who took to the phones armed with naive enthusiasm, phone lists and scripted introductions.
Anything that smelled like a perk came to an end: office managers stopped buying newspapers, stationery and the Tuesday fruit basket. We could buy coffee for clients but not fat-boy lunches. In order to save power and costs we were encouraged to work from home. Tobias cancelled our hallowed sales symposium and stopped inviting ex-Olympian motivational speakers to motivate us. One final indignity remained: the CEO asked each employee to ‘volunteer' for a pay cut of ‘only' one-tenth. ‘Your small sacrifice will assist us avoiding "hard" decisions,' we were told. ‘Hard decisions' translated as mass sackings, but there was no guarantee that a pay cut would save any job. I hedged my bets and voted yes.
OUR CEO ALSO took a pay cut, but he earns more in a few days than I do in a year. He earns more over a long business lunch than some of our Malaysian teleworkers earn in three months. An e-net magazine reported that the company's board awarded him $32 million in cash last year, a $1.8 million salary and $30 million in bonuses. The figures were posted on the day of President Obama's inauguration, when he declared: ‘Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed...a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous.'
Our company favours only the prosperous. Tobias could sack me on a whim. He can cut my commission, or change my accounts, my role and conditions without consent. I wondered how many people Tobias would sack once he had examined our business. How would he do it? I read that a Singapore company activated the building's fire-alarm bells. When the employees assembled in the car park, a security officer appeared and read a message: ‘Dear employees – with sincere regret I have been asked to announce that for many of you it will be your last evacuation drill. Due to the recession, the company is laying off almost half of its employees. So when this announcement finishes, I ask all of you to move back into the building and if your building pass does not work then it means you have been laid off, in which case you will not be allowed inside. Hope you have had a rewarding career with us and all the best ahead. Please move back in and try your luck.'
Later I read the story was a hoax, or that the event occurred in Houston in 1994, when an oil company downsized. Regardless of veracity, it made me nervous.
Tobias commenced the one-on-one interviews early on Friday morning. When I'm nervous I eat doughnuts and listen to music, large headphones jammed on my ears and a sign attached to the back of my chair: ‘Please Do Not Disturb.' I cannot hear the talk of sackings or alarm bells as I savour my sugary deep-fried dough.
A workmate taps my shoulder, startling me.
‘You're next in with Tobias, but not until Monday morning. Make sure you take your account plans.'
‘You still got a job?' I ask, smiling.
‘Maybe. Make sure you enjoy the weekend.'
I DON'T WANT to think about Monday morning. I'm taking my family away from Canberra, away from the recession and fear of failure. We drive to Dubbo for the weekend. On the northern side of Yass the land turns from Canberra brown to fertile green. We pass fields of canola spread across the countryside like lemon butter, and scattered mobs of sheep and alpacas grazing, unmindful of human things.
There are only a few cars on the road. We overtake a truck stuffed with cattle and a tractor towing bails of hay; we pass tired-looking old men towing caravans and a Greyhound bus crammed with Chinese tourists who wave and photograph us.
The country town of Burrowa is overflowing with people, ewes and wethers. The annual ‘running of the sheep' is finishing and we stop to gawk at the remnants of the spectacle. I wander along the swarming street and for just a few dollars I buy a huge jar of homemade marmalade from the Country Women's Association.
We eat a late lunch at the Japanese memorial gardens in Cowra, where we explore the traditionally styled Japanese house with its sunken bath and impossibly small bed. None of us contemplates too deeply the reason the gardens exist, but take pleasure in their meditative beauty and enjoy feeding the koi.
My daughter buys a postcard to send to her Japanese penfriend. I glance at a newspaper. The recession has faded from the front page, replaced by news that North Korea has fired a missile across Japan's bows and America has deployed a squadron of F-22 fighters to Okinawa – just in case. Curiously, the jobs-vacant section remains thick.
Late in the afternoon we arrive at the Dubbo Western Plains Zoo and set up camp. We meet our polite uniformed guides and drink tea as a furious storm erupts. We walk through the zoo that night in torrential rain, our squelching pathway lit by lightning and the guides' spotlights. I smell the rancid stink of the Galápagos tortoise before I see her massive, rain-sodden bulk. She is a hundred years old and may yet outlive me, although her kind may not see another century. She has already lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish flu pandemic, and the rise and fall of thousands of tides.
I RETURN TO work on Monday morning. Tobias and a HR acolyte bivouac in the conference room. I avoid them with busy work and phone calls. At the photocopier I speak quietly to Sam, a veteran of the last great cull. He provides sage advice. ‘Say as little as possible. Be confident. Don't ask questions. Just give them the numbers. Oh, and under-commit – it sounds more realistic.'
Sam and I walk to Psychedeli, a nearby coffee shop. I am a voyeur; my usual seat is next to a window where I can watch the streetscape. My table is also close enough to the caffeine crowd for me to hear snippets of gossip and smidgens of conversation, but today nobody seems to be talking much.
We chat quietly. Sam and I have worked together for several years; he is one of the best sales guys in Canberra, an ex-submariner though he seems too tall to have poked about in small spaces aboard some of the most powerful and dangerous machines invented. He has four years left until retirement. Sam's a lucky bugger: his patch covers Centrelink, a major account. He's confident the selling season will pick up; Centrelink needs to expand to meet the expected influx of customers from hard times.
The café is my refuge. Great and failed expectations cast me upon its shore. In 2004 a good friend started a domestic grey-water treatment company. The drought and harsh water restrictions shrivelled gardens and house values, so the market seemed primed for the product. Avarice and thrill called me to join them on the venture – how could I resist? The technology was brilliant and the business vision clear. We won accolades and prizes, grants and contracts. The New Inventors hailed our grand design and the New York Times wrote about us. We installed our grey-water systems in homes, a prison, a youth-detention centre, a residential college at the ANU, and in office and apartment blocks. Investors and carpetbaggers, at times indistinguishable, courted us with their promises. We schemed and plotted: we dispatched a team to California; we made inroads in the Middle East to treat the water used in mosques; we pitched to Chinese mega-companies – but the tide of wealth never rolled in. As the manufacturing costs climbed, the technology coughed and spluttered. Our sea of credit soon dried up, leaving us in a land void of hope. Fear and failure morphed into blame and retribution. We turned upon each other, like dogs fighting over a poor man's food scraps. I jumped ship and scuttled back to the superficial familiarity of IT. Six months later the company went into voluntary administration. Now it's gone.
SAM AND I finish our brew and return to the office. The dreaded meeting arrives too soon. Tobias Fox sits on the far side of the wide conference table. He doesn't offer his hand in greeting, or smile when I joke about the weather. He explains he wants ‘Just the facts.'
Tobias has tight skin and Arctic-blue eyes. He grills me for an hour about my accounts, clients and opportunities: quarter by quarter, month by month and deal by deal. I search the spreadsheets but they remain void of the magic numbers I need. I stop struggling and sink to the muddy bottom as Tobias takes notes. I'm sure he knows I'm a fraud and should have been sacked months ago.
After the interrogation I drive to a meeting but my enthusiasm has waned. I pass the sprawling campus of the ANU and the iconic buildings around Lake Burley Griffin's shores: the National Library, the High Court and the National Gallery. A wrong turn brings me to Old Parliament House and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, with its flags flying proud amid a collection of ragged tents and demountable buildings.
Finally, I arrive in the foyer of the client's department. A security guard protects the reception desk and takes my details, handing me a pass. I call my client's mobile and she answers quickly but is busy, locked in a conference and unable to meet today. Apologising, she promises to send an email to rebook the meeting. I tell her not to bother, and hang up. Then my mobile beeps: it's an SMS from the office. Tobias wants to see me. Now.
ON THE WAY back to the office I call my wife and tell her I'm about to be sacked. I'm still on the phone when I almost drive into the back of a stationary taxi, drawing the attention of a small tribe gathered in front of the Salvation Army coffee shop. I see them there most days when I walk past on my way to lunch or a business call in my pinstriped, sunglassed superiority. I recognise the windscreen washer, with his scruffy beard and broken, stained teeth. I recognise the ice-faced young woman, an occasional busker whose violin resonates with artful beauty. I wonder what she thinks about before she falls asleep.
I glimpse my car's reflection in the coffee shop's window and see a tired old fool in the driver's seat. He should be driving a Winnebago, heading for baby-boomer nirvana, not running around Canberra selling stuff to public servants. I hope I get a redundancy payout.
The mood in the office is sombre. Tobias calls me into an empty office and asks me to sit down, then comes to the front of the desk and sits near me. There's nothing between us except cold air. He explains calmly that times are tough, the toughest he has experienced in his thirty years in the industry.
Sweat dribbles down my side, soaking my white shirt.
Tobias believes that even tougher times lie ahead and that the recession is yet to sink its teeth into Australia's hide: ‘When it does, the damage will be brutal.' However, he also believes that Canberra will survive the mauling better than most cities. Nonetheless, he explains that he has made five people redundant.
Sam is one of them. I am not. The news shocks me. I'm a fraud and he doesn't know it. I shake his hand, promising not to let him down. He says, ‘Just make your numbers,' and leaves.
Tobias Fox and the recession pass out of the building.
I spy Sam heading for the basement car park, struggling to carry a large cardboard box. I take his briefcase and walk beside him; he looks pale and seems shorter. He says, ‘Mate, who would have thought this would happen?' I point out that he'll have no problem getting a new job and suggest he should celebrate a little – after all, he got a very generous package. We travel in silence down to the basement.
As we get out, I ask him to meet me at Psychedeli some time. I want his advice about how to handle the Centrelink account. He calls me a lucky bastard and walks away.
After a few paces, he turns back and throws me his security pass. ‘Mate, hand this in for me. There's no hurry, though – it doesn't work anymore.'