An American Executive travels to China to solve the mystery of funds drainage from the company he works for.
Once in Shanghai, he finds himself tangled into a world of mysticism, into a world of traditions going back hundreds of years, into a world of philosophical meanings meant to close cosmological paths and previously set destinies.
Action, romance, drama, humor, History, Geography and Philosophy – they all come together in an attempt to blend the dynamic western way of life onto the rich Chinese culture and uncanny traditions.
Ten minutes to nine. John John was never late for a meeting, not even a single minute. John grabbed his laptop and headed to the Boardroom. Usually he liked to talk to people before the start of each meeting, break the ice and get a feel for everybody else’s mood.
After the “good morning” and few greeting exchanges he set his laptop up and pulled on the screen again the file he just looked at when stepped into the Office. Nothing spectacular, nothing out of ordinary, yet his gut feeling was telling him that something was going on.
He screened the room again trying to read on people’s faces if his worries were shared by others. Not a sign! “Maybe I am overreacting…” and looked again at the financial statements in that particular file.
– Good morning everybody! And as usual, John John looked at the people in the room trying to see if anyone was missing. “Where is Rick, where is Tom?”
– They called in sick, came the answer right away from Scott. He was the Vice President, Glenworth’s right hand. John John was spending a significant amount of the day with him lately. Both Rick and Tom were reporting directly to Scott.
– Too many rounds last night, asked John John? Everybody else in the room burst in laughing, a laugh which sounded more like a kind of relief: “He is in a good mood!”
– OK. Let’s get going: the reason I called this meeting is that we do not have good news from our China Branch. He hooked up his laptop to the projector and pulled a file on the screen showing a Chart on Investment History for the last seven years. Surprising, for the first two years we are showing positive numbers and then we continuously dropped into the red zone. I cannot explain this trend. Usually, you are losing in the beginning and then you pick up the pace as you are getting more and more familiar with the respective market. I do understand the financial meltdown of the ‘08 and ’09 which did affect us too, but there is no reason whatsoever to keep losing money in the next three-four years. Now let me bring up the overview of the investments we made, per year and then sorted out per commodity only over a seven year period. The reason why I want to do this is for you to get a feel for the most resilient commodities during this seven year time span and eventually keep them in the back of your mind when you make an investment. You may say that investing in China is different than investing in North America or Europe or Australia. Agree. But there is no harm in taking a global look at a certain commodity before proposing an investment.
J.J. was slowly getting into his favorite part of doing a presentation: building up the momentum to the point when he was coming up with facts, hard numbers and details and always at the end with conclusions.
-Let’s get into details, ladies and gentlemen, and John was from that point onward only eyes and ears. The way J.J. was conducting a meeting was a piece of art. The tone of his voice was mostly deep and low pitched but was changing its tonality according to the importance of the paragraph, according to the message he wanted to send to the audience and most of all, according to what he wanted to achieve.
John studied him for years and he knew by heart what sort of gestures his boss was going to use with every inflection of the voice with every look he was taking at the people in the room.
As usual, at the end of the meeting the conclusions were presented based on hard numbers and of course, the invitation to comment and express own opinions on the presentation was a part of the Company culture which J.J. was anxiously waiting for. His blue eyes, of immaculate incandescent light were looking for any sign of feedback from the audience.
– I really don’t understand why investing in China is different than investing in Texas or Australia? Investing is investing. There are market rules and regulations in place, you do your homework according to company’s philosophy and place the investment, said John. He felt like somebody had to take the initiative and break down the wall of ice created at the end of J.J.’s presentation when nobody wanted to step up to the plate and ask questions. It seemed like nobody did any sort of preparation for this meeting and everybody had the mind occupied with the game only.
– What you are saying John, it is partially true. Yes, investing has its golden rules which are applicable to any sort of investment you make. But, an important part of the whole cycle of investing is: knowing the culture of the country you are placing your money into. It could eventually trigger market fluctuations on a specific commodity. For example: car insurance, or life insurance. Why would these two commodities take such deep dive when economy is doing well?
– Something is not right…it is not normal. That graph…goes against the trend. John stood up and walked to the pull down screen where J.J. still had a slide up. He pointed (with the pen he was holding) towards a specific segment of the graph where the slope was abruptly changing.
– That is exactly the area of the Investments myself and Scott have been looking at and scratching our heads for a long time, said J.J. with a large smile while the light that was coming out of his eyes was so intense that one would think he wanted to hypnotize the people around him. I believe we are done here and if nobody else has questions, we should adjourn. Thank you everybody for your time. We will have to probably meet again in three weeks.
John was ready to leave to room alongside everybody else, when J.J. put his big palm on his left shoulder and said:
– I need to speak to you, John. In my office, please.
– Yes Sir!
– Not now. In an hour, please.
– Yes Sir! I will be in your office in one hour.
– Thank you, son.
– You are welcome, Mr. Glenworth.
J.J. took a seat at the table and made a very discreet sign to Scott to do the same. When everybody else was out of the room, he pulled the presentation again, specifically at that particular slide that generated some interest during the meeting and started a conversation with his Foreign Investments Manager and Vice President.
John, was managing Mid-West and South-West US Investment Accounts and had seventeen Brokers reporting to him. He was reporting to J.J. directly same as all Managers in charge of the US Accounts. However, Scott was holding the Vice President title, so he was (unofficially, but accepted by everybody) above all other Managers by one step.
– J.J. wants to talk to you in his Office…Oooo! Are we looking here at a brand new big Manager? Are we looking at another Vice President? Vicky’s voice was more persuasive than ever and the smile on her face larger and sweeter than John’s ever seen.
– I am a Manager!
– Yes, but you never know what can come out of a private meeting with J.J. said Joan, a forty five year old Broker reporting to John as well as Vicky. Maybe he will make you the Manager over the whole US Accounts…
– Why not? He is smart, he knows what he is doing, he’s got the experience and he’s good looking said Vicky raising the stakes.
– Common’ guys, you are talking non sense. He is not going to make me any sort of more Manager than I already am, said John with the adequate quotation marks when saying the word “more”.
– Or maybe he will be the VP of the Company, said Jay Lee – a Broker from the Atlantic Group.
– Guys! Guys! Please! It is probably a discussion he wants to have on some of the latest investments we made in our newest market in Texas, nothing more.
– Oh yeah, newest market in Texas! He really needs to have a top secret meeting to discuss some Texas style of marketing – Eeeehaaaa – and Vicky graciously simulated a cowboy hat salute while partially sitting on John’s desk. Her short skirt was showing two beautifully shaped legs which attracted John’s attention at a point at which he didn’t know how to take his eyes off of them anymore. She was beautiful and she was pushing the envelope at a level any man could hardly resist anymore. The long blonde curly hair flowing down her shoulders, the narrow hips and the long wonderful legs would drive any man crazy. However, John was always finding her unattractive – for a reason he couldn’t explain. But Vicky was the ultimate predator. She felt the hesitation into John’s eyes. “It is time to go for the kill”. And her wonderful olive shaped eyes looked deep into John’s. John felt like his legs were trembling; his left hand was searching for his chair while his right hand was trying to keep Vicky away.
– Guys, you are making me uncomfortable already! It’s enough. Please, I need to do some preparation before the meeting, said John and with his left hand he showed people in his office the door.
– We understand, John. Please do tell us how the meeting went, said Vicky while slightly bending forward from the hips, enough to expose her largely shaped cleavage showing the two beautifully shaped breasts barely kept together by a pink bra making John almost swallow his Adam’s apple.
One by one, the people in his office evacuated the room and he found himself standing and looking at the door with an empty face, not knowing what to do next, not knowing what to expect next. Finally, John burst into a yell of frustration while setting his palms around his temples in an imaginary effort to get her off of his mind: “She is so pushy, I cannot stand her!”
He grabbed again the file he prepared for the meeting while pulling the chair and started digging again into numbers and data which “nobody seemed to have a grasp on” – this is what his mind was set to, before J.J. knocked at his door.
He didn’t hear the knock. He had his back turned to the entrance, completely focused on reading from the file with the face at the window.
J.J. was standing one foot inside of John’s Office waiting for John’s acceptance to be let in. However, John was so absorbed into his lecture, that J.J. realized he had to knock again into the door’s frame if he wanted to be heard. This is what he was about to do, when all of a sudden his eyes fell on some personal framed pictures John had on a piece of furniture in his office: kids graduating from High School, him getting married to Linda (with J.J. and John’s parents into the attendance) and a big black and white picture of John John and John’s father (Timothy) in Korea. Both of them in the Infantry uniforms, with the rifles pointing up while the expression carved on their teenager faces was showing a complete indifference to the fact that they could’ve had not even made it to the next day. “The ignorance and the genuine bravery of the youth” sighed JJ without knowing that his sigh will be so loud that will make John turn around and jump from his chair:
– Mr. Glenworth! I am so sorry! I didn’t hear you…..please, come in!
– That’s quite alright John! I am sorry for disturbing. I was just trying…to see if you are ready for the meeting. And his sight fell again on the photo where he and Tim thought they could move the mountains only by looking at them. John followed his eye sight and understood right away JJ.’s emotional state of mind.
– Whenever you want me to come to your office, Mr. Glenworth…I am ready.
– Please start calling me by my first name, said J.J. while grabbing John’s left shoulder with his huge right palm and looking right into John’s eyes. Give me fifteen minutes, please; and J.J. disappeared as elusive as he did when walked into John’s office.
The fifteen minutes J.J. asked for, passed by quite fast. All this time, John couldn’t take his eyes off of the picture showing his dad and J.J. in those dirty Infantry uniforms, with their faces almost completely covered in mud. Their blue eyes were throwing bolts of fire trying to convince the photographer that the battle isn’t over. He looked at this photo hundreds of times before, but never was he as emotional over it as he was now. Probably the way J.J. was looking at the picture, the way J.J. was looking into his eyes when grabbed his shoulder, the way he slipped out of his office without making any noise, made John believe that this picture holds a magic power and needs to be beheld as it was sacred. He picked up the file he prepared earlier and headed for J.J.’s Office.
John John Glenworth
J.J.’s Office was classy to say the least. From the entrance door made out of solid oak wood to the desk made out of hand carved mahogany and from the library (covering the whole wall on the left and made from oak wood as well) to the smaller meeting table and the coffee table, all beautifully assorted to the thick Persian carpet on the floor. The multitude of the light reds on the carpet so wonderfully distributed, made the furniture blend in gradually starting from the door and finishing with J.J.’s working desk.
Opposite the door, a big glass wall was showing the busy downtown and a view over the river always astonishing no matter which the season of the year was. This time of the year, the red color of the trees along the river were giving the sight a particular majestic appearance which was inviting people from the Office Buildings to take short walks during their lunch breaks. It was also a usual jogging route for the condo owners in Down Town area.
A large book stand with few shelves was placed behind his chair, to the right. It was the place where John John placed several framed personal photos, mostly family related. He and his wife Jen, he and his son George right before the accident, a photo of the whole family at John John Jr.’s College graduation and few more that couldn’t be clearly seen just by standing in front of his desk.
After the passing of his wife Jen, he had to go through yet another tragedy: the passing of his second oldest son – George – killed on a racing track. George loved racing cars and his dream was to make it all the way to the top and become a NASCAR driver. George’s death left enormous scars on J.J.’s behavior. He became quieter; he used to laugh so hard, his whole massive body was shaking up like a leaf in the wind. Now, he was just smiling quietly. His blue eyes were still as expressive and deep as ever, which in contrast with the thick white hair were always sending a message of self-confidence and were implying respect to and from the interlocutor.
Whoever didn’t know him, had the tendency to be frightened by his imposing stature or by the sharpness of his sight and the way he was looking straight into one’s eyes. But deep inside, he had the heart of a child. Alongside his career at Glenworth Financials he helped numerous young professionals become top advisers into a tough merciless market. Few of them even ended up owning their own companies. He was a master at molding young energetic rough unpolished gems (willing to learn) into diamonds of Financial Markets’ gurus.
John was one of those young talented guys turned by J.J. into a well-known leader at Glenworth Financials and well respected throughout the industry. His potential was immediately seen by John John: native intelligence, adaptability to new circumstances and ability to find a way out of the situations considered lost by others. After just few years at Glenworth, John was promoted into middle Management and had a team of three Brokers reporting to him. Now, after almost twenty years he became the Manager of the most important Accounts – asset wise – of the Company.
When John reached his boss’s office, he stopped at the door and tidied up again: straightened the tie and some invisible wrinkles on his coat and tried to guess by looking into a nearby window if his hair is still properly brushed.
The door was opened as usual. He softly knocked on the doors frame, as J.J. was facing the big glass wall – probably admiring the river side of the Downtown – and the amazing multitude of colors this early fall has brought over the city. From the door, John could only see the top of his head and the white thick white hair showing above his elegant executive leather chair. He knocked again, this time harder. Nothing. At this point he decided to do the trick which would probably never fail in any sort of situation similar to the one he was into: slightly coughed.
Immediately John John turned his chair around and a large smile flooded his face.
– Come in, come in, have a seat! J.J. showed John to the meeting table while shaking his hand. Do you want to have a seat on the couch? The coffee table was in front of a superb leather light colored couch, making this way the room “bigger” by neutralizing some of the sober yet elegant dark colors of the book stands, chairs and working table.
– It’s quite alright J.J. I am perfectly comfortable at this table. Thank you. And John pulled a chair waiting for J.J. to sit first.
– Let’s talk now, man to man said J.J. pulling the chair and inviting again his guest to sit.
I have known you for such a long time John; John John stopped for few seconds in an effort to remember the exact number of years he’s known John. How old are you now?
– I will be fifty one in March next year.
– It’s been fifty one years since I know you! It was like yesterday when I and Jen came over to your parents’ house to say hi to you! Fifty one years! As time goes by! In the mean time you grew into the man you are today and I only wish Tim was still with us to see what good job he has done. How is Judy?
– She’s alright. She does lots of volunteer work at the Church and whenever she has time left, she does the same at the Senior Center nearby. She tries to stay busy, which is good.
– I am glad to hear that. I haven’t seen her since…since the passing of your father. Please say hi to her for me.
– I will Mr. Glenworth; and I thank you for this in her name.
– How is Linda? How are the kids? I believe Stephen is in his last year at the College, if I am not mistaken? And Sophie has two or three more years to go, right?
– Linda is very busy with the school. She is the Principal now of the school – not sure if you knew.
– No! I didn’t know! I am so happy for her. Please congratulate her on my behalf. She is a very smart lady and so goal driven! I knew she would make it to the top in her career.
– I will say hi to her on your behalf and also tell her that you said “congrats”. Beside school, she is trying to keep her father’s legacy alive. She is investing lots of time at the Church after hours. I help her whenever I can.
– Oh, I remember now! Reverend Wilson was her father! What a man! I remember now! Please tell her to come over and see me. I am sure I can help her iron out some financial hurdles she is most likely facing.
– Thank you again J.J., but I am not sure she would take it. You know her. She is not just going to accept a generous check from you in order to spend it – even if it is for a noble cause.
– Nonsense! We’ll find a way to do this. I know lots of people in the financial business and we can put together a charity event. Just ask her to give me a call, please.
– Probably this way is going to work, said John. Actually this is the only way is going to work and a little discreet laughter came out of his throat.
John John smiled and asked again:
– You didn’t finish…how about the kids?
– Oh, Stephen is indeed into his last year…can’t wait to go to his graduation. And he is a quarterback too, said John and his chest was filled with so much pride that his eyes were already betraying him, in spite of the fact that he tried to stay as humble as possible in front of J.J.
– Fantastic! How about Sophie?
– She has two more years to go to the graduation. She is taking Political Studies hoping she could one day get into Politics.
-Aaa…Politics! Never liked it. But it is a necessary evil. You have a wonderful family John and I am so happy for you!
-Thank you Mr. Glenworth.
-John John is my name – especially when it’s just the two of us.
-Thank you J.J.
-Better. Now let’s get down to business.
Pushing a button on the remote control, a screen came out of a library opening. He connected then his laptop to the screen and pulled the presentation again on the screen.
– I looked at these slides a hundred times. Still can’t understand what’s going on, why are we losing money when we should be making it? This is why I called you here in my Office, John. I don’t expect you to find an answer just by looking at the numbers or digging into the files. Something else is going on, something I just can’t get my fingers around it…I am at the verge of giving up and this notion – you know very well – is not part of my vocabulary. Still…I just cannot understand what’s going on.
– Do you want me to start over, from scratch, from square one and dissect this thing into the smallest bits and pieces possible?
– No. I don’t want you to do that. It will be a loss of time. If I and Scott couldn’t come up with anything, neither you will. I want you to do something else…and J.J. took a long break. His eyes looked first somewhere at a specific point on the large window then he looked John straight into his eyes. John’s Adam’s apple started going up and down. A cold sweat was running down his spine when J.J. took his right hand between his two huge palms and said something he never expected:
– I want you to go to China and sort this matter out.
If somebody would’ve thrown a pin on the ground, the ding made by the fallen pin would’ve been heard all the way to the front desk. John’s face was petrified. He thought he did not hear right.
– You want… you want… you want me to go to China? This is what I am hearing?
-Yes. This is what I want, John. With all my heart, I have no choice…I don’t think there is anybody else in this Organization who can get to the bottom of this damn thing. You are smart, you are experienced, you have exceptional people skills abilities and you have something else, something nobody in this company has: a feel for traps. You are combining the training of an Office Executive with the nose for danger of a street guy you developed during those football years of yours. You are the perfect fit for this job. This is why I and Scott came up with this decision.
– So, whose idea this was: yours or Scott’s?
– It doesn’t matter. The job must be done. And it will be done! We cannot afford pulling out of China! His voice went from a normal low pitch calm voice to an authoritarian voice, the voice of a CEO who wanted a job to be done regardless of the hurdles laid down in front of his path.
– How can I help? I have never been there. I don’t know the culture, I don’t know people’s mentality, I can’t speak the language, I don’t know how they do business. You said it during your presentation that it is important to understand how people think – when investing abroad – so we can be on the same page and eliminate the cultural aspects…
– These things you just mentioned are important indeed and I am glad at least one person listened to my presentation! Ha, ha, ha! A big laugh came out of his big chest and his eyes were already watering from laughing. After a short pause, he took his hanky out of his suit pocket and wiped out his eyes.
– In the beginning you should focus on reading people, trying to see what sort of relationships have developed between them in the Office, who is running the show. Tony Gang is the China Branch Manager. He will be your contact person there at the highest level. Also, Vic (you remember Vic from Atlantic Division) will help you out with getting around there and translating. He’s been there for few years now and I hear that he is fluent in Mandarin, if you know what I mean…and J.J. made a giggling sound which made John scratch his head. He also knows lots of politics in that Office and you should heavily rely on him.
-I need some time to think about, Sir.
-Yes, for sure. I hope by Monday you have agreed.
-Today is Friday!
-You have the weekend to make up your mind. I am asking this as a favor from you, a favor with respect to all these years we’ve been together in this business! I have no one to send there, John! Please, help me out! And his eyes were slowly mellowing down from a thunder bolt throwing machine like, to a more like desperate type of a look, a look he has never seen on J.J.’s face before. He felt his shirt soaked wet into a cold sweat down his spine and started trembling while his right leg was nervously shaking up and down.
-I didn’t think it was that desperate, Sir. I didn’t think…
-Yes, it is. I didn’t want to show the real numbers in that meeting. We lost 70 million in the last five years. I buried the numbers so people wouldn’t see them. That graph was a bogus graph. This is the real one: and J.J. pulled another slide, John hasn’t seen during the meeting. The deep was severely more abrupt and John’s eyes almost popped out of the sockets.
-God! This is bad!
-Yes, it is. We are left with two alternatives: we either shut down that Operation or we fix it. And this is where I want you John, to step in and help.
-But I have no experience in overseas investments, I don’t know the culture (as you said), I don’t know the people, I can’t even understand what they are saying…how am I supposed to fix this mess?
-I don’t expect you to fix the mess, John. I want you to lead me to the right track! That’s all I need. I need you to lead me to the right track! I will take care of business from there on. I spent endless nights thinking what to do, thinking if I have to pull the plug or not. I do believe that we should be there, but something is not right! I cannot keep sinking company’s money into a bottomless pit. This is why I need you to go there and try to figure out what the hell is happening with that Organization.
-Let me talk to my wife, J.J. I’m sure she would understand. She loves you. You are a mentor to both of us. You have my answer, I hope you understand.
-Thank you John. Please send my respects to Linda. I can’t wait to see her again.
J.J.’s eyes were watering again and in order for John not to see this, he stood and went to his desk facing the window. He was the kind of man never let his emotions come out in front of his employees and even John was so closed to him, he did not want to see him getting weak – or this is what J.J. considered that state of emotion to be.
He kept looking through the window while he had his hands joined at the back giving a clear sign that the meeting was over.
John figured out that it was time for him to leave and quietly slipped out of the Office. He walked to his Office and sat on his chair facing the same side of the building as J.J.: the river side view of the Downtown. It was absolutely spectacular at this time of the day and his head was spinning already…”What am I going to do in China? How can I help? I know absolutely nothing about doing business there, I know nobody. How am I supposed to come up with a solution?” All these questions started haunting him and a strange feel of uncertainty wrapped him in spite of the fact that he was trying to stay calm and not panic. For the first time in his life he was panicking. He grew up being taught by his father Tim to keep a cool head regardless of the situation. He had his endless football training sessions where he learnt to stay cool into the pocket and not panic, to rely on his big offensive linesmen to protect him from the hits, to rely on his teammates to give him those two seconds he needed to make the throw. In the Office he had a team of professionals who knew how to make a trade, who knew how to make a call when it was about a good investment opportunity who knew how to alert him when things went south.
This time, he figured out he would be all alone in uncharted waters, in a world where the rules are different, in a world where he could not even speak the language, in a world where he could not rely on anybody but himself. He panicked! “I have no pocket! How am I supposed to win a game like this?”