Friday, December 28, 2007

WOW, Part 2, Ch. 1


Chapter 1: June Gloom

The fog flowing in from the cold ocean was so thick Cheryl Corlund couldn’t see the parking lot ten stories below. Whether looking out the window or at her immediate prospects, visibility was zero.

The only way things could be any worse would be if Heath had died. He survived, but when news of the trip hit the websites, within days Wavelife was in the crosshairs of the surf media. Everything about the reef and the LBO came out under a story line portraying her as the greedy CEO trying to steal a company by gutting it for her own benefit in a secret plan so ill-conceived a surfing legend almost got killed. And that was just the beginning.

The story went mainstream. Wavelife International became the Enron of the surf industry. In the clothing business where image is everything, the blowtorch onslaught by the media turned the brand into poison. Orders were cancelled, carloads of merchandise were returned and Wavelife’s credit rating began to erode as confidence in her management abilities went into freefall. It was raining concrete, and then it got worse. The stock plummeted.

“What’s the opening price?”

June Wilson looked up from her Blackberry. From the look on her face, Bill Massara knew the news would be bad. It was.

“All time low single digits. We’ll be lucky if we’re not junk at closing.”

“Better withdraw the bid and notify the SEC,” he said, “And then, well, there are other things you need to think about, Cheryl.”

Massara’s implication was clear. When it comes to the value of a corporation on Wall Street, perception can quickly become reality, and it wouldn’t be the first time the market value of a corporation went south because of charges that were, in the end, entirely unrelated to the real value of the company.

Corlund spun around and drilled him with her frustration.

“Oh, you think I should get out ahead of the problem and resign?”

“Well, uh, it might be a better move than forcing the board to fire you,” said Wilson, trying to give Massara some breathing room.

Corlund stared at her.

“You know, June, I’m not paying you to come up with that kind of advice.”

Then she glared at the original target of her anger.

“And last time I looked, Bill, it still says CEO on my business card, so don’t forget you still work for me.”

That brought a quick, sharp glance from Dolly Artensa. Raised on the streets of South Central L.A. and a gospel singer on Sundays, she was a bedrock source of stability for Corlund in moments of crisis. Massara was well aware of the relationship between the two women. Her obvious disapproval of Corlund’s attitude was a cue to Massara to go out on a limb.

“Correction, Cheryl. I used to work for you. I quit effective immediately.”
Corlund turned away and looked out the window, but the June gloom was only getting thicker.

“So here’s some parting advice, madam CEO. Be out of here lock, stock and barrel by end of business today. Submit your resignation to the board tomorrow. Roberto, too. Use your severance package to take a long vacation and let things sort themselves out. Remember, the board will have to replace the three of us, and that’ll be awfully hard to do. I bet Black and Palua might try to run the company themselves for a while. But my guess is that they’ll make mistakes, the stock will drop some more, investors will be screaming at them, and pretty soon they’ll want out.” He looked at June Wilson who knew exactly what he was doing.

“Then you tender a new bid,” chimed in June Wilson, “You come in on a white horse and cash out the investors for dimes on the dollar. Then you re-org, re-brand, get people working again, and run the company as you see fit. In fact, if the price is low enough, you might be able to acquire all the assets without needing Lasserman or Vutara, assuming you can get some help from Ben Jeffries.”

“That’s a big assumption. I believe he dumped most of his Wavelife stock last week,” said Corlund, so defeated and deflated she’d missed their points entirely, “I haven’t talked to Ben since I saw him at the hospital on Maui, but from the look in his eye, I don’t think he’d return my call.”

“Oh come on, Cheryl, snap out of it. Just because your reputation as a CEO is now somewhere between Gordon Gecko and the wicked witch of the west does not mean this is end of the world,” said Dolly Artensa, “I like the idea of your resignation. Honor is a best management practice, and there’s a lot to be said for integrity as a CEO’s most important core competency. So, I’m with Bill, and I quit, too, effective tomorrow.”

That got Corlund’s attention. There was nothing but a gray void in front of her, but if she listened to the people behind her and what they’d told her to do, she had a chance. And there was no other choice. She turned around to face her friends.

“Ok, Dolly, how do I get back on the block?” she said with a wry smile.

Artensa recognized the code in the question. “Back On The Block” was the title of the record Quincy Jones had released to announce his return to the music business. Whenever Corlund had needed unvarnished advice, that was phrase she used. Corlund needed a shot of Artensa’s indomitable spirit, and sometimes that spirit worked in mysterious ways. The carpenter’s nail routine had been Artensa’s idea, as were a number of other highly effective routines that kept her boss sane over the years.
“Back,” Artensa snapped her fingers twice, “back on the block.”

She paused four beats, repeated the line, and began to snap her fingers in rhythm. Wilson and Massara didn’t have clue as to what was going on, but Artensa was in rhythm and didn’t think twice. Getting up out of her chair and walking across the room, she laid a rap on her boss.

"Ok, CEO CC straight outta the OC,
here’s the four one one – now you listen to me.
Convene the board ten aye em tomorrow
Tell ‘em you’ve had enough of all this sorrow.
Your resignation is effective immediately.
And your team has quit too, and that includes me.
I ain’t workin’ for nobody else.
And without us here this place’ll be hell.
And when that happens they’ll begin to understand
that running Wavelife has nothing to do with surf or sand.
By then we’ll have been back east and found enough money,
to come right back and buy this place, and I’ll tell you, honey,
then we go into school clothes with Sonny and Aleja
as role models for kids who need to dream of being more than just a playah.
And we set it all up on a different synergy
Let’s mix the salt of the earth with the salt of the sea
And Heath and Bruddah are part of this too,
and Wavelife becomes something honest and true.
Now if you think about it you’ll be down with what I’m sayin’
You’ll have to work harder from the heart day in – and day out
Getting real is what I’m talkin’ about
The faster we leave the faster we’re back
So, in brother Ray’s words, Let’s hit the road, Jack.”

Wilson and Massara broke out into applause, but Artensa wasn’t done yet. She stepped back and with a motion of her head to them the four joined hands in a small circle.

“Lord, help us now in this moment of change. We accept your will, and we beseech you for the strength to start again.”

A sensation coursed through them that was palpable and extraordinary. But this was no tent-show revival, no healing of the lame in the aisles, no lost souls straining to find solace. No, with Dolly Artensa this was the real thing.

They dropped hands, and were silent for a moment as an entirely new energy filled the room that put a smile on Cheryl Corlund’s face.

“Ok, now where were we? Yes, ladies and gentleman, for the moment I am still the CEO of surfing’s largest corporation. Now, let’s get down tonight, er,” she smiled at Dolly, “I mean to business.

“June, you’re contract with Wavelife is hereby terminated. Please vacate the premises immediately. When you get back to your office, there should be a call waiting for you about your next client,” she pointed to herself then turned to Wavelife’s former CFO. “Bill, your resignation is accepted. Please go to human resources and your exit processing. Good luck in your next position,” she paused, “which just might include working with June if you’ll be my personal business advisor. Why don’t we all talk about it at lunch at my house, ok? And Dolly, please draft my letter of resignation and a goodbye message to the employees. And call Chad Roberts down in HR to have OUR,” she paused to let the last word hang in the air, “exit processing completed as of ten a.m. tomorrow morning.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” said Artensa.

Corlund thought for a second, and then smiled in chagrin.

“June and Bill, my apologies. I forgot to say ‘please’. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“That’s my girl,” said Artensa, “And while you’re practicing your newly found and now permanent sincerity, you do have several calls to make.”

She glanced at her watch to see what time it was in Hawai’i.

“Yes, I do, Dolly. Can you get Heath on the line?”

“Sure, after you talk to your husband and your children.”

Since his return from the reef, Roberto Mercante had been unable to get much of anything accomplished. He’d gone through a lot in the past six months, including having to fire his entire surf team. But that was nothing compared to the shock of seeing Larson almost die at the reef. And after the withering attack on Wavelife in the surf media, he retreated to reconsider everything. Now he was slowly coming around by staying home and spending time with his teenage children. Then it was time for another shock from the wife and mother that had been so little of either for so long. The phone call lasted almost half an hour, and he felt some real hope for his family that hadn’t existed for a very long time. So did Donny and Anna, though they were still a bit skeptical when the call ended.

Corlund went out and sat on Artensa’s desk.

“Dolly, I think they don’t quite believe we’re really going to do this.”

“They will after we get done with figuring this all out across your kitchen table, Cheryl. Remember, we’re still on company time, so why don’t you go home now and get things ready. Deep down I bet they’ve been waiting for years for you to come home and fix ‘em sandwiches for lunch!”

* * *

The view from the front porch was spectacular in the early afternoon light, but there was nothing about it that made any difference to Heath Larson as he listened to Cheryl Corlund’s question. He could have been in Topeka, Kansas for all he cared.

“No, I haven’t been surfing, and in fact I might never surf again.”

“Well, I can understand it might take time to recuperate, Heath, but - - - “

“But nothing, Cheryl. You can’t recuperate from brain damage.”

“What? The doctors in Tahiti checked you out. The doctors in Honolulu checked you out. Everything’s ok. They couldn’t find anything wrong, Heath.”

“And they were right, up to a point. But a few nights ago I tried to get back into my reading routine and I couldn’t understand what was on the page.”

“Oh, come on Heath, you’re still just a bit tired. You’ll be ok.”

“No Cheryl, this is serious. I can’t understand Sartre anymore.”

“Heath, nobody could understand him to begin with!”

“Cheryl, this is nothing to joke about. I was underwater for more than a minute before Rowe brought me to the surface. It took them another three minutes to get me to the Skyhook, and then another minute before Rowe got my heartbeat back to normal using the defibrillator. That adds up to almost five minutes of reduced oxygen flow to my brain. The generally acknowledged limit before brain damage sets in is three.”
“Heath, you sound ok to me, and you passed all the psycho-motor skill and cognition tests to see if there was any damage. Maybe you need a little more time to just relax.”

“Cheryl, relaxing is not going to help me ride big surf again because the foundation of my surfing goes much deeper than that, and you know it. So does Bruddah, and Sonny-boy and Aleja to a certain extent. But I’ve never fully explained it to you, or anyone, except for Ben that night in his library.”

“Well, tell me about it, then. What is it, mind over matter or something like that?”

“It’s not a clichĂ©, Cheryl. Sartre wrote “Being and Nothingness” during the German Occupation of France during World War Two”. He had just been released after nine months in a Nazi prison camp. He had spent the ‘30s becoming one of the most respected philosophers in France, but when the war broke out, he was challenged to put his tenets to the test. He came up with a philosophy of mental discipline to deal with the Nazi occupation, the rounding up of the Jews, and the executions of his compatriots in the Resistance. And I’m telling you Cheryl, “Being and Nothingness” gave me what I needed to surf big waves the way I do.”

“Like Sartre was able to deal with overwhelming experience of the Nazi occupation. Ok, Heath, so you’re telling me you pushed your surfing too far, you almost died, your brain is damaged, and you can’t get back to the raison d’etre that allowed you to ride big waves to begin with. That really scares you, more than any big wave you’ve ever ridden, and now you don’t think you can ride one ever again.”

“Yes, and I’d just as soon keep it to myself, actually.”

“Well, that might be ok for the part about Sartre, but I can tell you it will be big news pretty quick if you stop surfing, though probably no bigger than what’s already been written about the whole thing.”

Yeah, Bruddah told me it was in the papers, and Sonny-boy said it was all over the Internet, but I’ve stayed up here in the cabin and tried to forget the whole thing. No TV, no papers, no nothing.”

“Lucky you, Heath. When word got out that you were hospitalized in Tahiti, the surfing press had a field day. It was nuts around here. They even staked out my house.”

“Yeah, they tried to get to me, too. But Bruddah made some calls, and they left me alone.”

“Like I said, Heath, lucky you, because here it only got worse. The press started digging into the company, and blew me up into headlines on page one of the business section. The reef, the cutbacks, the LBO, everything. Orders were cancelled, stuff got shipped back, and now Wavelife is in jeopardy of going under because the stock is practically worthless.”

“But I thought - - -“, he paused and realized the connection between Corlund’s nightmare and his selfish desire to detach himself from the world. By being only in himself he had not made the wave, and that led to a catastrophe for a person who had never done him any harm.

“Cheryl, I’m so sorry. I, I can’t tell you, I, just, it was just - - - “

“Heath, you don’t have to apologize. In fact, it’s all just as well. There might be a way out for the company, but only if I do something drastic. So I’ll be resigning tomorrow.”

“I got wiped out by a wave, and now you’re going under too? Sounds like we’re both paddling in, and its just as well, I guess.”

“Heath, I don’t surf, and I’m not paddling in. Dolly had an idea, and it just may help us find the one way out of our respective dead ends.”

Cheryl Corlund knew she was out on a limb. There would be no way to get through to Larson unless his existentialism could be reinforced as part of the solution. But the solution to the entire problem had started with Dolly Artensa, and she had to find a bridge between the church-going Gospel singer and Jean-Paul Sartre. Then she remembered a name from a survey philosophy class from her freshman year at Harvard.

“Well, as I understand it, Sartre found himself ultimately boxed in by the airtight perfection of his version of existentialism. Isn’t that what he finally discovered about his philosophy when he wrote ‘No Exit’?”

“Not exactly, but keep going. I’m listening,” said Larson.

“So what about Kierkegaard? He was an existentialist. Ever hear of him?”

Larson thought for a second. Why would she bring up the name of a Danish philosopher who, many years before Sartre published “Being and Nothingness”, struggled with the dichotomy of individual identity versus Christian fellowship?

“Cheryl, don’t tell me Dolly wants us all to be born again! And now that you’ve got religion, you’re calling to convert me?”

“C’mon Heath, don’t shortchange me or Dolly like that. But she thinks we can start all over again, and so do I, because there might be a way to put altruism and capitalism together the way Kierkegaard combined Christianity and existentialism. We can’t detach ourselves from others, Heath, you with your Sartre, me with my corporate shield. We have to commit ourselves to a better world for everyone, not just ourselves. And I need your help.”

Larson couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Here was Corlund talking about riding a much bigger wave than he’d ever imagined. He knew her point was well taken about Kierkegaard’s version of existentialism being a viable way out of his dilemma. And he was much easier to understand than Sartre.

“Ok, Cheryl, I get it,” he said, “Whatever you want me to do, I’m there.”

“First off, go surfing. Second, where are Bruddah and Sonny-boy?”

“On O’ahu. But I can get ‘em back here by,” he checked his watch, “I can have them here in about four hours.”

“Ok, I’ll call after I get home tonight. I want to make a business proposition to them, and you. We’ll go over the details. Tomorrow is going to be a big day for all of us. Let me tell you what we’ve got in mind so far.”

When she was finished talking to Larson, Cheryl Corlund went out to Artensa’s desk to review her letter of resignation, the fax to the board members announcing an emergency meeting tomorrow, and the e-message to the Wavelife employees. Then she went back to the phone for another two hours. After hearing what Corlund had in mind, Aleja Gracellen had no problems resigning from Wavelife. She knew she wouldn’t be missed in Orange County because there was no way the new leadership would be supporting the shelter. She had enough grant money in the pipeline to keep the doors open through the end of the year so the shelter was in no immediate danger. But the calls to Ian Clark and Tina Sanchez were nowhere near as easy. Though sympathetic to her situation, they weren’t about to walk away from their contracts, even after Corlund talked in general terms about her plans. Thus having covered all her bases, it was now time to call Ben Jeffries.

“Cheryl, you know I can’t do anything about all this anymore. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, and next time you’re in New York, give me a ring, ok?”

“Ben, does Soren Kierkegaard ring a bell?”

“You know, Kierkegaard. About a hundred years before Sartre’s agnostic existentialism, he came up with something quite similar based on love of yourself, your fellow man, and the reality of God’s love.”

“What does that have to do with this phone call, Cheryl?”

“Well, Heath thought you’d be interested in what convinced him to hear me out about my plans. In fact, he wants to talk to you about them, too. Can you fly him to New York tomorrow?”

The mention of Heath Larson’s name gave Jeffries pause. The memory of the night in the library on board the Aeolusean was indelible. He had flown to Hawai’i to visit Larson in the hospital and make sure he was ok. Larson was a comrade-in-arms, and when he fell, Jeffries was there to lend support. Now, with the Wavelife stock in shambles and the LBO in the trashcan, Larson was the last thing on Jeffries’ mind - which made it poetic justice that the mention of his friend suddenly got his undivided attention.

“Tell him my jet will be at the Maui airport tomorrow morning.”

“Thanks, Ben. And on the way back, could you please make a quick stop in L.A.? There are some people who will be looking for work who would also like to talk to you, too.”

“Cheryl, now what are you talking about?”

Jeffries listened intently as Corlund laid out a blue-sky scenario that quickly became quite logical after she explained everything that had happened in the office and on the phone.

“So that’s the basic game plan, Ben, and it would be wonderful to have you on our team.”

“I’ve got a lot of questions, Cheryl, but they can wait till we’re on the Aeolusean. But since I know you’ll have some good answers, we’d better get started right now. Have June and Bill call me at home tonight. I’ll be up late. Which reminds me, tell Heath I’ve got a first-edition Kierkegaard for us to review when you all get here. See you then!”

Cheryl Corlund and Dolly Artensa were sitting on folding metal chairs by the window in the CEO’s office. They were joined by Roberto Mercante who, for the first time in years, was holding hands with his wife. They’d come back after what had been the business lunch of their lives. It was well past quitting time and they were looking much worse for the wear and tear of the day’s events. Armed with a bar code reader, Mercante had been locating everything they owned throughout the building and boxing it all up. Corlund and Artensa did the same thing on the tenth floor. They did not touch their computers, file cabinets, or any other source of corporate information. They were taking no chances. Their exit had to be quick, clean and above reproach. The boxes were date- stamped, sealed, and readied for shipment to their lawyer’s office.

When Cheryl Corlund finally emptied her desk, she came across a book she’d kept since getting her MBA. She’d never opened it in all these years, but the view out the window into the swirling fog reminded her of one particular episode in the saga of Ernest Shackleton’s heroic story of courage and determination almost a hundred years ago. Now that they were ready to walk out for the last time, she was finally going to use it in the CEO suite of surfing’s largest corporation.

“Ok, team, this is pretty much it, except for one thing. Now, with all due respect to the good Lord,” she nodded in Artensa’s direction, “and the best management practices of Wall Street and the Harvard Business School, not to mention the savviest surfer I’ve ever met,” she smiled at her husband, “I’d like to read a story about what happened to three people in much the same situation as that in which we currently find ourselves.”

Mercante and Artensa sat down on some boxes as Corlund outlined the story of Ernest Shackleton’s desperate attempt to rescue the men of his expedition after they had become stranded on an island off the Antarctic coast in 1914.

“They had no communication with the outside world at the time, so Shackleton decided to go for help. He hand-picked five men to go with him in one of their lifeboats, and their voyage across eight hundred miles of stormy seas to South Georgia Island is the stuff of sailing heroics. But that’s not what I’m thinking about right now. They made it to the island, but there was a mountain range between them and the whaling stations. So they had to try and cross the mountains. With darkness coming on, they found themselves high on a windswept ridge with clouds coming up the slopes.

“Here, let me read you this one part,” she said, opening the old book.

Within minutes Artensa and Mercante were transported far from the tenth floor of a high rise in the heart of Orange County as they listened to how the lives of three people came down to a moment where there was literally nothing but faith to see them through.

Corlund’s voice had been steady and measured in reading the account. It softened as she came to the final passage,

“. . .the possibility of the slope ending in a sheer fall occurred to us; but the fog that was creeping up behind allowed no time for hesitation. There could be no turning back now, so we linked arms and slid down in the fashion of our youthful days. When we stopped, on a snowbank at the foot of the slope, we found that we had descended at least 900 feet in two or three minutes. We looked back, and saw the grey fingers of the fog appearing on the ridge, as though reaching after the intruders into untrodden wilds. But we had escaped.”

She closed the book.

“Of course, the story didn’t end there. The three men had to battle across another mountain range, and then attempt two rescue voyages to get back to the island where they had left the entire crew of the expedition. But in the end, all were saved, with not one life lost, all thanks to a leap of faith.”

Before anyone could say another word, the door was suddenly opened by the janitor pushing in his cleaning-cart.

“Oh, I am so sorry, so sorry. I come back later, sorry.”

“No, please, that’s ok,” said Corlund, “We’ll be out of here in a few minutes.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you. This my last office and then I done.”

“Well, compa,” said Roberto Mercante, “You can be done for the night right now. We will clean up everything. Just leave the vacuum cleaner, ok?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Big problems the boss maybe.”

“You won’t have any problems with your boss. I’ll make sure of that.”

“Thank you. Much thank you. You good people. Big surprise my wife I in the house early. I no see the children before they go bed a long time. Thank you. Buenos Noches.”

“Amigo, un momentito, por favor.” Mercante walked over to the man, opened his wallet, and gave him a hundred dollar bill. It was a far cry from the last time he tried to give a total stranger a c-note, but he realized that things were going to be a lot different from here on in.

“Para su familia.”

“Gracias, jefe. Good night my friends.”

The janitor closed the door and a warm light began to fill the room. The thick deck of clouds still hovered over the coast, but the rays of the lowering sun were starting to shine through a narrow gap of clear sky out to sea.

Almost a minute went by before Dolly Artensa broke the silence.

“How many men did Shackleton save?”

“All of them, Dolly. He didn’t lose one. And we won’t either. And we’ll start with him. I’ll call the janitorial service tomorrow and make sure he doesn’t lose his job if Black and those guys start cutting back on everything.”

“What about all the Wavelife people? What if the company implodes? What if the board screws up everything and this place goes under?”

“Then we just keep trying, like Shackleton, until we’ve done the right thing by all of them, Roberto, just like you did a minute ago.”

The sunset’s beautiful glow began to fade as the sun touched the horizon. Dolly Artensa turned away from the window, went over to the dimmer switches and turned them up full.

“Hey, you two, let’s clean up this mess and get outta here!”

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