IN New York City, on the lower west side below Central Park, at
Forty-Sixth Street, a special kind of meeting was taking place. The
Premium Technical Products Incorporated was about to get together for
the second time with the president and an assortment of vice presidents
of its newly acquired subsidiary, Croton Green Incorporated. This small
profitable company had dominated the grass seed and lawn products market
for more than two decades. Its reputation for high quality and excellent
service extended throughout North America and Europe. It was poised to
enter the Latin American countries with an equally excellent version of
its original grass seed. Competition was virtually negligible.
The owner had recently died, and the heirs were delighted to sell.
Premium Technical Products Incorporated was equally delighted to buy as
another step in its strategy for growth.
Facing Forty-Sixth street, the warehouse-type square brownstone building
looked unimpressive. The windows were small and evenly spaced across the
front. It was impossible to look through them. The glass was heavily
opaque with city grime. There were no elevators but multiple flights of
stairs at each corner of the building. If you were employed there, you
didn’t stay overweight very long. The entrance did not offer any
welcome but ushered you directly into a large office that smelled of
work. Stacks of papers and reports greeted the visitor.
Only one area of the entire building had been remodeled and refurbished.
It was up a single flight of stairs. The entire floor was one large
conference room complete with enormous wall-projection screens on three
sides. Darkly stained curved tables created a large oval that encircled
the entire room with just enough space outside the oval to accommodate
sixty comfortable easy chairs that swiveled and tilted as desired. This
room was the dream child of Armand Dillon, president and chief executive
officer of the Premium Technical Products Corporation.
Twenty of the comfortable chairs around the oblong of tables were
occupied. The president of Croton Green sat in the middle of the far
side. On either side of his location sat the vice presidents, including
Finance and Controller. Although they bent forward occasionally to
exchange some words with each other, they mostly waited.
On the near side of the oval, the chairs were all empty. In the middle
of the oval, a technician was fussing with the hidden projectors to make
sure they worked properly for the meeting. A half hour passed
uneventfully except for some mumbled annoyance, which was not tolerated
by the president of Croton Green. Bending forward and with a single
frown, he silenced the low murmur, and they continued to wait. The
president was planning how he might register some kind of complaint at
the appropriate moment. After all, he had brought his whole upper staff
to this meeting at considerable cost and inconvenience. He was an
old-fashioned middle-management type who liked everything to run
smoothly and on time. It was now ten o’clock, an hour late for the
nine o’clock meeting.
Somewhere in the atmosphere, there was a rustling of movement, hardly
audible. They felt it rather than heard it. They just knew something was
stirring. On the near side, doors opened into the room, and in seconds,
all the seats were occupied except one, which was then promptly filled
with Armand Dillon, president and CEO of the Premium Technical Products
Corporation. How the newcomers all knew the meeting was about to really
start was a mystery. It was like a psychic awakening felt in the entire
building. Armand was medium in size, wore an ill-fitting black suit,
white shirt, and dark blue tie. Although he did not wear eyeglasses, he
seemed to be peering out of deeply shadowed eyes, squinting to grasp
details. His face was long for his size, gray in color, and sharply
contoured. Gray crinkled hair added a touch of roundness to what
otherwise was a singularly angular impression. He peered at the
assembled executives, apparently checking to see if all the right people
were there, and then he pulled a stack of reports and loose papers
toward himself and smiled grimly at the president of Croton Green.
“I think we’re ready, Russ. Go ahead. It’s your show,” he said.
As he spoke, he glanced to the right and then to the left along his side
of the oblong, nodding in what was supposed to be a friendly salute to
his own staff. He never blinked. His eyes had a perpetual stare,
carefully noting every detail around him and the slightest movement of
any kind at all attracted his scrutiny. It was general knowledge that
all employees of PTP were included in an underground betting pool to be
won by the first person to identify the actual color of his eyes. They
glinted darkly but did not reveal any particular color. It was even
rumored, but unconfirmed, that they sometimes changed, like a mood stone
devoid of feeling. No emotion found its way to be revealed in those
dark, uncompromising pools of analytical intelligence.
“There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that by now we are also
ready, Armand, and have been for some time!” was the Croton Green
president’s opening remark. He paused meaningfully while a small
snicker rippled through his staff on his side of the oval. No doubt it
seemed to reinstate the respect his staff had for him and he basked in
“I hope that’s not your entire report today!” Armand raised an
eyebrow and frowned, taking in the whole staff on the other side of the
table with an icy stare. When he spoke, nothing in the structure of his
face appeared to move. It seemed as though a mask were sounding out of a
deep cavern, revealing nothing of his true feelings on the surface.
“Not at all. We’ve prepared a number of items for this meeting. If
you agree, Armand, we’ll start with a brief explanation of our
history, our hard and soft assets, a financial report by our VP of
Finance and then open it up for questions and comments. Does this seem
right to you?” Armand bent forward and spoke something in a low voice
to his own controller who sat just two seats further on his right. He
then rifled through some papers and finally looked up to answer the
question. Some thought it was a deliberate ploy to make sure everyone
understood who was in charge of the meeting, totally unnecessary given
“You know, Russ, we’ve been through a lot of this stuff in the last
months while this acquisition—excuse me—merger was taking place.
None of us are hearing about Croton Green for the first time. This is
your show, and we’ll listen, but bear in mind we already know each
other.” Armand leaned back in his comfortable chair, his long forehead
catching the glint from the embedded ceiling lights.
“I think you’ll find this interesting, what we’ve got prepared for
you. Our staff has worked hard to share certain things you may not know,
Armand,” Russ answered.
“All right, get on with it. I suggest you diminish some of the history
and product information and linger a bit longer on the financials.
We’ve also got questions of our own you might find interesting.”
“Certainly, Armand. We’ll start with a short presentation of our
history and reputation only because it gives substance to our strategy
for future development. I believe you know Karl, who’s been leading
our development work for many years now. Take it away, Karl.”
Karl painted a rosy picture of the growth of Croton Green. He described
the work ethics of the original owner and his principle that hard work
never exhausted, but conflict and frustration did. His whole manner of
dealing with employees and customers was clearly described as a hint to
Armand, who took the message with a sour, unmoved expression. His own
staff glanced frequently in his direction. They had learned to read
correctly every nuance of meaning from the way he tilted his head, the
hunching of his shoulders, even the slight gesturing of his hands every
now and then.
When Karl was finished, he offered to answer any questions. Armand’s
staff looked in his direction and scrutinized his face for an indication
of what to do. Armand said nothing. His lips were pinched together
meaningfully. Since Armand did not encourage it, no questions surfaced.
“What’s next?” Armand broke the silence.
“We had a great deal more prepared, but I’d like to interrupt the
flow and go directly to our strategy for the future, Armand. I know
that’s really what you’re interested in.” Russ made this
split-second, on-his-feet decision.
“Hear, hear!” Armand drummed the table with his pencil signifying
his approval. The staff all shifted in their seats, a little more at
ease in the less tense atmosphere Armand had signaled. Russ smiled and
gave a nod to the technician at the controls for the video display
screens. The video presentation appeared on all three screens
simultaneously. The technician adjusted the audio volume down slightly.
It began with a picture of the late founder of Croton Green. It
described his devotion to the customers, some testimonials and many
examples of him in the actual practice of service. The staff of Croton
Green watched with a kind of reverence that appeared genuine. The PTP
staff fidgeted and occasionally checked the hard copy of the
presentation, which was part of their preparatory material.
Included in the presentation was a fact-filled analysis of the South
American market and how Croton Green was prepared to capture it within a
period of three years. When it ended, everyone shifted in the
comfortable chairs and turned to look in Armand’s direction.
“Thank you. I believe that all of this in no way contradicts or
enhances what was already known from our previous meetings. Your staff
should be congratulated on their consistency. Has anything changed in
the financial presentation from the last time we met, here, I believe,
in this room?”
“No. No material changes. We are still as profitable as before.” The
controller rose from his seat ready with his presentation.
“I’m glad to hear that. It saves a great deal of time, since we are
all quite familiar with them. I suspect this means we can move on to our
questions?” Armand waved his left hand in the general direction of his
own staff. “Cliff, do you want to hit the highlights of your
“Sure. Armand asked me to take a look at some of your profit margins.
This meant digging a little deeper since I am not an expert in your
industry. Thank God your controller is… an expert that is. Most of
this information came from him rather than dipping into the actual
minutiae. I have no reason to doubt his accuracy, as it was volunteered
Russ and the rest of his staff leaned forward slightly to check with the
controller, who shrugged his shoulders.
“Enough with the credits. How about the facts?” Armand interrupted.
“The profit margins on the various products of Croton Green would
surprise you. In a retail store where everything is purchased and then
resold, the profit margins are easy to determine, and they generally run
about the same from product to product due to a uniform markup approach.
In this business, the profit per product is difficult to find due to a
wide range of expense factors and markup applications. We had to use
multiple allocations, differing for each product.”
“All of that is no surprise! I trust your methodology. What are your
findings?” Armand was tapping the table impatiently with the eraser
end of his pencil. That could mean only one thing—he, Armand, had
already found something he wanted to hear.
Cliff licked his lips and then wiped them with the back of his hand.
“It seems the amount of profit on each product does correlate
inversely with the volume of sales in the normal way. As a rule, the
higher the volume of goods sold, the lower the margin. That’s also
true for these products. However, we have rarely seen such a wide range
in our experience. Only in the paper industry are there such low
margins, and only in the defense industry are there such high margins.
Croton Green has both very low margins and very high margins.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Go on.” Armand sounded almost glad,
but it didn’t quite show up in the expression on his face.
“We know all that. You never asked for it, nor is it all that
important. The overall profit margin is reasonably good, as you know
from our reports.” Russ rushed to clarify.
“Have you finished, Cliff?” Armand asked in clipped, dry tones.
“Almost. It seems the highest profit margins are in the accessories
and machine products. Fertilizers are the very highest. Tools and mowers
run a close second from the top. Most of the plants and pottery items
have a low profit margin, and the profit margin on the corporate staple,
namely grass seed, is almost nil,” Cliff finished triumphantly.
“Now wait just a minute!” Russ exploded as he half-rose in his
chair. “I have not had a chance to review his findings in detail, but
I can say here and now that their accuracy is questionable. We’ve
always been profitable, and we’ve always produced, distributed, and
sold our special quality grass seed. There’s got to be a mistake in
“Now don’t get yourself in an uproar, gentlemen,” Armand soothed
the excited group opposite him at the table. “We’ll all check and
recheck our findings. Facts—true accurate facts—are the foundation
of good decision-making. Most people can’t tell the difference between
facts and opinions. In our business, we always, without exception, build
our business on quantifiable, measureable facts. One of these days,
I’m going to write a paper on this. How about it, John? Can you think
of a training program to hit home on this?” Armand leaned forward to
look straight at a young man sitting farther along the oval on his side,
who nodded his head, but didn’t get a chance to answer.
“Think about it.” Armand’s attention was already back on grass
seed. He looked across the room at Russ, who was rifling through a
sheath of loose papers. He continued before Russ could answer.
“Russ, you should know, one of the chief reasons we were so interested
in Croton Green was the wide diversity of products and its huge customer
base. We saw you as the hub of a wide range of acquisitions and
development targets. We had imagined a kind of outdoor supermarket, high
quality, a sort of do-it-yourselfer nature store that included the
growing numbers of people in the emerging green movement. I don’t want
to be following. I want to be the leader. Just so you understand how
important you all are in our plans for the future.”
The other side of the oval relaxed cautiously into their chairs. The
immediate threat had been diverted, and they were all still alive.
“So how about going along with us and taking an objective view of this
topic. We’re not making a decision. At this point, we’re exploring a
possible issue that could help us move forward securely. All right?”
“Sure, Armand. No problem!” Russ still looked wary. When he turned
his eyes toward the opposite side of the oval, he saw those dark orbs of
eyes focused on him. The darkly dressed figure of the PTP president
still felt ominous to him. His clipped deep voice, without any real
feeling or warmth, generally staccato like ice crystals, only thawing
occasionally for effect, could not really be believed. Suspicion
lingered around him like a cloud. Every time Russ came into contact with
Armand, he automatically placed himself on guard.
“So, Cliff, tell us more.” Armand held up his hand expectantly, palm
“It seems that the competition, small as it is, has a lower price and
a lower quality. Nevertheless, their volume of sales was growing slowly
at about two percent. Croton figured the competition’s growth was
primarily due to the fact they were cheaper. Did it really matter if a
third of the seeds never germinated? Most of the customers are weekend
gardeners. They don’t really know what they are doing, generally waste
most of the seed anyway. The few that come up spread rapidly. In three
months you end up with practically the same lawn as the more expensive,
higher-quality Croton product.
“So it seems Croton was falling behind slightly in sales and decided,
I think wisely, to lower their price to match the competition. The cost
remained the same, but the margin disappeared.
“In the meantime they have been adding other products. Tools are
excellent quality. The customers know this and are willing to pay more
for them. They carry two lines of lawnmowers made by Deere and Farmall
but sold under the Croton brand. Most of the money is made on the
machines, tools, and fertilizers. The grass seed requires most of the
manpower and the cost. That’s where we are today.”
“If they dropped the grass seed altogether, what would be the
consequences?” Armand asked. A wave of shock passed along the opposite
side of the oval. Apparently, even the idea was unthinkable.
“They’d increase their profits by six percent, mostly by reducing
their head count and expenses. However, overall sales could be down a
bit. This is still an unknown. The grass seed has been the lead product
of the company. It is almost synonymous with their image. If it were
dropped, many customers might no longer see an advantage to buying the
other products in Croton stores. We just don’t know yet what the
ultimate effects might be.”
Russ and the staff were nodding their heads in agreement and wanting to
speak to the issue.
“Hold it!” Armand insisted. “We’re still delving for facts. In
other words, you’re saying that the grass seed is such an integral
part of the image, to drop it may affect total sales of the entire
product line negatively?”
“Yes, it may. As I say we’re not yet sure of the actual
consequences, but it seems possible.”
Russ jumped into the discussion to explain. “I can assure you from
experience that most of the people get interested in the other products
in the stores, but what brings them into the store is grass seed.” The
others nodded vehemently.
“Let me ask you this,” Armand began, using an approach familiar to
all his staff. “Maybe we can’t drop the product without risking the
loss of customers for the other products. That much I can gather from
what you all are saying. So we need the product. But… do we need to
“I don’t get you! Are you saying we carry the product but let some
other outfit produce it for us?” Russ asked.
Armand leaned forward to answer him. “Yes. It can’t be rocket
science to grow grass seed. We contract a couple smaller outfits with
specs of our process, buy the seed we need, mark it up, and sell it
under our label. Let someone else carry the labor and expense burden.”
“That won’t do any good. They would still have to charge us. It
would certainly raise the price, and we’d have the same problem.”
Russ looked around for confirmation.
“You think so?”
“Of course! These smaller outfits might have less overhead, but they
would still need to have a profit.”
“What if we used our own subsidiary?” Armand wondered. “We could
jockey the costs around to offset where we’re experiencing high
profits to reduce the tax bite. That would reduce your standard overhead
and allow your people to work on expanding the more profitable lines.”
“What about quality control? If we lose our image through faulty
product, our other sales would also suffer. By doing it ourselves, we
have maximum control.” Russ felt himself fighting for control of the
stream of thoughts.
Armand remained calm and cool as he answered. “Look, we’re just
blue-skying right now, but I feel we are facing a challenge. With so
many bright minds in this room, I’m positive we can do better.”
Armand paused, tapping gently on the table with his forefinger, lips
pressed together in a thin line.
Finally, he decided. “I will ask a couple of my staff to work on this
with you. I know you’ll cooperate since you and we are bound to
benefit. See if we can come up with an approach that gives us a better
total return. Cliff, do you think you can put together a small staff
team to work with the Croton Green staff? I’d like some results before
our next meeting here. That’s in three months, I recall.”
Russ and his staff looked dejected. They knew what had been decided. A
team of PTP staff would descend on them. They would ask questions,
demand reports, use everyone’s time, and in the end, would demand the
credit for whatever was decided. They would be forced to supply all the
information, do all the work, and probably lose control of the company.
PTP staff already had a reputation. Armand’s immense power had been
delegated to them.
Without understanding it fully, the staff of Croton Green felt the
change in their authority and independence. All at once, something had
been eroded precipitously that had been built up over years. A company
culture had darkened, lost its light and vigor. Their reason for
existing had been taken away and supplanted by an authority lacking in
values, diminished in vision. Something crass and shadowy hovered over
them as they contemplated the future.
Armand slowly looked around the room. Across from him, he felt the moods
of disappointment, sorrow, and a coldness toward him. He didn’t mind
that. He never expected nor did he ever receive warmth. He searched for
and found submissiveness, an occasional flare of animosity, some tinges
of ambition, but overall, a sense of willingness to do whatever was
necessary to keep whatever jobs they currently held. They would all fall
into place—he felt certain of that.
Except when his eyes landed on Russ. Now there was something else. He
didn’t like what he sensed coming from him. He was playacting. He
would try to fool Armand into thinking he was loyal, when in fact he was
probably already planning how to mount resistance against him. He knew
this would not work out. Russ had to be moved out one way or another. He
could never trust him, no matter what he said or pretended. The coldness
in Armand’s eyes seemed to reach across the intervening space,
matching and overcoming the coldness in the eyes of Russ.
Armand then slid his eyes along his side of the table, stopping for
barely a second at each of his staff, sizing them up, feeling the
effects of their character and relation to himself. In each he found
what he was looking for: a submissiveness to his will covering a deeper
layer of fear. He had them, every one of them. They were caught in his
control. They knew it, he knew it, and they knew that he knew it. These
were what he needed to achieve his aims in life: absolute obedience and
Excerpted from "Collision" by Siegfried Finser. Copyright © 2017 by Siegfried Finser. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.