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Anatomy of a Factory

Anatomy of a Factory

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Anatomy of a Factory

349 pages
5 hours
Jul 24, 2018


A slightly spoofy omniscient narrator introduces us to Jenner, Inc., a stove manufacturing plant in a fictional middle Tennessee town, some of its personnel, and the sociology of the roughly 100 employees. The factory is owned by a large Chicago holding company, which has recently installed an aloof CEO and his austere and ominous executive assistant. Everybody fears them, and resents their probably exorbitant salaries, their lax work schedule, and their exclusive grip on all communications with the Chicago home office. Profits are down and budgets are very tight. Nobody feels confident in the plant’s future or secure in their jobs. Ultimately, Marion, the plant manager’s efficient office manager, overcomes her high personal standards and conspires with the plant network nerd and a bitter and unstable ex-salesman to expose what is really going on in a struggle to save Jenner, Inc.

Jul 24, 2018

Despre autor

Ralph Bowden has entertained himself by writing mostly fiction for almost 30 years, through and following careers as an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry, a history professor, a home builder, an alternative energy consultant, an instructional designer, and a technical writer. Twenty-six novels, four story collections, a volume of collected short fiction, and a three-act play reside, mostly unread, on his hard drive. He likes all of his word children. Realistically, some of them are probably flawed and maybe even terrible. Others might entertain readers besides himself, but Ralph hasn’t the time or ego drive to promote and sell, nor the stomach for collecting rejection letters. Self-publishing avoids all that and is quick. If somebody finds and likes what he has written, fine. If not, the world will go on (or not) just the same.

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Anatomy of a Factory - Ralph Bowden


Chapter 1

The term factory was often used in the 17th and 18th centuries to refer to trading post forts – typically Dutch, Portuguese, or British – staffed by merchants dedicated to exploiting opportunities for trade with a foreign economy. The chief merchant, called a factor, oversaw the factory community, its trading operations, defense, and relations with the natives. The factor sometimes also provided de facto government for the surrounding area.

A modern factory is likewise a kind of community, walled off from the outside and accessible only to employees. It too is designed to exploit economic opportunities in the wider world with saleable products.

A modern factory is also an organic analog. It’s often referred to as a plant, after all. In some ways it’s more like a living person, with a history, complex internal processes including its life blood – cash flow – inputs and outputs, relations with a surrounding community, and a personality or culture that develops and changes over time.

Most factories are owned by corporations, which the Supreme Court has defined as persons for purposes of contracts and political influence. From a corporation-person’s point of view, a factory is like its child, needing nurture, guidance, and sometimes punishment. The factory itself is like a serf or slave, oppressed by its corporate masters, who can buy and sell it, and exploit it for profits.

From the employees’ point of view, the factory is like a parent, controlling and irritating, as often as not, and regarded as an enslaver. In the better cases, however, employees can show loyalty and dedication, growing and changing in their factory life as the factory itself grows and changes. Unfortunately, like anything alive, the factory can also grow old, get sick, and die, though rebirth and transfiguration are also possible.

As an example, take what began as the Jenner Stove Works, founded in Halesville, Tennessee in 1910. Let’s tag along with the HR director, Sarah McInnes, as she gives a tour to the careers class from Hale County Central High School on a recent Wednesday. It begins in the lobby, which serves as the plant museum. She demos a roped-off antique, a cast iron model set up on a riser beside the plant receptionist’s office:

This is model two, a cook stove that could burn either coal or wood. It also served as the central heat source in many farmhouses here in central Tennessee. Actually, by the time production was in full force, by 1914, these stoves were sold all over the South and Midwest. During the great war, Jenner also had a contract from the military to . . .

A girl student interrupts, What’s the great war? I thought all wars were awful. (Giggling from other girls and sotto voce mutters from a couple boys, Dingbat, Airhead, and the like.)

Miss Geiger, who teaches the careers class and arranged this field trip, intervenes: World War I is, or was, often referred to as ‘the Great War.’ Please don’t interrupt Mrs. McInnes.

Miss, Sarah corrects. Model three here is a camp stove used . . .

One of the boys, a big, smirking, wise guy type, interrupts, Really? How is that? What’s wrong with the men in this factory? How can they work for somebody just so totally hot and not . . .

Rory! Miss Geiger remonstrates. "That’s enough! Miss McInnes’ personal life has nothing to do with this tour. Please refrain yourself."

Yes’m, he responds with fake humility. But I think I want a job in this here factory and work for somebody like Miss . . .

They really don’t work for me, Sarah says, blushing a little. Pink looks good on her. She is young, petite but full-figured, and very attractive. Bill Miller, the plant manager, hired her a year ago because of her new degree in HR management from nearby Johnson State University. He’s not the type to notice, particularly, but her curves, long blond hair, and sweet, innocent smile certainly didn’t hurt.

She continues. Model three was widely used in the trenches to heat coffee and whatever rations the troops had. You can see it is simple, light, and will burn most anything, even dried cow and goat droppings, I’m told. More snickers, as Miss McInnes leads the group on to a larger, grandmotherly-looking, white-enameled range.

Now, this is model five, the first mass-produced kitchen range designed to use bottled gas. Very popular during the depression. Quite inexpensive and a great improvement in control and convenience over the earlier wood and coal models. She leads them across the lobby to the continuing display.

Again in the Second World War, Jenner Stove Works had an army contract to supply these ranges, models six and seven, to field camp mess kitchens. They were sometimes dropped by parachutes to the troops in both the European and Pacific theaters.

What were they used for in theaters? Like, I mean, could they show movies, too? some girl asks, surely in the time-honored teenage tradition of irritating elders.

Snickers ripple through the group, and Miss Geiger has to explain again. Miss McInnes continues:

Then in 1945, when the war ended, Marquis corporation acquired Jenner Stove Works, and changed the name to Jenner, Inc. Marquis’ top-of-the-line models were selling well, but they needed more competitive consumer models produced for the ordinary households of the post-war building boom. Miss McInnes points to a framed picture on the wall of a late ‘40s housewife, all smiles, withdrawing a turkey from the oven of a Jenner multipurpose cooking appliance.

One of the boys speaks up: My grandfather worked here in the fifties, and said they told him never to let on that Marquis had bought Jenner. Marquis didn’t want anybody to know they were making, uh, ‘cheap crap,’ he called it.

Jenner did have a reputation for making less expensive models, but I’m told they performed very well. Miss McInnes leads them to a more modern, 36 range. Here’s our first electric range, model seven. It was one of the first anywhere to feature encased heating elements that you could set a pan on directly. Earlier stoves had coiled heating elements underneath a kind of grill, and were less efficient."

A suit comes down the hall to the lobby, conservative tie, wingtips, vest, fashionable cut, probably custom-tailored. Inside is a distinguished, graying gentleman, a little jowly but generally well-preserved and well-coifed, clearly proud of his still thick mane. A van Dyke beard adds to his studied elegance. He stops and regards Miss McInnes and her tour group slightly down his nose.

Mr. Rommel, this is the career class from Hale County high school and their teacher, Miss Geiger. Mr. Miller okayed their tour. We had planned to visit your office later.

Quite. I shan’t be there. Anna can show you around. He strides on past the group, never lowering his nose. When he is out the front door, Miss McInnes explains, That is Mr. Kurt Rommel, our CEO.

Any relation? one of the boys, a studious-looking type, asks.

To? Miss McInnes is momentarily puzzled.

Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox? Hitler’s man in North Africa?

Oh, uh, I don’t know. I’ve not spoken with him more than a few times since he came down from corporate headquarters in Chicago about two years ago. He’s, er, not one to socialize.

He looks really snooty, one of the girls comments.

"Now students, that’s enough, (one of Miss Geiger’s favorite words). I’m sure he must be highly competent."

Whose headquarters? The same boy, Keith, asks. Jenner isn’t still a secret stepchild of Marquis, is it?

No, no. That connection did last until 2008, but Marquis sold us then to Kreisler Industries. It’s a large holding company or conglomerate.

Oh really? Kreisler? I’ve heard of them. Venture capitalists, aren’t they? Keith comments. Have there been any changes in policy direction here?

Miss Geiger frowns as if she wonders where this is going, but Keith is one of her most promising students, bright, curious, and serious.

Well, personnel, if not policy. They sent down Mr. Rommel when our former CEO, ah, resigned. And they let the former Human Resource director go too and the plant safety officer. Mr. Miller then hired me to cover both positions. She turns to Miss Geiger. What would you rather do at this point? Do you want to go out on the plant floor? Or shall we tour the management offices and meet the people who make things happen here at Jenner?

Before Miss Geiger can answer, one of the girls asks, Is it dirty and noisy out there? My girlfriend’s father works in a factory like this and comes home every night filthy and deaf from the noise.

We have to adhere to strict OSHA standards for worker safety and health, which is part of my responsibility. Some parts of the manufacturing operation are fairly noisy, but we use earplugs. And respirators near dusty areas and the paint booth. Maybe we should wait and take in the production line during their lunch break, when it’s less hectic out there.

Miss Geiger agrees, and the group follows Miss McInnes down the hall between offices. She introduces them to the plant nurse, who is listening to a man complain about his ankle, sprained when he tripped over a hose. Out in the hall again, Miss McInnes takes credit for the new policy that the nurse is on duty whenever the plant is working. Until last year, we had to take anybody with an injury – or rather a health problem, actual injuries are very rare – to the hospital emergency room. When you figure the lost time involved with that, a full-time nurse on site is a considerable saving.

The class visits the purchasing department, two sour-faced, older men sitting behind dusty, antique CRT computer monitors, and using old black phone handsets with plastic shoulder wedges. Their necks seem permanently bent toward their phone ear, even during breaks between calls. One of the men, Joe, isn’t too old to leer lecherously at Miss McInnes, and seems more than willing to let the group crowd into the office so he can tell them all about his job. He even gets up to offer Sarah – he makes a point of being on a first-name basis with her – his creaky, grubby chair. The other man, however, scowls at all this. Joe, I’ve got to call sheet supply and give them hell. They’re late on delivery, and will hold up the press department if . . .

Miss McInnes is glad to take the hint and back the class out of the cramped and dismal office, with its ‘glamour’ calendar provided by some electrical harness fabrication company. The lady is clothed, but overbuilt and straining to look oversexed.

Across the hall is Product Design and Development, a small office with one scrawny, older man with a pocket protector and a wispy fringe of gray hair. His feet are up on his desk and stay there when the class comes in. He’s leafing through stove advertisement flyers while his computer screen saver gives a slide show of elaborate contemporary kitchens. His messy desk is covered with interior design magazines.

Miss McInnes introduces the class to Jacob Samuelson.

Yeah, I’m the design department, he says, in a voice that sounds younger than he looks. I try to stay hip on the latest trends in kitchen appliances, food preparation, and what features folks are calling for in stoves – or what we now call ‘food thermal appliances,’ which includes cooktops, wall ovens, microwaves, grills, smokers, braziers, convection ovens, slow cookers, and what we make, garden-variety stoves or ranges – an archaic word nobody uses any more. If you do, you’ll tag yourself as a fossil like me. My main goal is for Jenner to produce a stove that the public will confuse with Jenn-Air, and think they’re getting a great buy."

What’s Jenn-Air, one of the girls asks.

Cutting edge, top-of-the-line, and very expensive ‘food thermal appliances.’ We copy them as closely as we can without infringing, while making our stuff much cheaper under the skin. Yeah, kids, design engineering ain’t just formulas, pipes, and circuits these days. Sales feeds me most of my data. Style. That’s what it’s all about. Skin design and jazzy features: what kind of basically useless but kinky tricks can we program the resident microprocessor to do, and then hype in our ads? That’s what sells stoves, just like cars. The rest of it inside – the wires, elements, switches and relays – that’s the easy part. No challenge there.

Miss Geiger is scandalized by Samuelson’s breezy cynicism, and she’s relieved when Miss McInnes hurries the class along next door to where one middle-aged, dumpy woman in thick glasses is doing some complicated, glitzy graphics work on a large monitor.

Miss McInnes introduces, Clia Hampstead, who does our advertising literature. She creates our fliers and keeps the website current.

Who writes the copy? Keith asks.

Mostly Jake, next door, though I edit it some, she says, as she passes around the latest trifold. We send these out to distributors. It shows what we make, the models and how they fit in a kitchen.

The next office has a sign on the door: Production/Plant Engineering. It’s a bigger office, with four desks, though only one of them has someone behind it, the plant engineer, Jim Bohannon. He’s big and beefy, wears a blue shirt with a name tag, and his fingernails prove that he pays personal attention to the plant’s innards. The other desks, littered with components of one sort or another, belong to his maintenance techs, currently on rounds servicing the presses, compressors, pumps, machine tools, welding rigs, forklifts, computers, and the control systems that let the plant produce stoves. Bohannon explains that one of his techs, Steve, is a network wonk and a CNC and PLC programmer. He’s been installing fiber optics to improve the reliability and speed of the plant integration software.

Most of this explanation is way over the heads of everybody, but Bohannon enthusiastically rattles on, clearly into a subject that captivates his life and soul. Miss Geiger’s one techie student seems to get at least some of it and asks a couple of intelligent questions that set Bohannon off on an even more abstruse technical tangent. Most everybody else is fidgety and glad to file out when Miss McInnes manages, very smoothly, to thank Bohannon and shut him off.

She takes them past her office, light and tastefully girly, with a window, unlike all the other offices so far.

Farther along and across the hall, the plant accounting and payroll department office is also neat and respectable, though the chief financial officer, a Mr. Morton Roth, is a bit slobby, with a beard that needs trimming and a comb-over that hasn’t stuck this morning. His worried expression, with permanent brow wrinkles and a deep furrow above his nose bridge, and his slightly tremulous, nicotine-stained fingers, hint of the pressure he’s under. His two female assistants are both painfully homely.

Miss McInnes explains what goes on in the accounting and payroll office, the importance of financial records to the annual audit, budgeting, and long term planning.

Actually, we don’t do much of that, these days, Mr. Roth says. Keeping our head above water month-to-month is about all we can manage. Can’t even budget effectively. As a division among many in the stable of a large holding company, we’re at their mercy, financially.

Miss McInnes skips the tiny office and closet of the plant custodial service. We contract that out, now, she explains, since last year when Tyrone retired and his son quit. It saves us a bit, but I can’t say the service is any better. They come in after hours.

You’re only running one shift, these days? A boy asks. When my brother worked here, he was on second shift.

Yes, we’re down to one shift now, Miss McInnes confirms, with just a touch of concern in her voice. She doesn’t elaborate on the obvious implications. Now here’s Mr. Miller’s office. He’s the plant manager, and my immediate supervisor. She taps on the open door frame. Marion? Is Mr. Miller available? I’ve got the careers class here.

Marion Whitehall is Mr. Miller’s secretary, or officially an office manager. She looks like somebody’s mother and/or good wife, probably early forties, just a trifle stout, and with a virtuous and squeaky clean look about her, not anybody Mrs. Miller, had there been one, would need to worry about. Her desk is covered with family pictures, including a great variety of children. She gets up from her keyboard and flat screen monitor to greet Miss McInnes and the class warmly.

Mr. Miller’s inner office door is also open. Marion goes to it and enquires if he can spare a moment for the class. He can, and she ushers them all in. His window is bigger than Marion’s and Miss McInnes,’ and has a view over the parking lot, the state route out front, and a woodsy, spring hillside beyond. The office is otherwise plain and businesslike, with a coffee maker on the one filing cabinet, a couple of padded but Spartan side chairs, a table with Jenner product advertising flyers, a map of the plant on a large bulletin board, and a framed architect’s rendering on the wall of the plant’s main entrance. Miller himself is a small man, not over five-seven or eight, 40ish, with an open, personable face. White shirt, but sleeves rolled up. Tie, but loosened.

What shall I tell them? he asks Miss McInnes.

Well, since this is a careers class, I’ve been focusing mainly on what people do here, purchasing, shipping and receiving, Jake, Jim Bohannon, Mort Roth and so on. We met Mr. Rommel in the lobby, and I told them a little about the company, our history and our products.

Good. We’re a typical small manufacturing outfit. Been right here a century now. There’s not much of the original plant left, only the old foundry, which we don’t use any more. This building dates from the early 70’s. Organizationally, we’re under the big Kreisler Industries umbrella, though they leave us pretty much alone as long as we meet our goals and contribute to their bottom line. My job is to see that we do, whatever it takes.

He seems like a nice man. Miss Geiger is relieved that the students are behaving themselves for him. But then he asks, Any questions?

Keith jumps in, What about product marketing? Who does that?

Ah, good question. We have a marketing and sales department in another wing of the building. If Sarah – Miss McInnes – had taken you the other way from the lobby, you would have seen ten or eleven people in cubicles on the phone and our marketing director, Wes Fowler. They deal with distributors and appliance chains rather than end customers, of course. In some ways, marketing is a completely separate entity. They have their own budget, their own phone and data systems and are not on the plant net. Wes hires his own people and sets priorities and goals. Like me, he answers to Mr. Rommel directly. I have little to do with any of that. Of course, in a sense, we all depend on them. If they don’t sell what we produce, we don’t contribute to Kreisler’s bottom line, and we’re all out on the street, no matter how efficiently I manage the plant.

Wise guy Rory raises his hand, uncharacteristically, and asks, How is the business doing? Are you hiring?

Um, well, like all American manufacturing in the past few years, we’re feeling the foreign competition and are having to run as lean and tight a ship as we can. We’re not hiring for the time being, and in fact are gradually downsizing though retirements. So far we’ve managed not to lay anybody off.

Miss McInnes thanks Mr. Miller and the maternal Marion, who has hovered nearby, for their time, and quickly shows the group across the hall, where she knocks at a carved oaken door with gold lettering: Kurt Rommel, CEO. His secretary answers the door, after a delay, and Miss McInnes, clearly a little nervous, introduces the class to Anna Eisenberg, executive assistant to Mr. Rommel. She is his double, fifties and distinguished. Probably graying, like him, though her hairstylist/colorist hides it professionally. Like him too, she wears an elegant, expensive business suit, and his same, superior aloofness. She shows little enthusiasm for letting the class into her office.

Mr. Rommel has left for the day, she announces, speaking like a ventriloquist, moving her lips very little.

What’s ‘CEO’ stand for? the same ditzy girl who questioned the great war, asks.

Anna stares, incredulity mixed with suspicion that she’s being put on.

Chief executive officer, Miss Geiger quickly responds. It’s her duty to answer stupid, disingenuous student questions.

Oh, the girl says. What’s he do?

Anna, still blocking the door, sends a resentful look at Miss McInnes.

Look down his nose, one of the other girls mumbles, just a little too audibly, resulting in suppressed giggles among the girls, and feigned sneezes to cover boy-snorts. Miss McInnes turns a deeper shade of the pink that looks so good on her and Miss Geiger wishes she could say enough! Anna manages to maintain a barely civil front.

He executes the board of directors’ policy decisions.

‘Executes?’ You mean, like, killing them? Why would he do that?

Anna’s thin lips curl. Clearly, this juvenile puerility is having its desired effect. ‘Implements’ if you prefer, she squeezes out of a mouth that looks wired shut.

Miss Geiger interrupts the girl, who is trying to ask something about farm implements. Now students, . . . but Keith asks, Oh, there’s a board of directors? Who are they? Is it an open meeting?

Anna looks at Keith blankly. Putting up with children is not in her job description, but at least these last questions are reasonable and intelligent.

The board is a subcommittee of the Kreisler Industries directors, in Chicago. They meet whenever there’s an issue relating to Jenner that they need to address. Their meetings are not public, since Jenner is a wholly owned subsidiary rather than a publically-traded company. The Jenner subcommittee is responsible only to the full Kreisler board and president.

It seems Anna is not going to let the class in to view her dark, oak-paneled and deeply-carpeted outer office, much less visit Mr. Rommel’s probably even more ostentatious inner sanctum. Miss McInnes had been hoping to impress the students with the perks of rank, but it is not to be. She thanks Anna and heads the class out toward the shop floor.

The lunch break whistle has just sounded. While some machines wind down and the workers swarm toward the plant cafeteria, the students straggle in. The girls act as if they are being shown through some kind of asylum or torture chamber, and recoil from accidental contact with anything. Actually, Miss McInnes has always been uncomfortable in this environment too. How women can stand to work here – almost half of the manufacturing workforce is female – puzzles her. A couple of the guys show some interest in the big presses, and the quality control and plant security departments Miss McInnes takes them through, but mostly the students are anxious to get out of Jenner, Inc., and make it back to Hale County High for their own lunch.

Chapter 2

Gossip, idle talk, and rumors abound in factories. Listen to two warehouse parts pickers, Bud and Gary; John, the security chief; and one of the maintenance techs, Chas the electrician, as they do a quick hand of hearts during lunch break. They are sitting on upended buckets around a big wooden wire spool on the loading dock. The spring sun is pleasantly warm, which is why they have moved their customary game outside.

I got a call from his lordship’s bitch this morning, Chas, reports. "Says she needs a fluorescent tube for her desk lamp and expects me to drop everything and just bring one on the double. Of course I haven’t a clue whether it’s an 18 or 24 inch, T1 or T2 sized, cool white or warm. We don’t stock anything but the 4 and 8 foot tubes, I tell her, and I’ll have to come look to see what to order. ‘Order?!’ she says. ‘I need this now,’ as if the whole fuckin’ plant would screech to a halt if she doesn’t have light to do her nails, or whatever she does."

I’m sure she hires her nails out, John comments. Probably a special trip back up to Chicago for it. I wonder what she makes?

Steve says he can hack into the system and find out, Chas says. I’ll bet it’s more than the four of us together.

What I wonder is why she’s here? Gary says. She must have bit Kreisler’s dick for them to exile her to this podunksville. His high and mightiness too. What’s he doing here?

Not much that I can see, Bud says. If you open the window in the warehouse crapper, you can see his reserved parking spot out front. His Cadillac came in sometime after nine this morning, and was gone again by ten thirty.

‘Preciate the open window, Bud, John says. I don’t know what your wife feeds you, but the gas you leave in that place is deadly.

Chas says, My theory is that he’s the angel of corporate death, acting as a leech to suck the blood of a dying body, and a kind of ghoul charged with figuring out how to extract the most from the corpse.

Aw, you’ve been singing the doom song for years, John says. I remember when they closed the foundry and outsourced the castings in 2001. You were sure that was just the first act. And then we got the big contract for FEMA trailer stoves and were running three shifts for a year. And then when Marquis sold us to Kreisler, you were sure we’d be gone to Mexico in a month. Two, tops. All right, things have been slow since, but we’re still here.

Yeah, but you know what Bill Miller told us last month in that pep talk, Chas says. How we can’t afford squat in terms of new equipment or raises. That was new for him. He’s never talked like that before.

You believe him? Bud asks.

Yeah, I believe him, Chas says. He’s a good guy. I’ve been here almost 20 years, now, and know what it was like before he came. That was about ten years ago. He busts his ass for the company and plays straight with us. You weren’t here when that union organizer came nosing around three years ago. Bill didn’t run the guy off or give everybody a raise to buy a ‘no’ vote. He talked to the guy himself for a couple hours, then held that all-hands meeting where he let the union man give his spiel.

I was there, John adds. I was tempted, I’ll have to admit. But Bill handled it really well. He didn’t run the union down or say much at all. Didn’t have to. We all knew how the company was doing. We’d just dropped second shift, after all. That said it.

Which is just my point, Chas says. We all know now, too. And it’s even worse.

The whistle blows.

Back in harness, Bud throws down his hand. "I’m out anyway . . . you

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