#59 New Venture Part IIPosted: August 13, 2013
As established in #24 The New Venture Part I, my ability to drift into a relationship, project, or a city, peaked back in the early ’80’s. It was in my deep hearted desperate attempt to find a life’s work or purpose when I rode a wave into York, PA.. I should have dropped my life savings into a box at the city limits and kept going. But I didn’t do that. It took a few years to lose everything.
As a long time commuter from Connecticut to Manhattan, exhaustion was my primary asset. I didn’t know anything about my community then. I knew only my neighbor, Archie Bunker who terrified me at first but became a friend. I had no official residency in New York to be part of that world. And I knew that if I stayed on that daily high paying train track, I’d never be part of anything.
I was raised in a pretty small town where most people knew most people. It was comfortable and it was intrusive. Most of all it was stunningly beautiful country. I wanted to belong again. So of course I packed up and moved to where I knew only one family and went into business with two young men I didn’t know at all.
In Under the Tuscan Sun a newly divorced terrified woman on a bus tour takes an insane risk and everything works out like a dream. That book didn’t exist yet, but it’s what I was doing. I was taking the same risk I had done in 1971 leaving Seattle for New York. It was a successful adventure. This move would force me to learn something new and of course it would succeed.
I invested in two very young men who wanted to restore historic buildings in a downtown area. Tax laws at the time made that a pretty good investment. My Tuscan Sun heart followed that investment. I sold my Connecticut house, and bought a stunning historic townhouse in my new town.
I was eager to meet people in many professions besides advertising and broadcasting: new city, no friends, no doctor, lawyer, dentist. I didn’t know where the grocery store was. But it would be fine.
I put up the money. My partners were to be the brawn and construction expertise. There was an empty building that they wanted to convert into condos. So I pledged the bonds that provided my only income as the down payment on that empty factory. My fingers do not want to type these words because my brain doesn’t want to remember. But that money was pledged before a lawyer protected my personal assets from our newly formed business. I don’t even think it’s possible to count that as knuckleheaded move number one. But it would ultimately be the biggest knuckleheaded move ever.
Among the many things I had not counted on was a cultural difference. In Connecticut I gave dinner parties, nothing extravagant. I was a meat and potatoes cook but enjoyed having friends at my table. I invited some of the new people I was meeting to dinner. One man said, “Why? We eat at home.” I had no reply.
One assumption I made by going into business with two younger men was that they would be more open-minded about a woman in business. Once when we were in a bank describing the project, even though I was wearing a mink coat, the banker assumed I was the secretary. My partners never corrected that mistake. I didn’t either.
Another assumption I made was that since we were setting out to do such a good thing, surely it would work. A writer for the Sunday paper loved our plans and unique partnership. She did great articles about us, and what we hoped to accomplish in that city.
The guys found an old bank conference table and leather chairs in a country barn. Once again I was writing a check. One of their mothers made curtains. We looked successful.
The massive building we/I bought to be divided into condos, was attached to a peculiar apartment building in the front. Now I was a slumlord. The two guys would take care of problems there and collect rent. The configuration was so goofy, one person had to walk through another apartment to get to his. One elderly lady had her place filled with dried flowers. All I could think was to get the project done before she burned the place down.
They also wanted a portable computer to use on construction sites. Seemed to make sense so I wrote another check. It looked like a sewing machine case. But at that time I only used a word processor. They were just young enough to have learned in school how to create formulas that we needed to show potential investors, bankers and lawyers. They were not patient teachers and treated me as though I was an old lady who would never learn. I was 36.
We tried to have fun and keep things light. I’d have them over for dinner. But we were not closing any deals on investors so we couldn’t start the project. Also design is tricky to make the most out of what had been a factory into condos, a new concept for that town back then. At some point we’d have to evict current tenants in the front apartments. I wanted no part of that. Our project couldn’t afford to lose that income until we had investors.
And this is about the time you remember all the good things about working for a big corporation.
My two young partners both had fathers very involved in contracting so I felt that they got good advice. But then I learned that the lawyer who set up our corporation and my corporation was also representing my partners separately and their fathers. The games began.
In the beginning I enjoyed meeting new people. I spent a lot of my time with the old family friends there who fed me often. I joined the board of a city commission. I had great neighbors. I went the few blocks each day to our office, but really there was little to be done until we had a prospectus for investors. We made several trips to Delaware to meet with potential investors. We attended conferences in D.C.. We had many people come to our office to look at the new drawings we had commissioned. We were optimistic.
Standing in the old empty building, I could feel the history of people clocking their time cards. Or heard the quitting whistle blow. But one thing to deal with in real time was a huge printing press left behind. The Smithsonian already had one, though mine was in better condition. There was a man in Massachusetts who was starting a printing museum who wanted that press. But he couldn’t afford to get it there.
We were working with the good will of a local law firm. The smattering of rent coming in from the apartment building went to pay bills. There was no income for any of us. The building we/I bought required constant maintenance while waiting to convert it. One night in the dark I stood on the roof with a partner tarring the roof holding a flashlight in my teeth. I was coming from New York business. Though I wasn’t wearing my serious New York clothes, I did bring formality to the group. They had the flannel shirts and the flannel shirt attitudes. These differences seemed like a good idea. I can’t remember why.
One partner had bought his building on a mortgage from a retired couple. He never, and I mean never made his payment on time so they had to come in every month to extract it from him. He didn’t care, and each time they came in I wanted to disappear because it had nothing to do with me. This was their retirement income and they were rightfully bitter. The wife would stand aside but I never spoke with her because I didn’t want to be connected to my partner’s lack of respect for them. But one time I did speak up. I told her that I hoped I’d have stunning white hair like hers one day. Tears formed in her eyes. She said that all she ever saw in the mirror was, “old.” The next time they came in to extract their mortgage payment she brought me brownies, and a smile. We don’t say enough kind things to one another, even strangers.
As time sped and progress halted, we were less and less appropriate partners. One of the young guys was irritable all the time and he chewed tobacco. To chew tobacco you constantly have to have a place to spit. So the office had beer bottles and cans strategically placed for just that purpose. I’m sure my then habit of smoking was no fun for him. But I was surrounded by spit.
They both complained to me about each other. They complained about me to each other.
At last we had an outside client. We converted a building to an upscale restaurant and apartment for a local chef. I enjoyed that project, but it wasn’t getting us anywhere with the original plan. One day at our huge conference table I gave an opinion and was called “uppity.” I couldn’t believe it. Was I living in Gone With The Wind? I make that joke, but how do you answer that? I was to provide the only money but have nothing to say.
The new project required sub contractors, and one or two employees to support. I began missing personal belongings, gold cigarette lighters, cases, expensive sunglasses.
I learned to budget my life at home keeping track of every penny. I was living in an elegant home, without income, except from the bonds. I sold stocks for cash to live. My life was about survival.
Destructing the guts of the building for the restaurant was astonishing while retaining the facade. There was little left in the back of the long building. The creation of a professional kitchen was new to us but we had great contractors. Slowly it came together. One of the guys brought in a girlfriend for the interior: a new tension. At last it was opening night. It wasn’t smooth but it was exciting. Many customers were friends and were very patient. It was a little cool so someone turned on the heating system and that created the opening night drama. That switch had never been flicked. All the months of construction dust kicked out like thick smoke from a fire. We opened windows turned on fans and even dusted off plates. We all went from table to table to keep everyone happy. The chef came out and entertained. It worked, and we had finally saved a building for another use. It was also handy to have a chef as a client. He invited us for many late night champagne meals. Many times my car barely made it into my garage.
My partners began talking of a new project their fathers wanted us to get involved in. But they weren’t sharing details with me. “Not yet,” they kept saying. When I pushed for this conversation they admitted that they had already entered into the other business without me. I was so distressed that I went to see one of their fathers. He was at least appropriately appalled that I had not been told.
It gets better. Tax laws were changing and our project was no longer a glistening investment possibility. I was stuck and didn’t know what to do. I had no skills to deal with any of this.
I wrote in #50 My High School Reunion Stalker, that instead of sitting down with the lawyer or an accountant I got in my car and drove out west for nearly two months. I don’t give up easily. I don’t find a solution easily either. I felt hopeless. And maybe, just maybe the trip would give me energy to solve the business problem.
When I returned I spent less and less time at the office or with the partners. They apparently assumed that I was very rich and could afford to lose a great deal more. We barely tolerated one another. We went from working hopefully on something that mattered to despising one another.
I saw the lawyer who gave it to me between the eyes. Shut it down. Before I left his office he asked if I was all right. Yes, of course. What else would I say? I walked home and found myself pacing my very large house. I called him to say I was not all right, so he said to get right back to his office. He told me about losing millions on a real estate deal overnight but now he was thriving. This was meant to make me feel better. He sent me to another lawyer across the street. The city was lousy with lawyers. I signed papers turning over my bonds to the bank and shutting everything down.
My lawyer had to mediate just to get back the computer I had bought. Great, I got it back but had no use for it. I sold it to a friend’s company for next to nothing. And what would I do with the office furniture? Nothing.
There I was in my big beautiful house. I lost my income producing bonds. At the same time my friend Ivan from #44 It’s Time To Speak Of Ivan, had used me to help him build a Hampton house when it was supposed to be income for us both. I was so clueless I probably deserved to lose everything.
I had nothing more to do with either of the young men. For a long time I hated to go to that city in case I ran into them.
It was about that time I met and befriended the children and translator from Russia. Looking back I see that she saw that elegant house and assumed I had all the money in the world.
And here was my brilliant thought after I had to shut it all down. “I can always make more money.”