Tuesday, February 28, 1984
I was pretty naive about the ways of business when I started out. Bert became my teacher. Bert was an interior decorator who started hiring me for the occasional job. Bert had a great sense of color. He was a very personable guy and a heck of a salesman. Bert was also a con man, but I didn't know that yet.
On my first job for Bert, I accompanied him to a house in Los Altos where he wanted to add some track lights. We discussed where the lights should be located, and then I told the client that I could buy the track at a discount for her. Bert grabbed me by the arm and said, "Let me talk to you for a moment." He quickly steered me out of the house and said, "Are you our of your mind? Don't you know how I make a living? A decorator doesn't get paid by the hour. I make my profit by ordering things for my clients and selling at a markup."
"Oops. Sorry," I said.
"Here's your Rule Number One: NEVER DISCUSS PRICE WITH A CLIENT."
"Okay." From then on, I deferred all discussions of cost to Bert. Bert, meanwhile, paid me by the hour, which led him to give me instructions like "Go install chair molding for Mrs. Ohler but hold down the expenses, okay?" Then I go to Mrs. Ohler and try to do a quick job, but Mrs. Ohler calls me on every shortcut - nicely - saying "Is there anything you can do about this crack over here?" So I end up doing a quality job, against Bert's wishes. Bert was an idiot that way. His mania to hold down costs made him lose his clients and his reputation - and of course it made me look bad, too (until I learned to ignore his cost-cutting suggestions).
When Bert made a mistake, such as ordering the wrong color, he'd never admit it. Instead, he'd try to sweet-talk the client into thinking it was the better color. When he failed, which was often, he had an explosive temper.
Eventually there came a day when Bert wasn't at the job and a client backed me into a corner and forced me to quote a price. Later, when I told Bert, he asked, "How much markup?"
"Ten per cent."
Bert snorted. "Thanks for nothing."
"How much is your markup?"
"Fifty per cent?" I really couldn't imagine such a big markup. On little items, maybe, but not on a $5000 sofa.
"One hundred per cent."
Like I said, I was naive.
Eventually, I realized that he was also doubling my wages when he charged the clients, and that if I worked independently I could increase my hourly rate by 50% and still be cheaper than what he was charging.
Bert found out that I was competing with him, working directly for his clients. It wasn't poaching in my opinion because the clients had already washed their hands of Bert, anyway. He called me to his decorator showroom - a collection that would have made Liberace drool - and foolishly I confronted him. I felt somewhat safe because, while confronting him, a fire inspector was making his rounds. Bert proceeded to read me the riot act. "After all I did for you," he kept saying. "They'd already left you," I kept saying.
The fire inspector interrupted Bert's rant to tell him to get rid of an uncapped two-gallon can of gasoline that, oddly, Bert kept beside his desk in the showroom. "For the yardman's lawnmower," he said. While smoking a cigarette Bert carried the gas can out to the rear parking lot, still reaming me about stealing his clients. He tossed the can into a dumpster while gasoline sprayed in an arc until it landed on the old furniture and shredded paper within.
Bert drew hard on his cigarette, then held it between two fingers, studying the glowing tip. He looked at me, scowling. Then he looked meaningfully at the dumpster. The message was silent, yet loud and clear.
"Bert," I said, backing away. "I'm sorry things didn't work out between us."
"Fuck you," Bert said.
I turned my back and walked away as quickly as possible without actually breaking into a run.
There was no boom, no fire, no joining of cigarette and gasoline. I'm sure that as soon as I was out of sight, Bert crushed that cigarette under his shoe. Then he went to his desk and called all my new clients, sweet-talking as only he could do.