This is a story about how wildly disparate personalities came together to accomplish the impossible. The number of sheer coincidences in this story are too many to ignore, mathematically impossible. Nah, I definitely had a higher power on my side for the few days of this story.
Little bit of background first.
On Saturday, our staff pulled off the biggest wedding we had done to date, 400 guests, three locations, massive amounts of equipment and custom made floral items, and MONTHS of planning. The mother of the bride was exacting and precise. EVERYONE told me not to work with her because she was a “$itch”, but we needed the job. Frankly, I found her a JOY to work with……. because she knew exactly what she wanted. Family weddings are notorious stressors, but she was cool as a cucumber. Twenty years later, we’re still good friends.
Wedding reception location was over two large backyards, several acres. Father of the bride installed over a mile of brick walkways and a gazebo. Over 300K white Christmas lights were hung in the trees, with a separate transformer to carry the electric load. The neighbor’s backyard, confiscated for the week, was slightly higher elevation and the location for large tents, food buffets, and dance floors. It was a logistical challenge, but the location was spectacular. By mid-afternoon, Saturday, we were firing on all cylinders, looking good, on schedule, and humming along.
We were suffering through a drought, no rain in 93 days…….., sprinkler systems installed by father-of-bride activated before the tents went up to wash down the dust. Yes, we even planned the sprinkler systems. We moved items all afternoon from our B&B to the location……. until about 4:00pm that afternoon……… when the heavens opened up and the rain began. Oh, dear.
I recall the moment of decision. Mother-of-bride, the bride, and me, standing under a tent with a downpour all around us. We were discussing what to do. We had a fully formulated rain plan (12 copies posted to various doors on what to bring with) in my main folder. We were in the midst of making the decision, when I noticed my husband and his odd stance.
My first husband owned a construction company, and never got involved in our business. This wedding was so big, we needed his trucks, so he was along for the ride. He was standing at a corner of the tent, dressed in full yellow weather rain gear (cuz he’s always prepared), holding a corner tent flap, with his arm in the air, frozen in time. He had a really strange look on his face….. which all wives know. I looked away from the mom and bride and asked him, “What are you doing?” His reply…..”There’s about 400 gallons of water pooling on the top of this tent. I’m holding on for dear life and waiting for you ladies to make a decision…….. but you might want to hurry up and decide.”
Rain plan activated. Everyone back to the B&B…..
…… Which meant an unexpected reception for 400 people at our house. We pulled it off without a hitch….. which was nothing short of a miracle.
The following day, Sunday, we had a large breakfast for the wedding party, people staying with us plus extras, about 30 people. That afternoon, the maid of honor for the wedding had a bridesmaid’s party at our house. She was the next to be married. About 175 people attended, gorgeous women in their Sunday best, went off without a hitch. We were exhausted, but we did it. I was proud of my girlfriends/staff. We had nothing scheduled for a few days, we needed to rest.
Monday morning, husband left early and I was languishing in bed. To NOT get up early to make breakfast for guests was a treat. Sure, I knew I had a whole house to turn and a mountain of laundry from the weekend events, but I had three days clear to put the house back together. I was awake but my feet were still throbbing. The phone rang at 6:58am.
Nell was calling, the secretary to a local factory President. She said, “You need to get down here right away.” I sat up in bed like I had been shot, “What’s wrong?” She replied, “John needs you right away, you need to get down here.” She was being cryptic, but I trusted Nell with my life. I asked her if I had time to shower, at least. “No, get down here…..now”, was her reply.
I threw on shorts, no makeup, brushed my teeth, ran a comb through my hair, and arrived in the parking lot at 7:07am. There were crews in the parking lot…… repainting the stripes. Other crews were clipping bushes…. at 7:00am. “Gee whiz”, I thought it was a little odd. I hit the front door and the receptionist said, “You need to get in there now, they’re waiting on you.” She buzzed me into the executive suite. I was thinking… “I haven’t killed anyone” and “I didn’t cheat anyone on an invoice”, and “What the heck is going on?”
John’s sprawling office looked like it came out of MADMEN. Nell looked at me. “Am I dead?”, I said to Nell…… and she nodded. I made a faint excuse about my appearance. John explained why I was there. The company, headquartered in Chicago, was publicly traded, one of the Fortune 100. The plant, our little factory, was selected to host the bond traders….. who owned about 60% of the commercial paper/corporate bonds for the company…….. on Wednesday! John casually mentioned these high-end guests were flying in from all over the world but staying at the Peabody downtown (five stars). They were coming down for a scheduled tour of our facility and other tertiary presentations. He thought they might expect a doughnut and coffee from a vending machine………. but it would be nice if I made up something special….. then he mentioned …… a similar consortium of stock analysts, which owned about 40% the outstanding stock, would be here on Tuesday, which was TOMORROW!!!!!
I was speechless. The shock, like I stuck my finger in a socket, rose from my toes and went out through my fingertips. I was shaking. And I was having aftershocks, in rapid fire, like an earthquake aftershocks. OMG! I know, at that moment, the blood drained from my face.
John was my best client, and a dear friend. He was at my wedding. His wife was a girlfriend. Yet, John was a solid and faithful country boy who rose through the ranks. He had no idea of the importance of this event and was completely out of his element. I was a former partner in a brokerage firm (What are the chances, a local caterer, in rural Mississippi, who has your best interest at heart, who happened to be a former brokerage firm partner?). These people were coming to inspect property, plant, and equipment. This was my old wheelhouse. It’s what I used to do. They would nitpick and look for problems and inconsistencies. And they would be furious at having to leave their own respective mountain…… to travel to …. Mississippi. The effect of their visit would impact the stock price……. for years.
I was terrified.
No time for pleasantries, I told John the brutal truth. I explained, from an analyst’s perspective, what we looked for, and the impact of a plant visit….. and how stock analysts talk to each other AFTER the visit. He popped up and started pacing the room. Nell, in the corner, nodding. John was wrapping his head around the idea…. panic creeping in. I had a clipboard and blank legal pad in my hand to take notes. We needed a plan, ASAP. John was sharp, quick on his feet, and understood the implications. Standing over me, he said, “Okay, what do you suggest?”
I put my hands up to surrender, “I know you well, inside and out, and I know the our people well……. but I don’t know ‘the company’ as you do, and I sure as hell don’t know the financials.” Without giving him time to respond, I asked him, “Who is doing the presentation on the financials?”, because it was the MOST important part of the trip. John said, “I’m not sure, but I have a copy of the presentation…” and then, dropping another bomb, “all 12 VP’s and the CEO are also flying in……..” OMG!!!!!!!!!!! More earthquakes.
I waved my hand as if to wipe away the panic. I knew the execs had probably been working on this for months – meaning, their part was well planned, which I said to John and Nell. We have to work on OUR PART of this trip. “The first thing we need is a schedule, and a shot clock.”, I said. Nell was ready, she handed me the schedule…. We had about 24 hours.
John called in about 6-8 of the plant’s execs for me to re-explain the severity of the visit. I knew them all well. Everything needed to appear “pretty”, “new”, and “well maintained”. I told the execs to think like your wife, “Orderly, with everything put away.”, but the guys looked at me like I lost my mind. One female exec suggested I walk through, and create a master list. Because I don’t work there, I would see what they do not, AND see it from an outsider analyst perspective. Me, with no makeup, parading through the plant, giving orders…… to my client. Last thing in the world I wanted to do. John looked at me, “We’re in this together, you have to do this.”
For the next two hours, we moved through the plant, nitpicking. The analysts would be with us for almost four hours. Main presentation (45 minutes) made in the employee cafeteria with smaller groups breaking into separate presentations and plant tours….. which meant to me……. several locations and they would get hungry and thirsty. It was hot too, that’s Mississippi in the summertime.
I walked into the cafeteria and damn near had a heart attack. The floor had to be cleaned and waxed. It wasn’t bad for a normal day, mind you, it’s just that people spill things. All the vending machines had to be removed. The adhoc plywood stage built at the front was okay for a country BBQ, but not for bond traders from Singapore to NYC. We had to dress it up or hide it. All the tables and chairs had to be wiped down and CLEAN!!!! I looked up at the ceiling and stifled a shriek. Ceiling tiles stained from an old leak in the roof had to be replaced and the pest strips…… hanging from the acoustical tiles….. yeah……… they had to go.
One guy, head of plant maintenance, frowned, “You want me to replace ceiling tiles?” I nodded and explained, “What’s the first thing you do in the middle of a boring presentation?” I stretched out my arms wide, leaned backwards, and looked up at the ceiling……. “Last thing an analyst wants to see is a roof leak.” Your stains tell me there is… or was…. a roof leak. He was on board with the flip of a switch.
Somewhere along the way, I called our house, and told one staff person to call ALL the girls to assemble at our house at 10:00am, “Big $hit going down – All Hands On Deck.”
At the plant, we moved piles of old paper, swapped out the company trophy case, put up shifting blocks, moved dumpsters, replaced burned out lights, cleaned exec and employee bathrooms (and brought in pretty little towels from the B&B). At the plant, they power-washed ……… the world. Everyone was in full gear and had their “to-do” lists. I told Nell and John I had to leave to get back to the house and get started. John asked me, “What are you going to do and how much will it cost?” I responded… “I’m not sure yet, but it’s going to be expensive.”
Back at the house, I explained the situation to the girls. Instantly, they protested “Why no warning?”, as we normally plan things far in advance. I countered, “No time to complain, our best client was in trouble and we needed to put on a show….. The reputation of our town, and our best client, was at stake – along with stock price.” They understood. We set a menu, our tried and true favorites. We also had to transform the employee cafeteria into our formal dining room… with satellite locations in other meeting areas.
We had to build the event from the ground up. There was no linen at the plant for the tables. John “thought they could use rolls of paper”. “Paper????”, I recoiled. My mother-in-law and grandmother scoured every high-end department store in Memphis, found 16 -144″ long formal white damask table cloths, drove to get them, brought them home, laundered them all, and starch/pressed them, in less than 12 hours. They were exquisite and appropriate….. and I got to keep them all. Oh, and those $700 tablecloths, happened to be on sale, $90/each. What are the chances?
I called Trish, my girlfriend at the floral wholesale house, and told her what was going on. When she got over the shock, we worked out an order. She took off the afternoon to assemble the floral for the occasion and worked until 4:30am, on our side porch, making 42 arrangements (and she went to work the next day). I laughed when she was searching through the house for vases and containers, finally scrounging a Christmas ceramic elf shoe……. for the last table piece.
My husband and the Mayor moved our formal dining table and sideboards down to the plant cafeteria. Maintenance guys from the city were activated as well, moving large floral planters into place…….. even the town was spruced up. The Mayor ordered a large banner to stretch across Main Street to welcome the delegation. The high school boys who worked for me in the afternoon took off from school – fully excused. Everyone in town knew someone who worked at the plant, our town’s second largest employer. It was a community wide effort. Extra hands turned out from everywhere and it warmed my heart.
Everyone was busy.
At one point, I stopped at my mother-in-law’s to check on linen. She had a full blown hen party going on. Four women, ironing linen, drinking martinis. At Grandmother’s house, same thing, She and Sarah were doing all the napkins….. and having a blast.
We also moved formal service for 60 people, crystal, china, fine silver….. I even had to dig into the gold vermeil flatware to make it to 60. Servers, formal coffee urns, expensive porcelain, …. items flew out of our house…… along with furniture from the parlor…. to be placed at the reception area. The bathrooms were transformed into our guest bathroom. Perfumes, hairsprays, and makeup items for the ladies. Mouthwash, mints, even disposable combs for the gents….. and superfine linen…. with our staff as attendants (cuz people talk in the bathroom and I wanted to know what they were saying). Truckloads of ferns and palms were delivered from another friend to camouflage the stage.
I knew well, their preconceived notion of Mississippi, and I had a chip on my shoulder. Be damned if we would look like a hick town in the middle of nowhere. Oh no, not on my watch. We were going to SHINE!
Throughout the evening, we went back and forth to take items to the plant. I realized NO ONE tested the audio visual equipment and the guys hooked it up to test. My husband was drawn in and fixed it for them. The rented screen was bad and ripped…….. no good. It was late, after 8:00pm. I just happened to have another screen in my attic, left from the previous owners…… What are the chances? Someone was looking out for me…. yeah….. someone from upstairs.
We shopped and started cooking. All our produce supply and butcher supply people knew what was happening, and THEY helped us. At 2:30am, my girlfriend, Terry and I, were sitting on the floor in the kitchen, working off a large wooden board, making homemade bite-size quiches. We couldn’t stand anymore cuz our feet were dead. She looked at me, while stuffing pastry crust into a small muffin tin and said, “I sure hope you’re charging them a lot for this.”
Most of the girls slept at our house, at least for a few hours. There was no oven for hot items at the plant, only microwaves….. which we had removed. By 6:00am, we were flying. Terry made 300 scratch biscuits, others working on chicken and hams. The stock analysts were due to arrive at 8:30am. Our kitchen was abuzz. Items also in the kitchens of mother-in-law and grandmother + one neighbor. John called me at 7:00am, worried about us. I was the picture of calm.
When we arrived at the plant, Nell pulled me aside, “You need to talk to John.” I was torn, my staff desperately needed me…… but I have wonderfully competent girlfriends/staff. They nodded, and off I went to find John. He was nervous about his presentation. I learned he had been there, until late into the night, practicing. His wife and I talked the night before about the suit he was wearing today/tie, etc., and he did look particularly handsome. I hugged him big, and sat down. “You’re good at this stuff, John. It’s why they decided to highlight YOUR plant, out of the other 60+.” “You’re the best they have.”, I said, and it was true. I knew enough about the company to know it was true. “Just tell them about this plant, like you’re talking to me.” “Just tell them how good we really are.”, I said. From John, “But you know I get nervous speaking in public and this is big!” He was worried about his accent. I thought about it. “Let’s run through your speech”, I said. And we made an agreement, when it was his turn to speak, I would be at the back, in the center…… and he would give his speech, just like he was talking to me…..at my house….. in my kitchen.
As he went through his speech, obviously prepared by someone else, I twigged to the footnotes. A few things were curious to me and I didn’t understand them. Stock analysts are trained to look at footnotes….. because that’s where the hidden dirt can be found. I asked him about the footnotes and he explained, REALLY well….easy peasy… and in a common sense way. My concern, alleviated immediately, John was good!!! I told him to ADD the explanations to his presentation, begged him to do it…. “because he knew stock analysts were trained to look at footnotes”, which he did. It made him look like a pro, and he winked at me. He was chiding the stock analysts, the country boy with a southern accent. And they were befuddled. It was a great moment. John had swagger.
By 8:00am, the plant was at full tilt furry. The little cafeteria looked beautiful. It glistened. The oak dining table and sideboards from our house, the tables, everything looked like it came out of a magazine spread. I left to give it one last pass. I was the ONLY ONE out front, fussing over flowers (new lillies opening and didn’t want someone to brush against the pollen) at 8:08am….. when they arrived……. early.
With glass doors, I could not move. They could see me. I was busted. And I couldn’t warn anyone. It was the first band of limousines, CEO, President of various divisions, an entourage of VP’s and CEO staff. It was the first time the CEO had been to this plant. He breezed in, leading the contingent, and I still had my hands in the flowers. He said, “What are you doing?” I responded, “I’m fixing the flowers.”, grinned broadly, and said, “Someone told me we had company coming today……” He smiled back. I introduced myself. He was married to a Wrigley (Chicago Cubs) and my dad knew the family well (What are the chances your caterer knows the CEO’s in-laws?) Most of the other VP’s I knew from prior plant trips. Hell, I had seen them in their pajamas. We all exchanged greetings and hugs in the reception area. One VP saddled up to me and whispered, “Isn’t that YOUR couch?” “Ssshhhhhh”, I said. The CEO bellowed, “Let’s get this show on the road.”
I walked with him, slightly ahead, to the back cafeteria. Along the way, people were freaking out because they were early, me nodding to calm down. The Sec of the CEO, Jan, the one in charge of all the planning, was astonished. The President, picked up one of my girlfriends, off the floor, to greet her…… he still has a key to my house. Most of the VP’s knew most of our staff. The CEO, taking control of the situation, asked me what we were eating today and wanted me to show him around the table. Okay fine, ’round we went.
The CEO snagged a strawberry off a large fruit tower as a snack. I brushed it off. On the other side, he picked up a piece of chicken, took a bite out of a piece, and moved to place it back on the platter. Instinctively, I slapped his hand. VP’s, lined up against the wall, got quiet. But I talked to the CEO like I was his mother, whispering, “Don’t take a bite out of something and put it back on a platter.”, I was frowning. He responded like he was 8yrs old, “I’m sorry…” Who does that? I handed the platter off to a staff member to rearrange it. I grabbed a napkin and told him to hand me the piece of half-eaten chicken, “Into my napkin, please.” He was busted.
The analysts arrived, all was well. Presentations began, smooth delivery from John and others. Presentation went long with many questions from analysts. About an hour in, one person got up, came back to the table, and snagged 4 chocolate chip cookies. Back at his seat, the guy next to him asked for one. The guy next to him asked where they got the cookie. I sent the whole platter around. Sustenance.
With the presentation in full swing, the staff and I took a break to go outside. Some of the girls smoked and we were standing in the “smoking area”. A few of the employees approached us to ask about the meeting. I apologized profusely for kicking them all out of the cafeteria. One guy asked me, “Are they really eating off of gold forks in there?” I laughed, it was my gold vermeil flatware from the B&B – not REAL gold.
As they packed up to leave, mission accomplished, Jan, the Sec of CEO approached me and the staff. She said she had no idea we were capable of delivering “this” (gesturing outwards), and if we could “bump it up a notch tomorrow”, she would prefer to cancel breakfast at the Peabody and have the bond traders mix and mingle over breakfast at the plant…… She was concerned about the bond traders, and mentioned they were the ones we need to impress the most. I nodded, “No problem…… we can do it”.
The girls were working out of an office supply closet to service the tables. Back in the “closet”, the girls looked at me, panicking, “Kick it up a notch? How the hell are we going to do that, Daughn?” I was unaffected. “We’ll figure something out”, I replied. The entourage left slightly after noon. Staff started to clear and get ready for the next day.
I sat down in John’s office. John could not have been happier. He was a star. “What are you going to do tomorrow?”, he said. I was perplexed. The following day were bond traders. I needed salmon, bagels out of NYC, lemon, onion, capers, whole spread. I needed exotic food, beautiful food. With a day’s warning, I had ordered a few surprises…. but I still was mulling over the salmon. John divulged he had just returned home from Alaska fishing trip and had a whole salmon, professionally smoked, about 25lbs, he just put into the freezer. I couldn’t believe our luck. What are the chances?
His wife dropped off the salmon and stayed to help for hours. I called a deli in NYC I used to haunt, and ordered a massive amount of bagels. Delivered FEDEX, but not guaranteed to arrive in time. Wellllllll…….. we are in Memphis…… and several of their VP’s and exec’s live here. We diverted the package, from FEDEX, and were at drop off at 5:30am…. to pick up bagels. Most of the bond traders were short, little, balding guys from all over the world. Many were Asian. The New Yorkers were astonished we could get good bagels in Mississippi. I laughed and told them the name of the deli where I ordered them. Preconceived notions of Mississippi = blown to smithereens. The Asians presented a different problem.
One of my staff members, Lisa, won the swimsuit competition for Miss Mississippi. Although she was in her 30’s, she was still quite a looker. Leecia, a darker skin-toned Italian, oozed sexuality. That woman could flirt with a doorknob and make any man uncomfortable…. just for fun. Terry, my biscuit maker and dear girlfriend, was 6’1″ tall, blond and blue-eyed, and a 38DD. From her waist to her ankles is 44″, and she had the longest and prettiest legs I’ve ever seen. I was the tall redhead. Sonya was 5’2″and overweight, hilarious, and the glue which made everything work.
At one point, I saw a blond NYC bond daddy asking Leecia about a particular item. I saw her slowly drag her fingernail under his chin, “Come here and let me show you…”, she said. Oh gosh, please no, I thought. That man was rendered useless as soon as she batted her eyelashes. A group of 6 men, all Asians, stood around Terry as she was telling a story. She’s a country girl but her natural beauty could stop a train. Diminutive Asian men looked at her like she was a goddess, an Amazon woman, and were trying to figure out how to climb her. Another moment, a group of men around Lisa, they just wanted to hear her talk….. she had a delightful southern accent. And then there was Sonya…..
Sonya was refilling a tray when a 6’4″ tall Irish guy from NYC approached her. He was popping sausage balls into his mouth as fast as he could. “What’s in these things?” and “These are delicious”. Sonya explained, sausage, cheese, and bisquick. Abruptly, he stopped eating and frowned at her. So you have the visual, huge big tall NYC Irish guy and short little Sonya from Mississippi, talking to each other. He said to her, “That’s horrible for your cholesterol. Didn’t you see the big spread the other day in The Wall Street Journal?” From Sonya, “No sir, I don’t read the Wall Street Journal.”
The second day, even though more important, was far more casual. Traders eating and mixing with each other created a weird bond. Jan made the right call. And dear heaven, they did eat. We brought in blueberry pancakes, hot and fresh from the B&B, mounds of bacon and home made sausages, juices, and exotic coffee with a hint of cinnamon. They had never had Terry’s sausage gravy before and foundered themselves. Italian pastries from Leecia’s mother were superfine. Hashbrowns in little egg cones disappeared. Sonya’s Chicken and blackened ham in Terry’s biscuits, with a slight horseradish mayo. The salmon and spread were a big hit. Mounds of cheeses, fresh fruit and berries, with real whipped cream. They had died and gone to heaven.
As the traders left, one of them asked me if I had a little ziplock bag, they wanted to take some cookies home and the snack would be terrific for a long layover. I obliged. Another asked, and another staff person obliged. One guy wanted a leftover blueberry pancake….. ‘It’s okay, I’ll eat it cold.” I don’t think their wives ever fed them.
Finally, we brought out the whole box of Ziplock bags, as traders stripped our table for homemade morsels. Stainless steel/fine leather briefcases and Ziplock bags of goodies. Most of them “hugged” us goodbye….. an era long before #MeToo. All the VP’s were much more comfortable, too. Great results.
Mississippi hospitality – best in the world. We are proud of our little town.
John called me for a bill….. I was waiting to see the results of our efforts.
In less than 7 days, Stock price up 17% and a “strong buy” issued. Bonds were cruising along nicely. Yeah, we pulled off a miracle, with many hands and a little bit of help from upstairs.
Decades later, I think about what would happen today. Would people work together as we did? Back then, I knew there was talk of selling the successful plant. I knew what it would do to our community. We ALL knew. We all knew we had to put our best foot forward.
All the small businesses in town, the guys who painted the lines, crews to trim the bushes, our little company, the printer who dropped everything and made the sign, the FEDEX guys, who understood we needed bagels, the guys who made the bagel in NYC, the floral warehouse, the produce and butcher, …… and the Mayor, who carried my table himself, and the city crews who moved big pots of flowers, the limousine company, and my husband’s construction company + plus the high school kids, and women who worked for me.
Yes, when a town loses a plant or factory, the ripples extend far. Everyone in the town is hurt. It’s why we fight to keep our factories.
This is a story about how wildly disparate personalities came together to accomplish the impossible. The number of sheer coincidences in this story are too many to ignore, mathematically impossible. Nah, I definitely had a higher power on my side for the few days of this story.