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Real Deal: The Case of the Broken Heart

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[span class=alert]To be eligible for publication in INSTORE, responses must include your name, store name, and the city and state in which your store is located. [/span]

[dropcap cap=B]ill Jurgensen couldn’t even imagine working anywhere else. He started at Ray Argill’s downtown store when he was just a 16-year-old high school student. He was the manager by the time Ray moved the store to a suburban office building 10 years later, and continued to assume more and more responsibility as the store’s reputation, volume and market share grew and Ray’s energy waned.[/dropcap]

Several years after the move, Bill hired Eileen Wardlaw, who would eventually assume management responsibilities as Bill continued to take over more of the company’s operational responsibilities from Ray.

Eight years ago, after Bill had invested just short of 30 years in the company, Ray offered him the opportunity to buy into Argill’s, as an equal partner with his nephew Thomas, who had been serving for the past 15 years as the store’s diamond buyer and appraiser. They had always worked well together, and had always gotten along, even though everyone agreed that Bill was the easy going, “half-full” type while Thomas was the more skeptical, “half-empty” person.

They divided business responsibilities along clearly defined lines. Thomas handled the merchandising — buying and display — and Bill handled all things operational — including staffing and general management. In reality, the only real point of contention between the two was Eileen. Bill appreciated her laidback style and the ease with which she related to the rest of their six-person sales team and to their customers. He valued her loyalty and was willing to overlook her occasional “family crisis,” inattention to detail and discomfort with conflict.

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Thomas always saw Eileen as a bit lazy and often complained about what he saw as her inflexibility, and her inability to maintain a level of discipline with the staff. Eileen simply learned to look at Thomas’ frequent criticism as part of “his way,” and to rely on Bill for support. After nearly 20 years with the company, she felt comfortable with her job. She was paid well, and the store’s easy hours (closed on Sunday and Monday, and open past 6 PM only on Thursday) gave her the time she needed to keep a positive balance between work and home.

The past two years have been tough on everyone at Argill’s. With the economy in their Northeastern city declining steadily, Bill and Thomas could do little but watch and trim expenses as their revenues dipped month after month. Bill tried to keep a positive attitude with his team, but when the continued slowing of business necessitated staff cuts, he and Thomas both felt the sting.

By March of this year, their sales staff was down to three plus Eileen, and with things beginning to look up a bit for the local economy, Bill made it clear that their focus was exclusively on client outreach and on maximizing every opportunity presented to them.

All things considered, Bill was beginning to believe they had weathered the storm as he drove to his doctor’s office that Thursday morning in mid-April for his annual physical. His family was healthy, business was picking up, and Thomas was off enjoying a long overdue vacation.

Overall, he was feeling pretty good for a 54-year-old guy. That is, until his doctor put him through a routine stress test that proved to be anything but routine. Several additional tests confirmed the doctor’s suspicions: Bill had serious obstructions in several major coronary arteries and needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately for further evaluation.

Bill’s first call was to his wife, and his second was to Eileen, who was scheduled to leave at 3p.m since it was Bill’s turn to cover the evening shift. He explained the situation and said that he needed her to stay through closing, since it appeared he’d be in the hospital at least overnight. She told him she had a commitment that evening she wasn’t comfortable breaking, but that she would see about getting the store’s office manager (and only other key holder) to close. The conversation ended there, as Bill was whisked off to face yet another procedure.

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Late the next day, Bill called the store from his hospital bed to report that he was doing well, and to see how things were going. He spoke with the office manager, who quickly apologized for her inability to help out with closing the night before. Confused, Bill asked if Eileen was able to rearrange her plans. He was surprised to learn that Eileen simply chose to close the store at 5p.m. — a full 3 hours early — rather than to cancel her plans to attend her son’s college baseball game.

Bill was angry and disappointed. Beside the fact that the decision to close the store early was well beyond Eileen’s scope of authority, he felt betrayed by her apparent lack of concern for — and loyalty to — Argill’s. He found himself thinking that maybe Thomas had been right about Eileen all along — and wondering what other business decisions she’d been making without his knowledge or consent.

Despite his doctor’s firm instruction to avoid stressful situations, he couldn’t help but think about how he would confront her when he returned to the store.

[h3][b]THE QUESTIONS:[/b] How much does a business owner really have a right to expect from an employee with regard to flexibility and time? Was Eileen out of line in her decision to close early when both she and the other key holder had family commitments that evening? Should Thomas confront Eileen or just leave it alone?[/h3]

Editor’s Note: Real Deal Scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved. The characters should not be confused with real people.

[span class=note]This story is from the November 2010 edition of INSTORE[/span]

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[span class=alert]To be eligible for publication in INSTORE, responses must include your name, store name, and the city and state in which your store is located. [/span]

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