Pavane Pour Un Dealer Défunt Page 3

He sometimes ranted shamelessly for 20 or 30 minutes, often in full view of customers, while his employees stood around staring at the floor. Creditors called to inquire about late payments. Krebs would placate them with promises he probably never intended to keep, then march into the service shop to express his rage. A technician might be elbow-deep in surgery on a large power amp, only to be jolted by the spectacle of a flailing maniac in the middle of the floor. "You guys are a bunch of incompetents! Morons! I'm going to clean house and rid myself of all of you!" This sort of thing became a common occurrence, especially when "numbers" were disappointing. It was both comical and frightening, because no one was ever quite sure that he wouldn't slip his tether and get physical. Trying to talk sense to him during one of these attacks was pointless and would continue to be so later, behind closed doors, in the interminable meetings he liked.

His office was a disturbing combination of expensive furniture and paperwork run amok. The surface of his desk was piled high with messy notes, through which he would rummage in a glassy-eyed state of partial awareness when asked an especially pertinent question. Magazines and ledgers were stacked unevenly along the walls. A shelf groaned beneath a load of books on the art of salesmanship and the science of propaganda. Prominently displayed among them was Norman Vincent Peale's classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. There was even a carton of motivational tapes specifically intended for professional salespeople, for which Krebs reportedly had paid more than $5000.

A typical "meeting" consisted of Krebs and two or three of his workforce. He would pick out another employee (not present) and launch into an extended diatribe against him, dissecting his personal shortcomings, berating his work habits, questioning his loyalty, threatening dismissal. It was common knowledge that if you weren't at a meeting, you were the likely scapegoat of the day. As much as Krebs believed in and trusted experts and consultants, he conversely feared and despised any employee who, for whatever reason, might not be churning maximum profits. His managers---or bookkeepers or technicians or salesmen---would dutifully submit to these meetings, which usually amounted to nothing more than a sustained rant: Groucho Marx doing Hitler at Nuremberg.

Krebs became the source of much amusement among his employees. They vied with each other in vicious imitation of his personal affectations. They entertained themselves with stand-up comedy routines utilizing his favorite sales analogies: "Well, you see, the power amp is like the muscles in your body and the preamp is like the brain." Or "You appreciate fine cars, don't you? Well, this McIntosh over here is like a Lincoln Continental, the highest-quality American craftsmanship; this Krell is like a Ferrari, just an amazing performer." Their derision was in direct proportion to Krebs's abuse. It was a harmless way of venting steam.

Ira Jackson quit. He walked in at the end of an especially flaccid month and told Krebs "his heart wasn't in it." "Fine," said Krebs, "I'll hire myself a real manager. You're the guy who got me into this mess." He lured away from an extremely successful store in another city their star salesman. Will Petitt negotiated for himself a guaranteed salary plus a percentage of profits in return for complete autonomy in his quest to "turn things around." Krebs had found a new savior, whose reign lasted little more than a year. "Complete autonomy" was something Murray Krebs was incapable of granting. More than anything he wanted to be an executive, a hands-on entrepreneur. He couldn't stand the thought of being an absentee owner.

Jed Brown quit. He had become increasingly more depressed about the poor production figures in the service shop. He was fed up with customers' complaints, long hours, meager paychecks, and verbal bashings from his fearless leader. He went to work for a high-volume competitor. Krebs was glad to be rid of him. "Brown was a dragging brake," he told his techs. "Without him we'll really take off." He discovered further salvation in the form of Billy Williams, a multi-talented part-time technician. Williams made demands similar to Petitt's, with the additional requirement that he hire an assistant. To this Krebs acquiesced. Williams got Krebs to hire Sherry Forrester, with whom he had worked at another establishment. Sherry had made many friends in the industry, while Krebs had made only enemies. Krebs recognized the talent he had. "I've got an all-star team," he kept saying, and he was right. His roster was swollen with seasoned veterans and eager rookies. His players might have won had he just let them play.

We are now midway though the Xanadu Emporium's brief life. Krebs, taking inspiration from Eastern Airlines' embattled Frank Lorenzo, delivered many extemporaneous speeches on the virtue of working more hours for less pay. Petitt, Williams, Forrester, and everyone under their command labored mightily. They streamlined the operation. They worked overtime. They interceded for Krebs with customers and suppliers alike. The crew of the unsteerable Titanic bailed to the point of exhaustion.

Krebs was being harassed daily by manufacturers. To him, people in the high-end industry fell into two categories: "assholes" and "bastards." His service department had difficulty obtaining parts because the store was on credit hold with its vendors. Customers left deposits for equipment which was never ordered; their funds were used to pay utilities or salaries or cash-only CODs. Krebs had a dispute with one of the magazines over an advertising bill. In lieu of payment, he shipped a pair of Dahlquist speakers, which they promptly refused. He refused the return shipment. The magazine in turn refused. This scene was repeated a half-dozen times. The speakers bounced back and forth two thousand miles each way until they got so beat up they were unsalable. Krebs did have some success convincing other creditors to accept product instead of cash. The result was a dwindling inventory. When one supplier cut him off for nonpayment, he sweet-talked another into fronting him goods on extended terms, but had trouble maintaining credibility with his customers because his line-up changed from month to month.

He attended weekly meetings at the bank, from which he returned with elevated blood pressure. His rages became more frequent. The power company showed up twice in a three-month period and cut off the electricity for nonpayment. Fearing the worst, his employees quietly removed all their personal possessions from the premises. The phone rang constantly with inquiries about promises given and commitments unmet. In an amazing display of earnestness, Krebs would ask why his check hadn't been received, then "prove" that he had sent it by faxing a copy. The store went six weeks without the services of UPS due to unpaid bills. Through all of this, the Emporium continued to do business. To the casual observer, all appeared normal; equipment was demonstrated and sold, repairs were undertaken and completed, contracts were signed for custom installations.

Billy Williams sent a memo to Krebs, stating as diplomatically as possible that the only way to save the business was to consolidate all operations in one building, cutting the rent and other fixed costs in half. Krebs actually saw the logic in this and arranged to move the service department and warehouse into an unheated garage behind the store. This improved the cash flow sufficiently for him to pay down some of his debt. Relations with some of the vendors began to normalize. Krebs hired a new salesman, Rodney Apollo, a hustler from Manhattan who began to "write some serious numbers," working every angle: trade-ins, consignment sales, in-home demos. Sporadic custom installations brought in much-needed cash. The service shop, freed from the yoke of astronomical rent, began to show a small profit. Things were looking up.

The death blow went unrecognized at the time it was struck. The Bank of Xanadu, which had underwritten the funding for the Xanadu Emporium, was subsumed in a merger with a larger, pan-national financial institution, in the process losing most of its local officers. Krebs was left without a friend in the money business. At irregular intervals, tense men in suits began to appear at the store. They would meet Krebs in his office, where they conferred in low voices, or in the accountant's cubicle, where they examined well-cooked books. On other occasions they would take a walking tour of the warehouse, while Krebs attempted to regale them with nervous chatter.