I'm a painter!
What Judy most feared about my decision and what was most pressing for her was the difficult economic situation which we would surely undergo once the time came for me to give up the salary and security of my job as a corporate executive. Pragmatically wise, intuitive and fully educated, she knew well the improbability of success that accompanies an artistic career and how susceptible it is to economic problems. When she realized that I was serious about being a painter, her biggest concern was our children, their support, keeping them in the expensive Zonian school they attended and the general condition of the household. Since my return from San Francisco, married to Judy and with Charissa at little over one year of age, I had been the family breadwinner. Now, somewhat frightened, and with certain resentment, she realized that she would have to seek employment, and preferably in the Canal Zone with the Americans so as to ensure the education of the excellent school system which I myself attended until the age of thirteen.
I had no illusions that earning money as a painter would be easy. I had no way of predicting how long it would take me to reach the state of economic sufficiency, if ever. But I didn't want the price of my happiness to depend on my continuing to be the sole financial provider of the family, particularly then, when I had just discovered the option to become an artist and realized immediately it was a true call. I tried to explain to Judy that I no longer identified with the business vocation with the same naturalness as I felt for art, although I had neglected it for so long. Art was a part of me. All I needed was to let it out and that would be only a matter of time. I knew that having to find employment would be difficult for her, but that eventually it would have its own personal rewards for her, as it did.
The time had come for me to accept that I no longer wanted to live the life of a businessman. Since early adolescence, business was never that attractive to me, despite the well-intentioned indoctrinations of my father, who regularly instilled in me and my brother that we were the future custodians of the business legacy he intended to leave us and for which he was working so hard from a wheelchair.
"Once you get through high school", he'd tell us. "You'll join the company, and you'll soon get a grip on building your own futures".
In spite of all I listened to, the business world never really appealed to me. And my parents noticed it.
The world ended up giving me a number of sobering twirls, because I ironically ended up being a corporate executive without it really being voluntarily in my sight as an objective. Towards the end of '67, just months after arriving in Panama from California, I saw myself at the age of 23 taking over the reins of the business. My father's deteriorating health and the precarious financial situation the companies were in, companies that he had run from his wheelchair with the help of my uncle and brother, forced me to take care of business. My brother had quit working for my father after one of their many heated arguments and then later ended up in political exile in late '68. My uncle lacked the right stuff to fill the leadership vacuum. I had no choice but to take control of the situation.
I proposed to the majority owner of the companies to consider me to run the business, but in replacement of my father. As minority partner and company director, Dad still felt in control. I needed to get my old man out of the way in order to exercise the necessary leadership and rescue the business from its tenuous state. Jean, the young, thick-fleshed, pale skinned Frenchman, owner of 80% of the companies' stock, son of Mr. Dutú who originally founded the companies with my father, came routinely from Paris once a year for a couple of weeks to get a feel on how the companies were doing and plan for the coming year. This was not one of those trips. I had summoned him to come in mid year to expose the serious condition I had discovered in the bookkeeping I put up do date upon my return from the States. At the desk across from mine, through his thick pair of glasses, he perused the accounts for two days without saying much. When he was done, it was obvious to him that the critical state in which he found the companies urgently required a firm and resolute administrative hand to repair the situation.
What I had essentially proposed to him was to allow me to command the attempt to do what was necessary in order to straighten out all that was going wrong. My tender age of 23 made the decision of entrusting me with the leadership of his businesses difficult for the shy young thirty-something heir. I wasn't experienced at all in managing a firm. To help him decide, he interviewed Judy so he could gather more information about my character and the type of person I was. Within a few days he appointed me Executive Director.
We then went to my father's apartment to break the news about his dismissal, not a pleasant or easy step for me, or for my old man, but he accepted that such action had been taken in everyone's best interest. Dad was already quite ill and required frequent medical attention. He needed to be home permanently in order to receive the care he deserved for his liver problem, which ultimately and so sadly ended his life in April 1969.
So it was then that I gave myself to the task of bringing back the companies from the brink of bankruptcy, and steering them towards a level of productivity that would not only make all the work ahead worthwhile, but also justify the unpleasant removal of my father from the enterprise of business which he had worked at for so many years. He had been obligated to accept the humiliation of relinquishing the twenty percent share of the companies his friend Mr. Dutú had granted him, to compensate the man's son for his failings. I promised myself to redeem my father's name. He had worked so hard, along with my mother, to set up the companies that had been entrusted to them by el señor Dutú, an act my father and mother had particularly appreciated. Dad had been recently disabled by a hunting accident at the age of 25, and they were going through tough economic times.
My work regime as new head of the business did not change in five years. I worked 24/7, even Sundays and during holidays and vacation time, delivering myself to the demanding responsibilities and obligations of managing the company and motivating a team of workers who still saw me as the little Pully, the kid who'd come to the office and who they saw grow over the years. I spent half a decade on that worktrain. To my daughter, to whom I had dedicated so much time and attention her first year, I now rationed a part of what little time I had to spare.
But the sacrifice and efforts soon began to bear fruit. I cleared out from inventory a large chunk of stagnant merchandise and that with low turnover. I successfully introduced to Panama the Orlane brand of cosmetics and treatment creams, quickly placing it on the market at the level of Lancôme, Estee Lauder, Revlon and Elizabeth Arden. In the Caribbean where we sold Orlane and Jean D'Albret perfumery, the efforts to improve product image and brand demand through the use of beauty consultants brought in from Europe quickly reported a lasting growth in sales. This was confirmed by the prominent and strategic placement our customers began to give our line on their shelves and counters.
With a couple of successful years of proof of my abilities under my belt, I proposed to Jean to reward my efforts with an arrangement for a share in the company's future net profits. That would encourage me to keep up the good work, I told him. But that was only part of the reason. The ultimate purpose of my plan was to eventually recover the 20% my father had embarrassingly given up... and ultimately create the conditions to deserve a 50% ownership of stocks. It would be complete redemption of my father's errors...but one I would never be able to celebrate with him. When I was beginning to earn good money and gain trust in the promise the future held for me, my father finally succumbed to the inevitable outcome of his illness. He was 53.
With his passing I was left alone at the helm of the companies that ironically he had never really owned. My brother, who had left his fair share of sweat in them, remained in exile by choice, making a new life and family for himself, first in Costa Rica and then in Honduras. He too would also die at the age of 53 during a trip to Guatemala in 1996. A heart attack ended for him a life of drinking and smoking in excess, and of internal strife within his soul. My uncle, in turn, who had worked with my father since graduating from high school, resigned in a fit of temper after I called his attention when being his manager. Also, in unfortunate circumstances similar to Roly's, he would reach his own end when I had already left the business. He too had struggled with personal demons until his death.
For me, the abandonment I felt with the absence of my older relatives, whom as a child I considered Pretto models to follow, had only one response: I decided not to mull over the emptiness and sadness that the residue of their coming and going through my life made me feel. So, clinging to the legacy of the bull-strong will to work all three left me as example, I threw myself head-on to the task of building my new career as a corporate executive. Making use of example and inspiration and just and generous monetary compensation to motivate my team, I urged them to work alongside me, to see what headway we could make together.
It went beautifully...but only for a few years, until the economic recession of the Carter era, which brought the strange phenomenon of simultaneous recession and inflation, derailed the momentum of my progress. The inflationary effect affected the prices in dollars of the merchandise we represented, raising them dramatically. The subsequent increase in retail prices prompted the manufacturers of prestige brands to consider the elimination of middleman distributors. The measure would enable at least some containment of the multiplier factor on prices caused by inflation and currency exchange.
For the manufacturer, the idea of direct distribution of its products to the stores in the Caribbean became increasingly more attractive and possible due to the new freight rates offered by air cargo companies. Although air delivery was more expensive than by sea, the shipping surcharge was absorbable and did not really make the product's retail price any more expensive. The speed in the dispatch of goods and their prompt arrival to retail stores directly from the manufacturer, made possible by air transport, eliminated the costly need for the distributor to manage and maintain sufficient stock for long periods of time. Furthermore, with cross-docking the manufacturer assured the retailer that their orders would be filled more completely. And, of course, the manufacturer was left with at least part of the intermediary's profit margin. That in itself would allow some control to be maintained over the price hike.
For some reason I never understood—and which he never clearly explained—, Jean had not secured the Caribbean territory we served with Orlane and Jean D'Albret through the customary exclusive distribution agreement. With that protection we would have avoided the manufacturer's double-cross of suddenly taking the market from us, overnight, a market which over the course of 5 years my efforts helped to develop with so much effort and planning. It was a blow to me. I was expecting to receive my second 15% slice of net profits which for the most part would be generated by our sales to the lucrative markets of the Caribbean. Central America was next on my list of markets to develop. When I asked him why he had not taken the cautionary measure of a distribution agreement many years before, his response to me was that he had an aversion to the controls the manufacturers would demand in return.
Jean's father had held the same anachronistic position as his son...and my father as well. Dad had explained it to my brother and me with certain pride as a policy to follow. Since the companies' founding, Mr. Dutú clandestinely supplied my father with brands that were not ours to distribute. Jean followed those same steps. With this approach, the need to rely on an exclusive agreement must have seemed incongruous to him. My feelings about exclusive representation were altogether different. Such shortsighted commercial vision prevented him from seeing that the rules of the marketing consumer goods was quickly being redrawn in response to the changes the technological advances in jet aircraft had brought to the business of cargo shipping.
We did have protection for our domestic Panamanian market, however indirectly, through the initiative of third parties. Since service provision was their principal business activity, the commercial representation and distribution sectors needed the security of exclusivity to protect themselves from those manufacturers eager to serve the market directly, and from competitors like my father who infiltrated the market to their detriment. In 1969, the country's leading distributors got from the military government of Panama Ministerial Decree No. 344, which regulated reparation for the cancellation of exclusive rights for the representation and distribution of products. It would at least be expensive for the manufacturer if it were to prevail in its attempt.
I was in favor of the decree, but the Panamanian market alone did not represent the income potential to which I aspired and which would have been very possible for me to reach in a couple of years. Without the Caribbean distribution of Orlane and Jean D'Albret, the Free Zone business began to suffer further losses...and with them the luster the business once held for me. In a blink of an eye, the product of five years of constant work was erased; all that effort in hopes of the future Judy and I were forging, and where I had sacrificed the vital time of my daughter's first years. I had a hard time recovering from the shock and realizing the enormous cost of the loss and that the reason for it was not of my causing. My fault was having obsessed with work at my own expense and that of my family.
Jean, meanwhile, offered no solutions or alternatives to ensure a recovery that would offset the financial hit the company had suffered. Under the pressure of urgency, I made a series of unsuccessful attempts to see how we could compensate the loss of our main market with the introduction of new brands and through the development of other markets. To assist and be part of the recovery process, I recruited a young executive, working with Motta International in the Free Zone, whom I met through Charlie Maduro. We became great friends. Confident that the injection of his dynamic and brilliant business mentality into the suffering companies would help our recovery, I invited him into a 50/50 partnership agreement with me, where we would use the existing organization of the companies I was managing as leverage to develop fresh and potentially lucrative business strategies and plans. Jean would have no other alternative than to accept it. If not, I was ready to resign and respond to the probes I was receiving from Motta to work for them. The idea gave me chills, for I didn't see myself laboring under bosses, let alone the Motta's whom I admired and respected, but couldn't visualize working under their rule. But, it was an option, nonetheless, among other considerations.
Steve and I were a perfect match. Soon we were outlining and driving new marketing initiatives. As with our approach to business, our personalities also complemented each other. We became tight, quickly forming a true friendship of brotherhood. The quite handsomely good looking young man that he was, with clear blue eyes framed by fair skin and thick auburn hair... and single, Steve spent a great deal of time at our home, as part of our family, especially on weekends, when he would usually arrive with a new beautiful date each time. My kids loved him.
Steve took charge of Sales, and together we prepared plans and strategies to boost business and make money. It was a period of great entrepreneurial dynamism and fascinating camaraderie with Steve. For a while it seemed that the enthusiasm for business had come back to me. But the progress, if any, with new brands became slow and the expected financial rewards needed did not arrive with the desired promptness. It was necessary to take further actions and open ourselves to opportunities outside the ordinary to see if anything would give us the impetus needed.
The opportunity came through an offer to Steve from Motta for him to handle the opening and management of the Cancun market for them when it was at its fledgling stage. On the broad shoulders of the Motta institution, we would take advantage of Steve's presence in Cancun to develop clientele for ours. The possibilities for business were so great that we decided to make a trip to Cancun together with Judy as assistant in order to study the marketing potentials we would find and also meet the son of Motta's Mexican counterpart who with Steve would share in the management of the Cancun offices and warehouse.
Without Steve's presence in Panama I again had to take over the administration and sales of the companies. That didn't thrill me at all. However, each day I made the effort to make an appearance in the office and exercise some leadership, which my employees noted was not the same as before.
One day in Col?n, returning home on my 250cc Yamaha Trail bike with Judy seated behind me, a kid came out of nowhere in a bicycle and crossed my path. In trying to avoid him, Judy and I hit the pavement. She came out of it unhurt, but I fractured my femur. The accident became a milestone for my prolonged state of despair and indifference with business. The medical disability prescribed was a blessing. I clung to it as an excuse not to go to work. The week of prescribed convalescence became two and I stretched it to three. At home I did minimum management by phone through my secretary. And when I finally returned to the office, on crutches, with hair grown long and beard, the encounter with the office door made me realize the phobia I had developed for my job and everything it represented.
Depressed and with my leg in a cast, I wished I had been able to remain at home and further immerse myself in reading, especially books on philosophy, as Aldus Huxley's "Doors of Perception", and Carl Jung's Memoirs and other writings by him and other great thinkers of the times who spoke of the elevated states of consciousness that were within our reach through meditation and certain practices distilled from material hindrances.
It was a struggle to keep going to work. In search of other airs to breathe, I took advantage of an invitation to New York City from the Orlane-Jean D'Albret marketing director to talk about their plans for the Panamanian market. They were thinking of buying off Jean's Panama operations. I went in cast and crutches. That trip too would become a landmark change, for I returned more convinced than ever that I was no longer attracted to the consumer goods market and the foolish adherence to the goal of making money.
To make matters worse, the business in Cancun did not last long. A serious misjudgment on Steve's part ended with his imprisonment in Mexico, and not for any crime he had committed, but as retaliation from Motto's Mexican partner who had gotten pissed off at Steve. Working for Motta and the Mexican ended up frustrating Steve so much that he made the unilateral decision to resign in order to join forces, in competition, with a local merchant. The business powerhouses he was crossing considered Steve's act treasonous. Using his political connections in the state of Yucatan, the Mexican initiated a process of serious allegations against Steve from which he was unable to defend himself and landed him in prison.
When I received the news he had been jailed, I immediately took action to see how to get him out of there...and quickly. I had to keep him from a prolonged incarceration in any possible way as the damage to his person could be immense.
I made an appointment with the Motta member who dealt directly with the Mexican to appeal to him, as the good friends we had once been, to please intercede with his Mexican partner and help me get Steve released as soon as possible for obvious reasons. A few days later I traveled first to Cancun to meet and interview the local merchant with whom Steve had unfortunately associated with. Once I got some sense on the penal aspect of his sentence, I drove to Merida for a personal interview with the Mexican Motta partner. I was willing to be transparent and frank with the guy, to see if I could draw the necessary compassion from him, which I was willing to beg him for if necessary. I was extremely worried about Steve.
Our meeting was at his house, actually his mansion, and before seeing him I had to pass through two bodyguard filters who padded me down for any weapon I might be carrying. We introduced ourselves to each other and he asked me to sit on the couch facing the chair where he proceeded to sit. I do not remember exactly what I said to the man, but I remember feeling that I had my heart in my hands when I spoke to him and asked him to do me the favor, to do the good thing, of sending Steve to Panama. He would not return to Mexico, I gave him my word, as I had given my friend Motta.
With nothing further to discuss on the matter of Steve's incarceration, I took advantage of a few minutes to chat and exchange courtesies and to show him the honest traits of my personality so that he could get a better idea about the person with whom he was actually dealing. A few minutes later I bid farewell and returned to Panama. I have never again been to Cancun.
A week after my return to Panama, my friend Motta called me to tell me that Steve had been freed and would soon be bound for Panama. I felt immense relief and shed some tears for it. Shortly afterwards my dear friend and brother called, announcing that he was on his way home. I had not found it necessary to pay anyone, anything for his release. And I had made no use of a lawyer or anyone else in my mediation with those responsible for my dear friend's imprisonment. The improbability of his early liberation convinced me that we were definitely entering the Age of Aquarius of peace and love—the two virtues of our humanity to which I had clung, to rescue my friend from his danger.
During a business trip I took to the Bahamas a few years earlier, I had opened myself, devoutly, to the cultivation of New Age principles and thinking. With my faith vested in the precepts for peaceful harmony, what I had managed to achieve in the Steve affair, reaffirmed and solidified my commitment to change my style and purpose of living. I faithfully believed that the sincere practice of secular humanistic virtues, such as those promulgated by the Hippie culture, could achieve that which appears to be unattainable. In my case, I was able to be living proof that two people with purposes in apparent conflict can find harmony and the kindness of Samaritanism, if they will it. And there was no religious faith on my part that allowed me the belief that the Mexican and I would be able to understand each other at that level. The optimism in the results I was intending to seek was rooted exclusively in the good sense of the philosophical principles of the New Age movement that inspired me. I felt my soul and wisdom were on the right track.
Steve arrived from Mexico with beaten down spirits and an urgent need to reorganize his priorities. The ideals that had glued us together and sealed us as partners in the beginning, now lacked the necessary optimism for them to subsist. Although we endeavored to make some attempts to one or another project, the dynamics between us no longer had the same gloss as it once had. However, we did keep on together for a while. I had to make sure he had recovered sufficiently from the effects of his experience in prison and the entire bitter episode in Cancun.
As for me, the repulsion I felt for business and the marketing of merchandise was now felt more deeply. I found the importance and value given name brand goods frivolous and completely unnecessary and even counterproductive to an individual's true growth and maturation. Judy felt the same way. Paradoxically, it was precisely what we were doing. The enthusiasm I lacked I pretended, because I was still reluctantly bound to my obligations as Executive Director of Jean's companies. It was a bitter contradiction in which I felt trapped. I had no taste at all for the work that supported me and my family, but I had no idea what to do to change the situation. The tensions of my conflictive existence accentuated and I began to suffer further bouts of depression.
The entire past of abrupt starts towards a new course—my compulsive trip to Dallas to keep my beloved, the sudden move to San Francisco to breathe a more liberated social air, the early return home to attend the call of duty—seemed unable to provide the answers I needed to resolve the anguish of not knowing now where to turn my sights. Without my future focused on a clear call, on a conclusive goal, committed to the conquest of a new horizon of great personal challenges, I was at the point of despair. I was inclined to work by nature, but needed the clarion call of adventure to surrender myself to it with the same zeal with which I had handled my other past launches into sudden and radical change.
All this internal personal entanglement I was in and that I had felt for so long gelled and finally found its redeeming conduit in that moment of spontaneous release I felt in the shower when I rediscovered myself as an artist. Upon finding the lost path of my artistic vein, the spotlights of my future, which for a time had been turned off, returned to provide their light. Their brilliance revealed the long path of promise awaiting me. Ever since that moment, I have dedicated myself to the firm resolve of learning to live my life as if I were seeing it through lens of creativity, aware that its story unfolds with each step, and that the degree of its color as I journey through it, as its exclusive protagonist, depends on the tone of my participation in the film which chronicles its passage.
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