IN THE LAND OF SHARP ELBOWS
Time passes in the New World just as it does in the old and people are people wherever they are. That, however, has never stopped some from playing up the differences and making believe crossing the Pond to earn a crust while the banner yet waves makes them somehow hipper than thou – even if in truth they may be feathering their nest with the pluckings of others. Blown your chances in the Old World? Find the thought of the chickens finally coming home to roost too much to bear? Fear not: just a relatively short flight away lies a land as yet unsullied by your presence in which to give your sharp elbows free rein once more.
The tale I am about to recount unfolded nigh on 20 years ago, so the wounds have just about healed sufficiently for me to return to what turned out a most profoundly dispiriting lesson in interpersonal relationships. The wisdom of age (by which I mean having been alive long enough to have had lots of stuff happen to me) suggests to me that we all accrue and assimilate a growing number of misadventures over time (or is it just me?) and that each of us finds his or her own way of dealing with the imponderables inevitably thrown our way. Essentially it’s that or paint yourself a career victim and start howling at the moon. If we don’t fight our corner, in other words, we risk eventually having to sell ourself short simply to maintain some semblance of self-respect. Forewarned is forearmed. Are you sitting comfortably?
The year was 1997, Windpilot was flourishing and Europe had started to look rather small: bluewater sailing was a mass-participation sport and there were people at it the world over. Sailors of all nations were generally agreed, moreover, that the joy of steering was inversely proportional to the length of the trip – and that electronic autopilots were no magic bullet. Windvane steering systems – reports of whose demise have been greatly exaggerated for as long as I can remember – have been winning the hearts of sailors who dream big (bigger than out and back in time for lunch in any case) for decades.
The internet had yet to move beyond the Wild West stage at that time, so winning new customers still meant zipping back and forth around the world for the thrills and spills of the boat show routine: quite right sir, have a brochure… Getting a foothold in the US, in other words, necessarily involved being in the US.
Was it fate? Pure chance? Or had my destiny always had this little treat stored up for me? At around about the same time as I started seriously considering the American market, I happened receive a visit, first at the Hamburg boat show and later at my workshop, from a friendly couple of young sailors. Better yet, these proud owners of a solid, angular chunk of steel Reinke had already upgraded their transom with one of my Windpilots. How could I not welcome them with open arms? What a coincidence I thought, what luck! What luck indeed…
DORIS HEITZMANN and DIRK R. WEITER
The couple, then to all appearances still enveloped in the first flush of love and living in another part of Hamburg, told me of their idea to relocate, boat and all, to Florida: a new wave of German emigration. Were they reading my mind, I wondered? One word led to another, synergies quickly emerged and soon enough we had moved on to concrete plans. I have always had a penchant for fast decisions and my instinct yelled at me this was an opportunity I could not afford to waste. And so in I jumped, heart and soul: WINDPILOT USA was born.
The emigration itself followed an unconventional model for sailing folk: he and she flew while the boat arrived as deck cargo through the port of St. Petersburg (Florida). The pair soon sorted out a house and a car. Settling in was a piece of cake with an employment contract in the back pocket; after all the costs for office, car lease, brochures, advertisements and boat show fees were all covered by the business … that’s to say by the trusting and supportive employer … that’s to say by me.
Few newly arrived immigrant families can have had such a fine start to their new life with such good long term prospects, of that I remain quite sure. All this and I had made two firm friends into the bargain – or so I believed.
Anxious not to leave any of their new infrastructure underutilised, the ever-practical Dirk and Doris were soon doing a bit of real estate broking on the side (but I didn’t find out about that until later, by which time I had other things to worry about). Altogether then we had what looked like a text book start-up – someone should have invited the TV cameras.
Now I embarked on my frequent-flyer programme. The boat shows in North America seemed to come roughly once a month: Miami, Oakland, Toronto, Atlantic City, Annapolis, Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, Newport R.I. – the exact sequence escapes me (I suspect I’ve suppressed as much of this bit as possible) but suffice it to say I covered a few hundred thousand miles in short order and graced more than enough airport lounges for one lifetime. But I didn’t mind: these were the labours I had to complete to break into the new market, a market surrounded by blue water and green, a market occupied by dominant males with products rather less sophisticated than my own, a market whose tranquillity I had firmly resolved to disrupt.
Soon enough then I had my own team on the ground working away in Windpilot uniform doing their very best to promote our cause. Things, it appeared, could hardly be better. Appearances can be misleading though and – you will not be surprised to learn – there was a fair old yawning chasm in this instance between what I thought I saw and what was really happening.
A few months of set-up work and customer acquisition in the US left my bank account in Hamburg in a sorry state, but my shiny new US account was filling up nicely thanks to lively sales and the fact that all of those pesky charges for remuneration, manufacturing, marketing, transport and distribution were being met from Germany and not Florida. Electronic banking didn’t exist, but I trusted my friends and granted them full control of the US account.
The subject of the contrasting fortunes of my accounts came up in a telephone call with Dirk R. Weiter, during which I enquired about the current balance in Florida. Dirk passed me over to his wife Doris, who said the amount was “about $80,000” – pretty much what I had expected. I then explained that we needed to make a transfer back to my Hamburg account, at which point the wool was unceremoniously torn from my eyes: “No” came the sharp response. The money wasn’t mine, I was told, and nobody would be making any transfers to Hamburg. My bank in Florida confirmed a short time later by telephone that my account had been cleared out, with all of the money apparently withdrawn in cash. Boom!
Events came thick and fast at first as I set about cancelling the contract and finding some legal representation to try to recover my missing money (and the lawyers, naturally, set about trying to acquire some of the money I still had left). After years of legal manoeuvring, countless trips to the USA and a change of attorney, I was eventually confronted with the brutal reality that in Florida, the law apparently does not allow a court judgement to be enforced against property in the form of a “private homestead” if the miscreants themselves reside in the homestead concerned. Yes, there was no doubt that my money had been misappropriated, but no, that didn’t mean I could recover it out of the value of the misappropriators’ assets. It seems Florida must be a debtor’s paradise – who knew? Well, probably quite a few people knew, mainly those initiates who had something to gain by it. As in this case perhaps?
And that was by no means the end of the story either: there was even worse to come. Having emptied my account, my employee told me to ship 14 or so open orders, the customers for which he declined to name, to Florida immediately. I replied without the customary politeness: it seemed the nightmare would never end. Apparently my employee had offered to pass the systems concerned to a competitor in the US so that he could copy them, as he had been encouraged to do, before eventually sending them on to their rightful recipients. Tom Worth, at that time the innocent and optimistic new owner of the Fleming company, did subsequently attempt to put this parallel selling model into practice. With the active assistance of none other than my – now former – employee and his wife. Things didn’t quite go to plan for them either in the end though and Tom later took legal action to force the previous owner of his company, Kevin Fleming, to annul the sale of the company on the grounds that the business had been sold on the basis of misleading financial data. What tangled webs!
The main course of deceit and disappointment came with a few spicy side dishes too:
– as the dispute rumbled on I had my internet domain repeatedly purloined – transferred – stolen by my ex-employee;
– the cunning plans enacted by Dirk R. Weiter and my (twice) former Canadian representative PETER TIETZ siehe left the US market encumbered with two Windpilot replicas,: FLEMING and VOYAGER
– the inventory that the court ordered be returned to me was transferred to a storage unit, the key to which was quietly passed to my attorney. Where this storage unit might be was anyone’s guess – a simple address was not much help from several thousand kilometres away.
My original response, apart from astonishment and the necessary practical steps, was to ask myself how I had managed to run into such an extraordinarily unscrupulous bunch. As the years have passed, however, I find I have come to see the whole thing in a rather different light. Money, power and envy driving people to improve their own standing or ease their own path to a good life without recourse to ethical considerations or common human decency is hardly a rare phenomenon. And contracts? Not much more than a job creation scheme for the legal profession unless the intent behind them is genuine. Concepts of values within and outside communities – families even – have drifted apart to the extent that it often seems to be about I, me, my and that’s all. Opposition is steam-rolled, ideally with a dose of today’s ubiquitous blame-shifting. My venture into the new world turned into a trip through purgatory.
My suspicion today is that Dirk R. Weiter had a plan according to which I was to be sidelined or, better yet, reduced to underwriting an exercise in power in which contracts and friendships counted for nothing beside the imperative of personal advancement. His detailed knowledge of my business and his awareness of the difficult position I was in made it easy for him to start putting his plan into practice. I faced challenges on all fronts at that time:
– a dangerous, expensive and nerve-shredding legal dispute to win before the HIGH COURT in London see here;
– enormous investment in moving my business to a new product range manufactured using industrial-standard methods;
– additional investment to convert workshop operations to CNC technology; and
– increased personnel costs for manufacturing and sales.
I am repeatedly struck, in this age of omnipotent search engines, by how little I have been able to unearth of this man’s previous history. All I know is that he – probably – spent some time selling buy-to-charter contracts for French sailing boats and as the proprietor of a dry cleaning company.
And then he set his sights on me. My conclusion now, all these years later, is that Mr Weiter’s lack of foresight cost him what could have been a very pleasant career in the USA. Far from implementing some great plan, all he really managed to do was shoot himself in the foot (subsequently he appears to have spent some time selling pre-owned aircraft and letting rental apartments, but the internet has nothing to add beyond that). Perhaps I should be grateful to him for showing his hand so early on in the game, because the damage could have been severe if things had continued for much longer.
During a subsequent boat show visit to Ft. Lauderdale I happened to meet a Windpilot sailor who, as a pilot for American Airlines, had access to aircraft registrations and had actually photographed Dirk with “his” new personal plane at the airport. That’s how I discovered Dirk R. Weiter had apparently given my money wings: he had bought a Grumman – a Grumman that I suppose in point of fact probably belonged substantially to me…
I live and learn, as I often tell myself, but the idea never really brings any comfort: trusting nobody to the extent of doing everything alone is hardly a pathway to solace. The main thing I think is to survive, deal with the consequences and get back to living your own life as quickly as possible.
Windpilot has gone on to do very well in the USA, thanks in no small part to the efforts of GREG KRUEGERMANN in Los Angeles. Greg and I have endured a great many uneventful boat shows together and become close friends in the process. And that US market, it turns out, is as fruitful as I always sensed it must be. The old wounds have healed, the fiery disputes have faded away and life has returned once again to the magic carpet ride we all like to enjoy when circumstances allow (or, in the case of my former employees and their like, when somebody else’s circumstances allow).
Mentally I have filed my experience with Dirk away as an expensive market launch and another reminder that the genuinely trustworthy in relationships personal and business are something of a rare breed: behind too many smiling faces lurks the spectre of envy; the pursuit of material gain and personal advancement rules too many heads in futile denial of the fact that a shroud has no pockets. Friendship, empathy and a constructive outlook can be hard to find in our time but that doesn’t detract from my own enjoyment of life because (finally, thank goodness) I seem to be able to recognise patterns of human behaviour much better now and can distance myself more effectively when necessary.
Business in the USA has progressed well and the rise of the internet has rendered in-country representatives unnecessary. All of Windpilot’s worldwide marketing is handled direct from Hamburg, so I no longer have any need to serve time and give generously at the world’s boat shows (which has also allowed me to hold my prices for many years), and thanks to the loyal global bluewater community and the power of word of mouth I can risk a few moments with my feet up at home without fear of business anywhere grinding to a halt.
A cliché it may be, but there is certainly more than a grain of truth in the notion that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – be it a hard night at sea or the experience of meeting new people whose initial warmth and enthusiasm all too soon gives way to the familiar manifestations of self-interest and self-immersion. Or is it just me?
Keep clear of propeller – and watch for those sharp elbows, cautions a still steadfast and unwavering