The family business: Market Distribution Specialists, Inc (1984-2012)

It wasn’t until the plane hit cruising altitude that Teri realized she was having problems.

Earlier in the morning, everything was fine, delightful even. She and her husband, John, had been preparing for their vacation… the first in 2+ years after arriving in Knoxville… to Hawai’i. She wasn’t looking forward to the three-hour layover @ LAX, but that was air travel and things seemed back to a new normal a few years after 9/11. She was in a good mood… unusually so, her husband remarked in his customary Oklahoman graveled voice, but now something was happening. Something wrong.

I was not privy to the events which followed, nobody told me the details, but I do know the plane had to make an emergency landing… in Phoenix, if I recall correctly… as Teri underwent a breakdown, the rush of emotions overwhelming her. And as I said, while I don’t know the details, someone told me months later, after Teri had returned to work, the reason for it, quoting her directly:

“I was overcome with joy for having left that goddamned place. And then, at the same time, I was also being overwhelmed with dread and fear, knowing I had to return to the same goddamned place. And the two emotions grew stronger and stronger until I couldn’t contain them.”

This is a thread about that “goddamned place”, my family’s business, Market Distribution Specialists, Inc (MDS). In many ways, it was an unremarkable small business - $15-30 million in sales, all the company did was deliver telephone directories, had a good 27 year run until it went out of business in 2012.

But, in other ways, and not to me alone, it was simultaneously the most psychologically traumatic and addicting environment I have ever been in…. and this was a result of the particular psychological and emotional issues facing my family and how they manifested themselves at the workplace (Workaholic bipolars with narcissism issues! Yay! Let’s go work for THOSE guys!) When I hear stories of how Steve Jobs, or Donald Trump, or any number of (usually) men who are both incredibly abusive yet also attract amazing loyalty, I smile and nod, for… in a small way… I was there. I understand.

Don’t expect a traditional narrative. As in my Uber thread, there will be vignettes, and I hope this all makes sense in the end, but to be honest, this thread… for me… has multiple goals:

  1. I want to get this down before it’s too far gone.
  2. Therapy. Many of the things I’m talking about I never placed in a cohesive whole, hell, I never discussed them with anyone.
  3. Microcosms. MDS’s business model, the way it was conducted, and how the story unfolded highlights a lot of truths about America, some good, others bad. MDS was a highly, highly exploitative business – my father remarked repeatedly how we were making millions on the backs of the poor (we didn’t care much for pulling verbal punches), and he was exactly right. We did make millions in profits off the back of the poor. MDS is also a lesson in how Silicon Valley has vacuumed wealth from innumerable businesses into the coffers of about 5 major corporations – Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and the business which killed MDS, Apple.

There will be a couple of expository posts, sorry, it’s just the best way I can think of to condense the information needed for y’all to properly follow the ‘narrative/vignettes’ which will follow. I don’t want to say “Rhonda, who managed the planning department…” and then have to launch into a digression of what the ‘planning department’ was and did. So, like Melville and whaling, I’m going to glurge out some words in advance so I don’t have to glurge them out later. If that makes sense.

In addition, it is the busy time in my industry, so this thread will proceed at my own pace – there may be a delay of a day or three between posts, I may not respond to you as soon as you would like, etc. This thread is a work in progress, thanks, and I won’t know when I’m done until I’m done. But ask questions!

Ultimately, though, and to warn the gentle reader, this may very well end up being a narrative about my stepmother (my 2nd stepmother), the driver of much which follows. My stepmother (SM) was very competent in areas… for example, MDS was always a leader in technology… but her obvious personality issues, and how my father both shielded the business from them while allowing her to push him to more success than he ever experienced before, drives a large part of the MDS tale and the family narrative from 1985-2007. She may very well be reading this (Hi!) and I do want to make sure it’s understood that her efforts did help create a successful company with a functioning operating environment, no small feat for a small business, and were it not for my father’s death and (more importantly) the release of the smartphone in 2007, MDS may still be a viable concern. But she also is the reason for the tale above, and many below.

And Teri? Teri continued working there for another 2+ years, until her husband (and Teri and John are one of the good guys in this story, a gentle Oklahoman couple who’s family got caught up in the madness which was MDS) was eventually forced out of his six-figure job by my stepmother, reduced… like many before him, like me before him… to enacting revenge against her.

The Business – Internal Operations

MDS delivered telephone directories. That’s it, that’s all we did. It is simple in concept, that is for sure, but to do it correctly… at scale… takes an organization. At our peak we delivered or mailed 10% of the phone books published in America, some years moving over 50,000,000 books, and I think we were the third largest company in the industry, behind PDC (Product Distribution Corporation) and DDA (Directory Distributors of America), boring-assed names which highlighted our industry’s reliance on initials.

The industry itself had about 6-8 real players, and a lot of small time hustlers. The two afore-mentioned companies have been around the longest (DDA since the 1930s), and until 1984 the entire industry was geared towards a single client – AT&T. Or, more specifically, Rueben H. Donnelly, the publisher for ATT’s phone books, who delivered most of the books internally, but still had enough capacity to feed DDA and PDC work (rumor has it Donnelly kept them around to avoid antitrust complaints, but who the hell knows).

In 1984 this changed. Part of the ATT breakup decree dealt with the issue of telephone directories, which were… and remained until 2010 or so… extremely valuable assets with massive cash flows. Long story short, part of the decree stated that companies which printed telephone books could no longer deliver telephone books, so the people working in the distribution arm of RH Donnelley…. Including my father and soon to be stepmother… had their futures up in the air.

So my dad, stepmother, and a third gentleman (Murk) met, put together a business plan, and flew to Chicago to pitch to RHD their new business, Market Distribution Specialists, and came back the same weekend with a contract in hand, to be reviewed by their attorneys. The legend had it that the three of them left the office Friday afternoon as co-workers and came back Monday morning as employers. It wasn’t that smooth of course… MDS was just one of SEVEN companies to win contracts that weekend, nothing was going to change until a certain date in 1985, etc… but it was a 7-figure contract in an era of high margins, and my parents + Murk were off to the races.

There were two divisions in the company – Field and Internal. Field operations are what they sound like – that is where the phone books get delivered. Internal operations set up, supported, and wrapped up the deliveries. For field operations, we’ll get into further in the story… some good tales there!.. but the home office, where I and my family worked… is where the exposition has to begin.

A phone book distribution contract covers multiple projects over a 3 year period – usually you cover the same markets all three years. So, let’s say that the “Milledgeville, GA” delivery of 40,000 books is upcoming… here’s how it works:

Administrative Coordinators, about 5-6 months out from the beginning of the delivery, will start looking for warehouses. This is much harder than it sounds for it requires very specific needs – ‘we will need your warehouse to accept 40,000 books AND a rag-tag group of people we have no idea of their backgrounds will be entering your warehouse so they can deliver our books AND your place needs to be 18-wheeler compliant AND we need a forklift’ is not an easy find.

The Routing/Planning Department is responsible for defining the delivery area and breaking the distribution down into manageable chunks – creating routes of ~500 books each for people to deliver. We were GREATLY assisted in this by the US Post Office and their Carrier Route Information System products. So the routing department would take the Milledgeville delivery area, convert it into CRIS data, clean up the CRIS data, create hand-drawn distribution maps from the CRIS data (both a wall map and an individual distribution map), and at the end, the final product was a wall map, a series of route envelopes numbered 1, 2, 3, etc – each envelope containing the map as well as the list of streets + address ranges the delivery person was supposed to hit. This “Job Box” went to the field manager and it was these materials s/he used to get the distribution done.

Two to three weeks out, the Recruiting Department starts placing ads in local newspapers, radio stations, more. They also receive phone calls from interested delivery personnel and schedule them for orientations. And yes, there are orientations, because if there’s one thing people can fuck up, it’s delivering fucking phone books.

During the delivery, two more departments kicked in. The Verification/Telecheck Department (we called it “telecheck”) was our call center which had the responsibility of calling a % of residents, businesses, and advertisers (100% on that last) to verify that they received their phone books. At the peak, the telecheck department had 32 seats, two shifts, and we could dial 60,000 calls a day, a vast majority of them being automated robocalls to residents. “Hi, we’re just calling to see if you received your phone book! If you received your new 2005 Valley telephone directory for Bakersfield, press ‘1’, if not…”, stuff like that. As a field manager, you lived and died by your phone calls as your bonuses were tied to them.

In addition, the Customer Service (aka the “complaint”) department was in action during deliveries, fielding calls from angry residents, businesses, and government officials as our independent contractors constantly failed at the one task we asked of them – to deliver the goddamned phone book the way they would want their phone book delivered to them. In time I’ll tell you how the dog ended up in the refrigerator, but just for now, all you need to know is that this is the department that dealt with complaints. And it may help you to know that this department was headed by my (then) wife.

Of course, there were other SG&A departments- our accounting department was never smaller than 2 people and for well over a decade had 5-7 people, we had a receptionist, an IT department, more. And, at my peak, I was in charge of all of the internal operations except accounting, which reported to my parents.

And, before asked, there was no sales or marketing department. There were, at the peak, perhaps 15 businesses who needed MDS’s services, and those needs were usually handled by the family (excepting bids, which were a FUCKING NIGHTMARE). Sales, for the most part, was handled by my charmingly competent father.

All right, so to recap: the admin coordinators find warehouses, forklifts and shit, the planning department prepares the routes for distribution, the recruiting department finds people to deliver, Field Operations (to be gone in later) assign the routes to the distributors and follow up re: the quality of their work, the telecheck department calls the routes after they were delivered for quality control purposes, and our complaint department deals with broken windows, busted snowblowers, and issues so insanely difficult to solve* it’s hard to remember how we did so. Got it? :slight_smile:

*Hell, to give y’all a taste of what’s coming further in this thread, one contractor fucked up so badly that the repair efforts required the attention of the head of the North Carolina State Parks division so he could give his personal permission to a spelunking crew to go retrieve phone books out of some cave protected with a number of wildlife preservation laws. Why these people drove 300 phone books up 2,000 feet so they could dump them in some cave in a state forest as opposed to most of their friends who simply took their books to the Walmart dumpster we never found out, even though we literally did ask the contractor that question.

The Business – Field Operations

The 2nd of two expository posts, Field Operations was the actual delivering of the telephone books and, as referenced above, is where the exploitation comes in. Delivering telephone directories is brutally difficult work and, with some exceptions, always a loser’s game. Always.

First we had the field managers. These people traveled from market to market, seldom seeing home, living in RV’s or hotels for months on end. It’s not everyone who can leave their homes behind for months at a time and it was an unwritten corporate policy that you were never getting a FM job if you had kids. The perfect field managers were retired couples on a pension with an RV who wanted to get a job that allowed them to see America in their RV and spoke Spanish. We actively looked for those.

The distributors were from all types of lower and middle class background – one time, in Fairfield CT, I had a woman show up in a fucking fur coat and I told her to leave, lol. No way is she going to do this job, her kid would’ve been back with those books in the back of the same Beemer by tomorrow afternoon.

I’m going to be blunt – you could, with experience, accurately predict who would get the work done and how well they would do:

… White housewives were great, but with one limitation – they will deliver your books perfectly, with that Karen energy we all know and love, but they will only deliver one route before telling you to fuck off. Politely, yes, but still.

… White men sucked. Always bragging, then complaining. If you told me that I was going to have someone come to my office at 11am, take an hour to decide on the route constantly talking to highlight his knowledge of the local area, take another 20 minutes to load all of 400 books in his van, and then come back into the office and sit for 30 minutes talking about how hard a worker he is and how “I’m not worried, I’ll have them done in no time” he is about his books, I would ask “Is his name ‘Dave’ or ‘Todd’?”. That motherfucker will miss every deadline he sets for himself, not to mention ours.

… Hispanics were the bread and butter of the industry. They were the ones most likely to be professionals – we had this one crew in California, 3 siblings, who averaged over $600,000/year in earnings for years – and the ability to speak Spanish was something we urged in all our managers.

… African Americans were fine. They typically averaged about 2-3 routes, some were professionals, you had your share of fuck ups (all groups had fuck ups, except for white housewives. Those ladies were golden. It was genuinely weird.)

Delivering phone books was difficult work. The books are heavy. There’s tons of walking. There were forms to fill out. It’s very difficult on your vehicle. It’s hot, sweaty, muscle-straining work… and that’s when you have just one book! Sometimes, especially in the early years, our distributors would have to take 3 separate books to each address – imagine doing that in a Honda!

And you were probably only paid .15/book, at best. Or given some rate like .15/book, but only .05 for any location which takes more than 3. Or you flat rate the really big deliveries so the contractor only earns .07/per, maybe .04/per. (I think the guy who took 16,000 books to Disney that one year was paid .04/per, or 640. Meanwhile, we’re getting paid .65/book by Sprint, paying you .15, collecting the .50 spread in the middle. Repeat 40, 50 million times every year and you have yourself a nice business.

Well, except for the ones doing the hard work. But, then, this is America.

Managing could be dangerous, and your contractors were easily angried. More than once did I have to face down a shouting man who was pissed he was only getting paid $52 for three days work. I don’t know what to tell him – it shouldn’t have taken him 3 days to deliver $52 worth of books: our business was exploitative, but it wasn’t that exploitative. Many of the managers carried guns to protect themselves, though fortunately we never had a shooting. I did have no fewer than three of my contractors arrested in front of me because of police stakeouts, including one with a fat sack of weed in his pocket during a stretch where I was just jonesing so hard, being in a new town and all (and, yes, being able to find your illicit pleasures in a completely unknown location is one of the first thing a field manager trains themselves in).

And guys, before I go for the evening, we delivered everywhere. Manhattan. Venice Beach. Ada, OK. Key West. Seattle. Death Valley. Decatur, IL. All these locations, and hundreds, thousands more, were impacted by our little business. At our best, we provided information to people when they needed it, at our worst, we junked the planet using exploitated labor.

Eh, it’s a living. Or it was.

Next… and, as mentioned, it’ll be when I get around to it… we’ll get into some of the dramatis personae of this story. I guess technically that will be expository as well, but I’ll see what I can do to make it less dry than the above. I appreciate your patience in having read this far. :slight_smile:

Hey, I’m enjoying it. Looking forward to more.

Chilling, the parallels between industries and endeavors that would appear to be so different but aren’t. Meaning, I was the overnight charge nurse in A 300 resident retirement community/assisted living facility. Me, 2 nurse’s aides, 300 people to feed, medicate, keep safe and entertained, triaged and happy. Recognized your employee types instantly. As well as the complaints.

Carry on.

The Contest

You have one in every large office, the person who comes in 7 minutes late, starts lunch around 1130 (and starts pre-lunch goof off long before then), comes in around 1pm, and still finds an excuse to leave before 5pm… which was fucking unusual at MDS given nobody but the hourly people ended work at 5pm, 10-12 hour shifts being the usual among us.

My father and SM had to go to a conference, sometime around the summer of 2001. I was relatively new in Knoxville, having closed up the Atlanta office, but noticed Jay’s aversion to work activities almost immediately. And, because I am who I am, I decided to start a contest: $5 buy-in’s to select the 5-minute block of time Jay would leave the office early.

Got a lot of action fast, within 15 minutes had $100 of slots taken, people walking in and out of my office dropping their $5, $10 bills off and taking the relevant slips of paper.

Unfortunately, Jay had done the impossible- he not only made a friend, but an ally! How cute! So his ally forwarded my email explaining the contest to Jay, whereupon Jay… visibly upset… decided to call my father.

“Hey, Dad! How’s it going?”
“What’s this about a contest I hear? Something about Jay?”

… lol, holy shit. Better come clean - I’ve always been an ask forgiveness than permission kind of guy, and I knew what side of the equation I was on this time, so…

“Yeah. We’re buying $5 slots to see when Jay is going to leave early.”
“Holy shit, no wonder he called me up, yelling like that. Who’s playing?”

… this is my Dad, guys. I knew how to play it. I started listing his favorites.

“Mendy. John. Kathy. Even Pat in accounting has $10 laid on 415-425.”
“This doesn’t make things easier, John.”
“I know, Dad. Sorry. Want me to cancel it?”
“… no. Keep the bets and reschedule for tomorrow. I want to see who wins.”

Pat won.

”Betty Ruth, if you continue to yell at that man like that, he’s going to leave you!”
”Mother, you don’t understand. If I don’t yell at Bob, he won’t do a damned thing!”

”It’s not something a father likes to admit about his son, but if Bob can’t make this phone book thing work at Donnelly, at the age of 50 it’ll be too late for him to start over. Again.”
”It also helps that there’s no money or product for him to steal, Hoyt.”

Aside: My (maternal-side) uncle, the deliverer of that last line, was a World Class Dick. His asshole game was always on, and it was always top notch – if you wanted to verbally spar with him, better bring your A game and expect to get hurt in return. Smart as hell, he would’ve been a memorable addition to the Dope, at least before his inevitable banning.

Born in 1932, seasoned in Korea, a young executive at JC Penney, my father found himself in 1969 a widower with responsibility for four children. For reasons which weren’t explained to two year-old me, we transferred to Atlanta, GA, my father put in charge of the largest store in the city which also doubled as the distribution center for the other Penney stores situated around Atlanta. Remarried in 1971 to a widow with children of her own (and, really, that’s another thread) he was very successful at Penney’s until….

OK, so when I was a kid we would have fucking fantastic Christmas’s – I would be willing to bet that, gift-wise, our Christmases were better than yours. Or yours. Or yours. On Christmas Eve, we would sit down in front of the tree around 7pm and, for the next three, four hours, the 10 of us would open the hundreds of gifts which surrounded the tree, emptying it of all gifts. And the price we paid? We had to clean everything up before bed time. 10 people giving 9 gifts to the other family members, the parents getting each of the kids multiple gifts… yeah, it was a lot. It took hours to open them.

And the next morning, we would do it again. We would come down, vast mounds of gifts around the tree, and spend hours opening what came from Santa Claus. We would sit down, 2 hours, longer, and open the gifts from Santa.

And it’s 45 years later, I’m telling this to Cathy (Hi!), and I suddenly realized… Holy shit, all that stuff was stolen! My childhood Christmas gifts – they had to be stolen! It’s the only thing which makes sense!

And it makes sense because Dad suddenly lost his job at Penney’s under mysterious (to us kids, at that time) circumstances, his connections unable to protect him for once. And then began the slide…

Dad started a business, executive recruiting, and it failed. He then tried to sell real estate, but… uh… well, one time he needed money, let himself into one of his clients’ home, stole some shit, and pawned it off.

So at the time it’s just my brother and I – the sisters were in college, living in dorms, so they didn’t notice when Dad stopped coming home all of a sudden. One night. Two nights. Three nights. WTF? My brother and I finally pin down Ann, his girlfriend, who told us that Dad was tired and staying at her house. “Bullshit”, I responded, for I could see the lie in her eyes. And then it was that she told us what had happened.

Long story short, Dad plead guilty to a reduced charge, Ann left him, he started (again) with Donnelley after a small stint at another firm where he met my eventual stepmother, and after a year or so at Donnelley, the ATT decision mentioned above happened. Sometime between 1976 and somewhen I learned that Dad was fired from Penneys because of theft (guaranteed this was told to me by my grandparents - they detested Dad).

So, here’s the thing. My dad was very charming, very competent in that Midwest executive sort of way. He’s not one you would go out to the titty bar with, but you would definitely enjoy him in a steak house at 10pm, talking about business and common acquaintances over scotch. And no matter how he fucked up in the decade or so after losing his first wife, he always kept that “competent, white male executive” persona about him, and it allowed enough people to look past his (recent!) transgressions and give him a shot. Loans for his business. Contracts with Fortune 500 businesses. More. (Again, don’t tell me white privilege doesn’t work – my Dad went from prison to 7-figure businessowner in 3 years. If you have the look and attitude, you can just about do anything.)

And so, when this started, my father had his back against the wall – he had a record, in his mind this really was his last shot (his father was likely right about that), and, while quite capable, he really needed someone to kick his ass to make him achieve anything.

Enter my stepmother.

Can’t wait for more!

Great story-telling! As I’m reading, I’m picturing how this would look if it were filmed…:wink:

Great story John! Looking forward to the rest of it. A parable / cautionary tale for our times indeed.

I have a long deceased uncle who retired from RHD in the Chicago office where he managed most of the phone book production. The actual printing, binding, & palletizing. They had some truly mongo printing facilities. He would have retired a few years before your story started with the AT&T breakup.

One of my brothers is in construction in SoCal and in addition to his usual crew of trusty regulars he often hires casual labor. He’d agree word for word with the above.

For tough work, hire the Hispanic; older is better. If you can’t find one, hire the black guy who doesn’t smell of MJ. Then the black guy who does. Don’t even bother with the white guys. In his specialties the women of any flavor are so rare as to be practically nonexistent.

After a few decades in advertising, working for a narcissist, a manic catastrophist and a compulsive liar, this is therapy for me, too.

(That’s why we only get fifty minutes at a time. JT: “I’m afraid we need to pause for now, but we’ll pick this up first thing at our next session.”)

I was 17 the first time I saw my Dad cry.

Dad had asked me to clean the kitchen – dishes, table, etc, after dinner. Being 17 and male and me, of course I didn’t get around to it until 10pm or so, when I heard Dad and my (to-be, or maybe already – I was never told when they were married, and none of us siblings ever learned a date with precision, but for these purposes it doesn’t matter) step mother having a loud ‘discussion’.

Fuck, the dishes. Might as well get them done now, see if I can interrupt this thing, I foolishly thought, as many people in like abusive situations have foolishly thought before me.

She is intensely talking, non-stop, her face red below her chin line. Dad was standing next to… leaning on, really… the kitchen counter, looking beat and downcast, rubbing his eyes, but not so much I couldn’t see the tears. And, Holy Fuck, she’s going on about me.

“You see how it is, Bob? Nobody respects you. You can’t even get your kid to clean the damned kitchen. You have listened to me tell you this, but not once did you bother to even yell for him to do his work. Well, I’m not going to stand for it…” (she had no children, which is a true blessing from the Gracious Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ) “… and…” she went on, and on, and on, a relentless well of anger because I forgot/ignored the dishes. She turns to me, the vitriol and anger just pouring out of her, and… for the first time in my life, I’m yelling back “I’M HERE TO DO THE GODDAMNED DISHES, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, IF YOU WANT THEM DONE JUST FUCKING ASK ME!!!”, the argument soon doing what I would later come to call “spinning”.

Dad couldn’t handle it. The energy level was FUCKING INSANE, his girlfriend and son just screaming at each other, the original argument forgotten as we spun up to arguing about the argument, and then we spun to arguing about what were originally arguing about and then we spun… on and on. He (wisely? Cowardly?) turned to me, holding his glasses, said “John, do the dishes”, fled the kitchen and, if I recall correctly, grabbed his keys and GTFO.

We eventually broke it off, I have no idea how the argument ended. Pretty sure I did do the dishes though, lol.

But the true problem, at least for my father… and me… and her…, was, ladies and gents, we learned that I, too, have an anger issue, one easily traced from my maternal grandmother to my uncle to me to my daughter… and for all I know my mother*. And having me in the same argument with the stepmother was a fucking explosive combination, a problem with which he… all of us… dealt with for over two decades as a unit, and then I, myself, for a decade + beyond that.

Early Years

MDS was founded in 1985 while I was attending Georgia Southern University (prior to transferring to the University of Georgia a year or so later), so I was not around for much of the first 5, 6 years. It was largely a part-time affair – the office would be shut during months with no deliveries – and, at times, the company only had 15-30 deliveries per year – about 3 million books. And, as I mentioned above, it was a high margin industry where you could make a nice living out of part time work. A very basic operation, the phone verification was handled by the field managers (and everybody was fine having the managers keep their own scores because that never leads to abuse), the first couple of years were worked out of the third partner’s (Murk’s) home, until they selected offices in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, GA.

And, sometime in this period, my mid-50s father married his 20-year younger lady friend and business partner.

MDS did hire its first true long-term employee, David, who worked on marketing and IT shit, and is currently reading these words (hi!) as I invited him to participate from the beginning. And, in a pattern to be repeated no fewer than 10 times, MDS lost a key person who was so incensed at my stepmother that they dramatically left, swore vengeance, and founded a competing company.

The third partner, Murk, had finally had it of her sometime around 1989, 1990 – he definitely wasn’t there when I arrived in 1991 and things seemed to have settled by then – and when I arrived, the tales of his leaving were already legendary.

MDS, like a lot (most (all?) of small businesses was used to provide the owners with cars, gasoline, credit cards for “business expenses”, the usual fuckery which comes with small businesses – the owner tries to place as much of his personal expenses on the corporate books as legally possible. My wedding, for example, was largely expensed. (Yes, this story will include how this happened, don’t worry.)

OK, so Murk’s company car was a Jaguar which he really loved and a car my stepmother also admired, getting upset at her Saab always needing service. And, as part of his severance agreement, he tried to negotiate the car away from the company – he would assume payments, etc, the usual negotiation tactics.

But my stepmother refused. Just absolutely refused. Didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want him to have his car. And the rest of the negotiations weren’t going particularly well, either, for the day before Murk had to turn in the car, he paid a friend of his $500 to sit in that fuckin’ Jag for 24 hours and smoke his unfiltered Pall Malls with the windows up. And so, the Sunday before Murk’s last day, the friend came to Murk’s house, stayed the day and night, watched football and drank beer with his friend… and every time he needed a cigarette, he went out to the car and, windows rolled up, burned one.

Murk pulls into the parking lot the next morning, sees my stepmother waiting for him and hands her the keys. Smirking, she gets in the car and damn near collapses, the smoke triggering her asthma. Murk starts laughing, my father starts yelling, my stepmother, coughing and wheezing, eventually going to the hospital, making everyone’s life there a perfect hell before she’s released (or kicked out).

And if I sound a little… blasé… about her medical condition, let’s just say this is a woman who ruined a trip to Disneyland a few years earlier by “throwing her back out” while sitting on a park bench. But my favorite story is when, cleaning out the (her side) family home in small town TN, she once verbally rode her brother so hard he round-housed her in front of my father, knocking her flat. When she came to, she started screaming, my father taking her to the hospital, the rest of the family following. The Doctor, for the man truly earned the capital letters in his profession, knew her from her childhood years. He examined her, listened to her yell, and came out to my father, her brother, and her family and said:

“She’s fine. The only thing I prescribe for her is a good spanking, but Louise…”, he continues, looking her mother in the eyes, another 4-decade patient of his, “…it’s far too late for that.”

Industry-wide, though, things were changing. And for the better, at least as far as MDS was concerned:

At the beginning of the company’s existence, there were only just a few publishers of telephone directories, the big news coming in 1986 when Donnelley went into competition with ATT and started printing their own phone books, collecting the advertising revenues and cash flows for themselves.

Things were heating up, industry wide, however – the above article states that the number of “independent” phone books in CA alone increased from 200 to 444 in the previous 8 years, and it would explode in the 1990s. And the reason was simple: Phone books were amazingly profitable and the monthly payment structure for advertisers guaranteed solid cash flows. The above article states a ¼ page ad going for $1,600 in 1986, the equivalent of $3,800 today – and this was a reduction in price! 4 ads, $1,600 apiece, $6,400 revenue per page, ~$500 of incoming revenue booked every month for the next 12. And there’s 40 pages worth of quarter-page ads throughout the book, not to mention half-page ads, full page ads, 1/8th page ads, hell, even putting your business name in bold cost $10, $20 a month.

The Donnelley work occupied my parents business for 5 years, they making the classic small business mistake of too few clients occupying too much of their revenue generation (if you told me 100% of their revenues some years was solely RHD, I would not doubt it.) My parents also, frankly, weren’t very good with money either, their understanding of finances matching that of a household’s needs, not a corporation’s. This was constantly a problem until 2001, 2002 when they hired someone who did understand the difference between checkbook financing and corporate financing.

But… look at those numbers above like a business executive, and you’re thinking: “Wait… I can go to, say, Louisville, print a phone book, sell ads for the thing, collect $3 million in revenue, pay out $1 million in printing and distribution, $500k in commission, and $500k in general and administrative expenses, and have myself a nice little business which generates $1m in profits every year, like clockwork> And that’s just Louisville! Cincy’s 5 times the size, and Chicago is 5 times more profitable than that!”

“Now… how do I get the listings from ATT and the Baby Bells? They’re the only one with a current, accurate list of who has what phone number. Maybe I’ll just ask nicely and they’ll give them to me?”

By 1989, things weren’t so sanguine between the Baby Bells/ATT and independent phone book publishers, and ATT was flatly refusing to give the directory listings to the independent publishers, including Donnelly, who did have the resources to just pay ATT for them. But the smaller players were effectively frozen out of the market, as the legal weight of opinion was that directories, even if they are mere listings of names and numbers, are copyrightable.

Until Feist Publications, Inc, v. Rural Telephone Service Company, Inc was finally ruled upon by the United States Supreme Court in 1991, that is, which held:

Feel free to read the ruling which, effectively, boils down to “facts are not copyrightable”, but the impact it had on the industry was akin to mainlining cocaine. And for MDS… and myself, entering the scene for the first time… it was the beginning of the explosion which took a sleepy company, really doing nothing more than providing an Atlanta, Georgia couple with a pretty nice living, into a major player in an industry which didn’t really exist 5 years previously… and would be destroyed within 25 more years.

Wow I never would have believed I could get so excited about seeing an update to a thread about a phone book distribution company.

Terrific writing and the MDS story is amazingly interesting.

I’m seeing a Netflix series here. Which actor should play @JohnT?

Tom Hardy

Omg, I’m dying here. Thanks!

A serious thought here …

By publishing your ongoing story here you are giving it away to the site’s owners. There might be other ways you could serialize this and generate some revenue, an online following, or ???

IIRC you’ve got plenty of MDS-origin money in the bank such that further fame or fortune as an author may be meaningless to you. But I suggest it merits at least consideration before being rejected.

And lest I be misunderstood, I echo @lisiate. I’m really enjoying the story: good writing, good characters, and a deepseated moral. This is the stuff of a tragicomic TV series.

Agreed on the well-written and quite interesting stories going on here.

Does that mean that @JohnT could read the phone book and we’d beg for more?

Aaaaaand I’ll show myself out.

Thanks for the advice. I may yet do this because, guys?

We haven’t even gotten to ‘the stories’ yet! I mean, ‘The Contest’ I merely threw in above to break up the expository boredom, and the story about my Dad crying was more to set the stage for my stepmother’s entrance… hell, I haven’t even entered this narrative at this point! :stuck_out_tongue:

He’s not really giving the story away, in the sense that he’s not losing any rights over it - he’s just also giving rights to publish it to whoever the current owner is. He would still be able to publish it himself. From the registration agreement:

“All postings and other material on the SDMB are copyrighted by STM. Republication of material appearing on the SDMB without express written permission of STM is prohibited, except that users retain the right to republish their own work. By posting on this board you grant STM and its successors and assigns a nonexclusive irrevocable right to reuse your posting in any manner it or they see fit without notice or compensation to you.”

Also, LSLGuy at the end of class, did you used to remind the teacher that she forgot to assign homework? (In other words, keep quiet and let him post!)