knoxville tennessee_8679 (Photo credit: mondays child)
Telephone work was never my favorite thing to do, but I'd had a lot of experience with it. I decided to give this job a shot. I went in to apply and was immediately hired. I was to start the following Monday.
The operation looked high class. The plush office suite was on the ninth floor of one of Knoxville's finest bank buildings. The view looked out toward the Smoky Mountains and the Civic Auditorium complex. Three private offices were for the two principles of the company and, Bill, the star salesman--a seasoned pro who came across with a disdainful attitude toward the rest of us. The rest of the staff consisted of a receptionist at a front desk and seven others in cubicles in the hallways and the front reception area.
I was one of four qualifiers who made cold calls to find potential investors in the product we were selling and set up appointments for the "investment advisers". The leads we were getting must have been many years old. The index cards with the contact information were worn and marked up. There seemed to be a high death ratio among those we called on. Many others were pissed because they'd lost a lot of money on previous investment schemes. These weren't polished investors, but people who apparently had once in the past expressed some kind of interest in investing. The ones I was calling obviously weren't rolling in the green stuff.
At first I had hit the phones with enthusiasm. There was a tidy bonus promised for each qualified referral that I passed on to a salesperson who cinched an investment deal with them. More referrals sent to the sales people increased my odds of reaping bonuses. I was seeing dollar signs and hoped to grab some of that cash for my bank account.
It didn't take too long for that enthusiasm to wane. Into the third week I started to get discouraged. For a company as small as this it seemed like there was a lot of employee turnover at the lower level. I apparently had more patience and persistence than the rest. I wasn't seeing any bonuses, but I was now getting a weekly paycheck. And the guys in charge didn't seem overly concerned that I wasn't producing much in the way of solid sales referrals. But I'm sure they knew what kind of leads I was working with. At least I showed up everyday and did the work they were paying me to do.
By the third month I was well settled in to my work environment, but still making nothing beyond my weekly salary. Now there were only one or two other qualifiers besides myself and one sales rep other than Bill. That sales rep, Doug, was a short fat Jewish guy from New York who had very bad hygiene. Once I gave him a ride home in my Hyundai and the smell nearly made me nauseous. But Doug was a nice guy who could tell some crazy stories. He was a boiler room veteran and knew the game. But he wasn't winning the sales game at International Investments. He had some bad feelings about this one.
Soon the owners of the company started becoming more scarce. Some days they wouldn't even show up at the office, or if they did, it might be for only a few hours. Bill became more surly and often reeked of alcohol. He began keeping his office door closed throughout the day and would sometimes leave for a couple of hours. When he'd return we could tell he'd been out drinking.
Something strange was going on with the company. I was spending less time making cold calls and more time talking with the other employees. Putting together all the information I was getting from my cohorts, I began to sense that the company was not only having some financial problems, but there might be something more sinister at hand. These were only suspicions. I did learn that company checks were bouncing. On Fridays I began taking my checks to the bank immediately after receiving them and cashing them. I always got my pay. Some of the others weren't so fortunate.
Eventually there were only four of us left in the office. Bill and the two owners stopped coming in. Those of us who were still there kept coming. We had households to support and the labor market was in a bad way at that time. None of us wanted to have to be looking for work. As long as the pay was there we would stay. The receptionist became concerned about the nature of some of the phone calls that she was answering. Something was about to happen. There was a rumor that the company was being investigated by the FBI or some such legal body. We were apprehensive about what might be coming next.
Finally, one Friday one of the owners stopped in to hand us our paychecks. He informed us that the company was shutting down and our jobs were officially over. He optimistically told us that he and his partner were starting a new company and wanted us to go to work for them. He gave us the new address and told us to report to work the following Tuesday.
Despite my reservations about International Investments, I showed up on Tuesday to a much lower rent district in a seedier side of town. Maybe the rumors about the old company had been false. The guys that ran the company seemed like nice enough guys and they were very slick and professional for the most part. And I still needed a paycheck.
I listened to the new business plan. It had something to do with credit cards. We'd be contacting lower income people who would normally have problems getting a credit card and give them promise for a better financial future. It would only cost them $125 to get started. As we read through the sales pitch script I began to get very uncomfortable. This had "SCAM" written all over it. We would still be appealing to the greed of those we called, but this time we would be digging into the pocketbooks of those who could least afford it. When lunch time came, I went to my car and took a long lunch. A very long lunch. I never went back to the office.
Months later, after I'd moved to Los Angeles to accept an attractive job offer, I called my friend Bob. He told me that he had been questioned by the FBI about International Investments. Since he had sold nary an investor, he was not in any trouble. He gave them what information he could, which wasn't much. We never heard what happened to the company owners or Bill, the surly salesman.