On Chickens and Morality; and other subjects

ON CHICKENS AND MORALITY

I want to know how to properly kill a chicken. If I am to eat so many chickens in my lifetime, I might as well be able to stomach the slaughter of one. I figured that if I can’t stand the sight of killing a chicken (or any other animal) then I ought not eat them and be a vegetarian. A moral thing, I guess.

I don’t know about that anymore. You see, there are these chickens that congregate for mass outside my window. At four-thirty every morning, without fail, these chickens would begin to sing their hymnals. And, I’m sure that they sound very pious to their own ears, but I can’t sleep for their harmony. They are a flock of hens laying their eggs – and I’m guessing that they’re crying out to their fowl god for blessings.

Why are these hens right outside my window, you ask? I didn’t quite understand it myself at first. Then I realized that underneath my window is a nice little corner, hidden behind some bushes. If I had to choose a place to lay my eggs, I would also choose that spot. Then, it would be tough for those greedy humans to steal my precious eggs.

Four-thirty in the morning is early, though. And their crying is not like a rooster’s morning cuckold. The sound is like a higher-pitched version of a deflating balloon when you pinch the neck. Eeeee-aaaawwwk! And this happens every morning.

So, now, I feel like I want to kill those damn chickens out of spite. And, that isn’t very moral.

I may not butcher chickens for the time being, but I’ll still eat them. It’s passive-aggressive, I know, but at least that’s better than twisting their heads off with a blood-lusty smile.

THRESHOLD OF FEAR

A person can get accustomed to many things. Apparently, one of them is near-death-experiences. The car traffic in Guatemala provides ample opportunities to test our mental and emotional endurance. Sidewalks are either non-existent or are filled with so many slow-paced people that one has to resort to the streets. After a while, one gets used to moving with the traffic with only three inches to spare.

There is no such thing as “Pedestrian’s Right-of-Way” here. The mentality is, “If you’re stupid enough to step in front of a moving vehicle, well, then you deserve to get hit.” So, unlike in the States, cars don’t stop for you. Of course, a driver would try to dodge you if you happen to be in the way. He does that, though, to avoid stains and dents – not for some sense of your safety.

Anyway, a person’s threshold of fear goes up after awhile. Just the other day, I was almost hit by a semi-truck carrying Dos Piños milk. Their black ‘n’ white happy, fat cow logo rushed by my face from just six inches away. The drag wind was strong enough to un-tuck my shirt and blow-dry my hair, wet from the rain. The only reaction I had as I continued across the street was, “Well… I’m glad that didn’t happen.” And I went on my merry way.

THEORY AND PRACTICE

“They didn’t teach me this in school,” is something I find myself thinking at the workplace more often than I expected. One would expect that going to University or B-school would give us skills to solve problems. Apparently, it’s not enough. Yes, I can identify problems. I can root out their causes. Given enough time, I may even formulate a plan of action – a process that all the theories I learned help me do. Then comes the implementation of the plan… and I find myself wanting to read the next leisure book on my list.

Using theories to come up with a plan of action is one thing. The implementation requires one to get his hands dirty. It requires application skills like spreadsheets, database management, and image editing. It requires interpersonal skills like patience, tact, and the understanding that everyone else is also busy with their own tasks. It requires endurance of mind (to withstand the ambiguity of what exactly needed to be done) and endurance of body (to withstand not just the two hours that I walk each day, but also the chores that I do at home.)

Wouldn’t it be nice to just come up with a diagnostic report, pages of conceptual models and financial analyses, some PowerPoint slides with nice ‘n’ colorful graphs, and a To-Do List that, if completed, would solve the organization’s problems? These things I am familiar with. To get my hands dirty, however, meant learning new skills and going beyond my comfort zone.

Forget the report, I said. Takes too long. So, I just made a To-Do List.

I was staring at my To-Do List:
· Do a cost analysis of all the candle products.
· Determine their market prices.
· Determine the breakeven point and develop a marketing plan to increase sales.
· Etc.

Uh-huh.

In school, all I had to do was turn to page 156, Table 1.6 and the cost figures would be right there, ready for analysis in MS Excel. Here in Ecoquetzal, I worked a full week with Production first to get their confianza. Eight hours each day, I sat and wrapped candles like an honest working man. The task was cathartic, really: wrap the candles in tissue, then in brown, and then in colored paper. By the end of the day, I can see my accomplishment – a mountain of wrapped tapered candles for our biggest customer, Mr. H of Germany.

I even learned some phrases in Q’eqchi’ while working with José María and his crew. Charlie hop means “it’s raining.” It took about two seconds to remember that one since it sounds like a name for a bunny rabbit. Saying hello in Q’eqchi’ is a little bit more difficult. The word for “hello” to a man (chowa’) is different than the one for a woman (chona’). And they’re different if you are older, too: qa’chin for an elderly man, and na’chin for an elderly woman. And if you’re a youth, well… forget about it. There is no word for “hello” between kids. They just say “how are you?” and are done with it.

Eventually, I returned to my dark office. It took one more week to collect the info and do the analysis. Then I spent another week changing and revising my analysis because people forgot to mention another cost item. In the end, we find out that the prices for half our products were not even enough to cover the costs of making them. With the other half, we were making only a 2% profit at best. I’m not too familiar with this field, but is this what it means to be a non-profit?

Figuring out the market price for the candles was challenging as well. Do we want to sell it to both Guatemalans and tourists? Are the candles a commodity or can we command a higher price because they’re for a good cause? And, most importantly, how are we going to fund a marketing campaign when there’s not even a budget – for anything?

Getting the breakeven point was easy enough. It was just the number of units we had to sell that was so discouraging. For example, we would have to sell 2,300 packets of the Cigarillos per month to breakeven. We’re lucky to sell 5,000 packets in a whole year!

Step by step, I found clarity through the ambiguity. Our customer is the tourist, those who are well-off enough to pay a premium to help save the trees and support Mayan communities. So, the average Guatemalan and backpackers are out. Our channels are hotels, gift shops, restaurants, cafés and tour agencies that cater to the affluent, environmentally-minded tourist. Our products are to be sold as a means to protect the forests and support the Mayan peoples, not sold as commodities. And our prices will carry that cause with a premium, all within the range of $5 to $20 per unit (US dollars; retail). A premium meant higher margins, which meant a lower breakeven point (now only 629 units of Cigarillos!) I don’t think I even realized how discouraged I was with the quantity we had to sell until this new number. Funny how a simple number can command one’s peace of mind, isn’t it?

Now, I am in the marketing aspect of my turnaround strategy. I enjoy marketing for its creative aspect. But, I’m a spreadsheets and numbers kind of guy. I can’t draw. Other than cleaning up my blemishes in photos, I don’t know how to use Photoshop. And, my imagination is limited to delusions of grandeur.

So I spent a week and a half getting to know Photoshop and its capabilities. I have a 22” x 14” trifold poster that will pitch “the story” behind our candles. It’s cost-effective “sales support” for our retailers.

There is one problem, though. Yep, you guessed it: $$$. Minimum print quantity is 1,000 at a cost of Q5,820 (about US$770). In B-school, one assumed that the Finance Dept. will magically come up with the funds. Well, we don’t have a Finance Dept. So, we are going door-to-door, from NGO to multinational conglomerates with a guilty conscience, looking for donations. They didn’t teach me to do this in school.

CAN IT GET ANY WORSE?

Every business has payables. But, it turns out that we owe a lot of people a lot of money. We owe the communities that sell us the arrayán wax over Q15,000. An accountant that Ecoquetzal had to let go last year has claim to over Q12,000 in unpaid salaries. The permanent hires here in the office have over two months’ worth of unpaid salaries each. José María, our Production Manager, is owed three months’ in back pay. My counterpart, in particular, hasn’t been paid since March of this year.

Why are they still here? Apparently, it is very common for employers to not pay their employees when they’re low on cash. A week, maybe. But half a year? I can’t imagine this happening in the States. I was so floored by this fact that I had to sit down and take a moment to absorb the news.

I feel like I’m on a damaged ship. One sail is broken (the candle business) and the other isn’t catching much wind (the eco-tourism business). We have holes all over our hull (debts), and I get a sense that there are rats in our food stores (corruption). We have no captain – just deckhands and a Chinese gringo wondering what he got himself into…

A perfect setting for a grand adventure, isn’t it?

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