What Happened Next
Half a million, well just over. That was the number of minutes that the course of the book Cushions, Corruption and Crime covered. Ok, it did at times creep a little into the future, but the majority was within this large, but neat, period. It sounds like a lot, an awful lot. But then an awful lot happened.
Another two years (over a million minutes if you are still counting) passed before I achieved full closure on the activity from that fateful year.
Much of the closure was really positive. The team, who eventually worked in the design business in the north of Mauritius, worked brilliantly together, with a friendly cooperative attitude. We had just the one bump in the road, mentioned at the end of the book but, aside from that, it was a harmonious couple of years. It was with a real sense of sadness that I had to close that business to move back to Europe.
That decision however was made easy as the opportunities afforded to both my husband and I in Europe were so attractive that it outweighed the beautiful life we had in Mauritius with the friends, fulfilling careers and all the joys of living in a tropical paradise.
Saying goodbye to clients was particularly hard as so many had been absolute pillars of support through my darkest of days – no, not dark days, more like crazy days. As this is the definition I had settled on for that period. I certainly hadn’t managed it well and lurched from self-created disaster to self-imposed problem but it didn’t break me. It was like a crazy dream with a character who kind of looked and sounded like me, but whose actions I couldn’t quite resonate with. With hindsight I cringe at the infamous ‘you shouldn’t work with me’ email. I am humbled at how professionally my clients reacted when I threw my toys out the pram and I roll my eyes at the naivety of getting into business with someone who clearly thought I was going to be a sales person for their various businesses.
That crazy period built some amazing bonds. Gone were the coffees and meetings with my clients at a desk replaced by dinner with their families, or days at their beach houses. 10% work, 90% fun…. The Mauritian way!
I considered the possibility of working remotely, taking on a local partner, flying in and out, however it just didn’t stack up financially. Also I wanted a simple plan with uncomplicated accounts and a straight forward business structure. The first year I had worked through my business partner’s company, with her company name giving me the right to work on the island. Following this I registered my own business and worked officially, but the requirements to maintain the annual turnover were onerous and I was wary of the company not fulfilling the minimum requirements. It was a potential source of stress I was keen to avoid.
Even after a short period of time working in my northern Mauritius office it was wonderful to go back through the cupboards and drawers and see what memories there were to find. A few items had arrived for the client who didn’t pay. I was happy to sell these on, but there was a cupboard full of fabric off cuts, samples of lamps and little pieces which I had picked up on my various travels throughout the world, perfect for a project I had in mind, which then got lost and ended up with me supplying something else.
Not long before I left I met with a very well respected ex politician who was building an impressive contemporary house near Curepipe. The plot was huge with simply the largest mango tree I have ever seen. It must have been 20m wide. I was sure the fruit bats would love this particular plot. You couldn’t fault the house, slightly sprawling but with scope for the different family members to each use the space to suit their requirements.
As conservative Muslims, they had a prayer room in the heart of the house and described their desire to have the energy and architecture of the Masjid al-Ḥarām flow from their prayer room into the remainder of the house.
I was struggling to find the ironmongery elements for the house (this being a detail which would make or break the finishes). As I was going on a buying trip to Europe I planned to see a good contact who imports from Morocco, who I hoped would help me with my missing elements.
Moroccan design goes in and out of vogue in Europe. Most of us, at some time, have had a brass lantern pierced with holes and perhaps some coloured glass to hang on our veranda or in our loo. Perhaps an inlaid box or two and the obligatory earthenware tagine. These are the items showcased in design magazines when the style is ‘in’ and then subsequently replicated across the high-street. Moroccan design is so, so much more than this, with some of the best ceramic painters and brass and bronze manufacturers in the world. My contact was bringing in these exceptionally high quality items. However with the market taste changing and his price point being high, compared to the cheap high street equivalents, he had recently had to give up his central London shop to operate online from his flat in West London.
This is where I met him and he was falling over himself to provide the most stunning examples of lamp panels, handles and hinges. I happily took these back to the politician client but, alas, the cost of the build was too high and the client’s ‘mate’ had come up with the idea of filling a container with items from China instead. How sad to have such a vision and to let it go. On the plus side I was left with some beautiful bronze items and it was these I unearthed while clearing out the office. I gifted them to a friend who was born in Morocco; a little piece of her homeland for her house in Mauritius.
I enjoyed passing on these items as a way of thanking those people who, throughout three years, had been there for me. I don’t want to come across as too saintly; I also knew I was moving to London and would live in a shoe box apartment. A load of samples, spare lamps, wallpaper and fabric simply wasn’t going to fit in.
After the process of emptying the office and saying goodbye to my wonderful team (who I am glad to say all went on to get fantastic jobs suited to their skills and professionalism) I had to face the one last mountain. Courtney Jackson. She’d stolen my client’s items, she’d returned some of them, but I was still smarting at how much I was out of pocket. I was also still the biggest judge of my naivety at not having ensured there was appropriate insurance cover. Lisa’s cover was invalid because she had not adhered to the security requirements on the building and, I later found out, was subletting part of it to another business altogether, something which was illegal under the terms and again, negated the insurance. I had considered suing Lisa who was the obvious person to sue. We had a contract in place for the receipt, secure storage and shipment of items. She hadn’t stored them securely so it was an easy choice but she was broke. I knew this. I had looked at the company accounts and there were no assets there. She would have folded the business the moment the solicitor’s letter landed on her door step.
Courtney however was an individual, not a company. An individual who I was confident had taken the remaining items. An individual who had cost me tens of thousands of pounds. That confidence gave me the ability to stand up in front of a judge and relay the whole sorry tale, holding my hands up to the various things I did wrong, whilst appealing to the evidence (ha, listen to me, I still think I’m a detective in this case!) and convincing them that she should pay me back.
Actually I’d already written off that money. It had gone, the loss had been felt, the belt had been tightened and since then I’d made more money to replace that which was lost.
It was the principle!
Speak to any lawyer – do you know one? Message them. Ask them why one person should not sue another. There is a high probability that they will say ‘over a principle!’ I was given this exact advice. My long suffering husband, who had come to bail me out, and had witnessed Courtney’s special brand of crazy, implored me not to sue her. He was sure that she wouldn’t attend and then I would be stuck pursuing her for years. More years of this – why bother? Move on.
Now, if you are reading this, then you might have read the book. What did we learn about me in the book? I don’t take advice. Nope, I hear it and I see how that advice might be right for other people but in my circumstances, that advice doesn’t apply, it’s different for me you see. Why? Oh I don’t know, because I’m stubborn I suppose!
I’ll get to the conclusion quickly as I didn’t enjoy the long drawn out process. It concludes with me sitting in the first floor blue carpet tiled room of a court in Wandsworth on a table next to Courtney and her Irish handyman. I am surprised they are both there as at no point in the year, between issuing the paperwork to sue them and arriving at the court, had I heard a peep out of them. I hoped they had their heads in the sand and, by the time my ‘day in court’ approached, even I was nearly ready to give up and concede. Yet again my husband was right, this was not worth it.
However they did turn up. Excuse here, excuse there for not replying. Whatever. Am I happy to continue anyway? Yes, I wanted it over, let’s just get this over with.
I was prepared, speech and questions in hand, and channeled my inner Erin Brockovich ready to get justice. I was passionate, direct, dramatic and concise. I had been wronged, I had taken the hit and it was only right that the person who caused this should compensate me.
Courtney had her moment too. I can’t say she was bad. She wasn’t prepared and she certainly weaved in things which I knew not to be true (no my husband did not punch her!) but she told a sorry tale. She had work which she couldn’t cope with and had trusted Lisa to work for her. Lisa had disappeared and so Courtney had gone up to her warehouse. By asking around she found out that Lisa was months and months behind on rent, that debt collectors were regularly calling, that Lisa was subletting part of the building to bring in some money and that she currently had stock in her warehouse. Courtney thought Lisa was about to go broke and so called around lots of people and by doing so found my number and called me.
I know she cherry picked the items from the warehouse, those being items that my business had purchased. I suppose she thought she was never going to meet me and that she would take items which could be easily sold on. I didn’t feel sorry for her, not exactly, but parts of her story were so similar to mine. Trying to protect yourself when you are committed to delivering for a client. Finding out someone you trusted and had gone into business with is not who you thought they were. I wouldn’t do what she did. I wouldn’t have taken items which weren’t mine but we are all different and she felt justified in her actions.
Despite this momentary compassion, I still didn’t understand why the remaining items weren’t brought back. She flatly denied taking them. Didn’t see them, didn’t take them. The judge allowed a few questions to this effect, but since I wasn’t able to extract any confession, he told us to break for him to make a decision.
It took no time, half an hour. Long enough to get a coffee and try and calm myself down. Even though I hadn't been yelling, my heart was racing. This was it. The final, the end of this nearly three year long drama. I wanted to win. I wanted to win because I’m competitive. I wanted to win because I thought it fair. I wanted to win because I would have liked that money back. I didn’t know what was going to happen so I finished my coffee, took a few deep breaths and returned to the courtroom.
Summing up happens very quickly. The others were out the door before I could really register what had been said.
Courtney should not have taken items which she knew belonged to someone else. Since she returned them with no damage, although she was in the wrong, she owed no money. She also fulfilled her promise to return the items so returning to the UK was an unnecessary expense on my part. As for the missing items, the bulk of the claim, the reports of debt collectors, lax security and another company having access to the site, this meant there was no evidence at all that Courtney and her handyman took those items.
Sheepishly thanking the judge, I walked out of the blue carpet tiled room onto the landing. Large plate glass windows looked on to the nondescript road below, Courtney was already crossing it. That was it. I hoped that was the very last time I would see her. I thought of the stories she would tell of the mad Mauritian designer who took her to court for something she didn’t do, what a waste of her time that was. And then I let it go. She had her story and I had mine.
And that was all it was, a story, a weird and crazy story which I could choose to tell, to embellish, to play up, to act out. Or to put in my past, to become part of my armoury for when I needed to remember how tough I am and what it’s possible to manage.
I changed the way I worked, becoming a consultant and working on huge projects, super high end residential work. One day I was asked why I was working as a consultant. They had seen my LinkedIn profile and knew I’d owned a business. Why aren’t you still running the business, they enquired, either out of genuine interest or to work out if I was planning on poaching their staff and opening up a business again. Ha, I scoffed. Run a business. Been there. Done that.
He looked quizzical.
“Ok, well let’s put it this way. I’m a great optimist and believe anything is possible. I think I’m a good designer and can give people something better than they could ever imagine, but I’m a terrible business person (TERRIBLE), the only thing I’m good at is losing money!”
And there it was; I had my soundbite, my way of telling my story. No need for detail, no need for the listener to take sides. Simply a summary of my story of once being an international interior designer.
He smiled. He didn’t care. He was just happy I wasn’t going to steal his staff. And there are the facts. Most people don’t care about the past as long as you are doing a good job now, being positive and moving forwards. This is now the basis of the message I give when doing my ‘How not to run an international consultancy’ talks to new businesses and especially new designers. Make mistakes, throw yourself at opportunities, smile in the face of adversity, from time to time cry in the face of adversity, get your hands dirty and then move onto the next job. As there will always be a next job.