My father rarely summoned me to the Dallas office, so I knew something was bothering him. We’d seen each other briefly at Vidar’s wedding in July and we were planning to see each other again at Thanksgiving, so I didn’t think he missed me. Something was definitely wrong. Mentally I reviewed the occupancy rates in Europe and construction delays on the Hong Kong location, two of the concerns we’d discussed by email in the past month.
My driver dropped me off at the front door and I walked into the lobby of our headquarters. “Mr. Nilsson,” a person at the front desk acknowledged me, and I nodded and smiled at him. I didn’t come to headquarters often enough to know the names of all the employees, but I made a point of being pleasant.
When I reached my father’s office, I knew the name of his receptionist – Martha. I’d known her for years, ever since I was a kid.
“Martha!” I said cheerfully. “Is my father available?”
“Walk right in,” she said.
She must be getting close to retirement, as some people said my father was getting close to retirement. But that was unlikely. My father would follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and only retire when he was physically or mentally unable to do the job. But unlike my grandfather, my father did not spend every waking moment running Nilsson Worldwide. Instead, he had learned to delegate nearly everything. And much of his responsibilities, he delegated to me.
I walked into his office.
He smiled when he saw me. My father was in his late sixties and had salt and pepper gray hair, but he was still a fit, vibrant man. No doubt this was due to clean living and playing a round of golf nearly every day. He’d probably live to be ninety, and I’d be his age now before I became CEO of Nilsson Worldwide, but that didn’t bother me. In many ways I was de facto CEO already. “Philip. How was your flight?”
Same as nearly every other flight. “Fine. And you?”
“Everything is fine here.”
And yet, I’d been summoned.
He motioned for me to sit down on a comfortable leather chair, so I did. And then I waited.
He sat across from me and steepled his fingers, a stalling tactic. Finally, he said seriously, “Your mother is worried about you. She’s worried about all of you. At Vidar’s wedding, none of you brought dates.”
I laughed and relaxed. “Is that it? Is mom worried that she’ll never have grandkids?”
“Perhaps,” he agreed. “She doesn’t want to see you become a lonely old man.”
“I’m only thirty-one. If she’s concerned, she should talk to Conrad first. He’s thirty-four.”
“At least he’s had a few girlfriends. What was that actress’ name?”
Conrad had so many celebrity girlfriends, I didn’t know which one my father was thinking about. I said defensively, “I’ve had girlfriends.”
“None for the past few years.”
“Two years I was dating Angela.” Technically, it was nearly three years ago when we broke up, but I wasn’t going to tell my father that.
“What happened to her?”
“She said I put work first.”
“And did you?”
“It’s my job. Of course, I put my work first.”
My father said, “I always put your mother first.”
Which was why my parents had stayed together when so many of my father’s contemporaries were on their second or third wives. I said, “And perhaps, one day, if I find a woman that I put first, I’ll marry her.”
He said, “Your mother just wants you to be happy.”
“I’m very happy,” I protested. “Work makes me happy.”
“I know,” he said. “You’re like my father. As long as he had something to do to promote the business, he was happy. Whenever he tried to take a vacation, he was miserable. I remember a cruise we took when I was a teenager. My father couldn’t stand not knowing what was happening at headquarters every minute. At the first port, he abandoned us and flew back to Dallas.”
That sounded like Grandfather Nilsson. I said, “Fortunately, there are smart phones now. No one has to leave the office behind.”
My father said, “But is that healthy?”
I scoffed. “Are you saying I’m not healthy?”
“No, not at all,” he said and waved his hand at me. “I know you work out and eat Paleo or whatever the current trend is. Physically you’re in peak condition.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly. I did try to keep in shape, but I wasn’t a fanatic.
“But mentally? Spiritually?”
“What’s this? Do you want to know if I’m going to Sunday School?” My parents had made sure that we all went to church when we were growing up, but other than showing up for the occasional Easter or Christmas service, I hadn’t attended regularly for years. My busy lifestyle made it difficult to commit to one congregation.
“No,” he assured me. “I’m not going to pry. All your mother and I care about is your well-being.”
I nodded. This conversation was becoming repetitive. I said, “Trust me, I’m fine. But what can I do to prove it to you? Find some girl and bring her home to meet Mom?”
“That would be nice,” my father said.
“I’ll put it on my to-do list,” I joked.
“Seriously,” he said. “When is the last time you went on a date?”
“A date-date with dinner and dancing or just hooking up?”
My father shook his head sadly. “See? That’s what’s wrong with the world these days. You’re so determined to define everything. Put everything in little boxes. I don’t even want to know the difference between dating and hooking or whatever you call it. Just tell me this – how long has it been since you spent time with a woman and your heart sped up when you saw her, when your breath caught, and you said to yourself ‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world’ when she smiled?”
I smiled, but to be honest, his question cut me to the core. It had been years since I’d felt that way, if I ever had. I joked, “Does Mom know you’re such a romantic?”
He said dryly, “Now and then.”
I said, “All right. You’ve made your point. I’ll stop being a workaholic and pay more attention to the women around me. Maybe even go on a few dates.” Who knows, if necessary, I’d use that dating service in Nilsson Tower – Henderson’s? I made a mental note to bring someone to the family Thanksgiving Dinner. That would make my mom happy and get my Dad off my back.
He said, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“No. I’ve also signed you up for one of our corporate mixers.”
Nilsson Worldwide held monthly mixers, retreat activities thought up by HR, where various corporate officers and employees went through team building exercises and got to know each other better. They were supposed to make Nilsson Worldwide seem more like a happy family than the corporate behemoth it truly was, but I thought the meetings were a waste of time. But if my father wanted me to attend one of the events, I’d do it. I let my breath out slowly. “All right. When and where?”
“Next week. San Antonio.”
“What? I can’t change my schedule that quickly. I have commitments. I’m supposed to be in London next week. And after that, Paris.”
My father said, “Delegate.”
My father said, “No one is indispensable. If you got hit by a bus and were in the hospital, someone, somehow, would take care of your to-do list. Perhaps not very well, but eventually everything would get done.”
It was my father’s way of thinking, but not mine. “I have no intention of being hit by a bus. I look both ways when I cross a street.”
He said, “If you can’t fit this mixer into your schedule, perhaps I should lighten your work load.”
“Is that a threat?”
“You’ve been VP in charge of Business Development for six years now. Perhaps it’s time for you to take a vacation. A year off.”
My father smiled, but I knew he was serious. As CEO and the majority stock holder of Nilsson Worldwide, he controlled the board. If he wanted me to step down as Vice President, it would be done.
And there where would I be? Twiddling my thumbs with nothing to do.
“All right,” I said finally. “I’ll go.” But I won’t enjoy it, I thought.
He said, “And I expect a full report when you’re done. I don’t want you to spend your time skulking in a corner, taking care of business on your smart phone.”
Busted. My father knew me too well.
I said, “I just don’t want to play those stupid games where I bungee jump or I’m blindfolded and let myself fall back into a crowd of people to show that I can trust others.”
He said, “I want you to fully participate in all the activities.”
I flinched. “I have to play those stupid games?”
He said, “They’re not all stupid. Some of them can be fun.”
I wondered if it would be better to admit defeat right now and to take that year off. I said, “Have you ever gone to one of these events?”
“I have. I go to one every six months. Earlier this year, your mother and I went to one in Madrid.”
I could see that there was no way to avoid the inevitable. I said, “All right, I’ll go. And I’ll participate fully.”
He nodded. “Good boy.”
He made me feel like I was twelve years old again, and I didn’t like it. “Yes, sir.”
He said, “I’m doing this for your own good.”
That didn’t make me feel any better.
He continued, “You’re wound too tight. You need to stop and smell the roses, as they say. One day you’re going to be CEO of Nilsson Worldwide. Neither of your brothers are interested and Vidar and Selinda have their own obligations, so if we’re going to keep the company in the family, it’s going to be you in charge.”
I nodded. I already knew what he was saying, although he’d never said it quite so clearly before. Out of all of Grandfather Nilsson’s grandchildren, I was the only logical choice to take over the company when my father stepped down.
He added. “I love you and I love this company. I want to do what’s best for both of you.”
He meant well. I let my breath out slowly. I said, “All right. I get the message loud and clear. I will stop and smell the roses.”
He smiled, slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up. “Good,” he said cheerfully. “No more lectures. Now, how about a game of golf?”