I made a long distance call to Tom Nevins from Vancouver Canada for the first time in May 2001. We had never met, and to this day I have not met him. Tom came on an introduction from a well-known New Zealand Consultant, Phil Ashenden. Phil had done some work with Tom at the Tokyo Kiwi fruit office.

I had to talk to Tom about the necessity to close down our TimberWest office in Tokyo. Phil thought Tom could give another useful view on the size, and process of making severance payments, on to a smooth closure that was in line with local Japanese practice, and would treat all staff fairly.

I had hired several of the Japanese staff, traveled to Japan every year, knew them all and worked with them. I wanted them to be treated generously and fairly, but I knew I could never get the company to go along with the initially recommended severance package amount that came out of the law firm used by our Japanese people. I had been planning on going to Japan to talk and work things out with the staff, using some assistance from Tom Nevins.

Within a day or two after that initial call to Tom in Japan, and the next time Tom called me, I had to tell him that as part of the cost saving, and global restructuring program, I found out that day that I also had to go. Within a few days there would be someone from a different functional area that Tom could talk to, but it looked as though that person would not be able to make a trip to Japan to talk to the staff and close the office. This person also did not know the people in Japan the way I did.

Sure enough, that was how it turned out. What was a bit unique for Mr. Nevins on this project was that he would have to close down the TimberWest office all by himself, with no one able to make the trip to do it. Also it had to be done in a hurry. I, and Tom’s new link back in Canada told the staff long distance that one Tom Nevins would be working things out. Even for Mr. Nevins, these circumstances were unique, and memorable, although the project was not so large and complicated.

Tom started out calling and meeting alone with the Japanese head of the office. After confirming with other staff, they decided that it would be best not to have one-on-one meetings with staff, and not to have separate negotiations. This was what Mr. Nevins had planned. All the staff agreed that there should be no secrets, no special deals, and that all the staff in an open format should work out with Mr. Nevins how to design the severance formula. The severance packages might vary a little but everyone would know the justification, and openly know the actual details of each staff’s severance package. Maybe an approach that works particularly well in Japan, but probably the best approach in all such situations.

There also were some people staying on for periods of transition, and a couple people who would probably be able to take over the product and business. All these factors were totally transparent for all to see. Thus Mr. Nevins’ conceptualization on how to proceed was in line with the expectations and way the Japanese staff defined the issues.

Tom ferried over to our Tokyo office 3 or 4 times and met with all the staff together in the conference room, he worked up each person’s ‘Separation Letter’, and was able to get everyone to sign their letter of separation and release on our tight schedule.

Tom touched base with me a couple of times by phone, and was considerate enough to keep me informed, realizing I was concerned because I worked with them for many years. I remember him telling me about how in order to get the staff, and Canadian home office to agree to the severance settlement, he had to talk to and jawbone Canada about some of the larger severance packages that are paid. He also had to stress how messy and difficult things can get in Japan if a dismissed staff hires an aggressive lawyer, or gets in touch with a radical union.

On the other hand, to reach a middle ground, and bring down the initial inflated expectations of the staff he was dealing with, he had to talk about the smaller severance packages that are paid-out, get people to realize how lucky they are to work for a company that will and can pay-out a safety net, unlike so many less fortunate staff at smaller Japanese firms that can expect little more than a ‘sayonara’ bow at the exit door. Tom had very real constraints on him from the head office. He needed to do things like make staff see how risky it would be to be too greedy, and to damage relations with, or make the head office angry.

Everything was worked out smoothly, and quickly, with all business issues well transitioned, and customers and relationships well taken care of. To this day, no one outside Japan has met Tom. Everything was worked out between Tom, and the Japanese people who unfortunately lost their jobs with this office closure.

Barry Ford
(Former) Director of Marketing & Transportation
TimberWest Corp.
April 2003