The next rung

Business owners get starting at the bottom

Kerry Knudsen

MY KIDS GOT ROYALLY SICK of my “when I was young” stories. To them, I never was, so why not just read a fairy tale by a professional, like Walt Disney. Of course, when I was young, Walt Disney owned a cartoon company that was mainly famous for ripping off Hans Christian Andersen. Ripping off is not an art. You can, however, make money and impress kids.

One story I told, maybe one time too many, was about when I worked in the basement of an abattoir. Ideally, you should never work in the basement of an abattoir.

My job was to trim hides. For the uninitiated, an abattoir’s heart is its chain speed. The cattle, pigs or whatever come in the loading chute and match up with the chain, coming at the same pace from, in this case, the left. The animal is slaughtered and hooked to the chain, split and attached to a mechanical device that pops off the hide and drops it in a chute to the basement while the rest of the beast proceeds along at chain speed to be separated into edible and offal, cut and packed.

Down below, the hides slide down the chute and go through the flaying machine, where three workers stand at a steel table with three knives and a steel each: one knife in-hand and two plus the steel in an aluminum scabbard hanging from the waist.

The flaying machine screams, the chain groans, heat and humidity thick as mucous well up from the flayer and everything smells of death and innards.

Workers on each side grab the hide, hoist it up and let it flap on the table, then slice off the forehock, pecker fat, nipples and back hock and hook the hide to another chain running at chain speed off to the tanning vats.

THE CHAIN DOES NOT SLOW DOWN, and does not forgive. If the knives are not sharp — if it takes two cuts instead of one — then you lose speed, drop behind and a new hide comes sliding while the old one is still in-hand. That means you have to “drag the hide” to do the new one. And that means the hides behind pile up and you lose your break, trying to catch up. Both the main and basement chains stop for break and start when it’s over, but if you’re behind you can hang hides on the stopped chain.

If you’re a hide trimmer, you learn two things: you learn to sharpen a knife, and you learn to keep them that way. If you check my knives at home, you will find they all can slice paper without dragging, over 40 years on.

Nobody in his right mind would do that, right? Nobody should ever hear about, let alone experience, the hell of an abattoir basement. But when you’re in graduate school with kids, you do what you need to do. Or so it was.

IN RETROSPECT, OWNING A BUSINESS is not unlike the hot, smelly purgatory of the hide room. On a good day, of course, there is no comparison, but on the bad ones …. Sometimes it’s even worse. At least in the abattoir the whistle blows at 4:30 and you can always quit. Sometimes a business owner is up at 3:00 a.m., still from the day before. Sometimes a business owner is up at 3:00 a.m. to start.

We in the flooring industry are lucky. Many of us have had some stresses during the Covid-19 shutdown. Some of us have gone bust. We know of a few distributors in the Toronto area that have done so. But for most, building permits are raging, housing starts are at records and real estate sales are through the roof. Housing means flooring, whether new or reno, and Lee Senter’s current CFCRA column may point to a supply chain fiasco that still points to future prosperity. Home Depot ran out of carpet.

I guess the thing that keeps business owners going is not a high threshold of pain, but a strong vision of tomorrow.

I did not last long as a hide trimmer. I lacked the skill set. One day the foreman was barking at me for not having all the hides trimmed up before the break ended. I took off the knife scabbard, handed it to him and said, “Here. You show me how.”

He glared and snarled, mucously. “If you do this, you’ll never work here again.”

I smiled and said, “I’m counting on it.” Years later, having been on the receiving end of a worker quitting on deadline, I have another take. But that was then.

As it turns out, he was prescient. I never did. An abattoir is the best place on earth to learn to move on, and I moved on. I guess that’s a note for the kids. I may have been below bottom, but there’s always a rung on the ladder. You can put your foot on it at any time, or you can whine for somebody to baby you.

They hate that.

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