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U3A Writing: Simple Simon

Jim Murphy tells an absorbing financial tale about a Simon who was nowhere near as simple as he first seemed.

I am shocked to see Simon Smith arrive at the Financial Club. Even worse, the manager is bowing and scraping as if he's royalty. It's preposterous; he's here by invitation; he's not a member.

I love the Financial Club. The members are all solid, responsible entrepreneurs. One meets such fascinating people. I spoke to Sir Norman, a very influential financier, just a few minutes ago. A charming but serious man, he listened with interest to my views on the Asian markets.

Simon and I were at Northside Primary School together, in one of the city's poorest suburbs. Simon was the school dunce; he was absolutely hopeless. We called him Simple Simon. He could not learn to read. Once he read the word 'food' as 'frog' in class. We rolled about with laughter as he slowly and painfully read the words 'they sat down to eat their - frog'.
We used to tease him, and at first he used to cry. On one occasion I wrote a poem about him. I remember it to this day.

Simple Simon, sister, brother Got no father, only mother.

Everyone laughed, but the timid Simon went berserk and punched me. He'd always been soft before that. He looked really angry. I was stunned; all I'd done was repeat what everyone else was saying.

Simon repeated grade five. Yet, strangely, he was good at sums, as fast as me in fact. It's strange that some folk can be really stupid, yet clever in one field.

Simon always had a part-time job, selling papers, caddying at the golf club, and eventually working every Saturday with Tiger Milne, the local weirdo. Tiger bought and sold sacks, and owned the last horse and cart in the area. Simon used to ride in the front, and sometimes drove the cart. When he left school at fourteen Tiger gave him a job washing and mending sacks.

And look at him now! A horse-and-cart bag-washer is sitting like royalty in the Financial Club! I wonder if he can read the menu.

I joined a small stockbroking firm after completing high school. Two school leavers were chosen that year as tokens - Kevin O'Neill from a Christian Brothers College and me. I learned that we were an experiment, since the rest of the staff was of impeccable social pedigree. However they were continually leaving for richer pastures, causing the partners to dip lower into the bucket for replacements. I nicknamed Kevin 'Mick Token', which amused him no end.

We were given desks in the main office; our betters had offices with low partitions. Partners had offices with walls reaching to the ceiling. I vowed to have a private office one day.

One of the conditions of our employment was that we continued with our studies, so we both enrolled for Commerce, but after a term I'd had enough. I learned all that I needed by reading the financial columns. At eighteen I went into debt to buy a red second-hand M.G. It was a bomb but it looked good, and I was never short of a pretty girl.

Simple Simon also bought a vehicle, an old black Bedford truck, for use in Tiger's business. It was slow, but quicker than the horse and cart, which Simon restored for parades. He would dress up like an old coachman and drive along in the gleaming cart, the words 'MILNE'S SACKS AND METALS' painted on the side. Spelt correctly, too. The word 'metals' was added because Simon used to buy and sell them as well as bags.

The business grew and moved from Tiger's backyard into a proper factory. Tiger virtually retired after Simon married his only daughter Barbara, and the trio ran what I called a junkyard. Barbara was the plainest girl I've ever seen. The fellows at work chuckled when I described her as bovine. She really did look like a cow.

Kevin said pompously, 'You know, Ian, deep down you don't like women.'
What stupidity, I had a new girl friend every month. Kevin was quite strange, spending all his time studying. The partners constantly singled him out for praise, to my chagrin.

I was perpetually short of money, and started to deal. Everyone did. We were allowed to buy and sell shares, and we had a permanent credit of fifty percent of the value of our portfolio. I loved dealing, but never had enough cash to make the money some of the wealthy fellows did. Kevin was unbelievably lucky, and did it on a shoestring.

Dealing was a perk of the job and a way of augmenting our mundane incomes, so I joined the Financial Club, where useful gossip could be picked up. Unfortunately I lacked the spare cash to use the information properly.

Kevin suggested I settle down and save, but that was not my style. I moved out of Northside to an impressive apartment, and took out a huge mortgage. At about that time Simon Smith moved Milne's Metals into a huge complex out of town. I was stunned - he had over thirty employees and a fleet of trucks. I told the fellows at work about the 'frogs and food' episode. They all laughed except Kevin.

'He sounds dyslexic' was his comment. 'If you can't read you can't learn, though he's doing all right'

'He's dumb, he repeated grade five.' I made a note to look up the meaning of dyslexic.

I was always broke, so I tried making money without money - I sold short. You sold shares you didn't own, trusting that they would fall in value quickly. You then bought them before settlement was due, pocketing the difference. If the shares went up you lost. I called it 'clever man's gambling'. I was very adept at picking the 'droppers', and made money without any capital at all.

Meanwhile Kevin not only graduated with honours and went on to do his Master's degree; he also took control of the staff accounts. He policed the rules very strictly, and placed strict limits on selling short. I knew he was aiming at me.

Kevin, ever the sycophant, organized the first financial seminar ever run by the firm, and invited all the Catholic superannuation funds. Needless to say he ran the whole thing; the senior partners all gave their little speeches, told their hackneyed jokes and thought the whole thing brilliant. I didn't, but a lot of business came our way, all tunneled through Kevin. He was made a partner at thirty, the youngest ever. Crawling works, I thought, as Kevin, who hated status symbols, reluctantly moved into a partitioned office.

I was by now desperate for a spectacular coup, as I was now paying off a BMW as well as my ruinous mortgage. My chance came unexpectedly.
Simon Smith's unlisted junkyard hit the financial pages. He announced a takeover bid for NFM, a public company that was struggling. I was certain that Simon's dumb-ox mentality would compel him to succeed, so I bought NFM shares, as many as I could afford. They predictably rose after the bid. The NFM board urged shareholders to reject the offer, stating that their firm was very profitable.

Simon horrified me by withdrawing his bid. I had misjudged Simon - he was a quitter! The shares fell, and I lost badly. NFM released its trading results nine months later, and reported a large loss. The shares slid further.

Simon then made another bid, this time for less. Much too low, I thought, it will be rejected. He will then retreat and the shares will slide.

Kevin was on leave, so I pounced. I sold three hundred thousand dollars worth of NFM shares. I didn't own them, but I aimed to buy them cheaply after Simon inevitably withdrew and they fell. I calculated a profit of roughly fifty thousand, the equivalent of two years' salary in those days. NFM shares rose initially, and the board rejected Simon's offer. Now watch them drop, I thought, and waited.

Kevin returned and was livid. 'You're miles over your limit,' he fumed, 'you're broke.'

I too erupted, and told him a few home truths that I'd been bottling up; that I was his equal and I knew what I was doing. But inwardly I was frantic - NFM kept rising, there was no way I could pay for my purchases.
Three days before the deadline Kevin sent for me urgently. I delayed, but when I went into his office the chairman was there. Kevin handed me a form on which I was to outline how I would repay one hundred thousand dollars that I stood to lose.

'I've got three more days,' I insisted. 'Simon will walk away.'

The chairman looked at me with contempt. 'Milne's increased their bid this morning, so you are in deep trouble. The firm will incur a big loss; how will you repay it?"

I stared in stunned disbelief. 'Simon upped his bid?'

'Yes. NFM stock is up twenty percent. You're down nearly three years of your salary. Go home and work out your repayment schedule.'

I was shattered. All this happened fifteen years ago - a hundred thousand dollars was a powerful amount. I immediately put my apartment on the market. It was valuable, but not worth enough to settle the debt.

I was willing to work hard. I put the proposition to Kevin that I would pay the firm half my salary until the rest was paid, which I thought was reasonable. The Chairman counter-attacked; the firm would accept my resignation; take all my long service leave, my apartment money and all but two weeks of my accrued holiday pay. If I refused they would bankrupt me.

I agreed, reasoning that a change of firm was just what I needed - it would bring back the old spark. But the news of my disaster had spread.
'You're far too experienced,' or 'you must have a degree,' were the responses that greeted every employment application. In the end the industry I loved tossed me onto the scrap heap.

I have lived very humbly in Northside for a number of years now. I still devour the financial news, and sometimes dabble profitably on the Exchange. I become extremely annoyed by a sarcastic column in one financial magazine that pours scorn on globalisation. It's written by my old enemy Kevin, now Professor O'Neill and chairman of the old firm. He uses a nom-de-plume, but who else would call himself Michael Token? I keep writing vitriolic replies challenging his lunatic logic. One day I'll mail one off.

Simon took over NFM and wielded the axe. Heads rolled, luxury offices and cars disappeared and NFM's profit grew each year. And Simon, dumb old Simple Simon, became a management legend.

Eventually the American giant Pennsylvania Metals decided to expand into Australia. They bought NFM, lock, stock and barrel. Simon and Barbara made millions. Simon stayed on for a year as CEO, at a cool half-million! I wonder who wrote his letters for him?

Now he's retired, and heads the Dyslexia Foundation. That's why he's here at the Club; he's entertaining the fund-raising committee. He probably won't recognise me; I certainly hope he doesn't. I've become a lot sturdier, and I've lost most of my hair. The last thing I want is to swap school-day yarns with him.

But what a paradox - Simple Simon and bovine Barbara at the Financial Club! I must admit she looks very elegant and confident. She's talking to Sir Norman. I've never seen him laugh so much.

Oh, no! Simon is beckoning to me. If he tries to pretend we're old mates I'll let his guests know what a dunce he was. I'll even tell them about the food and frog episode.

Not even a flicker of recognition - what a relief! He glanced unseeingly at me as he ordered, 'two more bottles of Moet please, waiter.'


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