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Monday, April 19, 2010

TAREing my hair out

Rudyard Kipling's poem "I keep six honest serving-men" has long been my favourite. So much so that I had a calligrapher inscribe it on a piece of vellum which I framed and hung above my office desk wherever I worked.

So when I became financial controller for a big commodity trader in Saudi Arabia who regularly bought grain in bulk, shipped it to Singapore for bagging, and then sold it in 50kg-bags, it didn't take me long to ask why 20,000 metric tonnes of grain, bought in bulk, should still be only 20,000 metric tonnes after it had been stuffed into 400,000 bags.

How could that be? What about each bag's tare weight of 500 grams? Where had the 200 metric tonnes of grain gone that had been displaced by the weight of the bags? And who had taken them?

Peter in Saudi ArabiaAsking my Arab boss was of little help as he had never heard of tare weight. It took me a whole day - and a lot of TAREing-out of hair while sipping dozens of thimble-sized cups of cardamom-flavoured coffee - to convince him that there was something missing. A whole 200 metric tonnes of grain, in fact, from each shipment!

As it turned out, the Chinese bagging contractor in Singapore had not only been handsomely paid by us for the cost of the bags and the labour and the equipment hire but he had also profiteered from the 200 metric tonnes of grain displaced by the weight of the bags which he quietly sold off on his own account - several times a year and at a time when the grain sold for as much as US$800 a metric tonne!

And there was nothing we could do about it as my Arab boss had allowed him to write his own bagging contract which stated - ever so innocently - that each bulk shipment would be reshipped "gross for nett".

Arabs (and many other people, I am sure) don't like to be outsmarted and they like even less to be found out to have been outsmarted. So, yes, we did engage a new bagging contractor and, yes, this time we did write our own contract terms, but, no, my boss never thanked me for having put a stop to this outrageous rip-off. (I never received a Christmas card from the previous bagging contractor either!)

I reflected on this and many other work experiences as I idly paged through my collection of employers' references. Once so highly treasured, they are now, in my retirement, just so many pieces of paper. The mere tare weight of an engrossing career in commerce.

See related story Look what I found on the Internet.