Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Change of Pace

In a recent post about defeating my prostate cancer, I mentioned that, quite often, a person has to work through to a solution himself, no matter how technical or complicated the problem may be. Would that the spongers demanding handouts from the government would adopt this way of life. Anyway, as a change of pace, here's another story illustrating the point:


By 1970, my partner, Jack Sarazen, and I had four Lums Restaurant locations up and running: Seekonk and North Attleboro, Massachusetts and Warwick and Cranston, Rhode Island. We had also established a central office in North Attleboro by moving the original building we found on that restaurant site to the far end of the lot and remodeling it into an office building with our construction crew. We were really moving, and we had been able to handle every problem that came our way. We then decided to expand in a large way, and we purchased six more franchises.

The first two locations to be developed under the expansion plan were in Providence, RI and North Smithfield (Woonsocket), RI. Both locations were started at about the same time, and, in a major departure from past practice, both were to be built by outside general contractors, with me acting as architect. The Providence site was located on Silver Spring Street, just off Route 95. The building and site improvements were handled by Warren Prescott of North Attleboro, and things went fairly smoothly. In fact I was so impressed by Warren I contracted with him to remodel my house and to do other jobs.

The only thing of interest that happened in Providence had to do with visibility. The site was almost, but not quite, visible from Route 95. It backed up to an older ethnic Italian neighborhood, and right in back of it stood a house owned by a very elderly Italian lady. I met with her and her son to negotiate the placing of a sign that could be seen from Route 95. We paid $500 to lease a sign site for 20 years for a huge sign that blinked “LUMS” on and off; she seemed very pleased to have the sign in her back yard. The sign was a huge success.

In contrast to Providence, the Woonsocket site presented many problems. The site I selected was right beside the Fogarty (now Landmark) Hospital, and the managers of the hospital fought against our move there. There was no water or sewerage at the site, and the site was much larger than we had in mind. The site size problem was reconciled when the realtor found a party (Electric Sales and Service of Woonsocket) to buy the site, split it in half, build a Lums building on our half and lease that half to us. The landlord was relocating his business from downtown Woonsocket in a few years because of an urban renewal project underway there and would build on the remaining half. When we were introduced to the potential owners of the property, the DeSanto family, we immediately hit it off and agreed on an approach.

I would act as the architect and find appropriate contractors to bid on the building and help select the builder. I would then act as an agent for the DeSantos and monitor the progress of the construction. Since my company would occupy the building, they reasoned I would have an interest in having it done right and in keeping costs down, and they were right. We used standard plans for the building supplied by Lums and previously modified by us for northern sites. The site plan would be drawn up by a local civil engineer. Remembering our first construction experience, we decided to incorporate a performance and fiduciary bond as a condition of awarding the contract.

In due course we found and selected a qualified bidder who supplied a bond that appeared legitimate. I called the insurance agency underwriting the bond to double-check on its authenticity. The contractor’s name had been supplied by the realtor, who further attested to his bonafides. However, before the job was completed, almost the same thing that had happened in Seekonk happened again: the job stalled, and subcontractors indicated that they were not getting paid. This began to look like a criminal matter because I was monitoring the payments, and the general contractor was providing me with records of payments, so-called.

There were some physical and legitimate reasons why the contractor was having financial difficulties. The main one was the amount of ledge found in the area where the leach field had to go. It required the use of dynamite to blow up the ledge, and it required the replacement of the ledge with purchased gravel. Other major items that the contractor did not have to pay for but which affected the progress of the job were the artesian well that had to go down 450 feet before getting an adequate water supply and the special traffic signal that we put in to help satisfy the hospital’s objections to our restaurant.

In any event the contractor disappeared before the job was completed, and we called in the bond. We then found that the bond was fraudulent. It was a small highway repair bond that had been lifted the way a check might be kited. The DiSantos and we had to complete the building ourselves. Although we reported the insurance agency, the realtor and the contractor to the RI Department of Business Regulation, and hearings and a trial were held, nothing really happened to any of these people.

We opened for business in April, 1972. Before we opened we noticed that the water had a slight smell, and I took samples to a laboratory in Providence for analysis. The lab reported that there were some chemicals that affected taste and odor, but the water was safe. They said that this often happens with a new well and that it might clear up after use. I decided to continue taking samples every week or two, and we mostly forgot about it. About three weeks after we opened, The testing laboratory called me with some devastating news. The last water sample had coliform bacteria in it and was unfit for human consumption.

We made a decision right at the outset of learning this news that probably saved the restaurant. We decided to formulate a plan of action and go right to the RI Health Board and tell them of our problem and our intended solution. The next day I went to the Health Department building in Woonsocket and informed them of our problem. I said that if we were allowed to stay open, we would guarantee to:
1. stop washing dishes and go on single service
2. bring in a milk truck of water to supply all water
3. keep testing on a weekly basis and supply results
4. hire a consultant to advise us on a step by step analysis.
Thanks to our informing the Health Department of our problem and our plan, they decided to allow us to stay open.

There then began a most frustrating series of investigative steps and analysis wherein I relearned a lesson learned over and over in life: no matter how technical the subject, if you have a problem you are the most likely person to solve it. We went through about three civil engineers and experts without learning anything or making any progress. It seems no one knows what’s under the ground. Jack and I put together an engineering notebook and performed a series of experiments ourselves to try to identify the source of the contamination. We did such things as lowered swabs down the well at varying depths to learn the level at which the contamination was entering the well. We did most of these things at 3:00 and 4:00 A.M. so no one would find out what we were doing. We knew that if our problem became public knowledge we would have to close the restaurant.

After several months of study we identified two definite levels at which the coliform bacteria was entering the well: one was shallow at about 15 feet and one was deeper, at about 100 feet. We also had the septic tank emptied and cleaned, and we found one source. A concrete septic tank of that size has a hole molded into the bottom because there is usually standing water in the dug pit in which it is placed. This is called a float hole because its purpose is to allow water to enter the hole so the tank can sit firmly on the bottom of the pit. After the tank is placed the water is pumped out and the hole is sealed with mortar. Our contractor had neglected to seal this hole, and it was leaking sewerage that was following a seam in the ledge over to our well. We had the hole sealed.

The other major project we embarked on was to seal the well. I didn’t know about this process until our problem developed, but there is such a process well known to well drillers. They force a burlap plug down the well to just below the entry point of the contamination. We had identified two such points. They then fill up part of the well with a cement slurry which they then force under pressure to enter cracks and fissures in that area of the well shaft. Before the slurry completely hardens they then drill down through it and through the burlap plug. Our well driller did this twice to our well.

The combination of the sealing of the well and the sealing of the septic tank appeared to solve the water problem, but before we went back to the Health Department we did one more thing. I had located a company in Norwood, Massachusetts that was manufacturing a new kind of water filter that actually was advertised to filter out coliform bacteria. We had such a filter installed in Woonsocket and went back to periodic testing. The Health Department gave us a clean bill of health, and we went back to well water. On our own, though, we decided to continue testing every two weeks. After a couple of months of operation I got another call from the testing laboratory. We had coliform bacteria in the water before it went through the filter. The filter was working, but we were in trouble again.

By that time I was a well-known figure at the testing laboratory and so was my father who usually delivered the samples. We were probably their best customers. The head of the lab came out to the restaurant at my invitation to go over everything we had done. As soon as he walked out into the parking lot where the well was located he said he thought he knew what our problem was. The top of our well was situated in a pit formed by a large section of sewer pipe sunk down in the parking lot and covered with a concrete cover. The bottom of this pit was about three feet below the surface. He said that this was a fine arrangement if the well was situated in a soil surface that drained, but in an asphalt parking lot, this was not a good idea. Dog feces and other contaminants could be washed right into the well and would seep down through the pit.

I had a contractor bring in another section of sewer pipe to be placed on top of the existing one and sealed with mortar. This raised the opening to the well about three feet above the parking lot surface. We never had another problem with the well after that.

The problem had first appeared in April, 1972 and was finally solved in August of that year. On September 3, 1973 I lost my best friend and business partner to a massive heart attack. I will always wonder what part the Woonsocket well may have played in his death.


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At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting story that illustrates several truths:

- Your average businessperson is way more qualified to make real-life decisions than your average bureaucrat, if nothing else than by dint of real-world experience and personal financial interest.

- The "experts" are sometimes wrong. Because of this, there is no replacement for good judgment

- To succeed, you must ultimately become your own teacher

Thanks for the wisdom Russ.

At 9:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always enjoy these stories from your many past lives.



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