Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

The Spectator, Tree!Umphant

I found Albert Barbusci!

He’s in Kissimmee, Florida where “the Lemieux and Barbusci families” own and operate the Tree Trek Adventure Park!

Okay, he may not actually be there right now (although why not be in Florida in December?) but he could be.

When I stepped back and thought about it for a moment, I realized I should have begun my search for Barbusci in the rope parks of the southeastern United States — what could be a more obvious side hustle for a man who has been working to develop a $1.5 billion transshipment hub for ultra-large container vessels in Sydney harbor than operating a 425-foot zip line in Florida?

Think of the synergies!

"The Barbusci family at Orlando Tree Trek" (Source: Florida Hikes! https://floridahikes.com/orlando-tree-trek-a-swinging-hike)

“The Barbusci family at Orlando Tree Trek” (Source: Florida Hikes! )

But I only discovered it because the Google alert I set two years ago for “Albert Barbusci” finally paid off on Thursday when his name appeared in the Tampa Bay Times in a story headlined, “County Commission rejects purchase of TreeUmph! equipment.”

Reporter Barbara Behrendt states that the Hernando County Commission has backed out of its $140,000 bid to buy the “rope course, zip line, harnesses and other materials” from the now-defunct TreeUmph! Adventure Park in Brooksville, Florida, opening the door to the next-highest bidder, “Canadian businessman Albert Barbusci” who “is co-owner of Orlando Tree Trek, a similar ropes course.”

Barbusci told Behrendt he could not say “whether he is interested in making the purchase.”

He was happy to see Hernando County try to preserve the park, but knows that “it takes multiple years to get up and running and build a brand.”

A further search unearthed an April 2015 blog post by one John Keatley, on a website called Florida Hikes!, recounting a visit to Tree Trek  which he describes this way:

Orlando Tree Trek is a new family-run business in the Kissimmee area, established by Pina and Albert Barbusci, with their sons actively involved in the operation.

That means Barbusci was busy setting up the business at the very same time he began promoting our port. I wonder if he ever confused the two projects and started talking to “Quad C” (the China Communications Construction Company) about wobbly suspended bridges and hanging skate boards?

All jokes aside, I’m sure the knowledge that, in addition to developing a mega-container terminal and logistics park in Sydney, Barbusci was also helping run “a progressively challenging aerial obstacle course…about 10 minutes from Walt Disney World” only added to his clout in negotiations with international shipping concerns. (Our old port promoters, Paul F. Richardson Associates, must be kicking themselves for not having had the foresight to open a trampoline park or a paintball facility when they had the chance.)

I think we’ll all sleep better tonight knowing our port promoter is so clearly the man for the job.

 

Savior syndrome

Source: LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/anthonymarlowe/

Source: LinkedIn 

For unto you arrives this day from Iowa City a Savior, which is Anthony Marlowe!

Did anybody else cringe at the headline, “ServiCom’s saviour?” in the print edition of this morning’s Cape Breton Post? The story, by Chris Shannon, based on his reading of court filings related to the JNET Communications (parent company of ServiCom Canada) bankruptcy, is very helpful. But that headline…

While it may be good news that Anthony Marlowe, CEO of Marlowe Companies Inc (which includes the business process outsourcing firm Mass Markets, the software company Gravis Apps and the customer contact company OnBrand 24) seems poised to buy the ServiCom call center in Sydney, that doesn’t make him a “savior” — it makes him a businessman. Especially since, as the story makes clear, in buying ServiCom, he is basically buying the contracts with ServiCom’s clients. (And for a mere $400,000 — if only the workers could have formed a co-op and got a business loan from the government and saved themselves!)

Everyone from Todd Riley, the former ServiCom Sydney site manager, to Stephen Kindseth, the lawyer for the debtors in the bankruptcy case, seems to believe Marlowe will reopen the Sydney call center and rehire the 600+ workers.

Let’s hope so. But let’s also bear in mind what Marlowe told the Corridor Business Journal (CBJ) earlier this year:

The benefits of advancing technology have been a game changer in the industry, Mr. Marlowe said, and customers who once might have wanted 100 call center operators to interact with their customers may now want half that many operators, [emphasis mine] and more digital services.

“We skipped the offshore call center trend,” he said. “We’re not skipping the trend in digital transcending automation and modernization. Our software offering puts us at an advantage of that curve.”

While a call center might have once used a human voice to answer the customer’s questions, Mr. Marlowe said it’s increasingly possible to begin interacting on one medium such as voice or online chat and end on another such as text message or email, to expedite and improve the customer experience.

“We’re starting to see customers asking us to support them using Apple messaging or Facebook messaging,” he added.

Marlowe may well reopen the call center in Sydney, but it could end up providing a rather different kind of customer service — and it could be smaller, especially given that, according to that CBJ article, MCI employs a total of 1,400 people (its largest operation is an OnBrand24 center in Savannah, Georgia, with 500 employees).

But there’s no need to speculate, we’ll know his plans very soon.

 

Blue Pumpkins

I compare my knowledge of recent Cape Breton history to that stretch of Prince Street that runs past Big Ben’s Convenience — functional but full of potholes.

I was not here to witness important events like the end of the steel and coal industries, the creation of the CBRM or the tar ponds cleanup. Consequently, much of what I’ve been doing since starting the Spectator in the summer of 2016 has involved filling in the gaps — potholes, if you will — in my historical knowledge.

Diana Varisova [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Polish call center, 2013. (Photo by Diana Varisova, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This week, while writing about the ServiCom call center closure, I discovered a paper written in 2006 by Professor Ray Hudson of Durham University in England. (Tim Bousquet, I should note, found the same paper back in 2017 and pulled a fascinating reference to an ECBC/ACOA plan to turn Glace Bay into a living museum, “a late 1920s coal mining town,” complete with locals in period costume).

Hudson, according to his university bio, is a “political-economic geographer” whose research has focused:

…upon economic geographies, processes of combined and uneven development, relations between corporate and state policies and issues of territorial development. Much of his empirical research has focussed on ‘old’ industrial regions.

The 2006 paper is called, “From carboniferous capitalism to call centres: the case of Cape Breton,” and — as you can tell from the title — it has something to say about the decision to build the call center industry on the island, in the guise of investing in the “knowledge-based” activities.

I can only wonder how Professor Hudson’s findings were greeted by the gurus of regional economic development at the time. It’s not that he got everything right (he identifies the head of New Dawn, for instance, as “Randall MacSween”) but that, as an outsider, he cast a welcome cold eye on the various efforts to encourage the post-industrial economy on the island, noting:

In 1995 a further Federally-funded agency, the Cape Breton County Economic Development Authority (CBCEDA) emerged as yet another organisation claiming to take the lead in economic development and regeneration in industrial Cape Breton. About this time a survey was taken of agencies ostensibly mandated to restore the island’s economy. The survey results indicated that no fewer than 65 agencies (entities) were seeking to do this. Essentially “saving the island’s economy” had become a sector and quite an active one.

And how.

At the time Hudson was writing, the island was home to six companies (EDS, ICT Group, Ron Weber and Associates, Spiegel, Stream and Upsource) operating seven call centers providing almost 3,500 equivalent full-time jobs.

Hudson makes it clear that one of the chief attractions of Cape Breton for call centers was “generous state financial aid (at around $11,000 to $13,000 per job).” He also makes clear that conditions inside the centers were not pretty:

The ample availability of suitably qualified labour, with supply comfortably (from the point of view of the recruiting companies) exceeding demand, enables these companies to impose close control over the recruitment process, deploying a range of psychological and behavioural tests and requiring minimum typing speeds. Furthermore, they use temporary contracts as a screening mechanism, typically with a high percentage of the workforce on such contracts – for example, at EDS in Sydney it averages out at around 30-40% over the year. Post-recruitment training can vary from two days to seven weeks, but the vast majority is of short duration.

Once they have recruited workers, call centre companies use their power in the labour market to define demanding performance in the workplace and ensure that workers comply with these requirements. Typically call centres work around the clock, with three-shift systems. Companies exercise tight control over the labour process, in closely monitored workplaces with intense systems of surveillance. For example, EDS deploys the “Blue Pumpkin” system, a very sophisticated workforce/time management tool bought in “off the shelf”, that allows staffing levels to be adjusted “by the minute”, allowing very precise monitoring and real-time adjustment of staffing levels; “everyone is metric-based, performance –based” (Respondent D, interview, 28 May 2004). Since companies dismiss workers who miss their performance targets or otherwise fail to conform to disciplinary codes, absenteeism and breaches of these codes are rare occurrences.

Moreover, companies not only pay low wages but also deploy their power in the labour market to force through further wage reductions and re-define working conditions to their advantage…For example, in 2004 Stream informed its employees at Glace Bay that they would have to sign new contracts at lower wage rates or be deemed to have resigned their positions with the company. Wages were to be cut by 10% or more (from between $11.50 and $10.50 per hour to $9.50 per hour…)

I worked at a call center in Toronto in the early ’90s and hated every minute of it, which tends to color my view of the industry. Perhaps call centers in 2018 are better, although, having talked to a few call center workers, I tend to think the best part of the job in 2018 is the same as it was in my day — the people. I still remember how smart and funny my Toronto co-workers were. (I particularly remember one guy from Moncton, who worked for CIBC pushing credit cards, and insisted they could increase their market by offering rewards cards with more attainable rewards — like a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken or a donair. Twenty years later, I still find that funny.)

That said, I worked at a call center because I needed a job and it paid my rent (barely), so I understand why people don’t want to lose even jobs they don’t particularly like. (And who knows? Maybe conditions are better these days).

Anyway, I requested copies of a couple of reports into the “Tele-service” industry commissioned by ECBC back in 2003 and 2004, and if they contain anything interesting, I will write more about the history of call centers in a future issue.

For now, as I have no particular point to make, I’m going to do what a colleague once advised me to do in such situations: end abruptly.

 

Extra, extra!

The latest Canadaland episode, The Dependent Press, features a lively debate between host Jesse Brown and media critic and NYU professor, Jay Rosen about the Trudeau government’s plan to “issue nearly $600M in tax credits and incentives to bolster the country’s media industry over the next five years.”

Brown wonders if the press can retain its independence while accepting government assistance and whether the effect of such assistance will be to allow legacy media organizations (like Postmedia and Torstar), which have failed utterly to adapt to the post-advertising world, to continue operating as they always have. (Brown actually suggests the money would effectively press pause on their decline, preserving them in their mediocrity.)

Rosen is more hopeful, suggesting first of all that there is no model of financing in which press independence can be totally preserved and that Canadians are smart enough to figure out how to design the program so that it advances journalism rather than preserving mediocre organizations.

The discussion is really interesting. How interesting? Let me put it this way: I listened to it the other evening while walking to and from Sobey’s and it made me forget how cold and windy it was. (It even helped me get over being almost run down in a crosswalk by a guy on a cell phone who hasn’t seen me yet.) It’s so interesting, I’ve been thinking about it ever since and I’ve had an idea about how the program could work.

It struck me that the government support could help solve not just the latest problem plaguing the journalism industry — the fact that Facebook and Google have gobbled up all the advertising dollars — but also a problem that has plagued the industry for decades, concentration of ownership. I don’t care what anybody says, I don’t think chain newspaper ownership has been a boon to journalism, although it may have been a boon to the businessmen at the top of the chains.

What if the government privileged standalone publications over chains? What if it was designed to actively discourage concentration of ownership? Wouldn’t that be an effective way to promote independent, local journalism?

That’s as far as I’ve got so far, but I think it bears further consideration. Maybe I’ll flesh it out on my next trip to Sobey’s.

 

Ban motion

The Spectator‘s Sean Howard — who is also Peace Quest Cape Breton’s Sean Howard — sent this along, after Tuesday’s meeting of the CBRM Council:

At its monthly meeting in Sydney last night, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) unanimously endorsed the ICAN ‘Cities Appeal,’ a new initiative by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons to encourage governments around the world to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the ‘Ban Treaty’ adopted by 122 states at the UN General Assembly last year.

Council’s move came after a November 28 request from Peace Quest Cape Breton (PQCB) for CBRM to endorse the Appeal “as a responsible, progressive, peace-loving member of the Canadian municipal community.” The resolution – entitled ‘Support for the ICAN Cities Appeal,’ and tabled and proposed by Earlene MacMullin (District 2) on behalf of Amanda McDougall (District 8) – reads in full:

Whereas; in 2013, CBRM joined ‘Mayors for Peace,’ a coalition of over 7,000 municipalities from over 160 countries working to build a nuclear-weapon-free world;

And Whereas; in 2017, Council passed a resolution calling on the Government of Canada to sign the new United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Ban Treaty);

And Whereas; Noting that, on November 7 this year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), winners of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, launched a ‘Cities Appeal,’ a “global call from cities and towns” to support the Ban Treaty;

And Whereas; Noting further that the Cities Appeal was immediately supported by Toronto and other major cities in the US, Australia, and other countries yet to sign the Treaty;

And Whereas; The Municipality is deeply concerned about the grave threat that nuclear weapons pose to communities throughout the world. We firmly believe that our residents have the right to live in a world free from this threat;

And Whereas; Any use of nuclear weapons, whether deliberate or accidental, would have catastrophic, far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for people and the environment;

Be It Therefore Resolved: That Mayor Cecil P. Clarke and CBRM Council warmly welcome the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by the United Nations in 2017, and we call on our national government to join it.

PQCB applauds the Mayor and all Councilors for standing in solidarity with Councils around the world in taking this small but symbolically significant step in the direction of human security and even survival. We now hope other municipalities in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada take note and follow suit.  

The Ban Treaty will enter into force when 50 states ratify it; currently, 69 states have signed, and 19 ratified. To the dismay of many former Canadian diplomats and experts, however, this country – as a member of NATO, the world’s only nuclear-armed alliance – is among the minority of powerful, military-industrial states refusing to join.

The Spectator applauds Sean Howard and the folks at PQCB for their tireless work toward the goal of a nuke-free world.

 

Troll in High Heels

Betsythedevine Photoshopped version of public sign [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Betsythedevine Photoshopped version of public sign, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve confessed before to starting my days listening to the press review done by my sister, who hosts the CBC morning show in Quebec City, and Mike Finnerty, the host of the CBC morning show in Montreal.

There’s always something interesting in the daily news from Quebec, but yesterday morning’s standout story (what they would call a “marmalade-dropper”) was an article in Le Soleil about a 62-year-old medical secretary from Quebec, Françoise Giroux, who spent her lunch hours posting on a European anti-Muslim website (using the clever pseudonym “Frank Giroux”). I’m not going to quote her comments but as you’ll see if you read the story, they were truly hateful.

Giroux was caught because she used a Muslim former colleague’s name in one of the 19 posts she made over a nine-month period — a period that ended just weeks before the fatal shooting in La Grande Mosquée de Québec — and the colleague stumbled across it in the course of an internet search.

Giroux confessed all and turned over her computer to police when they arrived at her door and she pled guilty this fall to one count of inciting hatred against Muslims. The judge (who spoke to Giroux in “glacial tones”) accepted Giroux’s lawyer’s recommendation that his client be given a conditional discharge in return for performing 100 hours of public service.

But what struck me most about the story was something Le Soleil reporter Isabelle Mathieu caught in her lead paragraph, when she noted that with her “Burberry scarf, high-heeled boots and chic handbag,” Giroux was “light years away” from anyone’s idea of an internet troll.

 

Mayor Mood

My first thought, when I read this, was “Well, at least no local reporter is going to have to do a ‘Where’s Pam?'” feature:

 

 

 

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