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The Firm's First International Client

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            It was late 1992, and the firm had just settled in its new space at 800 Main Place. We weren’t all that busy, so we were hungry for work. At the time, the firm was Gordon and Embers Architects. I was the primary owner and therefore felt primarily responsible for the success of the business.  

            One day, the phone rang and we found that a German plastic toy company, BIG Toy Company, was interested in building at least one warehouse at Strother Field, outside of Winfield. We were excited about the thought of a potential international client. In a later conversation, we found out that we had some competition; a small general contractor in Winfield. “No problem.” we thought, “We can blow them out of the water!” After all, we had always done a great job for our clients and had a team of very talented designers.

            We spent time putting together a presentation and met with the owner of the toy company, Mr. Bettag. The presentation was, in our opinion, impressive and we thought surely this would win Mr. Bettag and his company over. A few weeks went by and, sure enough, we received a letter from the BIG Toy company. They wanted a member of our firm to visit their factory in Nuremberg, Germany. We were ecstatic! It was not long after that I received an airplane ticket in the mail and was on my way to Europe. At that time, I did not have a current passport and I had to hustle to get that ready which added to the chaos and excitement of the trip. Arriving at the Nuremberg airport, I was already in awe of the architecture I was witnessing. The airport was a beautiful contemporary building and featured a totally glass elevator. Had my trip stopped there it would have been worth it.

            After a great night of sleep at a nice motel, I woke up and called Mr. Bettag and he sent someone to pick me up. It was a short car ride that I very much enjoyed and before I knew, I was entering the gates of BIG Toy Company. As I entered their facility, I noticed their logo, a big horned buffalo head – it is just something you don’t forget.  I was ushered into the factory via a lobby to a spiral stair constructed of glass and marble. I could tell this would be a wonderful client; after all, his taste in architecture was impeccable. I went through another glass door into the reception area and made the receptionist aware of my appointment. I was, kindly, directed to sit down. I did as I was told because this was playing out as it does in the movies… beautiful building, mysterious client, lifetime opportunity, elegance and sophistication, and all of that other stuff.

 BIG Toy Co. - visit their website: www.big.de

BIG Toy Co. - visit their website: www.big.de

            When it came my turn to see Mr. Bettag, I was directed through yet another glass door into his office. He was sitting at his desk along with his interpreter. As I took in the office and the experience I couldn’t help but be very thankful. The firm really needed this project, after all. We had always kept a steady stream of projects, but it was the big ones that came around every few years that were fun and injected variety back into our jobs. As the interpreter began speaking he explained that Mr. Bettag was now confused. I then learned that the general contractor, who had also been interviewed, shared my last name. The Owner had interviewed both Gordon and Embers Architects and Gordon Construction Co., but had actually chosen Gordon Construction Co. Needless to say, he had accidently invited the wrong person to visit his facility. I felt a sinking in my chest like my heart had just hit the floor. I was overwhelmed with disappointment.

            As I stood there in shock, the Mr. Bettag began to apologize and suggested I stay four to five days. He said that I would visit the plant in the mornings and the afternoons were mine to do as I wished. He also insisted I found a new place to stay because the hotel was “not very nice” by his standards. He took care of me and paid for everything.

On one of those once-in-a-lifetime evenings, I was invited to his home. His house was contemporary in style and was constructed of concrete – it was an architect’s dream. He cooked a wonderful meal with three different wines; one for each course. The house and the meal were both wonderful. Even more wonderful was our conversation. Mr. Bettag was a very interesting man and of course, this experience as a whole was insane.

As I was about to leave the factory on my last day, Mr. Bettag appeared and suggested his secretary take me to lunch at any restaurant of my choice. The secretary spoke very good English and asked where I would like to go. I told her that I would be honored to go to a place that could give me the most typical and delicious German meal there was. The place she chose was very busy and was filled with noisy people drinking and clanking their beers – it was noon on a business day, just for clarification. The secretary helped me order a sausage and sauerkraut meal with a beer. I failed to eat the entire entrée and as I vocalized that I was full, she looked across the table at me and said, “Would you mind if I finished it?” She also drank more beer than I could. I remember being amazed that this 105 pound woman could put my stomach capacity to shame. She went back to work ready to conquer the day and I went to my hotel to take a nap.

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Soon the time came for me to depart from Germany and head back to Kansas; I said my goodbyes to the wonderful people I had met and returned to Winfield – jobless but full of experiences. Mr. Bettag had paid all of my travel expenses and even sent us a letter thanking us for our effort (As if he needed to thank US, he was the one deserving of a ‘thank you’.) Included in that letter was a large check. Not only had this guy paid for my entire stay, and it wasn’t a low-end experience budget-wise, but he mailed the firm a check for our “troubles”. I was blown away by his graciousness. That being said, I took time in thought before cashing the check because it just felt unnecessary for him to compensate us. In the end, after speaking with Mr. Bettag about it, we decided to cash it. Those funds were extra for us and we were able to remodel our office at 800 Main Place. Then, our communication with Mr. Bettag ended.

I later found out that Mr. Bettag did not approve of Wal-Mart’s “no questions asked” return policy, so he decided to not do business with them. This left the potential facility that Gordon Construction Co. was going to build in Strother Field useless. As I understood it, the reason Mr. Bettag declined Wal-Mart’s offer was because his toys did not break. Therefore, there was no need to return his products. This was a wise decision, in my opinion, as this policy can cost manufactures plenty of money. Then again, from my limited experience, Mr. Bettag was a very smart and business-minded man. BIG Toy is still producing plastic riding toys to this day. The company is now a part of Simba Dickie Group, a toy conglomerate.

Although we did not get to do the job, I certainly got to enjoy the memories and a wonderful visit to Germany. I had the pleasure of meeting some very nice people from a foreign country. It truly was an experience of a lifetime.

Written and Experienced by Merrill K. Gordon