Rick Players looked up from his snowmobile at the jagged peaks of the Rockies. A cold wind stung his cheeks, and he smiled at its bite.
It was the last afternoon of his twin teenage sons’ winter break. For this day only, Rick had ignored his job as CEO of PlayLand, the toy company his family owned. Just one afternoon with his boys. That’s all he wanted.
Well, if he were honest, he wanted out of the job altogether. He hadn’t realized when he took over from his father that leading PlayLand would cost him his freedom. There was more to life than work, he was coming to realize. But two thousand employees and all the children who bought the company’s toys depended on him. Even today, he had his damn cell phone clipped to his belt.
Rick shifted his snowmobile into gear, and gunned the engine to launch himself across the deep powder.
“Race you!” he yelled, as he rocketed past the two fifteen-year-olds sharing another machine. He could still beat them, he knew he could. And that wasn’t the beer he’d had at lunch talking either.
Rick glanced back. The boys had narrowed the gap. Damn, they’re good, he thought, feeling both pride and competitiveness. He went full throttle and felt the surge of power. Speed! He loved it.
One of the twins whooped a challenge as the boys drew closer.
Rick veered down the hill to head them off. Too late to stop, he saw a ditch yawning in front of him. He tried to turn, but the snowmobile pitched forward. His body flew. Shit! This is going to hurt.
But he didn’t feel a thing.
$ $ $
Maura Ramirez sat in her office at PlayLand’s headquarters on Sunday afternoon. She liked to begin her Mondays with flexibility, so she worked most Sundays.
Her phone rang, and she answered.
“Maura, it’s Kevin. Rick’s in a coma at St. Luke’s.”
“Good God! What happened?” Rick was Maura’s boss. Her friend, too.
“The old fool was snowmobiling,” Kevin said. “Racing with his kids. He’s in ICU. Doctors say he has a fractured skull. And broken bones.”
“Will he be all right?”
“Doctors won’t say.” Kevin’s voice shook.
“God, I’m sorry. How can I help?”
“Christ, I don’t know.”
“Is his family there?” Maura asked.
“Yeah. Paige and the boys. Vince, too.”
“Who else needs to know?” Maura asked. “Employees?”
“I guess. Can you handle it?” Kevin asked. “I’ve got my hands full.”
“What about the media?” Maura tried to put her concern for Rick aside to think logically. “We’ll need to be ready if word gets out. Can you get me an update from the doctors?”
Kevin sighed. “I’ll text you what I can. We don’t know much.”
“I’ll shoot you a draft when I get it done.” Maura hung up and dropped her head in her hands. Christ, Rick!
Rick was the best boss Maura had ever had. He drove his staff hard, but passionately promoted the games and dolls PlayLand made, grinning as much as the kids who bought the company’s toys. Over the years Rick had developed the company’s most successful product lines, making PlayLand a national force in the toy industry.
And he treated employees fairly, which made Maura’s job running Human Resources easier. She wouldn’t be able to push the employee changes needed to keep the business afloat without Rick to back her up.
What would PlayLand do if Rick died? He was the business.
$ $ $
Maura left her office much later than she had planned. It had taken hours to work with Kevin on the press release and employee communications. By the end of the afternoon, Kevin reported Rick was still in critical condition. The hospital had done a CT scan on Rick’s brain, which showed a skull fracture, with rising intracranial pressure.
“The neurologist says he’s a three on the Glasgow Coma Scale, whatever that is,” Kevin told her. “He’s not responding, even to pin pricks to his arms. No movement at all.”
“Jesus. Is he at least breathing on his own?” Maura asked.
“Yeah, that much is good. They’ll do an MRI tomorrow. Maybe we’ll know more then.”
“Let’s hope so.”
“He also has three broken ribs and a broken leg,” Kevin continued. “The doctors say it’s a miracle he doesn’t have more internal injuries. The snowmobile must weigh six hundred pounds. The twins found it on top of him.”
As she walked down PlayLand’s empty halls, Maura thought again about how dreadful losing Rick would be—to employees, to the company’s financial status, . . . and to her personally.
And where’s Vince? she wondered, thinking of the middle Players brother. All afternoon she had only talked to Kevin, the youngest of the three brothers. Vince seemed to stay out of critical corporate issues, even though he managed Product Development, the lifeline of the business.
Maura drove out of the employee parking lot in the dusk and glanced back at the low, bulky profile of PlayLand’s headquarters. Red, blue and yellow stripes matching the company’s bright logo lined the exterior walls—a playful expression of the company’s creative mission. Maura enjoyed the fun environment. Too bad there were so many financial problems this year.
And no one to fill in behind Rick. As head of HR, she should have focused on leadership development, but Rick had always said there would be plenty of time. She should have pushed him.
On her drive home, Maura worried about all the things she had on her plate. Succession behind Rick would be a major issue, if Rick’s health were permanently impaired. Improving employee relations. Management training. Increasing the diversity of the employee base as consumers themselves became more diverse.
The current financial environment wouldn’t let her do everything she wanted, not when PlayLand needed to cut payroll and benefits costs. Cost reduction was hard. Could they do it without Rick?
$ $ $
Maura walked into chaos at home. Between her husband Carlos and her two kids, one of them was always on the outs with another.
“Mom,” her fourteen-year-old daughter Liz said, “Rafe wants Dad’s car, so Dad can’t take me to soccer practice. We need to leave now.”
“Can’t Rafe wait and drop you off?” Maura asked.
Liz rolled her eyes. “Dad said he didn’t have to. He said you’d do it.”
“I don’t need this now, Liz.” Maura sighed. “Carlos?” she called, “Can you take Liz? Sorry I’m late. Had a crisis. Rick’s in a coma.”
“Rick? Good God, what happened?”
“Tell you later. It’s bad.”
“Yeah, I’ll take her.” As usual, Carlos would come through.
Maura fed Liz a late dinner after practice. Her daughter prattled on about her upcoming quinceañera, while Maura listened with half an ear and watched her cell phone for email so she could field questions about Rick’s condition.
It was after ten o’clock before Maura and Carlos were alone, and then only because they went to their room and shut the door.
“What happened to Rick?” Carlos asked, rubbing Maura’s feet after she collapsed on their bed.
“Snowmobile accident. Some broken bones, but Kevin says the doctors are more concerned about his head.”
“Rick’s got a hard head,” Carlos said. “He’ll pull through.”
“I hope so. Kevin’s worried. Me, too. For Rick and his family. And it’s a terrible time for the business. Rick’s the only one who can handle most of our problems.”
“You can’t handle them?” Carlos asked, nibbling her neck. Carlos, a tall, dark and handsome Latino, had attracted Maura since they met as juniors in college.
“Nope,” Maura said. “I’m just the HR person.”
“I thought you said HR ran the show.”
“I only say that to make you think I’m important.”
“Oh, I think you’re important,” Carlos said, as he bent to kiss her.
$ $ $
Grant Mason sat in front of the fireplace in his den, sipping a single malt Scotch. What would Rick’s injury mean for PlayLand? he wondered.
Ten years earlier, Rick had recruited Grant from a small plastics firm to reengineer PlayLand’s manufacturing and sourcing functions. Now Grant was Vice President of Operations. At fifty-eight, maturity gave him an air of assurance. But his stern expression made people nervous, and he often had to remind himself not to frown so he wouldn’t seem threatening.
Grant frowned now. Operations employees knew Rick was the force behind PlayLand. Rick didn’t hide in his office like a lot of CEOs. He visited the plants and talked to people. Employees would fret about Rick’s condition.
Production would plummet. Grant would have to get out to the Lakeview plant to keep employees focused on churning out product.
He began to relax as he planned his week. Grant might look like an executive, but he was a tinkerer at heart. He smiled at the prospect of time at the plant.
His wife Linda entered the room and sat beside him on the sofa. “You got Maura’s message about Rick?” she asked. Linda, the Staffing Director at PlayLand, reported to Maura. “We’ll have to decide on a successor for Rick.”
“He’s not dead,” Grant replied. “Just hurt.”
“Make sure Maura knows you want the job.”
“Do I?” Grant’s scowl returned.
“You know you could do it. Better than Vince or Kevin.”
“Oh, so I wouldn’t be supplanting Rick. Just his brothers?”
“If Rick comes back, there’s no need for a successor,” Linda said. “But even if he gets better, we need a contingency plan. Neither Vince nor Kevin would be a good CEO. It’s my job to make sure the company deals with this, even if the Players family doesn’t want to. I’m going to talk to Maura tomorrow.”
“If you’re going to talk to her, why do I have to?”
“Well, I can’t speak for you. She’d think I’m out for our self-interest.”
“Aren’t you?” Grant asked. Linda often pushed him to get involved in corporate politics. He stayed out of her plotting when it didn’t involve Operations. For months, she’d told Grant he should be the next CEO, even though it didn’t seem likely Rick would leave the family’s business. At least it hadn’t been likely until today.
“Will you talk to Maura?” Linda pressed.
Grant scowled. “You’re really scheming, aren’t you?”
“Just thinking ahead. Maura’s resisting succession planning. But she’ll have to deal with it now.”
“I already manage a huge budget and the biggest division. Why should I take on more responsibility? PlayLand isn’t in great shape. Being CEO is asking for trouble.”
“You know you’re the best one to do it.”
“All right. I’ll talk to Maura.”
$ $ $
Late Sunday evening, Kevin Players sat on a plastic chair in ICU beside his brother Vince. Machines beeped rhythmically, monitoring Rick’s heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and brain waves. He heard the constant patter of voices from the nurses’ station and the squeaks of carts rolling down the hall.
The doctors hadn’t given a definite prognosis. “He has some injuries in the cerebral hemispheres,” the neurologist had said. “His brain is still swelling, though not as rapidly as earlier. If it continues, we may need to surgically extract some of the dead tissue. Or at least relieve the pressure caused by the swelling. All we can do is wait.”
Now Kevin and Vince sat waiting. Kevin leaned back and stretched his arms over his head. They needed to make some plans about the business. Kevin didn’t want an argument, but Vince wouldn’t do a damn thing unless Kevin brought it up.
Kevin squinted at Vince. “We have to decide what to do about tomorrow’s officer meeting.”
Vince was forty-six, several years younger than Rick, but eleven years older than Kevin. Vince’s hair was thin on top, Kevin noticed in surprise. Rick hadn’t lost any hair yet. Kevin ran a hand over his own head. Would he go bald like Vince in another ten years? Would he get Vince’s paunch, or Rick’s six-pack abs?
“If we cancel, it’ll seem like no one’s running the show,” Kevin said.
“But you heard the doctor. How can we go on, business as usual?”
“The doctor said anything could happen,” Kevin argued. “We’ve got to think about how people will react. Employees. Customers. Lenders. What’ll they do if they think no one’s in charge?”
“How can we keep going without Rick?” Vince asked.
“I don’t know,” Kevin said. He stretched again. He’d expected some resistance, but Vince wasn’t helping at all. “We have to give the impression things are under control. Starting with the meeting tomorrow. Can you lead it?”
“You’re head of Product Development. You’re next in the family after Rick. People will expect you to do it.”
“Christ!” Vince groaned. “What’s on the agenda?”
“How the hell should I know? Rick keeps his own agendas.”
Vince grimaced. “What should we say? You’re the great communicator.”
Kevin shrugged. “Give the group an update on Rick. Then ask everyone for status reports. It’s mostly for show. So the rest of the company thinks we know what we’re doing. Even without Rick.”
Vince nodded. “Okay. But you back me up.”
“Sure.” Kevin closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. With his eyes still closed, he asked, “What’s on your plate this week?”
“Nothing much Monday. Staff meetings. A couple of new product meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Don’t remember after that.”
“Paige gave me Rick’s cell phone,” Kevin said. “I looked at his calendar. There’s a big meeting with Toy Mart sometime this week with our Sales group. One of us should go. I think it’s mostly about marketing programs. I can get up to speed. I’ll go.”
Vince grunted again.
Kevin decided that meant Vince didn’t care who went to Toy Mart. “He was also getting ready for the bank meeting next week,” Kevin said. “It’d look pretty weird for me to go. No reason for Marketing to be there. You’ll have to cover that one. Alex will know the details. Talk to him.”
Vince glared at Kevin. “Hell, you know I hate financial crap.”
“Alex can handle the numbers. Just act like an owner,” Kevin replied. Sometimes he didn’t think Vince cared about the family business. Kevin had been the kid brother all his life, but now he spent half his time pushing Vince.
“All right.” Vince belched. “I’ll call Alex.”
Relieved that he had covered the immediate business issues, Kevin turned to the family problems—the bigger challenge, he thought. “We’re going to have to watch Paige,” he said.
“Why?” Vince asked.
“She was hysterical this evening,” Kevin said. “She’s worried about Rick, obviously. And pissed at him for racing with the boys. She said he must have been drunk. But his blood alcohol was legal.” Kevin shook his head. “I don’t know if she can cope.”
“Christ,” said Vince. “I couldn’t deal with a wife when I was married. How can we handle Paige and PlayLand both?”
Kevin squirmed to get comfortable in the small chair. Paige had always been a handful. Spoiled her whole life, first by her father and then by Rick. She’d freaked out when Jason broke his arm last year. “I don’t know,” he said. “But we’ve got to.”
$ $ $
Throughout the night, the hospital monitors continued to beep, assuring the nurses that Rick Players was alive, at least for the time being.
$ $ $ $ $
NOTE TO READERS: If you like this Chapter 1 of Playing the Game, please go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble to buy the rest of the novel in paperback or ebook formats.