The $27-million “business visitor” mistakeby Jean-Noel Benhamou, Managing Partner
“Jill, what the hell’s going on with Ontario?! They shut us down at the border, and I’m holding you responsible if we burn $1.4 million a day. I don’t care what you’re doing–call me immediately.”
That was the mildest of the 13 voicemails that’d mysteriously crammed Jill’s voicemail during the 10 minutes it took her to get a cranberry juice from the cafeteria.
How a quiet Friday afternoon turned into a $27-million problem
That was 3:10 on a quiet Friday afternoon, and Jill Selby, Regional HR Director for one of the biggest & oldest NYSE-listed companies, had been tying up a few loose ends–just simple admin things–before heading home for the weekend.
She’d been looking forward to working in her garden. These last few weeks had been a whirlwind, getting everything ready for the company’s new factory in Ontario, Canada that was scheduled to come online today. She really needed some downtime.
And that $1.4 million number?
Jill knew exactly what that was. It’d been drilled into her and virtually everyone across their U.S.-Canada region.
That $1.4 million was the cost, per day, for delaying the Ontario billion-dollar, state-of-the-art plant.
She listened to a couple more voicemails.
“Jill, Ontario’s locked up and we’re about to have suppliers screaming at us…” from the VP of U.S. Logistics.
And another one:
“Jill, none of our people can get into Canada. Every single port of entry is blocked…” from the Group VP of Manufacturing & Labor Affairs.
The next 7 messages were from employees for the Ontario plant, who’d been turned back at the border, trying to cross from Michigan to get to work.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way
Jill’s head spun. What had happened?! She thought they’d gotten everything in order weeks ago, so workers could cross the border freely.
Everything was supposed to go off without a hitch.
Who to call first? Aside from the factory workers, a half dozen senior VPs had left messages. Each, it seemed, more furious than the next.
Gardening looked pretty good about now.
Hitting an impenetrable brick wall
A few calls and 20 minutes later, things were a little clearer, but looked even worse than Jill feared.
The 1,800-odd employees for Ontario’s assembly plant were all U.S. citizens living in Michigan, mostly in the Detroit area.
And they’d all been blocked from crossing into Canada at the main access points between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario: the Ambassador Bridge as well as the Windsor-Detroit Tunnel.
A few workers had even tried crossing via the quaint Sombra Ferry in the small town of Marine City, 49 miles north of Detroit.
All were turned back.
Together, with 3 of the VPs, Jill had a call with the Port Director for the Canadian Border Services Agency, where they outlined the ramifications, both to the company, as well as the impact on Ontario’s economy for delaying the factory’s opening.
“I’m sympathetic,” the Canadian Port Director said. “But your people need work permits. They’re trying to use their employee badge as a work permit.”
“But we’ve always done that in the past–and haven’t had a problem with people crossing into Canada,” Jill explained.
“Maybe so,” the Port Director said. “But it’s like driving over the speed limit: sooner or later, you’re going to get caught.”
“Crossing the border isn’t much different,” he continued. “Anyone who crosses the border to work needs a work permit. Showing an employee badge is like showing a grocery rewards card as a passport. They’re not even in the same category.”
This was truly a huge problem, impacting labor, manufacturing, logistics, sales, and their supply chain.
Not to mention costing the company $1.4 million per day.
And for some reason, everyone thought it was Jill’s fault.
After all, she was essentially the HR person in charge of the situation.
Jill’s next call was to their immigration attorney, Jean-Noël Ben Hamou.
Not going it alone: getting the right kind of help
“Jean-Noël, I’ll tell you up front that you told us so,” Jill began. “But we thought we’d be OK, since we’ve never had a problem with workers crossing the border.”
“Come to find out,” she continued, “we were wrong–and we need your help. Every minute that goes by we’re bleeding money. We need this fixed ASAP–like, yesterday.”
Jill explained what’d happened:
–The $1.4 million loss per day.
–The 1,800 workers who all needed work permits ASAP to get the factory on line.
Jean-Noël took it all in. “Well, we’ve got a few options,” he said. “First, what most attorneys would do is recommend drafting a lawsuit to re-open the border.
“Aside from the fact that that’d take at least 6-9 months, maybe a year, it just won’t work–a lawsuit won’t get your people work permits,” he said.
Jill felt that sinking feeling in her stomach.
“Second,” he continued, “we could draft work permits for your 1,800 workers. That’s feasible, but it’s going to take 3 months to do that many work permits. And, flooding the Canadian Border Services Agency with 1,800 work permits to process will only bog them down, probably adding another 2-3 months to it all. Altogether, we’d be looking at 6 months. So, that option is out too.”
Jill tried multiplying the months into days and then by the $1.4-million number.
Her gut felt queasy.
“Oh my God,” Jill said, dumbfounded. “Are there ANY good options?”
“Let’s do this,’ Jean-Noël said. “I’ll call my contacts in the Ontario provincial government–I’m sure we can figure something out. I’ll call you back in an hour or so, once I have some better options.”
All hands on deck
Over the next 3 days (including a Saturday & Sunday), Jill got play-by-play updates from Jean-Noël, and together, they updated all the VPs on conference calls.
By Monday evening, a deal was in place with Citizenship & Immigration Canada in Ontario, for an expedited work permit process.
It was still a monumental task to draft & assemble expedited permit applications for the 1,800 workers, but it was clearly the best route, both for Jill’s company as well as Ontario’s Citizenship & Immigration Authority, who didn’t want to grind to a halt trying to process 1,800 work permits the traditional way.
Once the deal was in place, it was all hands on deck, both for Jean-Noël’s team and Jill’s department.
Jill’s department was in charge of collecting & forwarding their worker’s citizenship & work-related documents.
And Jean-Noël and his team put together a process to create the huge number of work permit applications over a seemingly impossible timeframe.
From scapegoat to hero
Just 18 days later, every one of the 1,800 employees had work permits, and the Canadian government had reviewed & approved them.
And, most important, the $1-billion plant was on line.
What was even more surprising–besides the fact that it’d all been fixed so fast–was all the praise Jill got from the VPs, directors, and even the workers. When the plant opened, Jill was inundated with thank-you cards and flowers. Her office looked like a florist’s shop.
Jill had gone from scapegoat to hero.
The unexpected phone call
The day the plant went online, Jill got a call from the company headquarters. Half-expecting another snafu, Jill steeled herself before answering.
“Jill, this is Robert K____,” the caller said. Jill immediately recognized the name–it was the Chairman of the Board, and great-grandson of the company’s founder. “I just wanted to call & personally thank you for all the hard work you put in to get our Ontario plant online.”
Jill could barely get the words out. “Thank you,” she said. “It was a team effort–I couldn’t have done it alone.”
“Well, it was a big deal, and we’re all immensely relieved to have it behind us,” he said. “We really appreciate all you’re doing, all the resources you pulled in, and your willingness to go above & beyond.”
After the call, Jill stared at the phone in disbelief.
Then she had flowers sent to Jean-Noël and his team, along with a note:
“Thanks for turning disaster into triumph.”
That evening, Jill finally had the chance to do a little gardening. The raised beds were a bit overgrown, but it felt good that life was back to normal.
Fast forward some 12 years later, the employee work permit process that Jean-Noël’s team had developed was still being used by Jill’s company.
It had streamlined the company’s entire immigration process for blue- and white-collar employees, contractors, suppliers, and temporary workers across North America.
For Jill, for every person they have cross the border, it’s a reminder that doing things the old way courts disaster. And how grateful she is to have Jean-Noël’s team just a phone call away, who’ll not just fix, but actually prevent problems for both their immediate needs, and for the long term.