Scythe Buyers' Guide
Importing Hand Tools into Canada--A True Story.
UPDATE: This note is long overdue...several people have interim asked us, "What ever happened with that imprisoned shipment?
Well, two years after the saga began, we found a very helpful Panalpina employee (at their Miami, Florida office!) and the cargo was at long last released from the clutches of the Montreal warehouse. We paid a reduced storage fee, drove to Montreal once more, and collected our goods. Needless to say, we have not used the company's "services" since.
For the hurried readers, here is a condensed account of what happened.
Due to the ineptness of CARSON CUSTOMS BROKERS and subsequent slow response from Canada Customs to our question: "Can we continue the clearance of the shipment on our own?", it took over six months until we were graciously given the opportunity to pay the duties and taxes and so become the legal owners of our merchandise also on Canadian soil.
Alas, by then "penalty storage charges" of $4400 were assessed by PANALPINA Inc., the friendly shipping company who delivered the cargo from Austria. We neither had that much money nor felt responsible, under the circumstances, for the full amount. Carson Customs Brokers were not willing to contribute.
We appealed for a reduction of that bill in January 2002 and again in April, but received no response. In July I traveled to Montreal to personally see Jack Yee, the manager of that branch of Panalpina. He had no time for a "little man" and his farewell comment following our five minute interaction was: "Take the matter to your lawyers."
At the time of this writing (March 2003) that shipment is still in jail, awaiting who knows how many thousands in bail money. (Since the bill of January 2002 we received no update.)
The long ordeal exhausted us financially and psychologically. As of Spring 2002 the work on our expanded book, the instructional video, this web site and worst of all, other networking necessary in preparation for the International Symposium and Festival came to a standstill. We also could not meet our previously arranged commitment to the Common Ground Country Fair in Maine last Fall.
At the risk of being declared a potential terrorist and thrown in a dungeon, I confess that in my darkest moments I contemplated hauling Panalpina's and Carson's entire empires onto a big pile somewhere and riding one of our donkeys, heavily loaded with dynamite, straight into that heap of corporate garbage...
I wrote this more explanatory version of the "short account" for the following reasons:
This account underscores what for the most part is common knowledge - that government institutions and many commercial companies, contrary to their claims of "first class service", are sometimes full of sloppiness and shortcomings. It is not surprising; individual employees are frequently expected to perform as if they were super-humans with two heads and twice the limbs. Stress is the order of the day. Mindful of this, during our dealings with herein discussed "service groups" (be they government or private) I did not expect perfection. What I have expected is integrity, in this case, one's ability to admit to flaws. Without it, correcting or compensating for errors is difficult, sometimes impossible; the negative effect may grow exponentially as it has in our experience.
The Full Story
That CARSON CUSTOMS BROKERS, working "on our behalf" in clearing a shipment of agricultural hand tools (which arrived in Montreal in June 2001) did a lousy job in general and caused unnecessary delay, I could forgive. A more serious transgression was the fact that their agent, Art Surette, lied to me on the phone repeatedly over a period of several weeks and so prolonged the process even further. Devoid of integrity, the company later denied the content of those conversations and took no responsibility for the consequences.
By the time we dropped their "services" and cleared the shipment ourselves, it had accumulated penalty storage charges demanded by PANALPINA Inc., the shipping firm which took our money in advance of floating the cargo across the ocean. For a promise of door-to-door delivery their rates were reasonable. For the storing of it until the bureaucrats gave the green light, they were not.
The fact that shipping companies impose relatively high penalties to discourage importers' neglect in clearing or claiming their cargoes is understandable. Had the accounting department been operated strictly by pre-programmed robots, we may have accepted that bill as unalterable. However, until such point in the progressive development of our culture is reached, I behave as if I live among and interact with people. I still trust them to be capable of reasoning and then, if called for, acting alternately and/or with consideration.
Neither Carson (by denying any accountability) nor Panalpina (by their non-responsiveness) have shown, in our experience, such a mode of behaviour.
During the early period of the shipments hold-up I called Panalpina every few days and reported the progress - or lack thereof - that Carson was making, and generally kept in touch. Some of the secretaries were pleasant enough to talk to on the phone and when, late in August 2001, I expressed concern regarding the storage fees, they assured me that in some cases the final bill is not computed on an exact per-day basis. What qualifications determined such a case I wasn't told, but ours, it turned out, did not meet the criteria...
The stage when the duties and taxes were calculated was finally reached in January 2002; we paid them promptly by express mail. When we submitted the proof of clearance to Panalpina, their storage bill ($4,400) was accompanied by a short note from one of the ladies: "Sorry, we could not get you a deal."
We neither had that much money, nor felt responsible, under the circumstances, for the full amount. In addition to that of Carson's, the negligence of a certain superintendent of Canada Customs further contributed to the unusual delay. Our letter to Martin Cauchon, then Minister of Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, (Note 1) can serve as an abbreviated summary of one episode of the entire saga and perhaps substantiate some of the growing frustration communicated in the pages below.
Our appeal to Panalpina in January 2002 bore no fruit. The presented pages of various evidence, from which it was obvious that we had not simply neglected the cargo, would have been more useful if placed beside the seat in our outhouse...
We re-appealed in early April and again there was no response! This was the month for which our "Introductory Spring Sale" was scheduled.
An established and/or financially secure company may have, under the circumstances, ordered replacement merchandise and held the promised sale. With a portion of the items this would have been possible, though not all are readily available at any time. For instance, the 500 copper whetstone holders are made by only one factory in the world. Choosing copper as the material was our original idea; the manager had to obtain it especially for our small order and fit it into their otherwise tight schedule.
Of course, there are other sources which offer substitute products and institutions which finance business ventures. So, yes, there were various theoretical paths around this shipment's holdup.
It is relevant here to point out that the actual selling of scythes has never been our primary objective. Had the existing dealers been doing even an adequate job (an issue addressed in the Appendix to The Scythe Book Addendum and more completely in our Scythe Buyers' Guide) we would have been content to stick to our initial strictly promotional and educational tasks.
The sale's purpose was two-fold: to provide the buyers and sellers with a blueprint for higher standards in scythe service and, in addition, to materially support the outreach in several directions (see for instance the "Offer of Support" link).
For us the contents of that one crate are much more than "merchandise" with a certain dollar value; it represents our cumulative efforts over a long period during which we worked on a shoestring budget without loans, grants, subsidies or sponsors. To finance many aspects of this scythe-related endeavour we have used our home base in place of a bank account. It is a farm with 100 acres of woodland which during our 20 years of living here we had not exploited; now trees "had to" fall prey to our chainsaws.
In addition, as the need arose, we sold off a portion of our farm equipment and animal breeding stock, some of it reluctantly. The scythes we wholesaled and retailed in a rather piecemeal fashion during that time did not nearly cover the input required.
In this manner it had taken us almost two years to find, pay for and gather together the various items,from several different European countries. I traveled to each of them to make personal contact with the makers and hand-picked each one of the blades. It was all consolidated at the warehouse of a scythe factory in Austria, to be shipped together at a more economical rate. Interim, the understanding management did not impose storage fees. Instead they gave us, as a gift, a rare collection of old whetstones. These, along with approximately 40 museum-quality blades, made early this century, are the absolutely irreplaceable portion of that shipment.
I had communicated much of the above right from the start (Aug. 2001) to Canada Customs and Carson Customs Brokers as well as Panalpina in order for them to understand that I am a less business-like and more unusual customer than they are accustomed to dealing with.
In July we scraped together enough money for what fuel the old truck would need for a 1500 km round trip. I packed four days worth of food and some ground coffee (knowing hot water was still free in Canada) and drove to Montreal.
Tired but with positive intent I walked, with the last unanswered faxed letter in hand, into the plush office complex of Panalpina. The secretaries brought out my file and a copy of the same letter laid there on top. When Jack Yee, the manager, stormed into the reception room, he claimed that, although addressed to him, he had not seen it before.
For what he said next - "It should have been responded to" - he deserves applause.It was the only admittance from Panalpina to date that, with regard to this fiasco, someone may have done something differently. However, it was "Angelo", an assistant manager on vacation at the time, who was to have taken care of that letter, thus I should come back in two weeks and talk to him.
(By then I had taken nearly five minutes of Mr. Yee's time and he was fuming because it was an interchange without a previously scheduled appointment, though to compensate, I offered to wait in Montreal for up to three more days, during which time I would meet him at any convenient hour so we could arrive at a solution.) To my objection that I wasn't in the position, financially and with respect to time, to make that trip again, he simply replied: "Then take it (the matter) to your lawyers." and was off...
It was a stupid and arrogant reaction because Mr. Yee knew darn well that a man of my appearance and just-communicated financial status is highly unlikely to "have" lawyers. Moreover, as the manager, he was fully authorized to act on Angelo's behalf.
Once outside in the fresh air, I reminded myself that everyone deserves more than one chance and allowed for the possibility that I had caught Mr. Yee in an especially bad hour. So I sat down on a slab of concrete in the parking lot and wrote him a letter which, besides a few details he didn't listen to in person, contained the following offer:
a) I would immediately relieve their warehouse of that unfortunate cargo and deliver it to our door myself. (Of the door-to-door delivery, prepaid over a year ago, approximately $500 was for the route from Montreal to our home. Hence my offer would in effect "save" Panalpina that sum.)
I left the phone number of a bookstore where he could reach me until 6 p.m., their closing time, should he reconsider his stand. I asked a secretary at Canada Customs (where I subsequently went to clarify a few questions) to fax that letter both to the manager's and general desk numbers of Panalpina and confirm via a phone call their receipt, which she did.
All afternoon I waited at the bookstore; neither Mr. Yee nor anyone else on his behalf called.
With my mission unaccomplished, but with no obvious trails to follow, I may have driven home right then. But while waiting for Mr. Yee's call I learned of an anti-capitalist coalition's meeting taking place nearby that very night. In the aftermath of what I had been going through, it seemed a fitting event to take part in. Noteworthy with regard to this essay is that there, amongst a large gathering of folks whom Mr. Yee might refer to as "irresponsible no-goods",I was treated with unasked for first class service. (Note 2)
It was past midnight when I climbed into my very own "Ford Motor Inn", the one where the T.V. never works and the bed is a little too short, but the price is right. I'd slept well with far less comfort more times than I could recall. That night, thought, my mind was still at that meeting and I could not fall asleep. So I sat up, woke the engine and headed East. Driving the empty truck through the night, I had plenty of time for reflection...
Upon my return I contacted Panalpina's head office in Switzerland from where I was referred to their vice-president, in Toronto. Along with a personal letter, we faxed him the two letters for Mr. Yee, which in themselves were a relatively concise overview.
His response was prompt, though its content made me blink and reread it several times. Even then I could hardly believe my eyes.It was little more than (I quote) "...I am still unfortunately unclear of what the problem is and what the resolution is to the problem", with a request that I should send "...the facts as you understand them, simply the facts."
I concluded that instead of the vice-president himself, someone of lower intelligence must have read and replied to the material we had sent and/or reading over several pages was simply time-prohibitive for a man in such a high position, so we were being asked to edit it on his behalf.
Although getting the attention of top ranking officials is often desirable and not always possible, this time I wished that someone from general customer service would take the time to separate what were, from their perspective, the most pertinent facts from the lesser ones. None of what we sent as reference was fiction.
The fact was that the case had by then grown far from simple; distilled "facts only" would be an inadequate and unfair guide by which an informed evaluation could be made.
More than a little exasperated, but pretending I was composing a text for a costly telegram (or communicating with a four-year-old), I proceeded to comply with the request.
(To further abbreviate: PA stands for Panalpina, C for customer i.e. myself)
With the help of the information already provided - now to the reader, and back then to the vice-president - the above account could be understood.
While I was at the "distilling", though, I added another story of our interaction with Panalpina to the brew; this time omitting the "superfluous" material right from the start.
I was not making this up; it was a very condensed true account of what happened to another shipment we entrusted to Panalpina's hands. I made no real issue about the quality of service at the time because it was, eventually, delivered to our door.
The point of telling the story now was twofold:
a) that the handling of our "jailed" container was not an isolated instance of how Panalpina sometimes operates. b) to illustrate that by having "simply the facts", the vice-president could not make heads or tails of it; not very intelligent heads, in any case.
He may have noticed the time of year this took place and blamed the delay on the abominable pre-Christmas rush. For precisely that reason I had doubted the initial estimate, and therefore asked the agent to double check it. I made it very clear that should the cargo not arrive at our door before the end of the year, I wanted to wait until after my return from a planned trip to Austria. When I called again he assured me that the Christmas rush does not impede their shipments from Europe and stuck to his original "14 days". (This conversation would, of course, not be on official records with Panalpina.)
What the vice-president would also not learn from his "internal reference" is that 10 days of that delay alone was caused by our money order for duties and taxes being lost on someone's desk.
Two weeks after we mailed it - express - I called to inquire why the delivery truck had not yet stopped by. I was told that they "cannot" send it until they receive the duty and tax payment! Following my exasperated reply, that nice secretary went searching and eventually found our money order in a place where, as she said: "it shouldn't have been at all".
There was no holdup at Canada Customs, though there were other time-related hitches, admitted to reluctantly by some of the employees. Had I trusted Panalpina's overall "efficiency" and never called to speed up the process, that time estimate overrun would have, no doubt, been much longer. Actually, in each of the three cases we used Panalpina as our "deliverer", I did my share of this. The theoretical ideal still never manifested in practice...
Another thing that would not be evident from the "simple facts account" or by searching through the "internal reference" is the reason for the difference between the quoted and actual costs. Similar to the time estimate, the quotation was not written up as a proper contract in relation to a specific cargo.
The following is an explanation of why it was not adhered to: The scythe factory paid the bill, as they usually do, to the Panalpina office in Linz. Only after the fact, when the invoice arrived, did I see the discrepancy. Calling the agent in Montreal I learned something new: Had it not been prepaid in Austria but rather to their Montreal office upon arrival, the price would have been as quoted.
It did not make sense - and still doesn't - but I wrote it off as "Lehrgeld". My intent back then was to work with Panalpina over the long term. I had hoped that in time I would figure out their quirks, prevent as many misunderstandings as I could (by learning who the right people are and calling them at the right time) and get all promises on paper.
That hope was now shattered, mostly by the conduct of Mr. Yee, from whom we received not one piece of written communication or a phone call to date. All the other errors, contributed to by the collective of other "lower rank" and overworked individuals, could easily be forgiven; we all do less than our best at times.
I fully realized that my response to the vice-president could have been written in a less confrontational manner and that the sarcastic tone of my distilled accounts might prompt him to throw our whole case into the wastebasket.
However, I was no longer in the mood to be polite and felt that continuing the dialogue on his terms, given our principally different approaches, seemed to be a waste of both his and my time.
Nevertheless, still entertaining shreds of idealism that even within that cold corporate structure someone with time to read and consider might be found, I proceeded to write a more explanatory version of the second distilled account plus a new proposal.It was intended for the complaint department of Panalpina in Austria, Switzerland, Canada and perhaps a copy to one on the planet Venus... But about halfway through it, something in me revolted.
It was early August and we were still haying (with some fields not yet cut even once!) At exactly the same time, the three-day International Mowing Championships in Germany, which I so much wanted to and planned to attend, were taking place. This was not a holiday-like excursion, but rather the single most important event where contacts regarding our venture could be made. I was also expected to take part in other related happenings in neighbouring countries. I simply could not afford to go. Our property taxes for the year (due in April) were not yet paid. The long distance phone and fax service provided by Startec Inc. with their reasonable international rates which we had come to depend on for keeping in touch with "scythe allies" in different countries, was just then canceled because we were a few days late in paying the bill.
All the items we tried to sell off to compensate for our chronic shortage of cash nearly all last year found no buyers - as if a black magic spell had been cast. Throughout the summer our only income sources were the Child Tax Benefit for our two daughters and the wood we sold. The pulp and sawlog prices were dropping regularly with each price update. Meanwhile, the 40 year old tractor and beaten-up yarding winch - part of our "forest-destroying arsenal" - both needed major repairs.
The lack of financial pay-off notwithstanding, my presence was needed out in the fields and in the woods at the same time. Instead, I was sitting inside the house writing! Still knocking, via words, on the doors (some of which had already been slammed in my face) of the same damn fortress-like outfit. With that letter unfinished I put down the pen and walked outside. From that point on a different phase in my scythe-related journey was begun. Reluctantly we canceled our commitments to the Common Ground Country Fair in Maine and the planned work on the instructional video for which three people from Nova Scotia were soon to arrive. With a still heavier heart I let Adolf Staufer know that I would not be able to do my share in preparation for the International Scythe Symposium and Festival scheduled for July 2003 in Austria, an important part of which involves traveling in Europe. This was the period of those "darkest moments" spoken of in the "condensed account of what happened".
During the drive back from Montreal I had already concluded that my offer to Mr. Yee was more generous that he deserved and that a less patient and more active approach was called for.
The letter below (written somewhat hurriedly about the same time as my last-ditch effort at diplomacy with Panalpina in Switzerland) begins to reflect that mood.
Now, I did not expect Mr. Savoie to console me, or pay the storage bill on our behalf. I was not looking for any handouts then, nor am I now. What I thought he nay have done is suggest some sources (documents, institutions) which I might investigate, instead of letting the system as is decide on my destiny.
His reply was nearly a copy of the one he sent us in September 2001. It reminded me of when, three months earlier, I called the local agency designed to financially help small entrepreneurs.Instead of a loan, though, I was seeking ideas. I described what was holding up our new scythe service venture and what I had already done with respect to "freeing" the stuck cargo, emphasizing that our financial status excluded the possibility of hiring a conventional lawyer. They held a ten minute conference while I waited on the line, and then a friendly voice presented the conclusion: "It seems you have already exhausted all the possibilities. We are sorry but we really can't help you." Well, at least they were sorry... that was very encouraging.
To read Mr. Robert Savoie's reply, see Note 3.
Mr. Savoie, I believe, missed the key point. My letter was to let him know that I was prompted to explore more creative and radical "openings" to our year-old challenge precisely because the setting down of phone receivers, the ignoring of letters and the closing of files along the conventional roads to justice has been so easy. I also wanted to make it clear that there was yet another disgruntled citizen of this democratic country who was feeling the need to test the promises of its Constitution.
In any case, after a year of being the pawn in a "business chess" game evidently played by the rules of the corporations, I was ready to "shape-shift" into a figure with more fair chances in the battle, perhaps a knight. Let Mr. Yee and upper class boys remain the rooks and the royalty; I'd sooner be a warrior shooting arrows from astride the bareback mount. Already wounded, the risks of "dying on the battlefield" had become of little concern. For a start, we prepared a short skit in which I play the corporate boss (with "PANALPINA" written on my back) wielding a huge wooden maul while Ashley and Fairlight are the eco-conscious mowers with scythes in their hands. No, the mowers do not harm the boss by using the Grim Reaper's tool; they disarm him in another comical way, and afterwards they mow a circle around his body. So their blades need to be sharp and at least three inches of green grass is necessary as the stage. We were planning to take the act to the Montreal Street Theatre Festival in late August and then to Ottawa.
We did not make it there last fall because even the few hundred dollars required for traveling and living out of our truck were so difficult to come by. The extra hard winter has not cooled off my aspirations, however. If anything, I am more determined, better prepared and have a longer mowing season ahead.
As compensation for what my family has had to endure in the last 18 months (because it was my passion for the scythe that initiated it all) I've signed my share of the farm with everything included over to them. What I now own is my mind and heart and a few shiny scythe blades - which I reckon is all a man needs on the battlefield...
NOTE 1December 18 2001
Honourable Mr. Cauchon,
I regret to be moved again*1 to beg for attention of someone in your position. This time I feel somewhat more informed, though still frustrated. In spite of my combined outcry in several directions, what would appear to my logic as but a small challenge with a relatively simple solution has been analogous to a pig seriously stuck in the mud!
I do not question that Canada Customs officials acted in the manner consistent with their duty when they requested, from Carson Customs Brokers, that the "count anomaly" in our shipment be corrected by means of a new declaration. (This they did on August 6, 2001.)
It may also be that, with no declaration forthcoming, it was proper of them to simply wait until October 4 - 56 days later - when they received my letter of complaint.
Let me emphasize that interim, in spite of my frequent phone calls to Carson Customs Brokers, I HAD NO IDEA that our much needed merchandise was "held in jail" because of this simple formality*2.
We received a reply from Paula Beaudoin, the superintendent at that time, on October 19 and it shed new light on the matter; in fact it completely reversed the issue of responsibility.
I replied by fax on October 22, apologizing for the exasperated tone of my complaint letter and asking if I could personally help with the new declaration. There was no response and so on November 6 I sent a second fax repeating my question: How can I help to expedite the customs clearance process? Are there forms to fill out; if so,could you please forward them to me?
This time I tried to confirm that she indeed received and read my fax. After several futile rendezvous with the answering machine, I was finally honoured to personally talk to the superintendent. I did not know until then that Paula Beaudoin had interim been transferred which, because of her promptness in responding and clarity in communicated, I very much regret.
Her replacement told me that she was unfamiliar with the case history of our shipment, but will "look into it and let me know soon".
That conversation took place on November 7!
As of today, 44 days later, I have not heard from her and the process of clearance is at a standstill.
Perhaps some arbitrary period (4-6 weeks?) required for a general response fits within the parameters of "considerate manners" (as stated in the publication Your Rights in your dealings with the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency), and the new superintendent of Canada Customs in Montreal is doing her job acceptably well.
However, in view of the combined delays and their consequences in our life *3 you may appreciate that we are feeling ignored, rather than "treated with courtesy"!
Is it an attribute of a good citizen to wait patiently until their allotted turn comes, however long it may take? Or does it make sense to keep sending the superintendent the same fax - or a more angry one - or whining one - once a week or so? Or should I be calling her answering machine daily until she tires of it and processes the request?
Any advice from a person of intelligence and authority would be greatly appreciated!
NOTE 2Admission was free and I did not need to explain why I was there. When the coordinator asked if anyone did not speak French, I raised my hand. Spontaneously a woman who, judging by the way she was dressed, may have dropped out of the "Easy Rider" movie, sat beside me and started a simultaneous translation. Eventually she wanted to go up front to speak to the group and without much ado someone else quickly took her place. In this manner the entire content was presented to me in English as well as in Spanish for two visiting Mexicans.
Not many multi-lingual people possess the talent or expertise for such a feat. I speak three languages but could not translate from English into my mother tongue or vice versa at that speed at all, never mind with the articulation of my aids, all four of whom were francophones. They have my lasting respect.
The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly; loaves of bread were being passed around during the proceedings. The meeting lasted nearly four hours, but what a refreshing experience - and a contrast to my reception at Panalpina!
The above letter was meant as a note of communication, rather than a serious complaint.
There was no response whatsoever to it.
I assure you that had I fallen so short on a promise of service to a business partner, customer or a friend, I would have felt obliged to explain, compensate or somehow make up for my shortcoming. The least a considerate person or company might do is send a courteous note of apology.
However, that letter is enclosed here as reference to the second "story of my dealings with Panalpina" mentioned in the WRH account. Because as such it is also a documentary of how your company sometimes operates, it needs two additions:
a) The day after I wrote it I called Isabel and learned what had happened to our money order ( as explained in WRH)On such a small cargo, and especially in the long run of all my scythe promotional efforts, such a discrepancy is not worth losing sleep over. I did, after all, take the blame for the extra cost, being too numb to have asked Rene: "Does it make a difference to which branch of Panalpina the payment is made?"
Furthermore - and this is to point out that I had not wanted to give up on my relationship with Panalpina too easily - in spite of the snail pace of the previous cargo's delivery - on March 5 I entrusted one more small shipment into your hands. I was planning another trip to Austria and did not want it to arrive while I was gone in case my phone calls were needed again to get it to our door. Thus it also had a deadline.
Do you know what happened to it? A week later, when I thought that the ship carrying it was already halfway across the ocean, I received a call from the factory's manager in Austria, informing me that it was still sitting on their floor.
Calling Montreal I reached Isabel again - the one consistently helpful Panalpina employee I was privileged to interact with. After looking into the matter she found the hitch: apparently your office in Bremen wanted some additional information (which she said "they shouldn't have needed") but she was not notified of that so she could provide them with it or call me.
Reflecting on the previous cargo's episode, I felt that, having such a poor start, this shipment wasn't going to do much better regarding my proposed time frame so I canceled that contract right then. (It is, by the way, still sitting in the same warehouse in Austria though not collecting storage fees!)
That's three consecutive cases, each with one or more unpredictable challenges. I suppose how you run your business is your prerogative, but I wonder how Mr. Yee or anyone else in charge at Panalpina would have felt, with such service, in my shoes.