Down the Exxon Lane — 2

Replacing jute with cotton

Esso Pakistan Fertilizer Co., as Exxon Chemical Pakistan was known back then, had its head office on the 3rd and 4th floor of the Central Hotel Building, off Victoria Road (later renamed Abdullah Haroon Road), diagonally across from the Metropole Hotel.

It was 1969, the turbulent last days of Ayub Khan’s regime. Political tensions within Pakistan, especially between East and West Pakistan, were rising, and air transportation between the two wings had become uncertain.

We in the western wing depended on East Pakistan, among other things, for jute products, mainly gunny bags, which were used for storing fertilizer, grain, and other such commodities. The jute bags were sturdy enough to withstand the rough handling during shipping and storage, which ordinary cotton bags could not.

The company was apprehensive that disrupted transportation might affect its access to jute bags. Therefore, it started exploring the possibility of using cotton bags instead. But the question was, would cotton bags withstand the rough and tumble during shipping and storage?

We decided to test cotton bags, of different plies, for strength and durability. The job of testing fell to late Imtiaz Samee in the Distribution department and myself in the Marketing Services.

We had a contraption made for the purpose, basically a large table the size and shape of a billiard table, about four feet high, with a tabletop made of two planks held together mechanically. With a crank of the lever attached to one end of the table, the two planks would instantly open like a trapdoor, and whatever lay on the table fell to the floor.

Borrowing space for our “laboratory” from our only dealer in Malir, Imtiaz and I set to work and started testing cotton bags of different plies. We would place a bag in the middle of the tabletop and pull the lever. The bag would drop to the floor with a thud and we would inspect it for any split or tear. We would keep dropping it, each time placing it on its different sides, until it tore open at someplace. We kept a count of the drops. The bag that withstood the highest number of drops was to be the answer to our quest. We did find an answer and had it delivered to the head office for our bosses to see.

Andrew Seager, the Technical Services Manager, a part of the Marketing Services group, was most excited about our find and couldn’t wait to show it to his boss.

Seager, a Hungarian-British, in his fifties, was the kind of guy who would readily get under the car to change a tire or fix a fault. He not only enjoyed doing things that required physical effort but was also not averse to showing off his stamina and strength.

Tony Ward, Vice President Marketing, was his boss, overseeing Sales, Distribution, and Marketing Services. In his late 50s, with grey hair and a mustache, Tony (as he was called) was a typical Englishman with the proverbial stiff upper lip. He also had a slight stammer, which made his upper lip stiffer.

Seager heaved the 50 Kg bag of Urea lying at the reception onto his shoulder and trotted up the stairs to the 4th floor to Tony Ward’s office. Two or three interested spectators from the Marketing group eagerly followed him in a procession.

Tony Ward looked up, a bit surprised to see Seager walking in, slightly out of breath, a 50 kg bag on his shoulder, and with a small group of people in tow. “Tony, this is the bag”, beamed Seager catching his breath, “tested and found as durable as any jute bag, even better!”. To prove his claim, Seager dropped the bag off his shoulder onto the floor. The bag dropped with a huge thud shaking the floor. And it burst at the seams! scattering 50 kg of Urea granules all over Tony Wards’ office.

Tony Ward blinked once or twice, looked at the floor, then at Seager, stammered to say something but decided to remain quiet. The ‘spectators’ rushed out of the room, doing their best to keep a straight face while looking for something or someone to help sweep the floor. And poor Seager, red in the face, looked around not knowing where to hide his embarrassment.

Note: Hasan Kazmi was one of the ‘spectators’ and a witness to the “drop scene”.

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