Braille Monitor October 1985
by Kenneth Jernigan
In the April-May, 1985, issue of the Braille Monitor we carried an article entitled "Triformation, the National Library Service, and Geoffrey Bull." In that article we discussed the instability which is rapidly becoming the norm in the production of Braille. There was a time when the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and the American Printing House for the Blind, with an infrequent assist from an occasional outsider, danced a quiet and stately waltz. But no more! That was before the days of Triformation and the Associated Services for the Blind of Philadelphia.
In our April-May issue we reported on the firing in February of this year of Geoffrey Bull, head of Triformation Braille Service. There was considerable controversy as to why the firing occurred, but everyone agreed that it had to do with the National Library Service Braille book production contracts for 1985. As the facts kept coming to light, the intricacy of it all seemed, to say the least, labyrinthine. Triformation was originally one company, with Guy Carbonneau as its head. Then, the company split into two separate corporations: Triformation Systems, Inc. (concerned with conducting various research projects and with the development and manufacture of Braille embossing devices) and Triformation Braille Service. Apparently Carbonneau divested himself of any financial interest in Triformation Braille Service, selling controlling interest to Arthur Kleinpell. But when the maneuverings between Triformation Braille Service and NLS were taking place in the fall of 1984, Carbonneau was in the middle of it and seemed to be a principal actor.
Add to this the constant rumors that Triformation Systems was about to go bankrupt, and you begin to see the tip of the iceberg. Then, there is the Associated Services for the Blind of Philadelphia. It got the lion's share of the 1985 NLS Braille book production contracts, but it got them in a flurry of controversy--no bid at all from ASB in response to the original request for bids by NLS; all original bids scrapped on technicalities, and a new request for bids issued by NLS; and ASB walking away with the jackpot in the second round. ASB has only been in existence for a short time, having been created through the merger of certain Philadelphia agencies. The organization is headed up by Ben Holmes, who expressed himself as being unhappy with NLS bid procedures even though he got most of the contracts.
With respect to those contracts, it will be remembered that Geoffrey Bull said that they never should have been awarded since Associated Services would be unable to perform. His exact words as reprinted in the April-May Monitor were: "The most regrettable aspect of this whole scenario is the Production Capacity Model (PCM) submitted by ASB. The fact that the majority of the 1985 press Braille book contract has been awarded to a Braille producer who submitted such a questionable PCM reflects poorly on the Braille production field. More so, the fact that this PCM was accepted, not once but by two separate review groups within NLS makes a mockery of the monitoring process which helps to determine federally funded Braille book contract allocations. Just to highlight how outrageous are the statistics submitted on the ASB PCM, using their performance criteria I have calculated that they claim to be able to produce 200 titles in one year with 4.5 data entry staff; 4 proofreaders; 1 press operator working only two days a week; and 1 person working in the bindery working 1 hour's overtime per week--other Braille producers would give their right arm for anything approaching that ability! Meanwhile, of course, in reality ASB will be seeking urgently for staff over and beyond those listed on their PCM. What madness that the successful completion of the 1985 book contract will depend in large part upon a lot of hard work, and a great deal of luck from one heavily over-committed Braille producer."
At the time we printed the April-May Monitor we had no way of knowing for certain who was right. Bull said ASB would probably not be able to meet their commitments, and never should have been given the contracts in the first place. ASB said they could meet the commitments, and both they and NLS put name to paper and credit on the line to back it up. We now have at least part of the answer--but it has come in bits and pieces.
One of the first events of note occurred in May. I went to Toronto to attend the meeting of the North American delegation of the World Blind Union, and just before going, I was told that Guy Carbonneau had been fired as head of Triformation Systems and stripped of all managerial responsibility. At the Toronto meeting I discussed the matter with Frank Kurt Cylke, head of NLS. He confirmed that Carbonneau was out. Later, Jim Gashel interviewed Carbonneau by telephone and learned that a combination of other Triformation stockholders had apparently met and voted Carbonneau out. As might have been expected, Carbonneau was not happy about it. It appeared that B. T. Kimbrough, former employee of Dialogue Magazine, was at least temporarily in charge. Federationists will remember that Kimbrough's wife, Louise, was one of the employees of Triformation Braille Service who resigned last fall as a prelude to the firing of Bull.
To all of which one may say: What does all of this have to do with the NLS Braille book production contracts--what connection still remains between Triformation Systems and Triformation Braille Service--and what connection do all of the pieces have to each other? Maybe none.
Be that as it may, I heard in August that the Associated Services for the Blind of Philadelphia had defaulted on its book production contracts and that sizable portions of them were being awarded to other producers. Jim Gashel put on his reporter's hat and picked up the telephone. Mr. Cylke, reached while attending a conference away from his office, acknowledged that ASB was, as he put it, "relinquishing" the contract to produce ninety-five Braille books that they had committed to produce under the 1985 Braille book production contract with NLS. He said that Benjamin Holmes of ASB had come to a meeting in Washington with NLS officials on July 29 (at least, he thought that was the date). The meeting was apparently to review ASB's year to date production and their capacity to complete the remainder of the contract. They had been awarded the contract to produce 215 Braille book titles during 1985.
According to Mr. Cylke, at the July 29 meeting (or shortly thereafter) a decision was made to scale back the ASB contract. It was decided that ASB could not handle 95 of the 215 books which they had contracted to produce, and these were reassigned to three other producers. Mr. Cylke said that the decision to "relinquish" was made voluntarily by ASB. Therefore, technically there was not a default on the contract. However, Mr. Cylke added that there would have been a default if the decision to scale back had not been made.
The resulting reassignment of Braille books sent 69 to the American Printing House for the Blind, 3 to the National Braille Press, and 23 to Triformation Braille Service.
Whatever else may be said, one thing is apparent. At least in some of his assessments Geoffrey Bull was right. Review the April-May Monitor for confirmation. And, of course, 1985 is still not over. We do not know what other adjustments to the contract may be made.
Rumors and speculations are not hard to find. Associated Services for the Blind, while "relinquishing" a large chunk of its 1985 NLS Braille book production contract, has allegedly received a $75,000 Braille production contract from another source. If this is true (and we must emphasize that it has not been confirmed), it raises interesting questions--legal, ethical, and otherwise. What will happen with next year's contracts? For that matter, what will happen with the remainder of this year's?
But there is more: In late August word came that Triformation Systems had closed its Boston office and fired its northeastern sales representative. It was also alleged that Triformation Systems was no longer honoring its service contracts on Braille producing machines and that bankruptcy was inevitable. Again, Jim Gashel picked up the telephone. He talked with Lee Brown, who said that he became president and chairman of the board of Triformation Systems on May 31, 1985. Brown has most recently resided in Tampa, Florida, but says he has now moved to Stuart, Florida, where he oversees the day to day operations of Triformation Systems. Brown says he is the principal stockholder in a corporation known as Clark Technology, which markets a British-made device called Braille-Link. According to Brown, Triformation Systems will now likely take over the U.S. marketing of Braille-Link. Perhaps you can see why I said earlier that the only word to describe it all is "labyrinthine." These further facts were gleaned from the interview with Brown: Besides its principal headquarters in Stuart, Florida, Triformation Systems has maintained an office in Boston, Massachusetts, to cover sales for the northeastern portion of the United States.
Brown closed the Boston office recently and fired Roger Cicchese, who was serving as manager of that office and northeastern marketing director. The move was described by Brown as merely "cost cutting"--but the circumstances of the firing suggest more.
Cicchese told the Monitor that he was called in late July from Triformation headquarters in Stuart, Florida, by a fellow employee in the marketing department. According to Cicchese, the employee said that she would be visiting in Vermont during the first weekend of August and would like to stop over in Boston to see Cicchese for a social call. Cicchese said they agreed to meet at the Boston Triformation office on the morning of Friday, August 2.
Cicchese said that the marketing employee from Stuart did, indeed, arrive at Triformation's Boston office, but it was not a social call. She was not alone. Cicchese says that an employee from the accounting division of Triformation was with her. The employee from accounting handed over checks (including a payroll check), commission payments that were owed Cicchese, and travel reimbursements. Then, according to Cicchese, she began talking about details connected with the closing of the Boston office. Cicchese says he knew of the plan to close the office, so this was no surprise. However, he says he was never given any intimation until that very morning that his job would also be terminated. That fact, according to Cicchese, unfolded as the representatives from Triformation headquarters began asking for equipment which had been assigned to Cicchese for marketing purposes. It was then (and only then) that the Triformation visitors admitted under questioning that Cicchese's entire relationship with the company was being severed--effective immediately. There were no allegations of poor performance, Cicchese says--just the need to "cut company costs."
With the firing of Cicchese, the Triformation Systems sales force was cut in half. Why would a company that is fighting to stay afloat cut its sales force first? Lee Brown had no answer to that question--just "cost cutting," he said.
With all of the seemingly related occurrences, we are left with as many questions (in fact, more) than we had in the beginning. It does not augur well for the orderly and increased production of Braille--and this, of course, is the primary concern of the blind. We will have to wait for further developments to see what comes of it all. In the meantime we can only hope for stability and for more material in Braille than we have had in the past.