In many modern urban centers Boxing Day has devolved into little more than the first opportunity for recipients of unwanted or ill-sized gifts to put them back into boxes for exchange or store credit. But at the Paulson Solvent Company on Commerce Avenue, just across the northern boundary of South Factoryville, the medieval custom of the high and mighty changing places with the meek and lowly is an ongoing tradition. Each December 26th since 1975, founder Paul Paulson turns over his expansive, paneled office and his trio of personal assistants to one of his employees, while taking over his or her duties for the day.
This year, though, Paulson is changing places with one of those personal assistants. The company chairman says he expects to spend the day “typing letters, filing folders, transferring calls, and mostly hanging around the break room.” While Paulson is being introduced to such 21st century concepts as word processing and voicemail, his senior executive assistant Sheryn Faulkner will be overseeing the state’s fourth largest industrial solvent provider, from – as she describes it, “that really big leather chair.”
Miss Faulkner – who has been with company since it opened in 1975, and now approaching her 32nd Boxing Day with PSC – is only six months from retirement. “I thought this would probably be my last chance,” said Faulkner, “to do some things I’ve wanted to do for a long time.” When asked to express how she expected to spend her day, Faulkner demurred: “Oh, I’ve thought of some things, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.” She did describe several previous Boxing Day episodes from her tenure, including an unfortunate experiment in 1997 wherein all PSC employees traded jobs. “The OSHA people were here overseeing the cleanup until October of the next year,” commented Faulkner, “and my office still smells of Toluene.”
Paul Paulson also has memories of Boxing Days past. “In 1977 I traded places with one of our drivers,” said Paulson, “I always thought I was the big wheel around here, but those guys are the ones who really drive this operation…so to speak. Get it? Drive?” Executive assistant Faulkner pointed to a dent in one of the nearby storage tanks. “That’s our memento from that year,” she explained, “we thought for a moment we were going to have a real problem.”
The tradition nearly came to an end a few years later, noted Paulson, when in 1983 he traded jobs with the loading foreman. “I just couldn’t pick up anything with those danged rubber gloves,” he related, “and so after a couple of minutes I took them off. Big mistake.” Paulson returned to work just in time for the Boxing Day exchange in 1984. “I traded with our bookkeeper that year,” he said with a chuckle.
After surviving bankruptcy in the mid-1980s, PSC has thrived to the point of becoming a south side institution. But with Paul Paulson also approaching retirement in 2007, will the company continue to anchor the north end of South Factoryville? “It will if I have anything to say about it,” says Paul Paulson, Jr., who is taking over leadership of the company from his father next summer. “When you think ‘industrial solvents,’ you think ‘Paulson,’ and that’s the way it should be” adds his father. But will the younger Paulson continue the Boxing Day job exchange? “Absolutely,” says Paul Jr., “it wouldn’t be the same place without it.” Sheryn Faulkner is not so sure. “Oh, I think once I’ve had my day in charge, they may decide it’s time they tried something else.”
- D. Andrews