Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day 29 - Ninja Accounting: assassination by the numbers

          Still sick. My temperature hit 103. I sipped ice water and popped hydrocodone, which has acetaminophen so it helped with the fever. Gary was not too happy with me, but I didn’t care very much at this point. I was still having flashbacks to former jobs. I don’t know why they all seem unpleasant looking back. I seem to remember enjoying work.


          I almost killed a boss once. Let’s call him Henry. Henry had just gotten out of the hospital from a quadruple bypass. Before his heart attack he was a three pack a day smoker and a 12 cup a day coffee drinker. He used to hit the Dewar’s White Label pretty hard too, but he had mostly given that up to keep the peace with his wife. He was notorious for knocking down cash from his business—that is he would pocket a chunk of money from each transaction and keep it for himself. He used to do this on his own, but the IRS caught up with him, and he had to plead out to a felony tax evasion charge. That was before I met him. When he hired me he told me that my job was to keep him out of jail. I understood this to mean keeping him honest. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.
          Henry still knocked down cash, but I recorded it as a loan to him from the company. If he didn’t pay it back it would become income to him or it would reduce his basis in his company. Either way it would end up having adverse tax consequences for him. None of these niceties disturbed Henry as long as he thought he was getting away with something. I was keeping him honest without him knowing it.
          Henry was a natural born salesman. He could sell anything. He had customers lined up to deal with him. There was something magical about it that I never understood. He was not gracious or charming or smooth. In fact he was usually the exact opposite of those, but somehow he exuded a brand of charisma that made people want to make him happy. The best way to do that was to buy something from him, especially if you managed to let Henry at least think he had the upper hand in the deal.
          While Henry was in the hospital the company was deprived of his charisma and sales fell off. Cash flow began to be a problem. I realized two things. We had deliveries coming up on which the customers had made substantial deposits. Henry had taken the deposits and banked them for himself. When we made the deliveries we were going to have to credit the customers for their deposits even though the company didn’t have the money. Henry had it. The bookkeeping would be honest, but we wouldn’t be getting sufficient cash from the transactions to fuel operations. And since we weren’t booking new sales we weren’t taking in any deposits on future deliveries. We were facing a cash crunch of disastrous proportions.
          To help weather the storm, I developed a comprehensive schedule of our cash position—our expected inflows and outflows. With this schedule we knew what we could pay and when, and when we were going to run out of money. I took this schedule to Henry at his home when he got out of the hospital. I pointed out to him the position we were in. I told him that in order to keep the company afloat he was going to have to pony up some of the cash from the deposits he had pocketed.
          Several hours later the Vice President and General Manager, a good friend of mine—let’s call him Mike—told me that he had talked to Henry on the phone and that Henry had said my cash flow schedule wasn’t “fit to wipe his ass with.” I was used to abuse from Henry at this point. He was forever abrasive and insensitive when things didn’t go his way. The magnitude of this particular calumny however was more than I could stand, especially under the circumstances where I had been trying to hold things together in his absence—an exercise that wouldn’t have been nearly so difficult if Henry didn’t have a larcenous heart. I don’t think that I have ever been angrier at work. I quit on the spot.
          We were having an open house at the time. It was an annual event where somewhere around 250 customers would show up for three days of seminars, entertainment, and meals, get tours of the plant and put their hands on our new product offerings. I was supposed to tend bar that evening at a catered steak dinner. I told Mike that I’d be back to pour drinks, but that was it. I packed up the personal stuff in my office and went home.
          When I returned at 6:00 to set up the open bar, Henry was roaming the hallways looking for me. I knew he would be.
          “There’s that boy I been looking for,” I heard him booming down the hall.
          He was in the Mike’s office. He came out into the hall and swept me in. He was expansive, full to bursting with good will and affection. He bowed his massive head and spread his hands like a penitent. He would have looked at home in sack cloth and ashes although I doubt he could have pried himself out of his Gucci loafers.
          “There’s my boy,” he said, a little quieter, trying to suffuse his tone with humility.
          “What’s the matter,” I asked, “did you run out of toilet paper.”
          He clutched his hands to his chest like I had wounded him grievously. He always liked a lot of histrionics. You couldn’t call him a drama queen. He was a great shaggy hulk of a man, craggy and gruff. He was a drama bear.
          “You know I never said such a thing,” he said.
          “I’m sure that you did,” I said. “It sounds just like you. Don’t stand there and expect me to believe that Mike made the whole thing up.”
          “Well I never meant it. We’ve been friends for a long time now. I love you like a brother. You love me too. I know you do.”
          “You are not my friend. You never have been. You’re too full up with self interest and greed to love anyone. All you’ve got to offer is a lot of abuse and broken promises. The only reason you ever got close to anyone was to take advantage or them or cheat them out of something.”
          “That’s not fair,” Henry was really laying on the aggrieved act now. “Name one time.”
          “For starters how about that $30,000 real estate commission you stiffed my wife for?” I said. I knew I had him there.
          “You can’t still be mad about that! That was 6 months ago. It’s high time you let that go. It didn’t mean nothing personal. I still love you, and Mazie too. It was just bidness.”
          That was his favorite excuse for some particularly sleazy bit of chicanery. He’d used it several times with me when I was trying to get him to be more honest than his nature generally allowed. “It’s just bidness” meant there’s money involved so any lack of propriety is completely excusable. When he said it this time, I decided he needed a real dressing down. I took a couple of strides and got right up in his face. He’s a lot bigger than me. I mean a lot. He’s a good 8 inches taller and 125 pounds heavier than I am. I was shouting right up his nose.
I started recounting every slight, every petty cheat, conniving trick, scam, broken promise, bald faced lie, and betrayal he ever committed. Not really every one, just the ones I knew about, but even those were legion. I never stopped for air. I never gave him a space to jump in and defend himself. I doubt if I have ever been as formidable. He had nowhere to go, and he needed to go somewhere desperately. He needed at least to sit down. The onslaught was too much for his heart in its weakened condition. Just standing there listening to me recount his failings as a human being was undoing him in a major way. His stitched up aorta was failing under the pressure. He went grey and pallid. He began to weave on his feet. His eyes were glassy. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead and alongside his bulbous and vein tracked nose. He was about to go down.
          I thought to myself at that point that if I kept at him he was going to die, that if I didn’t let up and he had to stand there until he fell over that I would be responsible for his death. I knew in that instant that I could kill him just by yelling. I liked the feeling that gave me. It was very empowering. I’d never felt quite like that in my entire life. I’d been taking abuse, swallowing injustice, putting up with crap my whole career, and now I could make up for a lot of it—not all of it, but a lot—in a few minutes of lethal venting. I really wanted to.
In the end I couldn’t keep after him. I’m an accountant, not an assassin. I couldn’t have blood on my hands, no matter how much the bastard might deserve to die. I’ve never been in sales where absolutes are only momentary and ethical considerations are only considered in relativistic ways. Accountants are supposed to live at the moral center of the business world. We are the conscience, the soul, a force for truth and justice in the world of business. That’s why I got into accounting in the first place. God knows I hated math and numbers my whole life. I became an accountant because accountants tell the truth. It’s their job—except of course for the ones who lie, but that’s a whole other story.
           So I let Henry live. His health improved over time, and he returned to a semblance of his former self. That he went on to screw people, me included, in myriads of creative ways, that his return to 'bidness as usual' was more complete than his return to physical health...well that was just my own damn fault. 

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