Monday, April 12, 2010

Day 89 - Shooting the Messenger and other English Traditions

Essential tools of English management.

          The Colorado recruiter finally called back today. He said the juice packer client was looking for someone with an active CPA. I would have taken this at face value, but the other recruiter who claimed to have a solid and lengthy relationship with the employer had told me that they were not looking for a current CPA but only someone with public accounting experience. Who am I to believe? The local recruiter hasn’t returned my calls yet. Maybe she found out she was mistaken. Maybe the employer changed their mind. All I know is, I seem to be suddenly short on credentials.
          I was a CPA once. I let my license lapse by accident. I thought I could take it inactive indefinitely, and bring it back active by getting some continuing professional education in the form of seminars and online programmed training. I was mistaken. There is a time limit. I suppose at one time I knew that, but somewhere along the line I forgot it and the deadline passed unnoticed.
Now my license can’t be resurrected. To be a CPA again I would have to go back to school. The college coursework I took 30 years ago would count to an extent, but it would be insufficient. When I first got licensed I only needed a 4 year degree. Now I would need a total of 5 years of course work. Effectively that means to get another license I’d have to get a master’s degree and sit for the CPA exam again. I’m 61 and unemployed. I don’t have the time or money or the energy for that. I’m going to have to stay short on credentials.
          The unfortunate thing is that it’s an employers’ market for labor. With hundreds of candidates chasing every available controller and CFO position, the employers can require almost anything they can imagine in the way of qualifications. Now I’m seeing them requiring, in increasing numbers, active CPAs, advanced degrees, and significant and specific experience with a number of program disciplines such as Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing as well as experience with the major ERP platforms like SAP. I’m beginning to wonder if this all means that I’m going to have to wait for the recession to end and full employment to return before I can hope to get a job with my now obsolete skills set. Am I bummed? You bet!
          For a time Albatross was the best place I had ever worked. It seemed to be a real company where Henry and Ivan’s companies had seemed more like playground sandboxes ruled by bullies. There is a line of dialogue that has always stuck with me from the TV series, Thirty Something, “Life is just a pale imitation of high school.” I never really followed Thirty Something, and today I don’t remember what the episode was about that had that line in it or even if I watched the episode or just happened to catch the line as I was switching channels. Whatever the circumstances the line, “Life is just a pale imitation of high school,” had for me an unforgettable and compelling resonance.
          The line contains a truth that may have been trickling into my consciousness at the time, but which did not fully register until I heard it spoken on television. That truth is this: I keep waiting for life to get real, to gain importance, to become consequential, but it never does. I saw high school and college as preparation for something that was supposed to be more serious, more meaningful. So all my time since college I have been looking for evidence that the important stuff has started at last—that life and death are, well, life and death. Everywhere instead I have found evidence that very little can actually be taken seriously. It’s the same old emotional effluvia we suffered in our adolescence. Once we recognize it for what it is, once we’re ready to dispense with the turmoil and the hormonal mudslides of our coming of age we find instead that all the crap continues unabated. It’s just no longer magnified by the crucible that is high school.
It seems that there is no ideal, no lofty concept, no momentous moment that cannot be diluted, denigrated, debased, or denatured by the actions of the supporting cast of my life. I learned in high school and college of grand themes and essential philosophies meant to underpin all that happens with meaning and import. When I began to live my life in earnest however, that is when I deemed that I was finished with the preparatory phases and undertook to leverage what I had learned into some significance of purpose, I found that I was thwarted on all sides. Nothing in real life has been as lustrous, as shining, as important as it seemed it would be in high school. Nearly everything has been tarnished by comparison, and tarnished not on its own lack of merit or capacity for greatness but rather by the poverty of capacity in so many of the players on my stage to recognize import and give it its due. Nowhere is this truer it seems to me than at work, and the final dawning came to me, over a time, at Albatross.
           Albatross had everything going for it when I got there. It had a long history. It had a loyal customer base. It had a mountain of cash. It had a talented, committed, and loyal workforce. It had new owners with a vision for the future. I thought I had arrived at last at real and momentous work. I thought I had found a home where my abilities would be nurtured and encouraged, where I would flourish, where I would at last find the fulfillment that I thought ought to be the natural and inevitable consequence of honest labor. I thought I had seen the last of arrogant, self-destructive blowhards like Henry and Ivan and of errant, tail-chasing buffoons like Fische. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.
          My first inkling that my new paradise was just a veneer of civility and good sense pasted over the same old craziness came at a board meeting. Local management had presided over the sale of the company to a British holding company. The local organization was left largely intact, and the new British ownership group came to the U.S. once a month to update and redirect the business as they saw fit. The chairman was a man we will call Richard Hardin. Richard Hardin had almost single handedly put together a consortium of investors and lenders to buy Albatross and two Canadian companies in an effort to stake out a meaningful presence in North America.
          Now Richard, in addition to his plans for the core business, which was office and school furniture, had an equally ambitious vision for the boat segment. The boat business had been almost an afterthought for Albatross. They’d been building desks forever, and had carved out an early niche in school fixtures, locker systems, and bleachers. They started in boats in the sixties because their owners liked to camp and fish. They had developed a solid reputation over the years, but they had never made any real money in the boat business. By the time I came on the scene they were selling 80 to 100 small motor yachts in a typical year.
The business was break-even at best. If you take into account the lost opportunity cost, the money they could have made if they had reemployed the boat assets into the building of school school fixtures, the boat business was a loser. Loser though it may be, however, it was a high-profile business.
The boat products were stand-outs wherever they showed, and probably brought more than their fair share of attention and recognition to Albatross as a company. In other words the boat business had some value in terms of marketing, and it had a lot of glamour—glamour in which Albatross would not otherwise have been able to glory.
          Richard Hardin wanted to change all that. He liked the glamour and the high profile customers, but he wanted more. He wanted to grow the boat business into a profitable segment. He wanted to double its market share. He wanted to cut costs. He wanted to expand the product line. He wanted to do this within a year. He wanted to do all this at a time when the total motor yacht market, not counting the custom mega-yachts, had suffered two consecutive years of decline.
This is the scenario we walked into at my first board meeting with Richard Hardin. The sales guys took statistics prepared by the boating industry. They also took copies of the last 3 quarters of Nautical Surveys, an independently published compilation of boat registrations captured from the licensing and titling departments of all 50 states. This publication breaks down boat registrations by make, model, state and month and compares statistics to previous quarters and years. It is the bible when it comes to tracking the boat markets because it can’t be fudged. Most boat manufacturers and dealers will lie about their sales numbers to make things look better than they are. The registration numbers in Nautical Surveys are as real as they can get.
          What the sales guys hoped to accomplish was to convince Richard that doubling production to meet his optimistic sales projections was probably a mistake. The industry stats didn’t support his rosy outlook, and building a huge inventory of unsold boats was a path to financial ruin. Richard wasn’t having any. He had been listening to a fellow named Kaiser Dickson, then president of the largest and most profitable fiberglass boat manufacturer in the country, who had told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to develop a lower priced model and aggressively pursue increased sales volume in the middle price ranges.
The industry stats showed the middle and lower range sales flattening or declining. Dickson was giving Richard bogus information. He may have been doing it on purpose—a predatory trick to induce Richard to over-commit resources and send Albatross’s boat business into a tailspin. It may just as easily have been sincere error. Dickson’s company was at the top of its game at the time, and that is precisely the moment at which CEOs who have benefited largely from fortunate timing and other generous serendipities begin to believe in the efficacy of their own bullshit.
Richard’s reaction to the sales department presentation at the board meeting was to shoot the messengers. At one point he held up the copy of Nautical Surveys he had been given, waved it around like a bloodied battle flag, and announced that it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. I was reminded of Henry’s characterization of my cash flow analysis as unfit for toilet paper.
Richard’s performance devolved from there to resemble one of Ivan’s profanity fests, except done with a British accent. The accent did little to refine the carnage, and I guess that one only need look at a survey of English history to know that, however civilized the accent sounds in the movies or theater stages, the English have always been a bloodthirsty bunch. They have a long and well established tradition from their Norman royalty right through the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Hanoverians of summarily dispatching anyone who disagrees with them—often including drawing and quartering the victim to make a lasting impression. Richard Hardin was not ignorant of his heritage.
          The sales force left the meeting pale, shaken, and of one resolve. They agreed with one another never to disagree with Richard again, no matter how ridiculous his ideas and no matter how predisposed those ideas might be to ruin. Eventually ruin is what we got. I knew it was on its way from the moment of that first meeting. You can’t scare your troops and expect to achieve any lasting victories. It doesn’t work. It might motivate them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do, but sooner or later your lack of sound intelligence and analysis will undermine your efforts and you will fail spectacularly.

1 comment:

  1. Love the incisive yet descriptive and humorous character of your analyses. Thank you!


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