– Fierce Fiction by Len Fried –
The objective of the meeting with Knowles Sanderson was to present the fourth quarter financial outlook for the General Disc Corporation. These projections were of vital importance, as last quarter was the first time we had significantly missed Wall Street’s numbers, and Knowles had beaten it into us that missing again was not an option. I, however, had known for a month that it wasn’t in the cards.
First up was John Barnett, our VP of Marketing and Sales. John was in his early fifties, and due to too many late night dinners with customers and endless quotas, he was on the verge of losing the swarthy good looks and build that he had as a linebacker for Yale. I had great respect for John; he was highly capable, dependable, worked tirelessly and had an excellent rapport with his customers. He also had two divorces and several screwed up kids as fallout. John presented for about fifteen minutes, giving the fourth quarter and full year revenue outlook for each of the divisions, and then the total gross revenue for the Corporation. Sanderson listened intently, without comment until he was through. “John,” he said speaking very slowly as if to a child, “this revenue is down ten percent from last year and even down five percent from last quarter, which as you well know was a crappy quarter.”
“I realize that Knowles,” replied John. “But there are several compelling reasons. First, you remember that to optimize last quarter we moved in all our revenue. Second, the economy has slowed, so everyone’s hurting. Third, our customer base…”
“Listen John,” Sanderson interrupted, raising his voice, “I don’t give a fuck about those things. I’ve heard them a million times before. Get the revenue up ten percent — no excuses.”
“Knowles, there’s only three weeks left in the quarter.”
“I can read a fucking calendar. That’s why it’s only ten percent.”
“I’m done,” said Barnett, more to himself than to the audience, and slumped into his seat.
I had known Knowles Sanderson for fifteen years. We had worked together for ten years at Earth Movers, a heavy equipment manufacturer, he as COO and I as Comptroller. When he got the opportunity to become CEO of General Disc, he offered me the job as CFO, doubling my salary. Neither of us knew anything about managing a high technology company, let alone making computer discs, but he was extremely confident in his ability to pull it off. Sanderson’s strength, even genius, was that he was a showman. His semi-annual talks to Wall Street were masterful; he could give talks to the general workforce that had everyone gung-ho for weeks and he gave highly motivational speeches to general management. He even looked like a CEO. He was six foot four, always tan, worked out an hour every day, grey hair swept back on his head, probing blue eyes that on most others would be considered shifty. He also knew the importance of customer relationships, and probably spent at least fifty percent of his time with customers. After five years he still couldn’t tell you how a disc was made, but he didn’t have to; he hired excellent people and paid them well. He was also famous within the company for his meetings with subordinates. If he didn’t like what he heard, especially if he thought you were trying to bullshit him, he would methodically rip you apart. Privately, in one on one meetings, he wasn’t as harsh, but still never left any doubt that if you didn’t deliver, you’d be history. In his first year with the company, he had fired several of his staff and others had quit. People knew that we had a history, so that in public meetings I think he was particularly tough on me.
Tom Myers, the VP of Manufacturing followed Sanderson. Unlike Sanderson and Barnett, Tom always looked like shit. He was skinny, pock- marked and years of manufacturing crises had left him with a nervous energy that permeated the room like a gas leak
As usual Knowles listened quietly until Tom was through. “Tom,” he said, “your output was down 10% and your costs only 5%. Totally unacceptable.”
“Knowles,” Tom replied. “Most of our costs are fixed.”
“No shit. Did you ever hear of efficiency? Is that a dirty word to you guys? The Japanese are fucking killing us.” He was silent for a minute. “Okay Tom sit down, let’s hear from our financial wizard over here,” indicating to me.
My job was to add my financial English and to consolidate the results, which given the preceding presentations should not have been surprising. Overall our profit was down 10% year-to-year. Normally I would have discussed the mitigating factors, but I knew that this would just add to Knowles’ outrage, so I just stuck to the facts and sat down.
I knew Knowles well enough to brace myself for his tirade, bit he did something that I hadn’t expected; he said nothing for seven minutes. It had the desired effect of escalating the already palpable tension. Finally, he spoke. “Sam, my Chief Fucking Financial Officer, if I wanted someone to just add up the numbers I could get an MBA. Actually anyone with a high school diploma would do.”
“Look Knowles,” I said. “I’ve used every financial trick I know, and we’re well in the grey area of accounting and I’m stretching that.”
“Sam, shut the fuck up,” and now he was screaming and pounding the table. “Are you guys masochists? I estimate conservatively that if we state these results our stock will drop at least ten points. That’s one hundred million in market cap. Shit, just in this room it’s five million. If I present this to the board, after last quarter, I’ll soon be history. And I guarantee you one thing; you all will be prior history. He looked directly at me. “I don’t want to see you guys again. Sam, you work with them and come back in a week with a minimum 10% improvement. Now all of you get the hell out of here.”
I lingered behind as they left. I knew Knowles often played for effect, and I was hoping that he’d give me a somewhat different message, but he didn’t back down. “Sam,” he said. “I’m not fucking around. Fix it.”
I worked with my executive assistant, Liz, for fourteen hour days over the next week. I implored Barnett and Myers to do better, but after crawling through their projections, I convinced myself that they had overly stretched themselves, and most likely wouldn’t hit the numbers that they presented. I then sharpened my pencil, pulling in some revenue, delaying some returns, pushing some accounts due past sixty days, but after two weeks the results were only marginally better. I went to see Knowles.
He listened carefully as I showed him the results, and explained that the slight improvement that I showed would probably be compensated by Barnett and Myers missing their projections, and that the bottom line was he should not expect the final numbers to get any better.
“Sam, that’s not what I wanted you to do.”
“Knowles, I heard what you said, but it can’t happen.”
“No,” he said raising his voice. “You didn’t hear what I said. I said fix it.”
I didn’t know how to respond. “The only way I can fix this is to finagle the numbers, and we’re already beyond the grey area, so we’re talking about falsifying the numbers. Is that what you want me to do?”
“Sam,” he said, and now he was smiling. “I’ll tell you for the last time. Make the numbers, or I’ll get someone who will.”
Liz was waiting for me in my office when I returned. She had been with me at Earth Movers, and I had brought her over with me to General Disc. While my associates had staff departments of five to six people, I only needed Liz. She was smart, efficient, personable and hard-working to the exclusion of any personal life. She arranged all my meetings and travel, handled ninety percent of my mail without me and created most of my presentations with minimal guidance. Liz was also very attractive despite not doing anything to enhance her appearance. She wore conservative business suits, no make-up and with her hair in a ponytail, looked twenty five instead of her age of thirty eight. As far as I knew she had no social life, and her time away from work consisted of being a doting aunt to the three children of her younger sister. Our relationship was also strictly professional. One time at a New Year’s Eve party five years ago, when I was between marriages, I went to kiss her on the cheek at midnight and she had turned her face towards me with our lips briefly touching and her body yielding into me. Then the moment ended in an instant, and we said happy New Year, and had never discussed it since.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“As expected. He threw me out.”
“So now what?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve got to make a decision.”
“Can I help?”
“No thanks. Not right now. I’m going to think about it over for a couple of days, and I’ll talk to you on Monday. Have a good weekend.”
Even though it was only four o’clock, I packed my briefcase and left.
When I arrived home, Marge wasn’t there yet. We had been married for four years, each of us for the second time. I had been married to my first wife, Paula, for twenty five years. We had been high school sweethearts and married right after we graduated college. Paula worked as a teacher while I got my MBA, and then she stayed home to raise Matthew and Suzanne while I climbed the corporate ladder. As I began to assume more responsibility, I worked longer and longer hours, usually getting home after the kids were asleep and finding Paula totally exhausted. We had constantly argued about this, and for a while I tried, but even when I was home I was pre-occupied. When the kids got older they didn’t need me as much, and Paula and I drifted apart. After Suzanne went off to college, she informed me she was leaving, and even though we had never explicitly discussed it, I wasn’t surprised. I never doubted, however, that the failure of our marriage was predominantly my fault.
After I was divorced for two years I met Marge, and although I wouldn’t call it a rebound marriage, there was no denying that I was lonely. And for the first two years it was great. Marge understood my long hours and would have dinner waiting at ten or eleven, and often accompanied me on business trips. However, more and more in my absence she was creating her own life, taking golf lessons, joining charitable foundations, book clubs and even taking trips for a week at a time with her girlfriends. We had ended up more like compatible roommates than husband and wife.
She arrived at about eight from her organic gardening club meeting. I hadn’t discussed my work situation with her, as she rarely expressed any interest, but after dinner I took an hour and explained my dilemma.
“Let me ask you,” she said when I finished. “What will he do if you don’t give him what he wants?”
“He’ll fire me and get someone who will.”
“Then, she said. “You should give it to him.”
“Even though it’s illegal?”
“Look Sam. Don’t be a schmuck. Everyone does it.”
“I don’t know that everyone does it. And besides people go to jail for this.”
“C’mon Sam, don’t be a boy scout. It’s penny ante stuff.”
“It’s tens of millions of dollars we’re talking about.”
She hesitated before continuing. “Sam you’re fifty two years old. You’ve got alimony payments, a million dollar mortgage, and two kids in graduate school. Who’s going to hire you for half a million dollars”
“Okay Marge,” I said. “Thanks for being so, so unequivocal.”
“Anytime,” she replied. “I’ve got an early golf lesson, so I’m going to turn in.”
In the middle of our marriage Paula and I had seen a psychologist/marriage counselor for about six months. Dr. Rausch didn’t really help us that much, but he had seemed like a reasonably rational guy, and he squeezed me in to see him on Saturday afternoon. I took the first fifteen minutes to describe my problem.
He listened attentively and then asked, “So Sam, what do you think you should do?’
“You know Dr. Rausch,” I said. “I don’t know where my marriage is heading. I’ve got this major work problem, but you know the one thing I was sure of?”
“What’s that?” he said.
“That that was going to be your response, asking me what I thought.”
“Well what did you expect me to say?”
“And that was going to be your second response.”
He smiled, and over the next thirty minutes, tried, by asking me leading questions, to steer me to the ethical solution. Toward the end he said, “Look Sam, by doing this you would be committing a crime, and you know I could never condone this. So why are you really here?”
I reflected on this for a while. “I guess I wanted someone to talk to.”
“What about your wife?”
“Tried that. She likes her golf lessons and European vacations.”
“Friends or relatives?”
“Well, I guess,” he said, “that’s why most people come here—to have someone to talk to.” He got out of his chair to signal our time was up. “I do have one more important thing to ask you.”
“Sure,” I said.”
“Should I sell my General Disc shares?”
“Just kidding,” he said when he saw that I wasn’t smiling.
On Monday I cancelled all my meetings and spent the time alone in my office. I went through the mental exercise to form Sanderson’s desired results. It wasn’t that difficult; count some revenue that was booked but not realized, capitalize some spending that normally would be expensed, do some off-balance sheet financing and a couple of other financial tricks and I could massage the profit up ten percent. Liz stopped in twice, but I refused her help and made a nine a.m. appointment to see Sanderson on Tuesday.
Normally he would have kept me waiting, but he ushered me in promptly and shut the door.
“Okay, Knowles,” I said. “I’ve got two presentations. The first is the results as they actually are. There are still two days left in the quarter, but it’s accurate. The second presentation is the results that you asked for.” He listened impatiently to the first presentation in which I showed him our 10% decline.
“Let’s see the second one Sam,” he said getting out of his seat.
“Before I show it to you, I need to establish one thing.”
“You realize I’ve had to falsify the numbers to achieve these results?”
“Yes,” he said.
“And this is what you want? What you’ve told me to do?”
“Yes. Shit Sam. Get off the pot. Let’s see it!”
I pretended to shuffle through my briefcase. “I must have left it in my office. Be right back.”
I returned in five minutes. “I’m sorry. I don’t have it.”
“What do you mean you don’t have it? You lost it?”
“No Knowles,” I replied. I can’t do it. I won’t do it.”
“You realize you’re done.” He thought for a moment. “Why’d you leave the office? Wait a second. You taped me you miserable little prick. That’s why you had me repeat myself.” He picked up the phone.
“Who you calling?”
“When I left your office I gave it to a colleague. You’re not going to search everyone in the building.”
“He slammed the phone down. “Get the fuck out of here,” he said. “You’re fired!”
“Okay, but there’s one more thing. I want five million severance pay.”
“Now you’re blackmailing me?”
“Nobody said anything about blackmail. I’ve worked here five years and planned to be here another ten. You’re firing me for refusing to perform a criminal act, and I want ten years’ severance.”
“You’re out of your fucking mind,” he replied screaming. “I couldn’t get that even if I wanted to.”
“Knowles,” I said, “we both know you that you’ve got the board in your pocket, and that you can get anything you want,” and I left.
Liz was there when I got back, and I explained in detail what had transpired.
“Who did you give the tape to?” she asked.
“There was no tape?”
“You know me Liz. I can’t operate my DVR. I thought about it, and then had nightmares of it beeping during the meeting.”
“Holy shit,’ she said.
We spent the next hour in silence, cleaning out my personal effects. There were various work mementos: plaques celebrating milestones, framed letters from customers, certificates from executive management courses and my college and graduate school diplomas. There were also pictures: a recent one of Matthew and Suzanne at her college graduation, one of Marge and me on our honeymoon and one of Knowles and me shaking hands smiling, celebrating our first billion dollar year. In the bottom draw of my desk there was a picture of Paula and the kids. I remembered that it was Matthew’s first day of school, and he’s getting on the bus with Suzanne watching, squeezing Paula’s hand. Even though it must have previously been on my desk for over fifteen years before I put it away, I saw something that I had never noticed before; the look on Matthew’s six year old face was the same as the one that he had when we left him at his dorm after unpacking on his first day at college. His face reflected a combination of fear and excitement, as well as a determination not to show it.
After we finished packing I sat down and Liz sat opposite me. “Look Liz, I said. It’s 11am and I’m fired and I don’t feel like going home. Would you like to go out and have some coffee?”
She swiveled in her chair to face me directly. “Forget it,” I said. “Maybe not a good idea.”
“Sam, do you know what you’re doing?”
“No,” I replied. “Not a clue.”
She got up, walked around the room and sat down again. “Okay then,” she said. “I’d love to have a coffee with you.”
We waved to the security guard as we left the building.
About the Author – Len Fried
Len Fried is a retired physicist/engineer. He’s had several stories published in literary magazines, and has recently published a book of stories and poems, Taxman and Other Works. In addition to writing, he enjoys tennis, golf and blackjack. Len Fried is also an Enrolled Agent, which is a federally licensed tax preparer. In this capacity he annually helps complete tax returns for over 350 lower and middle income clients on a pro bono basis. Len Fried lives with his wife, Maureen, on the Connecticut shoreline, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. *This story was previously published in Taxman and Other Works.
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