Cheap at Twice the Price

“I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me.” – Warren Buffet

Okay, I concede. A 40-watt bulb in a cheap lamp gives off the same light as a 40-watt bulb in an expensive lamp. And a monkey dressed as a bum or dressed as a bishop remains a monkey still. But dim is dim and cheap is cheap; this is something I cannot get around.

It seems that there is competition among senior managers in the Small Office to prove who can be the prince of parsimony, the paragon of penny-pinching, the pearl of the paltry and the picayune. There is this idea that thrift equates to good corporate citizenship.

I recently described how our otherwise particular CEO, the Man from Glad, goes all penny-ante on me when it comes to hotel accommodations. In the past, I have written about a regional manager who surprised me as we exited a cab by leaping out almost before it came to a full stop. This left me alone to pay the fare and the tip. And there was the senior sales rep who, when he had to give a hotel staffer a tip, simply said, “Don’t plant potatoes in the fall”. Man Mountain, of whom we will hear more later, is a gargantuan fellow who covers more real estate than Century 21 simply by standing still. Yet when he flew into head office last month, he rented a Smart Car to save a couple of bucks. General Ledger, our CFO who pays even what is overdue grudgingly, gives restaurant waiters precisely 15%. That is, a before tax restaurant tab of $14.25 will net a waiter a tip of $2.14. He would pull pennies from his pocket to come up to the right change. Not a penny more, though he would brag that it was not a penny less.

The waiter looked at him with a dollop of disdain.

The other day, though, I believe we found our Black Knight of the nickel and dime. A few of us sauntered over to a nearby deli. A club roll is basically five different grilled deli meats on a hamburger bun. It is about $2 cheaper than a corned beef on rye. So Ned, a member in good standing in General Ledger’s white shirt brigade, orders the club roll. He then asks the waiter if he could change the hamburger bun to rye. He then asks the waiter if he could cut the five different deli meats to, say, one, namely the corned beef. Oh, and can he throw in a pickle?

Grasp all, lose all. The waiter looked at him with a dollop of disdain and said, shall I throw in fries with that? Ned smirked. The waiter kept looking at him, the dollop having grown to a gob. I’ll see what I can do, he said finally.

That, I thought to myself, is something I prefer NOT to see.

Mixed Message

We were in yet another interminable meeting of indeterminate value. This is a chronic condition in the Small Office – indeed, this is one of its defining characteristics – but this condition is becoming increasingly acute as summer approaches.

After a couple of hours, General Ledger, our CFO with the SETI satellite dish ears, called for a much welcomed bio break.

Cowboy Bob was, as always, relaxed and resplendent in slightly more casual attire than most everyone else, his stockman style boots perfect for the long day ahead. He is easily bored and prone, in such circumstances, to become mischievous.

General Ledger went to relieve the pressure building up in his tiny bladder. He left his cell phone on the table. Cowboy Bob reached over and picked up the phone. He tapped on the TEXT icon and then began typing. A short message to some unknown destination. He waited to click the SEND button until the second General Ledger re-entered the room. A click and the phone was set down quickly, to be as it was with no one the wiser.

General Ledger was blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama.

At noon, as our buffet lunch was being set up, our perfectly punctual CEO, the Man from Glad, entered the conference room, having been invited to attend the afternoon session. He waited his turn in line like everyone else, and then took those mean little party sandwiches to the table, along with little cheddar cheese squares, red grapes, and a small bottle of Perrier. Before he dug into this bridge ladies fare, he checked his phone for messages.

There were several, including one text, recently “sent” by General Ledger. It was a brief acknowledgment of the Man from Glad’s superior leadership skills and heartfelt gratitude for his being such a swell person. It was a short but syrupy suck-up. Our somewhat disconcerted leader raised an eyebrow and scanned the room. General Ledger was blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama and greedily gummed the pasty spreads that filled those horrid white bread triangles. His capacious outer ears did him little good now. The Man from Glad checked his phone again, shook his head and began to eat his lunch.

Cowboy Bob, cool as an autumn morning, never looked up.

This all reminds me of a line from Idries Shah, the writer and publisher of Sufi spirituality: “A certain person may have… a wonderful presence; I do not know. What I do know is that he has a perfectly delightful absence.”

Finger Lickin’ Good

Dave: My wife makes me take off my clothes in the garage. Then she leaves out a bucket of warm water and some soap. And then she douses everything in hand sanitizer after I leave. I mean, she’s overreacting, right?
Dr. Erin Mears: Not really. And stop touching your face, Dave.
– Contagion, 2011

Sue O’ is my assistant, as she has been through most of my years at the Small Office. She can find order in chaos. She can see the positive where others find regret. She looks forward, never back. I am the opposite in all those things.

What she does best is many things at once. We recently acquired a small company and Sue O’ is coordinating the change in corporate identification. That means updating government registrations, signage, stationery, promotional material. She doesn’t necessarily do the work, but she does make sure it gets done, with no detail left unattended. To help her, we temporarily assigned a secretary from the Marketing Department.

Alissa is young and keen and has just the right amount of ambition. She also has a strep throat. She informed Sue O’ of this fact on the second day of her transfer.

Sue O’ shuddered as she saw Alissa pick her teeth.

Alissa has this bad habit of licking her fingers as she rifles through papers. Those fingers must be awfully dry because she licks them often. Then she brings her files to Sue O’ or perhaps a cup of coffee. So how long do those little streptococcal buggers last as they crawl along No. 1 bond watermarked paper or cling to porcelain mugs? Do those repugnant pathogens continue to multiply in their little grape-like clusters as they transfer to new hosts? Sue O’ shuddered as she saw Alissa pick her teeth.

Dr. Erin Mears: Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat. – Contagion, 2011

On Day 3, Alissa showed up with a cold sore on her upper lip. It was at the blister stage. Swollen, slightly oozing a white viscous substance, not yet ready to scab. She kept poking at it. And then she’d lick her fingers as was her habit and rifle through papers and bring them or perhaps a cup of coffee to Sue O’. Who would wince and clench and repeatedly scrub her hands with sanitizer. And every time she passed my office, she would look at me, her eyes blazing, accusing, threatening to take her vengeance on me for having brought pestilence to her doorstep.

Alan Krumwiede: It’s a bad day to be a rhesus monkey. – Contagion, 2011

Now, of course, the cold sore had nothing to do with the strep throat, and both, in the fullness of time, went away. These things either get better or they get very much worse. None of this provided even the smallest measure of solace to Sue O’ who, I discovered, can be very unforgiving and not the least bit amused. Licking my fingers, I realized that I am the opposite in those things too.

But Words Are All I Have

“By their fruits ye shall know them.” – The Bible, St. Matthew 7:20

For most people, that is to say, for ordinary people, what we feel we can do and what we actually do are seldom the same thing. Patrick K. is a very ordinary person making an extraordinary salary and, frankly, for the salary, we thought he would do more.

PK is a senior account manager. Having been around a long time, he is well known in the industry. But being well known in the industry is like being a large hen in a henhouse. So what? If you want to make an impression – if you really want to impress the hens – hire a fox.

In fact, the Small Office recruited PK away from a competitor based primarily on a reputation he himself carefully cultivated for over twenty years. But reputation is a shadow. It gets longer or shorter depending on where you stand. Ultimately, it disappears in the light of day.

If you truly want to impress the hens, hire a fox.

PK certainly talks the talk and in the evangelist role for which he was hired, I suppose that should be good enough. But it is a year later and PK is still talking. And talking. And in all that time, I have not found that he has had a singular thought of his own. Winston Churchill once said that large views will always triumph over small ideas. But what triumph is there over one who has no ideas at all.

He can come up with a perfectly compelling argument, but here, in the land of PowerPoint, PK has yet to put together a cohesive presentation. He cannot analyze, strategize or plan. How could he have advanced his career to this level without any skills whatsoever?

The last straw for me came yesterday when we visited a potential client that PK has been wooing for months. He has wined them and dined them and placed their company on a pedestal like it was the Statue of Liberty and we were the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse of some teeming shore.

Shortly after our arrival, a senior manager from this potential client leaned over to me and said, curiously, “So what is it that your company does?” I was astonished.

Perhaps that is PK’s greatest strength. Having virtually nothing to work with, he still manages to astonish. That alone is an achievement worthy of note.

Cereal Killer

“Parsley is gharsley.” – Ogden Nash

Food is a recurring theme in the Small Office. Being at the top of the food chain likely means that you are going for breakfast. Food for thought would be the snacks they give out at brainstorming sessions.

Anyway, I was travelling with our CEO and resident gastronome, the Man from Glad. We met up with Bull Terrier and our regional manager for the Northeast, Kyle C., for breakfast.

I ordered first. Just a light breakfast: Chorizo Eggs Benedict comprising a poached egg, chorizo, roasted red peppers, Peppadew peppers, mozzarella and Hollandaise sauce, all on an English muffin, accompanied by home fries and applesauce.

Our more disciplined and clearly less voracious leader ordered a bowl of cereal. Bull Terrier followed with a muffin and Kyle C. a fruit cup.

What, I wondered, merited their uniformly critical gazes?

When the food came, the three looked at me like they were going to lay me out on a platter and stuff an apple in my mouth. What, I wondered, merited their uniformly critical gazes. After all, why eat prunes when the peaches are ripe, right?

Our steadfast CEO scooped up a spoonful of Honey Nut Cheerios with crispy oat flakes. Oats were apparently wild on this blustery morning. Bull Terrier picked at an oatmeal muffin stuffed uncomfortably with dates, cranberries and pecans. Kyle C.’s fruit cup was mostly melon.

I dove headfirst into my Benedictine delight, careful not to get any of the Hollandaise sauce on my suit. I would have artfully framed all that tsk-tsking and moral indignation as little more than jealousy, but my mouth was full.

If I am to be accused of anything, let it be that I have manners.

Tick, Tax, Toe

Equitable treatment of employees is one of the more enlightened corporate policies to which the Small Office can lay claim. The company is, for the most part, a meritocracy; you do the job well, you are rewarded. If two employees at the same level do their jobs equally well, they are rewarded equally well. Perhaps more equal than well, but that is another story.

Which brings us to J.C. He is a senior sales rep working out of our Seattle office. He is a fine employee, a salt-of-the-earth fellow with little to deride and nothing obvious to admire. He is vanilla pudding in a job where you’d prefer a bit more flavor, but that, too, is another story. The real story is that he earns, net, more than virtually all his peers.

Why? Because he lives in Seattle, Washington, and Washington does not have a state tax. It is one of seven states that levy no income tax at all. So right off the bat, J.C.’s net is considerably more than most of his peers – a whopping 9.3% more than those living in California. If one happens to work in Canada, the same salary is worth (or at least costs the company) 30% less because of currency exchange. If that Canadian employee happens to live in Quebec, an $85,000 salary is subject to provincial tax of 24%.

One could argue – and, indeed, some employees have – that the system is unfair. The Black Widow was unmoved by their arguments on the basis that apples are not oranges and Seattle is not San Jose and certainly not Quebec, not just in terms of taxes but also in terms of the cost of living and even the job market itself.

Add one cup of fresh blueberries and one teaspoon of cinnamon.

Well the story takes an odd turn – as they usually do in the Small Office. J.C. lived in Seattle and paid no taxes. When he moved to Atlanta, he realized that, after tax, he would earn 6% less. We couldn’t expect him to make a move and lose income at the same time. We eventually relented and increased his gross by just over 6%.

If you follow the Small Office long enough, you could guess what comes next. J.C. moved back to Seattle just a year later. It was clear to him that we couldn’t expect him to make a move and cut his gross salary at the same time. In making his case, he told the Black Widow that apples are not oranges and Seattle is not Atlanta, not just in terms of taxes but also in terms of the cost of living and even the job market itself. We eventually relented and so, in the space of 12 months, J.C. got for himself a raise of 6% excluding any adjustment for merit, cost of living or promotion.

He was always one step ahead of the company. Take that vanilla pudding, then add one cup of fresh blueberries and one teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

The Shining

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” – Thomas Paine

Our fastidious and at times persnickety CEO, the Man from Glad, has office furniture that can only be described as luxurious. And, perhaps, buxom. His desk is massive, more or less the size of Iowa. The wood is solid colonial cherry. Everything about the desk is high end, including the four corner English dovetailed drawers, with heavy-duty full extension soft closing ball bearing glides and triple ply drawer bottoms. The surface is polished to a brilliant luster. It is the finish that catches the eye, glowing eerily at sunset, scintillating in the light of day. A small notepad and fountain pen provide the only breaks to an impressive, if somewhat bleak, expanse.

At 7:12 a.m. on a quiet Monday morning, Miss Pigeon, with an inflated sense of self-importance that comes from being the executive assistant to the CEO, opened the door to her boss’ office to put the mail on his desk. A high pitch shriek tore from the room, shredding the empty calm and echoing down the executive suite corridors. Miss Pigeon stood froze in place, stupefied, uncomprehending, entirely unnerved. She tried to form words, but only gurgling sounds emerged from her throat. Then she slumped to the floor.

A high pitched shriek tore from the room.

Someone had keyed that pristine desktop. Or perhaps skated across it, performing several figure 8s and at least one triple lutz. It was a disaster. Who would do such a thing? I am generally loath to tamper with perfection. Here someone obliterated it. Whatever the motivation, it was laced with pure meanness. I could see no way that the desk could be saved.

When one must, one can. Someone apparently and appropriately dialed 911 and a team of specially trained surgeons appeared promptly. They worked their magic behind closed doors, a strange humming making its way through the walls. We could only imagine what sorcery would be required to restore the desktop to its former splendor. But restore it they did. And splendid it was again.

There is a Spanish proverb that goes: from a fallen tree, we make kindling. Give Ms. Pigeon credit. That was not going to happen under her watch.

Maternal Instincts

Sam is a troglodyte who works in the Corporate Development group. He has strongly held views of women that I would have imagined most of his kind discarded once they left the cave.

Sam refused for years to hire women of childbearing age on the assumption that, sooner or later, they’d get pregnant – something they might do, say, out of spite.

A short enough while ago, he needed to hire a business analyst. He was warned not to impose his anachronous criteria for employee selection on the process. And so it was that, despite his disinclination and much to his discomfort, Sam hired a younger woman. Surprisingly, to him anyway, she seemed to be working out. He taught her well and, within just a few months, she became a trusted lieutenant. Until, that is, she announced that she was pregnant. And had been the whole time. And thanks for taking the time to train her because now she can use her new skills to get a better paying job elsewhere when she rejoins the job market. It was all too much to bear.

Despite his inclination and much to his discomfort, Sam hired a younger woman.

In his subsequent rant, Sam said something akin to the knuckle-dragging Harold Ryan in Kurt Vonnegut’s play, Wanda June. Ryan famously opined that educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey into a fine Swiss watch; everything stops.

It’s a good thing Sam doesn’t live in Canada, where moose and leftists share common ground and where women can go on maternity leave for up to a year and be guaranteed a job at an equal level and at equal pay when they return. If they return, that is. You might go into a holding pattern in anticipation of their return only to be informed two weeks before that they found a job elsewhere.

To be silent is not necessarily to be persuaded, of course, but Sam did eventually let it go.

Last I heard, though, he had a new… uh… more mature analyst.

Otel California

You can count on our discriminating and well-dressed CEO, the Man from Glad, to always go first class. In this, his character and wallet are fully aligned. This does not mean he is a spendthrift. On the contrary, he exercises restraint in most things. But he recognizes the lifetime value of elegant things and does not confuse self-restraint with self-denial. All that said, he is scary cheap when it comes to hotel lodgings.

I can recall one evening driving to our hotel with our Yankee Clipper and then host, Kyle C., at the wheel. He knows his territory and where it is safe to room and board when travelling. So we get close to this roach motel along a dirt road and I notice Kyle slowing down. The entrance is up a bit of a hill, but Kyle stops short, puts the gears in Park and idles for a moment. Our keen-eyed leader asked Kyle why he is not driving up to the door. Without hesitation, our maritime guide responds, “because I don’t want my hubcaps stolen”.

A loose shutter thwacked against the faded clapboard.

Fast forward to last Friday. We are scouting a place to stay overnight and we approach a shabby looking building with a neon sign flashing OTEL. Bzzzt. Bzzzt. The word flashes on and off. Bzzzt. Like an electronic bug zapper. The wind picked up and a loose shutter thwacked against the faded clapboard siding. I looked at our otherwise prudent and protective CEO, terror-stricken.

“This place is straight out of Psycho!” I cried out.

“Oh come now,” he said calmly. “It is close to where we want to be. And as long as the sheets are clean, we should be good.”

“The sheets are clean because they change them every hour!”

After much cowering on my part – I insisted that it was Norman Bates staring at us from behind ratty second floor curtains – he finally relented and we made our way to more reasonable accommodations.

Fortune may well favor the bold, but for Friday anyway, I was more than happy to park my poor and not so sorry soul somewhere else.

Sew to Speak

A company in Tennessee supplies the Small Office with certain proprietary technologies. A group of their technical people, including their CTO, came to visit us the other day.

The CTO is a shortish, somewhat roundish, white-haired gentleman with a broad smile. He wore grey pinstriped pants held up by bright red suspenders. With his matching red bowtie, he looked a bit like Tweedledee come of age.

“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and the talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’” (from Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

We brought them to a conference room. On a side table, coffee, tea, water, muffins, cookies. With their in-flight service meager, they were more than happy to sample our wares. We then made our way to the large, glass-covered table for discussions on extending their contract for another two years.

“The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s PLENTY of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.”

The CTO calmly removed his pants right there and then and began sewing.

Before we started, the CTO pointed to a tear in his pants that he sustained in his travels and wondered if we had a sewing needle and thread. It was a very odd business, but I went along. I spoke to Sue O., my assistant, and she was able to produce both a needle and an assortment of threads from her purse. I returned to the conference room and handed over the tools of the tailoring trade. The CTO calmly removed his pants right there and then and began sewing.

We picked up the discussion on the contract, settling everything quickly since both sides were happy with a straight extension. The CTO put his pants back on, slung the suspenders over his shoulder, and handed back the needle and thread. I guess I must have scratched my head and opined that nobody here would have done that. And most probably can’t. He, however, found it not the least bit strange, a simple repair and on with business. “’Caint’ never could do nothing, “ he said matter-of-factly.

“Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. `I don’t quite understand you,’ she said, as politely as she could.”