What’s in Your Wallet?

“In critical and baffling situations, it is always best to return to basic principles and simple actions.” – Winston Churchill

I was working on a project with a product management team from 3M. Usually I like to go down to their corporate headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, but this week, they decided to make the trip to the Small Office.

They flew in that evening. I picked them up at their hotel and we went to a fairly decent restaurant near the airport. Part way through the meal, I realized that I had forgotten my wallet. Which meant I drove without my license. Which also meant that I had no credit or debit card with which to pay the bill. I was going to be the perfect host.

I spent the appetizers running through my options – which ran from silly to nilly. They didn’t know me here, so there was no reason to trust that I would return, say, the next day with the money. I have it on pretty good authority that washing dishes is not really a thing. And I left my magic wand at home with my wallet. So first pass… nothing.

Linus (of the Peanut cartoons), for whom happiness is a warm blanket, famously said “there is no problem so big or complicated that it cannot be run away from.” That option was evaluated here and it also came up wanting: I am too slow.

In a moment of lucidity, some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan. Excusing myself, I went to the washroom and, out of sight and ear shot, I called our incontrovertibly heroic CEO, the Man from Glad. If he could join us, he would pay the bill and no one would be the wiser. I knew he would answer his cell – he is 24/7 available under any and in all circumstances. But on this fateful night, he was already engaged and could not help me out.

Before returning to the dining room, I tried calling my wife. Perhaps she could think of something to save the day (night). I called the house – no answer. I called her cell phone – a flip top! no less – but, again, no answer. I left messages, but I had no expectation they would be received and acted upon in time… even assuming she would be in a position to help.

I’d been gone long enough that I had to worry they’d send in the cavalry. So I returned, heavy of heart and light of pocket, to my esteemed company.

Some time between the ruffles and the truffles, I came up with a plan.

I dragged out the meal, hoping for a miracle. Various cheeses. A kind of smoothie concocted of Cointreau, a rosé wine, strawberries and brown sugar. A wonderful desert named Marie Louise, made with lobster-stuffed grapefruit, sweetness and succulence. And so on, while the clocked ticked.

And just when I figured I had run out of time and options, in swept a guardian angel: my wife. She had received my message, found my wallet, jumped into a taxi and came to the restaurant. My guests looked up quizzically as she approached the table.

“Hi guys”, she said with a relaxed smile, as if she had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who she was. She explained to them that she was at a fashion show with girl friends and that, since she had heard so many good things about these people and since she was nearby anyway, perhaps she could join us for coffee.

I could not have been more impressed and more in love with my wife than I was at that moment.

If you’ve been following the Small Office for a while, you would know that stories inevitably become sagas. So, yes, our fairy tale would end happily ever after, but it was not quite over yet. Because just when I figured I’d been saved, in swept another guardian angel: our V.P. Sales, Bull Terrier. He had received a message from our coolheaded CEO, and came straightaway to the restaurant to help me out. My guests looked up quizzically as he approached the table.

“Hi guys”, he said with a relaxed smile, as if he had known them all for years. They stood up respectfully, though with not the slightest idea of who he was.

Well we all had one last Baileys for the road, as my wife surreptitiously slipped me my wallet. So no dishes, no magic wand, just the power of real friends.

I conclude this tale with a line from newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winchell: A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out. With this, I must thankfully agree.

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.”

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.

Pop Goes the Weasel

I was asked to assess the performance of a portfolio manager who I have, in the past and for good reason, referred to as The Weasel. He has a tiny face with sharp teeth, small round ears and the blackest of eyes. His neck is thick and his torso slender, so that the one flows unimpeded into the other. He is a silent hunter, skulking around in the high grass and thick hedge. He is a very political creature, squeezing in and out of tight spots, a master of innuendo, implication and impeccable timing. There is no question he gets the job done, but one always has to wonder on whom he is doing it.

I took him out to lunch, a favored custom in The Small Office. Food – going out or ordering in – is not just what we do; it is a way of being. True, it would be odd for it to be just the two of us, but I took him to a restaurant down the street from the office where you can always count on others to be within earshot. In other words, it was very public and perfectly safe. So even a clever beast like The Weasel would not be able to sniff out a rat… which I wasn’t because, in truth, I was being more the weasel. I would be wending my way into his burrow. Those of you who think it takes one to know one might imagine that he would see me coming. But you would be mistaken, for few ever recognize themselves.

He took my casual approach as good news.

My purpose was primarily to get his take on how things were going, how he felt he was doing, where he saw himself fitting in the organization. I wondered if he saw himself at all as others saw him, if he would overrate or understate his accomplishments. I gave no sign, no hint, no inkling of dissatisfaction. And since his ears were always cocked for the slightest sound of shuffling, he took my casual approach as good news. His basic mistake was in gauging my manner instead of reckoning my purpose.

Clearly he believed he had done an excellent job in the past year – even if his singular achievement was in portraying how excellent it was. So it came as a shock to him when he received a 2 (out of 5) performance rating, which translates in The Small Office system as a Requires Improvement. He was too concerned with bureaucracy, procedure and politics to take risks, to think out of the box, to engage in meaningful teamwork, to sacrifice for the good of the whole. He kept valuable information under wraps and offered up insights only when they could be foolproof and fully ascribed to him. All this not only kept back the team, but made us wonder how far he personally could progress. Stalking is, after all, a solitary business.

The Weasel came to me a few days after his appraisal. He wondered aloud why I led him on, why I was not honest with him. He disagreed with our assessment, of course, but that was beside the point. Well, it was the whole point but his questions were fair. I wasn’t dishonest with him, but I certainly wasn’t forthcoming.

Full of courtesy, full of craft, eh? All I could do was shrug.


Kyle C. is a no-nonsense Yankee clipper who grew up in a small fishing village in northern Maine. He laughs easily, is hospitable in the way of small town folk and way too sensitive. He can be, by his own assessment, rude and ignorant, especially when he feels wronged. But he is honest and has a big heart – for this reason above all, customers up north love him to bits.

Kyle was helping man a booth at a trade show in Boston. He wasn’t feeling well and, at the advice of colleagues, left the venue and went to a nearby hospital. It became pretty clear that the clam chowder he had at lunch had become unsettled. He thought at the time that it tasted a bit sour, but figured there was sour cream or something of the sort in the mix. He was wrong.

His stomach was now churning, his lunch, breakfast, dinner the night before, perhaps one from a week ago when he was in Milwaukee, were returning to the scene of the crime.

He thought at the time that it tasted a bit sour.

Well he pitched and he spewed and he cast out the chyme and the chyle of his innards along with, he was certain, whole chunks of his thorax. His bowels disgorged all the evils in the world in a chum like sauce. He groaned and he grimaced at the sight of his soiled gown.

And then, as he looked up, to his horror and dismay, in walked one of the dealers he knew. And then another. One by one. Then two by two, like his room was Noah’s Ark. Word had spread at the show that Kyle had fallen ill. Well they loved him to bits after all and they all felt the need to offer their support and best wishes for a speedy recovery. In person.

Kyle covered his face with a pillow, groaned again, then pulling the pillow away began to laugh. He laughed in the way of small town folk.

Mad Men

Once a year, several of our top executives take the senior brass from one of our large buying group customers to a fancy restaurant to celebrate the successful conclusion of negotiations.

The host is Cowboy Bob, our Manager of Home Center Sales. Though in his late ‘60s, he is tall and handsome, with silver hair, a broad smile and a subtle drawl. He is dapper right down to his custom-made, M.L. Leddy alligator skin cowboy boots.

We arranged for limos to pick us all up at the hotel and made our way to what has to be one of the most expensive restaurants in New York. We rented out a private dining room with high ceilings and windows that overlook Madison Square Park. The room manages to be spacious and cozy at the same time, a neat trick. We had been told that the menu was clever, almost playful. From the jasmine and passion fruit soup to the Cotswold lamb to the cucumber sorbet, there was no doubt we were in for a treat.

The bottles were for sale for a mere $15,000.

Tom, the president of the buying group is a small but very persistent presence. He insisted on sitting next to our always-debonair CEO, the Man from Glad, hoping, I imagine, to absorb the stature of our chairman by osmosis. Tom is a bully. He bullies everyone and, although it would not be much of a stretch, no one is willing to stand up to him.

When we entered the restaurant, there was a wooden crate of fine wine in the lobby. Several bottles were nestled in straw. Also nestled was a handwritten note that said the bottles were for sale for a mere $15,000.

During the meal, Tom held court. To the accompaniment of a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (which we suspected he picked not because he knew his wines but because it was the most expensive bottle on the list), Tom regaled us all with stories of his trip to Tuscany last Fall and described in excruciating detail the oceanfront house he had built practically by himself. And did we know he used our electronics throughout, thank you very much for the donation. And wasn’t that wine out in front so very special and wouldn’t it be nice as a closer to our negotiations if we bought it for him too.

The ever-circumspect Man from Glad smiled and cagily changed the subject. But, as the meal progressed and as we made our way to the dessert – pear poached with honey and acorn – it became clear that Tom was not fooling around.

In the end, as always, he got his way.

Abraham Lincoln once said that he would rather be a little nobody than an evil somebody. Tom somehow manages to be both.