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.

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.

The King of Id

“If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” – Donald Trump

There is an account we have been chasing almost as long as I’ve been in the Small Office. It is not a huge account and securing its business would not materially change our fortunes. But it is strategically important in that it is a segment leader and politically well connected in its home state.

The president is generally unlikeable. He is a stump of a man with chia pet hair and a poor complexion. He has a sly smile and a sizeable gut, giving him the appearance of one who had swallowed both the cat and the canary. Now I’m sure it’s not his fault he’s ugly and I’m sure he has had his reasons for spurning our advances, but one could wonder if life is too short to chase after a prize not worth winning.

He opined in his smarmy, oleaginous way that our major competitor is larger than us, ironically expressing his belief that size matters. Our rangy and very aristocratic CEO, the Man from Glad, decided it was time to give him a run for his money. So we invited him to visit our largest operation, a state-of-the-art facility that looks more like a university campus than it does a manufacturing plant and distribution center. The site covers every bit of 14 acres.

What is play to the cat is death to the mouse.

“Judge me by my size do you?” said Yoda. Our long-legged leader walked our prospect from building to building, inside and outside, hither and thither, through engineering and our test labs and the warehouse and the sales office, retracing his path, crisscrossing and re-crossing and double-crossing our foolish prey. With his long strides, he had our visitor running ragged, desperate to keep up and, more importantly, look like he was keeping up. What is play to the cat is death to the mouse. Rivulets of sweat ran down Chia’s layered forehead and sagging cheeks. By the time he returned to the conference room to resume discussions, his ego had melted into a soggy, sorry mess.

Oh yes, for good measure and best effect, just after the two had set off on their magical mystery tour, we turned up the heat in the conference room just a notch.

And so it was that Chia was suitably humbled, the dismissive seeds he had sown coming back to him in exact kind.

Beer O’Clock

“The opposite side has its opposite side.” – Japanese Proverb

We have a consulting division that advises industrial and commercial customers on security installations. Obviously its financial metrics are totally different from what our product-based divisions use to measure their effectiveness. Things like inventory turns and return on assets are fairly meaningless. The team is comprised, for the most part, of techies. They are young and far-flung, working out of small, often home offices, in a dozen different cities.

Every Friday evening, they get together online for what they call Beer O’Clock. They share information, anecdotes, jokes, favorite Pins and stories on Digg. For every member of the team downing a pint in his basement lair, another has a toddler scooting through the dining room without her Huggies on. Skype keeps no secrets.

That said, the concept of Beer O’Clock intrigued a number of our Small Office denizens. What if every Friday afternoon, the Marketing Department, say, knocked off early, sauntered off to the local pub and, over beer and nachos, discussed strategy, shared project updates, told war stories.

The topic came up at one of our management meetings. In attendance were the usual suspects. Rigor Mortis, who heads up our legal department, seemed thinner and more distracted since his wife died. The Black Widow, our VP Human Resources, dangled overhead, a spectral presence, peering down on the unwary passer-by.

She could find nothing in it that is morally uplifting.

Rigor Mortis warned us that any company initiative that involves drinking could well end up in a lawsuit if a booze-related accident occurred subsequently, even if there is no direct link. The jurisprudence exists and the liability is significant. The Black Widow, questioned the motives of those who were promoting the idea. She could find nothing in it that is morally uplifting or economically productive. She comes from the same school as Washington Irving: They who drink beer will think beer. I have to admit I’m more from the University of Frank Zappa, who cleverly observed that you cannot be a real country unless you have your own airline and your own beer.

It took our sagacious CEO, the Man from Glad to bring closure to this discussion.

“If any employee wishes to extend our office to another location”, he said, “then they should continue to follow the rules of our office. Which means no drinking on the premises.”

And that’s that.

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas

I was travelling with our usually restrained and carefully guarded CEO, the Man from Glad. He never says anything that he might regret later. He knows that people could well misinterpret his words, binding the company to a perceived benefit that he had no intention of extending, so he is well versed in the art of waffling when asked for a commitment. He is warm without being intimate, helpful without overstepping his bounds.

So it was a shock when, waiting for a taxi at the airport, I heard him on his cell cooing to an albeit important client, “I love you Hans”. Hans is a million dollar customer and knows it. He is an old style Prussian with little patience for the niceties of relationship building.

I bravely queried our otherwise punctilious leader.

I have to admit to being really uncomfortable with the terms of endearment and, after he hung up, I bravely queried our otherwise punctilious leader.

“Excuse me? I love you Hans? Really?”

My travelling partner looked at me quizzically. “What?”

“I heard you talking to Hans. You said…”

“I was talking to my wife”, he interjected. “I said, ‘I love you Hon.’ What is wrong with you?”

“Oh,” I said, staring off into the distance, admiring a fluffy cloud that looked ever so much like a cow. “I knew that.”

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.