Archives for posts with tag: Arthur Andersen

In my forthcoming book, The People Zoo, there is a major section dealing with Mentoring. Some of the stories deal with people who mentored or assisted me at critical times in my career. Some of the stories are about how I mentored others. What follows is one of those. With the start of a new year and a world filled with uncertainty, I thought a fun story, with a message, might be perfect. As always, this is a true story, from my days in public accounting, which I call:

Saving Smelly Harvey’s Career

Well that is quite a title even for a book called The People Zoo!

This may be a story of extreme mentoring but maybe it is just an excellent example of how open, honest discussion with a young person can sometimes really help.

Harvey, not his real name, was a young audit assistant in the Cleveland office of Arthur Andersen, a fine firm that had somehow just promoted me to Senior Auditor. Harvey was one of forty young assistants hoping to work hard for a dozen or more years and climb the ladder with hopes of someday becoming one of the select, very well-paid Partners.

Young assistant auditors like Harvey worked in a range of industries and audit engagements reporting to up to as many as a dozen senior auditors over the course of a year. These senior auditors, of which I was now one, were only a couple years older but we had power since we evaluated, promoted and recommended that an assistant “pursue other interests” outside of AA&Co. A big deal at age 25!

One day a bunch of us Senior Auditors are in the office and we are comparing notes on this year’s crop of assistants. This same conversation occurs in every service organization-law firms, hospitals, and especially on television shows like Grey’s Anatomy! This type of constant evaluation and ranking also occurs throughout nature. The alpha wolves watch the younger ones and decide who can stay in their pack and who gets sent away. And just like on TV or in a wolf pack, some of the younger assistants are coming out better than others.

The conversation eventually turns to Harvey who had worked for me and several other seniors. On the positive side Harvey is considered bright, likable and a very hard and effective worker.

But there is a negative. One of the other seniors, not delicately, suggests that at the end of a long work day, Harvey smells! Even I agree with this analysis.  And this was a real problem; no one gets to Partner if they smell! It just doesn’t happen.

I nobly say that one of us must talk to Harvey!

Everyone says at once: Right, you do it, Brad!

As it turned out the next week, Harvey and I were traveling out of town together to work on a bank audit. One of the other seniors knew this and once this fact came out I was really stuck! I had to talk to Harvey while we were alone a hundred miles from our Cleveland office.

We would be by ourselves at dinner often that week, so this would be the ideal time, I concluded. But how exactly to bring the subject up? This is not taught in any accounting program at college or even at AA&Co.’s extensive training center.

I decide that at the end of dinner our last evening out of town I will just bring it up. The conversation goes like this:

Brad: Harvey, the other senior auditors and I were talking about you last week and you received high marks on all the critical technical and work areas!

Harvey: Wow! That is great. I really appreciate you telling me. Were there any areas for me to improve?

Brad: Yes, and it was a bit awkward but an issue. At the end of the workday someone suggested you smell. So, I have to ask, do you shower daily?

Harvey: Yes, I do and it’s not always easy since I live with my two brothers.

Brad: Wow. Ok. Here is a thought. Do you use deodorant every day?

Harvey (looking down, never good in a wolf pack): No actually I don’t. My family just never did.

Brad: Why don’t you try it! I use Right Guard!

Harvey: I will get some right away and thanks again for taking the time and being so honest with me!

Brad: It’s a senior job and you are a great guy with what everyone agrees is a lot of potential!

Epilogue part one: Harvey corrected the issue. We became very good friends. I was at his wedding to Sue (her real name), a wonderful woman.

Epilogue part two: A dozen years later, Harvey became a Partner in AA&Co. They moved to Cincinnati, and we sadly lost touch. Maybe he will read this story and call! Maybe even take his old mentor and his wife out to dinner! And I assume he is still using Right Guard!

Warren Buffett began buying USG Corporation stock in 2000 right before its second bankruptcy, not great timing. But USG seemed to fit his investment profile: an industry leader in a basic industry-building materials.

Warren and Berkshire Hathaway stayed in during USG’s bankruptcy, loaned the Company money at 10% and then converted it into more stock. Today, Buffett is USG’s largest shareholder with just over 30% of its common stock. For most of the last twenty years, this was good for USG. A friendly stockholder of that size makes any company almost bullet-proof to any unfriendly takeover attempt. And Warren Buffett is usually a very friendly shareholder; until he isn’t.

Recently, a private German building material firm named Knauf made a hostile take-over bid for USG. Knauf has owned about 10% of USG also for the last twenty years. Normally a take-over bid by someone owning only 10% would not be a sure thing, but there was a unique wrinkle in this offer. Warren Buffett joined the proposal by offering Knauf an option to use his shares in getting the deal done. So now USG faces a take-over bid backed by 40% of its shares. And four other funds like Vanguard own, in total, another 20% of the shares. So, it is very likely that USG Corporation will be acquired. It may just be a matter of time and final price.

Since I left USG Corporation before Warren Buffett bought his first shares in 2000, one could ask what does this have to do with me? On many levels, nothing. Most of the people I worked with there are retired or dead. I was USG’s CFO during their first restructuring not the second one that Mr. Buffett waited patiently to end. But even though I was only at USG a dozen years, the experience and the people meant something to me. We fought to save USG in its first major financial restructuring. It took a toll on me, but it also left a mark and feelings of respect and admiration for the place. USG is a very proud and independent company with a lot of history and a unique culture.

So, this event got me thinking!

All the firms I worked for in my business career may be gone. Arthur Andersen by government decree; Donn Corporation sold to USG; IMC Global which merged with part of Cargill to become Mosaic; and now the 100 year USG Corporation. I outlasted them all.

In the generations before me, people worked their whole life for one firm and then retired there. Some of my wife’s grandparents did that in the tire industry in Akron, Ohio. And at least one of those firms, Goodyear, is still around!

But for the millennials of today, my experience probably seems quaint. Only four companies over an entire work career? Nowadays young people will have a dozen or more employers and no reason to wonder what happened to their previous ones. We change jobs as often as we change our cell phones.

So, best of luck and success to the people and culture of old USG Corporation whatever happens to it!

And Warren Buffett showed up twice: early in my working career and after I retired.