Archives for posts with tag: business

I only follow a couple blogs but my favorite is Leadership Freak by Dan Rockwell. The site focuses on leadership and culture in organizations. Recently, Dan had two blogs that dealt with working with imperfect organizations and imperfect people.

In the organization one, he emphasized the distinction and importance of the concept of acceptance. His point was that you first need to accept the limitations or constraints of your firm in order to have any influence or chance to improve it. And that by accepting the way things were, was not approval; just a place to start working from.

One of my jobs as CFO was with a firm going through a ton of change. The Chairman/CEO was new as were most of the top C level jobs–HR, Legal and me as CFO. It only took me a short time to realize that the place was a mess. What to do? My old mentor, Frank, said I could not quit as this was a public company with shareholders and debtors counting on the new CFO! So I tried to do what I always did: rebuild my own financial team, forge strong relationships with the other senior people and try to relink the parts of the organization that had come undone. Often I would seek out and work with the second in command of an area when I sensed they were the key to some positive change. All this takes a lot more time and energy but you can improve anything if you really try.

On the idea of imperfect people, Dan’s blog emphasized that you need to take the weak or quirky sides of people as well as their strengths. In staff roles, I saw this a lot. You could have a tax person who knew all the critical parts of the the IRS Code which impacted your firm but could not, to save their own life, try to explain any of this to others who needed to know. A good leader tries to bridge these gaps initially, with the hope that eventually the people will find a way to work together. And sometimes it really works.

The main point here is not a new revelation but maybe a new way to look at things.  Imperfections are a big part of organizational life. In fact, imperfections are a big part of most personal lives and relationships as well. But, the important takeaway is that you can still make improvements if you learn to accept and move forward versus becoming so frustrated that you do nothing. After all, none of us are perfect!

What possible link is there to help people succeed in diverse activities such as the USA Women’s World Cup Soccer,  the great Roger Federer in tennis and managers in business?

After the United States passed Title IX, schools and colleges were required to provide more sports for women, not just for men. Many young women took advantage of this and participated in a number of sports. Team USA Co-Captain Alex Morgan played volleyball, softball, basketball and track before finding her passion in soccer. Her teammate Christen Press played tennis and track before focusing on soccer. A number of articles have been written recently about how these other sports may have improved the overall performance of our Women’s World Cup team.

Roger Federer, who at 37, is once again in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, is truly one of the greatest tennis players of all time with 20 major Grand Slam titles and still counting! But as a young man, besides learning to speak five languages, he also played in a wide range of sports from squash to wrestling and skateboarding! Fortunately, he eventually found tennis.

A new book called Range by David Epstein talks about the idea that late bloomers and generalists, often succeed more than those who focused on just one special skill or interest. For example, Vincent van Gogh taught at a boarding school before he found painting. The premise is, that by first learning other skills, an individual extends themselves, broadens their base or range and can then perform better in the one area they finally focus on or all the areas they may encounter in complex roles.

So this got me thinking about people I have known in business. I have worked with some experts in specific financial areas be that taxes, insurance, investor relations or treasury. Many of these were very skilled at that one area where they often spent their entire work career. But then, there were other people who were either lucky enough or had sponsors who were willing to moving them from one area to another. When faced with a new and difficult crisis, this latter group often proved to be a more valuable part of the team. They somehow brought more diverse views, background or flexibility to the issues.

And then all this brought me back to my own career (my wife, Tricia, says, everything brings me back to myself!). As many readers know, I was lucky to have spent time in both small, private and large, public firms. I also personally managed, at one time or another, every area of finance and a bunch of non financial areas like human resources, legal and even general management.

When I interviewed for my last CFO role, the Chairman/President of the firm, asked me in what area of financial management did I consider myself strongest or best. A very good and first-time ever question. I immediately responded, no one area, rather I replied that my real strength was that I knew quite a bit about every area of finance and accounting, but that I did not consider myself an expert in any one activity. I got the job.

I was a Generalist before it became popular!

For those of you moving up in your profession or career, it is tempting and comfortable to stay or specialize in one area. But if given the chance to move into something new, think very hard about it. Some Generalists have done very well!


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!

When I retired from USG Corp., my friend, Frank, gave me a gift of a plaque with an Ancient Chinese text called: Master in the Art of Living, which had these thoughts:

-A Master in the art of living makes little distinction between work and play, labor and leisure, education and recreation, and love and religion

-He hardly knows which is which but pursues his own vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing

My friend, Frank, was an executive coach for individuals and teams at large companies. He wrote me a note with the plaque that he tries to get all his clients to reach this goal. In his mind, somehow I had done so.

Another management consultant I knew once phrased this differently. When you are in a job or career where you are excited about getting up and going to work and don’t worry how long you work and whether its a work day or weekend, you are doing what you should be doing. You are self driven. You are in the right place.

When I was luckily able to fully retire at 55, I spent some time thinking about my work years in light of these two thoughts. I looked back at my four years in public accounting, my dozen or so years each with Donn Corp. and USG Corp. and my last few years at IMC Global. I calculated that probably two thirds of my career, I was truly looking forward to work. I was self motivated and charged up for 21 out of 33 years.

In talking to a lot of people over the years, I have concluded that I was lucky to have had that many really good years. So many people, from staff to line and from secretaries to executives do not feel that blessed in their work lives. Some are OK or satisfied with their work time but this is not the same thing, in my mind.

People ask me how do you achieve this concept of joy and enthusiasm in work? I don’t know. I know that you do know when you have it. But how to get there is very complicated. I was lucky, again, to often be put in complex and challenging situations where I ended up with a lot of control of the outcomes. I also got to work with, be mentored by, and to mentor some great people. These things I know helped me and greatly influenced how I felt about work. I wrote about some of these in my first book, The Business Zoo.

Three thoughts as we end the year:

First, look at your job or career and think about how you really feel about it. If you are not really excited about your work and are able to make a change, consider doing so.

Second, in 2019 I hope to publish my second book which will go into a much more personal level of my work, some of the unique people I encountered, those who mentored me and those I mentored. We will touch on stories from the book along the way in this blog and maybe some of these will be helpful.

Third, that’s for reading, have a wonderful Holiday Season and a great 2019!


The Wall Street Journal editorial a while back,  made an interesting observation about our President and his style of leadership and negotiating. The article was primarily focused  on how Mr. Trump is approaching trade issues with China, and the rest of the world and specifically his emphasis on protecting domestic car production. But, I believe this can be applied to much of how our President approaches issues from foreign policy to healthcare etc. The article, by Holman Jenkins, Jr., states that President Trump is playing checkers while the rest of the world is playing chess. He relies on his gut and ignores briefing materials, etc..

Long time readers may guess that I have my own story about this type of game theory.  I learned about chess vs. checkers during my work on USG Corporation’s financial restructuring.

It was early in USG’s three year financial crisis, I was alone in New York having lunch with our newest financial advisor, Lazard. I was with David Supino, one of Lazard’s senior Partners and the head of their debt/bankruptcy advisory practice. An appropriate title as USG Corporation had accumulated massive debt in fighting a hostile takeover and was struggling to stay out of bankruptcy!   

We were at the famous Sea Grill restaurant in Lazard’s office building at 30 Rock (called that before the Tina Fey TV show). As USG’s newly named CFO, I was trying to understand this bizarre restructuring process from David who had done this for decades. USG, you see, had all these multiple groups and levels of creditors we had to satisfy to avoid a forced in-court bankruptcy. I was explaining, to David, my thoughts about how to negotiate with all these parties at the same time. 

My approach was this. On Star Trek’s Enterprise they had a three dimensional Chess set; when you moved a piece at one level it affected pieces at the other two levels. I asked David if this was a good way to look at our situation, like a Three D Chess game.

David stopped eating, spit out a piece of food, and started to shake, laugh and cry all at once. At first I thought it might be a heart attack until David screamed at me, “James, This is your problem! You think you are playing Chess! It’s more like Checkers but half the pieces are missing or broken! There is no Board and no Rules! Now do you understand what it means to be in Financial Restructuring!”

And, as our three year journey continued, I realized that my friendly advisor, David, was exactly correct. As detailed in the Crisis Management chapter of my book, The Business Zoo, any major crisis brings its own terminology, its own rules (or lack of them) and an often unclear path and timetable to ever get out of the crisis. This can apply not only to a financial or business crisis but a personal one as well.

So, what I learned then, and perhaps what leaders around the world need to learn about dealing with President Trump, is that you really need to understand what game you and your opponent think you are playing. And maybe the condition of the pieces and the shape of the board!

Usually business, life and even politics can be pretty straight forward. So, I would choose a really good checker player over a weak chess player any day!


As an accountant and CPA, I always thought I understood basic financial concepts. Net Earnings was computed by deducting all your expenses from Sales. And Cash Flow was, well, cash flow, or your Net Earnings plus Depreciation. These were defined by generally accepted accounting principles or GAAP and used to publish a firm’s financial results.

Well, guess what? That is not the way it is anymore. I started to discover this when some of the young people I advise go to work for firms like Salesforce. For many high growth technology firms, like this one, there really aren’t much Net Earnings anyhow and they even report Sales in ways I was never taught!

So recently the Wall Street Journal had an article called “Fanciful Measures of Profit.” This trend does go back to my days in the 1990’s at USG Corporation. USG had borrowed huge sums of money and due to the interest expense (and a slump in the construction markets) we had no earnings. So we reported EBITDA, Earnings before Interest, Taxes and Depreciation. As their CFO, I would joke to investors that when you have no earnings, you report EBITDA instead. My old friend, Warren Buffet’s partner, Charlie Munger, called these “bullshit earnings”, and he was not far off. But the fun did not end there!

The Journal reported that this year alone, companies have filed 450 documents with the Security Exchange Commission, SEC, with variations of my old EBITDA. A popular one is EBITDAO which adds back the cost of stock options issued to management. There is also ones that add back pension cost, leasing cost, exploration costs and almost anything else you can dream up. Technically, all these so-called financial measures must be shown with the traditional GAAP reported earnings. But in quarterly earnings calls and meetings with investors, firms primarily stress these adjusted earnings calculations because it makes them look better. And stock analysts have adapted and now use many of these new earnings measures when they review a firm and recommend their stock.

I am having a hard time with all this. I was taught that, in the end, all firms need to make real net earnings and to generate cash flow to survive and grow. But today companies get around this by borrowing money and issuing more stock. And if the firm, like Salesforce, is in a trendy field like software platforms on the cloud and is growing rapidly, no one seems to care if they have GAAP profits or not. Salesforce stock has climbed over 80% in three years without much real Net Income at all. This was also the story of high sales and stock growth without earnings for years for companies like Amazon and Facebook.

So what to do? Every investor needs to decide for themselves. For every Amazon, Facebook or Salesforce that soars and succeeds, there are dozens of firms that fail. Or, heaven forbid, the next great idea comes along and wipes out the competitive advantage, market share and quickly the value of their stock!

But I have decided that even an old CPA needs to be open to the way this new economy of ours is working and to make some investments in firms that may not have met my conservative old standards. After all, my wife, Tricia, is the one who insisted in 2004 we buy stock in some small computer firm called Apple! (We should have bought more!)

Only time will tell if this new investment approach works!

Crain’s Chicago Business wrote several months ago about how big companies are putting increased pressure on their much smaller trade creditors to extend their payment terms. A small Chicago stamping plant with $10 million in annual revenue, makes parts for Honeywell whose revenues are $39 billion and whose free cash flow is about $5 billion. Until recently Honeywell paid this firm slowly, by most manufacturing measures, at 60 days. Now they have asked for 120 days. This makes the smaller firm their Banker.

Chicago based Boeing, whose sales are even larger at $100 billion last year, recently asked suppliers for 120 day terms as well, according to the same article.

Both Boeing and Honeywell have an “A” credit rating, the best in corporate America.   This means they can borrow money pretty much whenever and from whoever they want and, in today’s financial world, very cheaply. So why do these giant companies penalize  very small suppliers by not paying their bills in a timely fashion? Because they can. Today there are plenty of small suppliers willing to accept these credit terms just for the chance to sell to a giant customer. At least for awhile or until it crushes the small firm’s own credit situation.

Is this a new phenomenon you might ask? Of course not. This has gone on forever in business. What is new is who is doing this and why.

Years ago, my wife Tricia sold office furniture to the then giant telecommunication firm MCI which became Worldcom which became Verizon. Standard terms from small furniture distribution firms were 30 days. One day MCI just decided to take 60 days. As a commissioned sales person, Tricia was charged a financing charge by her own firm which reduced her, already small, commission. At the time, MCI was just starting to have  financial problems, a falling stock price and eventually declared bankruptcy.  So, in the past, large firms often leaned on trade creditors to try to buy time to restructure their business.

My old firm USG Corporation went through its own financial restructuring due to excess debt taken on to avoid a hostile takeover. One of the many things we did to survive was to maximize our days outstanding with our trade creditors. But we did this after talking to the creditors and sometimes making special accommodations with them.

But what is going on today is totally different. Honeywell, Boeing and I am sure a host of other very large and very financially solid firms are unilaterally and without much communication or rationale just stretching out their credit terms to the severe detriment of a lot of small and struggling suppliers. A former USG Corporation financial colleague of mine was concerned that by not paying our bills according to their standard terms we were being “immoral and unethical”.  I never agreed with that characterization at the time or in our circumstances.  But what is going on today I do consider bad business practices that border on unethical.

Business like life relies on relationships. This credit practice is very bad for relationships and karma. And it will likely lead to more failures of small firms which are so critical for our economy.

Just when I thought I had heard almost everything, a group of over 40 year olds are suing Price Waterhouse Coppers for not hiring older workers! The lawsuit alleges that PWC discriminates against older applicants by focusing on college campus recruiting and trying to create a workplace “where youth is highly valued”, according to news articles.

Having grown up in business in what we now call a Big 4 CPA firm, I do have a couple thoughts to offer these disadvantaged older workers:

Although you may be attracted to the initial starting salary of up to $60,000, you better be prepared to work your behind off! CPA firms still average 70 to 80 hours a week, especially in the “busy” season from late fall until spring. Some CPA consultants work these long hours year round depending on the client and projects to which they are assigned. If you take the $60,000 and divide it by sixty plus hours a week you are really earning closer to $35-40,000 a year. And you have very little personal time! It is common to work late at night and six day weeks.

Starting jobs in the professions such as accounting and law have always been like this. There has been some effort, in recent years, to make them less exhausting and more family friendly, but based on the chat sites I reviewed, things have not improved much. This is why these starting positions are a young person’s game. Right out of college, with no spouse, and no family, this makes sense.

CPA and law firms also have very strict hiring criteria. The better firms only hire the best  people from the best colleges. And, yes, they are mostly all young, recent college or MBA graduates. And they all report to young, bright people who may be in their mid 20’s who report to young, bright people who are in their late 20’s. This is the age old formula and it works. By the time a young professional hits age 30, most have left public accounting for a more stable, and family friendly job. The few that remain into their 30s and 40s have been well indoctrinated into the firm’s culture, which is also very hard to do with an older worker starting out.

So, believe me when I tell the older workers, you do not want a starting job with a CPA firm! The money may sound good but it is not a lifestyle that works for those over age 40!


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.


Whenever a blogger references really important people or companies, the number of hits on their website goes up. I have found this occurs when I mention my wife’s favorite company, Apple, or the infamous, to me, Tesla. But I actually have had two connections to the famous and well-regarded, Warren Buffett. Let’s start with a story I will call:

Leaving Donn Corporation for Warren Buffet!

I believe that everything in life and business is a cycle. There is a beginning, middle and an end that occur over some variable but predictable timeframe. Daniel Levinson’s book, Seasons of a Man’s Life, talks about this in detail and gives creditability to the notion of a seven-to-ten-year cycle or itch both in one’s personal and professional life.

For me, it was about twelve years after I started with the private Donn Corporation that I almost left. At the time, my old boss had retired and I was the Chief Financial Officer.

The Donn companies had grown ten times in that time period. We had gone through several financial and organization crises. I had finally been able to build a small but great corporate headquarters staff that was working well with both the owner’s family and Donn’s unique business people. The large Donn domestic business had an excellent Controller who was gladly taking on some my work.

I was bored to death! I had never experienced that feeling in public accounting or at Donn. And, I was about 38 years old, prime for what Daniel Levinson would call the Age 40 Transition. He wrote that, at all of these critical times in our life, we all consciously or subconsciously reflect and re-evaluate both our personal and work lives. Sometimes we make big changes and sometimes we don’t.

At exactly that moment I received a call from an executive search firm. As CFO of a very private mid-sized firm I did not get a lot of these calls, but when I had in the past, I would say thanks but no thanks. This time I actually listened. This time I even agreed to meet the headhunter for lunch. And what I heard was fascinating:

-a much larger, well known public firm was the client

-they wanted someone with my diverse background

-they were growing worldwide through acquisitions

-the CFO role involved a large pay package with stock options (not available at private Donn)

And here was the strangest thing. They were located literally down the street from Donn! It seemed too good to be true. But it also seemed like the perfect next step for me. The bigger size and the public company status were both appealing.  I love doing deals and the stock was a way to build-up my own net worth. I even really liked the search person. So, I agreed to interview. We were closing in on an offer when the headhunter called to say the search has been put on hold. Hmm. Okay.

A few months later he called and told me that his client has just been acquired by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and it will become one of their portfolio companies. But they still want a CFO.

I said no thanks. The CFO role in a subsidiary of a private company is not the same as a public firm. This is true even if the owner of the private firm is Warren Buffett.  By then, Donn seemed more fun. And, unbeknownst to me, within a short time I would be involved in the sale of the company to USG Corporation. I never regretted my decision to stay with Donn even though I missed the opportunity to work with a legend.

There is a valuable lesson here that I often explain to people I advise. Sometimes, in your personal and business life, you need to take a long, hard look at where you are and explore your alternatives.  You may decide to make a move or you may decide you are better off staying where you are. But the internal review process is critical whether you are in your Age 40 Transition or not!

Next time, I will tell you about my second connection to Mr. Buffett.