His name was “Sam.” He was an entrepreneur. This is one of the many stories told about him.
“You see this!”, he shouted, “that’s the only thing that’s etched in stone around here!” He was furious, understandably so. I had transgressed the most holy of Sam’s dictums. Sadly, it was one of my own as well.
He clasped in his hand a foot high statue of Moses – Moses descending from the Mount, holding aloft two tablets which any fool could see had writing on them. Rules etched for all time. What I had done was enter a new rule onto Moses’ tablets, and Sam would have none of it.
“But, but”, I stammered, “we’d have lost a piss-pot full of money on it Sam.”
“Not relevant,” he bellowed through an incredibly thick cloud of cigar smoke. That’s a loss leader I can live with.” I wondered if he was still there. I was as intimidated by the cigar, and the clouds it gave off as I was by the statue of Moses now returned to its sacred spot on the credenza behind him. (It’s an indication of just how intimidated I was that in spite of the cigar fog I never dared light a cigarette).
I was his Manager of Operations and he gave me, as he would have put it, enough rein to hang myself. He paid me well enough. He worked me hard…he got his money’s worth. He was gruff, sour, impatient, narrow minded and arrogant enough for entry into the Guinness Book of Records. He was also brilliant and possibly the best business teacher one could ever hope for.
The origin of his wrath was my dissuading Esso from taking six housekeeping units with our firm (a firm that through fifteen separate numbered companies owned and managed a whacking great load of real estate). “Housekeeping units” if you don’t know, are fully furnished, serviced and catered accommodations much favoured by the oil patch, much in evidence in the boom times and hard to find in the doldrums. We were in the doldrums and we hadn’t had a call for a unit since I started with the company.
When the call came in for the six units I did the natural thing. I asked the company secretary. “Nope,” she said, “haven’t done that since mmmmmmmm, two, three years ago. Sold off all the bedding and cutlery. Wouldn’t know where to put them up anyway. In a word, we just don’t do that any more.”
I bought her story. I also bought a bushel of hostility from my employer when he heard that Esso had been turned away. As the cigar smoke continued to thicken I anxiously awaited my fate.
Would today be the day that he canned me? Lord knows I deserved it. He had made the company policy very clear when I was hired. “We are in business to make money,” he said. “You will contribute to that. You will contribute several times your salary to the profits of this company. You will never forget that there are no set rules about what we do, or how we do it so long as we stay in the black, and get blacker. You will be imaginative. You will be ruthless, in fact an all around son-of-a-bitch. But you will be well paid, and you will be looked after. Any questions?”
I instinctively knew that the last guy to volunteer a question at this stage of the interview likely found himself out on the street looking in. “Er, none,” I replied. Still having no idea whatsoever about my duties, who I reported to or who reported to me. Obviously the first test in this job was to determine where your office was and what you did.
In later years I was to work for organizations where, on your first day, all details were carefully laid out for you including of course where to find the executive can. These were the same organizations that spent fabulously expensive weekends at posh resorts trying to define a company mission. Sam had been born with one…one which he expressed with great ease and frequency, and which he wanted realized at each month end.
To this day I have no idea of what Sam’s academic background was beyond the law degree I knew he had. His private life was a closed door. I saw him only once socially in all the time I worked for him, and that was when we, with our wives, bumped into each other at an opera. We were equally surprised, I think, to discover this mutual interest. While there was nothing awkward about this meeting, it was re-affirmed in the manner of the greeting and introductions that Sam’s corporate life, and his private life, were completely separate.
Many, suppliers and customers both, probably considered Sam a hard liner. He negotiated everything, from the price of light bulbs to the municipal development requirements on a new office tower. He seemed to know what everything was worth and what everyone’s bottom line was. I heard him say more than once…”look, let’s cut the crap. I got a very busy day here so what is it you really want?” This might imply he had lots of time usually for commercial foreplay. And to completely exploit the analogy, time for post coital comfort. That was not the case, but he did usually exchange one or two pleasantries before he exacted his full measure from whoever was buying, or selling.
Interestingly Sam spread success like margarine. Those who dealt with him, if they were as conscientious as he, prospered. He taught many, I think, by example. I think he co-invented such concepts as “just-in-time-inventory.” Even our office stationery supplies were limited to about one box of letterhead and a similar quantity of second sheets. He was miserly with telephones, travel, photocopying, office space, training, time off and office social activities.
But he was inspired with payment of bonuses, timely raises and perks. One wonders how he was always aware of these achievements meriting reward. But his network was as tight as his management style. He had informers, advisors, confidants. He worked during lunch, on the plane and when he golfed. His work was his life, and he never tired of hearing people tell him how well he was doing, or how poorly. He reacted equally to both. Good or bad performance to Sam meant change was warranted, and he made those changes happen very quickly.
Sam hated dishonesty and bullshit. He could deal with almost anything that came at him directly, but he would not tolerate circuitous routes and messages. While he would fire without a thought an employee who stole from him, he would lavish support on an employee who told him that he was having financial trouble. Many could not see the rock hard values that made up this man. He was loyal to his superiors, his financiers and his customers. He dealt fairly, if sometimes slowly with his accounts. He expected much from his staff and in turn, he gave much back. He pushed every employee forward, seeming to know just how much an employee could do, and take, while remaining competent and sane.
Like the rationale of those who climb mountains “because they are there”, Sam bought, sold, built and profited because the market was there. He was no more satisfied with a 20% return on investment than a 10% one. Sam would wonder, but only for a moment, that if 20% were possible, why not 25%? His momentary wonder would be followed by crisp directions to staff. All knew what the objective in this new round of directions was. The objective was profit. Profit that meant getting all that you could from what you had to deal with. It also meant keeping an eye on costs, putting only as much into the operation as you had to.
I’ve wondered many times since this internship whether, and if so how much better operated are companies that spend large sums of money on mission setting, employee development and client surveys. Are their investors any happier than were Sam’s? Are their clients and customers better served?