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ROCK SOLIDHow to Strengthen Your Company
By John Cameron
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 John Cameron
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt all started with an assignment. I remember the day it was given to me. It was a Friday afternoon when I was called to Mr. Jones' office. That didn't happen very often. I was just a Junior Assistant at Carey Jones Norton. Mr. Jones was the lead partner and the head of the firm's tax department.
At first I thought that I was about to be let go. My job was to do whatever the accountants asked for. More and more I was just spending time trying to make myself look busy.
I couldn't help kicking myself again for taking a journalism degree. I enjoyed the studies but when I graduated the year before it turned out that there weren't many jobs available. I found work at a local coffee shop and continued to send out resumes to every company I could think of.
I was a bit surprised when Carey Jones Norton called me for an interview. All I really expected to get from it was a bit more experience being interviewed, but they seemed to like me and I was offered a junior assistant's job. The pay wasn't that great, but it seemed like a step up from the coffee shop and I figured I might be able make some contacts there that could eventually lead to a job that was more in line with my education.
That day as I headed towards Mr. Jones' office I thought, it's back to being Jen Russell, the over educated barista working evening shifts, trying to pay off student loans, and survive in the city all by herself. What kind of future was that? My prospects seemed pretty dim.
I walked slowly down the hall towards his office looking around and soaking it all in: the nice paintings on the walls, the fancy mouldings, and the offices with oak doors and big elegant desks. It was a good place to work. The people were friendly and treated me like a professional even though I was at the bottom of the company ladder. I felt good about working there.
Mr. Jones was different from the others. Not that he treated me badly; it was just that he didn't ever seem to acknowledge that I existed. He arrived early, left late, and always had his door closed. He only ever came out to meet his clients in the conference rooms and then he went straight back into his office. Everybody told me not to bother him unless it was absolutely necessary.
When I got down to his office I looked through the window next to his door and I saw him looking intently at his computer screen. I knocked gently as if not to disturb him, which is kind of funny when you think about it. "Come in," he said, a bit too sharply for my liking.
When I opened the door he asked, "Your name's Jen, isn't it?"
"Yes sir," I replied.
"Sit down. I'll be a couple of minutes," he said as he pointed to one of the leather wingback chairs across from his large cherry wood desk. It was the most impressive desk in the whole office. It matched the expansive bookcase that took up the entire wall behind him.
I sat down in the wingback chair and nervously looked around his office. It had large windows and a great view of the mountains. I couldn't help thinking that he probably never looked out at them. It seemed to be a bit of a waste for him to have the corner office, but I guess that's the way the corporate world works.
After a few minutes he looked up at me. "I hear that you're a writer. Is that right?" His question was direct and to the point.
"Well, I did do a lot of writing during my university days but not so much recently," I stammered. It wasn't the smartest thing to say. I figured that I should have paused for a second before I answered but my words were already out there.
"It's okay, I don't have anybody else." He didn't look or sound pleased. "I've got an assignment for you."
"Can you tell me more about it?" I asked. At this point I was relieved that I still had my job, yet somehow more nervous than ever. He looked out over his glasses. His glare seemed to cut right through me.
"Well, it's a bit of a story. Somebody's got me ticked off," he grumbled as he leaned back and folded his arms. "I was told that my firm didn't deliver any real value."
"Who would say such a thing?" I squeaked out. This conversation was making me feel really uncomfortable. I couldn't help but wonder what I was doing here and how I got caught up in this.
"It was Dave Ettinger from Velocity Software. He wasn't really trying to insult me but when he came in to discuss the tax planning for his exit strategy, he started to talk about how good his company had been to him, his family, his employees, his clients, to the community, and even to his suppliers. He figures that it's getting near time to sell the company to his people and retire. I couldn't help myself. I started to tell him about Carey Jones Norton and how good it's been to me."
He leaned back again and ran his hand through his silver hair before continuing. "Dave doesn't see things the way I do. He was talking about having lots of time to spend with his family, the West Valley Softball League, and how Velocity Software really delivered value by helping business-people use technology to make their companies more competitive. He said Velocity was really dialed in on improving other peoples' companies.
"He even talked about the employees who passed through his organization and how their experiences at Velocity Software helped them make progress in their lives. He rambled on about a few ex-employees and how he was proud to help them achieve their personal ambitions, even when they didn't involve Velocity. He went on to say that the people he hired who really got what Velocity Software was all about were still there and the time for them to take over the company was fast approaching. He's getting ready to pass the torch."
"Sir, I don't get it. How is that different from the way you see things?" I said it before I could stop myself. Oh crap, I thought. I just screwed up. I could feel my face warming up and I think I went beet red as I sat there waiting for him to say something.
After what seemed like an eternity he responded. "Well, I always figured that business was about work. You work hard, put in long hours, and you'll be successful. Dave said that he learned a long time ago that business success comes from building strong companies that deliver value. He also said that he could see how that concept might have gotten lost in my business because our clients are legally required to do their taxes every year. If they don't they'll get into a lot of trouble. He agreed that I save them money by making sure that they don't pay any more than they have to. But then he said something interesting."
I was relieved that he didn't take offense to my previous question. I was getting curious about why I was here so I asked, "What was that?"
"He challenged me to think about a world that didn't have the tax thing, annual filings, or all of the other government regulations that I help my clients sort through. What would I do for them then? What value would I really like to deliver?
The way he views it is that lots of companies start every year. Most survive for a few years and some get firmly established and go on to be profitable. He thinks that we just wait for the survivors and then bill the crap out of them."
That was the first and only time that I've seen Mr. Jones smile and laugh, although there didn't seem to be any joy in it. "You know that meathead's got a point and it's been sticking in my craw for the past few months. That's where you come in."
How's that? I thought, but before I could ask he carried on.
"I'd like to deliver some value by helping people build and grow successful businesses. I'd like these businesses to add to the local economy and provide some good jobs for our young folks. It's probably the least I could do before I retire like Dave. I know that I don't really have the patience to work directly with the business owners myself, but I do have resources here at the firm. I should be able to coordinate this, given my experience."
It occurred me that I'd never been in business before and I was still wondering how I fit into this picture. Before I could say anything he started to talk again.
"Before you get going on this project I'd like to be clear on a couple of things. First off, it has to be rock solid. We have the reputation of the firm to protect here. I'd like you to write a whitepaper and it can't be just a bunch of platitudes. There's already way too much of that out there. It's got to have real substance."
Okay, I thought. A whitepaper, I've written a couple of those before. I raised my hand but he completely ignored me and continued on. I was getting the impression that he wasn't a very good listener.
"I searched the web and went down to the bookstore a few times where I spent a lot of hours looking at books. I even asked my clients about the books that they relied on while they were building their businesses. They gave me some ideas and there's some interesting stuff out there, but the book I wanted to read hasn't been written yet."
He didn't even ask me if I was interested or if I thought I could handle it. This was a lot to take in at once, especially since I hadn't expected it. I was trying to absorb what was happening as he went on.
"The second thing is that it has to be something a businessperson can pick up and start working with right away. I don't want people picking it up, reading it, and going, 'it all sounds good, but it won't work for me.' After they read our whitepaper they should know what to do next."
Finally I got a chance to speak. "Why did you pick me for this project?" I asked. "I don't have any business experience at all."
"That's exactly it. I tried to do this myself, but what I found is the project started to get too complex. It isn't as easy as I thought it was going to be. There are way too many ideas flying around in my head and they just aren't coming together the way I want them to. I'm thinking that it might take somebody with no preconceived notions about business to write this. To be successful it has to make sense and it has to be easy to read. I just can't seem to get there myself."
I wasn't sure that I followed his logic but I liked the idea of putting my degree to use so I agreed to take on the project.
"When I read the resume you sent in a few months ago, I told them to hire you. I suspected that this point in time was coming." He leaned back in his chair again. Mr. Jones was a large and imposing man.
"There's a quotation I came across by Oliver Wendell Holmes that I'd like you to think about as you write," he said as he pointed over to a box of books and files in the corner. "That's a good place to start. If you can make the stuff inside the box work with the quotation on the top, then I'll know that you hit the mark."
Then the meeting was over. "I've got to get back to work now," he said as he turned back to his computer screen. I walked over to the box and read the quotation written on the lid.
I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity. Oliver Wendell Holmes
Chapter TwoThat meeting was a couple of months previous. Earlier in the day I'd told Alice, the receptionist at Carey Jones Norton that I was heading out to do some more research. In reality I just couldn't sit at my desk staring at a blank computer screen any longer. My fingers were poised and ready to type but my brain couldn't come up with anything worthwhile.
I'd read everything in the box Mr. Jones gave me, talked to everybody in the office, and interviewed dozens of the firm's clients. I also enlisted ten of Carey Jones Norton's clients to participate in the project. They agreed to try out some of the concepts that were being considered for the whitepaper. Afterwards I'd visit regularly and observe how their companies were developing. They were my test clients. Mr. Jones wanted the concepts had to be rock solid and ready to implement and I wanted to make sure they passed the test.
Every time I thought I was making some headway the ideas were either too simple to make it through the field of complexity intact or the ideas got completely lost in there.
I was starting to believe that building a company was just too complex a project to make simple. Even seemingly solid advice like developing a business plan had trouble in the real world. Not many companies had them and when I asked owners whose companies were doing well why they didn't have business plans, they said they didn't need them. They believed that it was more important to be flexible and adapt quickly. To them, business was about being nimble and reacting to changing circumstances.
Others said to focus on the customers. The next moment someone else was saying it's all about your people. Lots of people said it was cashflow, cashflow, cashflow, but then one of the accountants explained the Net Trade Cycle to me and said that with a positive Net Trade Cycle cashflow can be good even when a company isn't profitable. I heard that the key is developing systems so average people can be effective and next I heard that having good people is the key. I was finding out that there were many contradictions in business advice.
I hoped a drive and a change of scenery would somehow help me make sense of it all.
Having passion was a common theme in the literature but it appears to me that it's been driven out of most owners. I tried telling a couple of my clients that they needed more passion. They just laughed at me.
Leadership is another good one. There are so many books out there that it makes your head spin. They all sound great when you read them but I got blank stares when I recommend the ideas. I could almost hear people thinking that I had no idea what business was all about.
Half of my clients stopped taking my calls. One even told me that I needed to work in a real business to find out what it was like. He didn't think I had any idea what I was talking about.
After I left the office I was lost in thought, driving aimlessly in my old Honda Civic, when it seemed to shift into autopilot and head towards the old coffee shop I used to work at. I smiled and shook my head. It probably knew I'd be working back there soon enough. I may as well stop in and say hello.
"Hey, how's it going, Haley?" I called out as I opened the door and took a deep breath. I loved the smell of freshly ground coffee and it was good to connect with an old friend from more easygoing days. I'd worked quite a few shifts with her and I always enjoyed her company. The place still looked the same, just like the other coffee shops on almost every corner nowadays.
"Hey you," she replied. "We were just talking about you the other day."
"Really? Only good stuff I hope."
"Of course! We were wondering why you haven't been around for a while. Things must be going well over at the accounting office. How is it going, by the way?"
"Well, not so good lately. Can you pour me a cup of the Morning Brew?"
"Sure, not a problem, for you anything!" She poured the coffee and laughed. "I thought I'd try one of your own funny little sayings on you. That's what we were talking about: you always seemed to have a way with words. Hey, it's almost time for my break. Do you mind if I grab a cup and join you?"
I scanned the place for an empty table. "I'd like that. I'll get us the table in the corner over there."
Haley listened remarkably well as I went over the whole story in detail. Right down to my renewed fears that I was about to be let go. Mr. Jones didn't seem to like much of what I'd written up to that point. He was even more grumpy than usual lately and I really didn't like interrupting him. It was never a pleasant experience.
I wasn't all that impressed with what I'd assembled either. I wondered aloud whether or not the project was even possible.
"If I ever meet that Dave Ettinger who pissed off Mr. Jones and set this whole thing in motion, I'll give him a piece of my mind."
"Dave Ettinger? Really, he's the one that got your boss ticked off? You're not talking about the softball coach are you?"
Uh-oh, I thought. Here we go again. Somehow I put my foot in my mouth for what seemed to be the thousandth time this month. This project has to be cursed. I couldn't believe that it was happening again. "I've never met him, all I know about him is that he owns Velocity Software," I sighed.
"Yup, that's him." She smiled. "I didn't think he ever ticked anybody off."
"You know him?" I still couldn't believe my bad luck. Haley seemed to like him too, which made it even worse. I looked down at the table and rubbed my forehead.
Excerpted from ROCK SOLID by John Cameron Copyright © 2012 by John Cameron. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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