Read an Excerpt
On a usual Monday morning, I’d be the first to arrive.
The gate, which was little more than a hinged version of my client’s corporate logo—the name AmeriTel splashed across the globe with three multi-colored electrons spinning inexplicably around it—would still be closed. Mine would be the only car in the parking lot, except for the night-shift security guard’s—a pink 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Seville, all tailfins and chrome—which the management made him leave in the farthest corner from the door. The official reason was that the car took up too much space. My guess was the fact that it left their bland German status symbols in the shade had more to do with it. But anyway I’d pass the guy, dozing in the otherwise deserted reception area—a double-height triangular wedge driven between the two functional wings of the building like the central tip of a “W,” and crammed with van der Rohe and Le Corbusier in the hope that the smell of money would impress the visitors—and head to the narrow second-floor office I’d requisitioned for the duration of my project. I’d check on the progress of all the new reports I’d left running over the weekend. I’d catch up on email. And I’d line up the jobs I wanted to nail that week.
It wasn’t rocket science, but it worked for me.
Until that Monday.
I knew something was up when I couldn’t park in my usual space. It had been taken by a black S-Class Mercedes. Another black Benz was tucked in next to it, and a trio of BMWs was lined up farther along the row. It made the place look more like a funeral home than an office building. But five big-hitters at work before the first pot of coffee was normally brewed? A sure sign of crisis. Something new and nasty must have hit the fan over the weekend. Not that I was surprised. Everyone knew AmeriTel was struggling. They wouldn’t have hired me if they weren’t having problems. It’s just that I was expecting a more general kind of trouble to have surfaced. Something that had pushed the whole corporation another step closer to the abyss. Not something aimed at me, personally.
The security guard wasn’t half asleep that morning. He was fully awake, waiting near the foot of the stairs with Simon Wakefield, the Chief Operating Officer—his boss, several levels removed—lurking behind him.
“Good morning, Mr. Bowman,” the guard said as I approached. I was surprised. I hadn’t realized he even knew my name. “Would you come with me, please?”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Mr. LeBrock’s waiting for you in the boardroom. He’d like to see you.”
“I know where the boardroom is. I don’t need an escort. But why does he want to see me?”
“I don’t know.”
Simon Wakefield shrugged and looked away.
“OK, then. I’ll just check on my computers, and I’ll be along in a minute.”
“No, sir.” The guard shook his head.
“What do you mean, no?”
“Mr. LeBrock wants to see you in the boardroom right away, sir.” He started to look a little flustered and tried to gesture subtly at Simon Wakefield. “Mr. LeBrock said I was to take you directly there the moment you arrived.”
Their little reception committee seemed slightly overdramatic—wouldn’t an email or a text have done the job just as well?—but there didn’t seem to be much point in arguing. There was nothing to gain by getting the security guard in trouble. Or landing him in the hospital. He wasn’t a small guy, and the stress of the confrontation—minor as it was—already had his chest heaving. And Roger LeBrock was the CEO of AmeriTel. I’d known LeBrock for fifteen years. We’d worked together before, and he was the one who’d brought me in when the first potholes started to appear in his latest road to riches. If anyone could explain what was going on that morning, LeBrock could. And he was apparently waiting for me on the second floor, so I wasted no more words on his lackeys and started up the stairs.
The building’s architects had been opposed to individual offices. They believed shutting people off from their co-workers discouraged communication, and that putting nameplates on doors fostered elitism, so the entire place was designed to be open-plan. That was fine in theory. And the sense of light and space was very attractive to prospective tenants. But the problems started once the people moved in. Human Resources needed privacy for interviewing new employees, they said. A large alcove at the far end of their section was converted into three separate rooms. And within a week, their director was unofficially but permanently ensconced in one of them. The same thing happened in the Sales area. And Marketing. And Customer Service. And as for the CEO? The boardroom—the whole of the second floor above the reception area—soon became his private domain.
Roger LeBrock was sitting in his customary spot at the far side of the boardroom table—a custom-made granite triangle, cut to match the peculiar shape of the room—when I walked in. He was wearing his signature black and blue Prada, from his glasses to his shoes. But even so, he didn’t seem his normal self. He looked thinner and somehow slightly deflated, a shadow of the grinning man who was shaking hands with Bono and Hillary Clinton and Steve Jobs and a dozen others I vaguely recognized in the photographs on the glory wall behind him.
“Marc!” He stood and moved closer to shake hands. “Good to see you. I’m glad you’re here. How was your weekend?”
“Busy. But good. Yours?”
“It was fine.” He tried to smile but only managed to mobilize one half of his face. “Now, please. Sit. There’s something we need to talk about.”
“Aren’t we waiting for the others?” I gestured to the three sets of papers piled up on the other side of the triangle.
“I don’t think so.” He returned to his chair and waited until I was seated. “They have things to attend to.”
As he spoke, the lower lid of his left eye started to tremble. Very slightly. I’d seen it do that once before. Years ago, when he’d brought me in to run numbers for him at a meeting in St. Louis. He’d been trying to revive a deal that was in danger of going south. And on that occasion, I’d known for certain he was lying through his teeth.
“That sounds ominous.”
He tried his smile again, with even less success.
“There’s no point beating around the bush, I guess, Marc. You knew we were facing some pretty serious challenges when you came on board. I was pretty candid about that, wasn’t I?”
“Where’s this going, Roger?”
“And it’s not just us. The industry as a whole is facing the biggest shakeout in its history. The landscape’s changing faster then ever before. Soon it’s going to be unrecognizable.”
“I know all this, Roger. Save it for the shareholders. What’s your point?”
“The point is, the efficiencies you’ve helped us to identify? We’re really happy with them. They’ve made a tangible difference. But now we’re in the final stretch, and things are different. We have to make some tough choices. Choices we’re not happy about making. But this is business, Marc. Our own personal happiness doesn’t factor into it.”
“The final stretch?”
“You know what I mean.”
“The bandwidth auction?”
“Of course. It’s a watershed. Win or lose, everything’ll be different.”
“And you’re not confident of winning? After all the time you’ve spent in D.C., glad-handing the stuffed shirts and bullshitting the White House committees?”
“Ask me at noon tomorrow.” He shrugged. “Then we’ll know our fate. One way or the other, the guessing’ll be over.”
“There’s no guesswork involved. Just a finite number of known outcomes, and I’ve helped you plan for all of them. The work I’ve done for you—the customer behavioral analysis, not the boring cost-saving stuff—it makes you unique. Even if you come out of the auction empty-handed and have to sell the company, it’ll be worth five times what it was before I started. At least. No one can match the kind of insights I’ve given you. They’re gold dust. They put you light-years ahead of everyone else.”
“AmeriTel will be worth fifteen times that, if we win.”
“You’ve got to keep some perspective, Roger. The other players are way bigger than you. There’s no shame in being outbid by a crew with deeper pockets. Especially if it’s the usual scenario where the winner pays too much and ends up bankrupt.”
“I’m not paying too much. I’m not a moron. I just don’t like to lose. And the bottom line is, I don’t want to lose—the company, or the extra money we’ll make if we stay in the game.”
“Are we in Death Valley yet? Has your bid gone in?”
“We’re putting in a revised bid this morning. The deadline’s five pm, eastern.”
“So isn’t this a conversation for tomorrow?”
“No. Not really. I’d like to get the decks cleared now.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s like I said. Tomorrow’s a watershed, Marc. Either way, after tomorrow we’re going to have a very different kind of company on our hands. We’re going to have very different support requirements, going forward. And that’s where those difficult choices I mentioned come in.”
“Difficult choices? Such as?”
“Look, Marc, this isn’t easy for either of us. And I want to be straight with you, right from the start. We’ve been extremely happy with the work you’ve done for us. We’ll be happy to recommend you to anyone. We’ll make sure that everything that’s due to you gets paid without delay. There might even be a couple of bonus clauses we can activate. But as of this morning, the reality is—your contract? It’s being canceled.”
My contract is being canceled? Great use of the corporate passive, I thought. All those brave words about being straight with me, but he still couldn’t take responsibility for the six inches of steel he’d just plunged between my shoulder blades. I thought about calling him on it. I thought about my wife, Carolyn, who’d encouraged me to take the contract. She was a ten-year veteran of AmeriTel and a fixture at the place—unless she didn’t fit in with the new corporate support requirement landscape bullshit, and had been bulleted, too. And then I thought about my weekend, which had mostly been spent there at AmeriTel instead of at home with her. Again.
“Difficult choices? I’ve got news for you. You need a new dictionary, my friend. Because you’re confusing difficult with stupid. Have you got any idea how much money you’re setting fire to, letting me go? How many opportunities you’re going to miss out on?”
“I understand you’re frustrated.” He clasped his hands and placed them on the table in front of him with all the practiced sincerity of a TV preacher. “You’re brilliant at what you do, and I truly respect that. But try to look at things from our perspective. We’re facing a time of unprecedented change. We need to trim our cost base to the bone. And we need our operations to be as lean and agile as they can possibly be.”
“And there’s no room for me in that picture?”
“I’m afraid not. Look, this day’s dawned a little sooner than you or I expected, but we always knew it was coming. That’s the point of using consultants, right?”
“If you think that, you’re even more stupid than I realized. You want to cut costs? How much do I cost you?”
“You’re firing me to save money, so it’s a fair question. How much do I cost you?”
“Marc. Be reasonable. I don’t have your contract in front of me. I can’t comment on the details. Only on the overall principles we’re trying to adhere to—”
“I cost you nothing. I take a percentage of everything I save you. And a percentage of everything extra you make, based on my ideas. Keeping me costs you nothing. Fact. And firing me will lose you money. Fact.”
“It’s not that simple, Marc.”
“It is that simple. Without my analytics you won’t know where your inefficiencies are. And you won’t know where to aim your new products. If you’re worried about cost, firing me is the last thing you should do.”
“Your initiatives have been very successful up to now, sure. That’s why we’re paying you, and why I said we’d be happy to endorse your work. But here’s the real problem: What you do is make recommendations based on the past. Now, a lot of your insights are fascinating. And those grenades you hit us with early on? Like that sales guy you found running an escort service on company time? Dynamite. But if things haven’t already happened, how can you analyze them? You see? You’re rooted in history, Marc. We’re not. AmeriTel’s entering a new era. We need different thinking. Future thinking. Radical transformation, not a way to milk the most out of the status quo.”
“If you don’t understand your history, you’re doomed to repeat your mistakes.”
“Oh, that old chestnut. Maybe it holds water for countries or governments or whatever. But not for the telecommunications industry. We’re moving too fast for that.”
“You’re moving fast, no doubt. But in which direction? Straight over the cliff? How can you tell? If you can’t measure, you can’t manage. And without me, you can’t measure. Not as well as you can with me, anyway. I think I’ve proved that.”
A large frown spread across LeBrock’s face, then he nodded.
“You’re right,” he said, quietly, after a moment. “Everything you’ve done here has been first class. If I’ve given you the impression we have a problem with your work, I apologize. If I’ve given you the impression we have a problem with you personally, I apologize. And if I’ve given you the impression this subject is up for debate, I doubly apologize. Because it isn’t. It’s done. I wish it hadn’t panned out this way. But my job’s not to do what’s nice. It’s to do what’s right for the company.”
I didn’t reply. I was back to thinking about the previous weekend. Something had struck me. Maybe my time hadn’t been completely wasted, after all. Especially if that’s the way they wanted to play the game.
“Come on.” LeBrock stood and held out his hand once again. “We’ve worked together before. I know we will again. Let’s part as friends. And think of Carolyn. How would she feel if you were dragged out of here in handcuffs?”
“Speaking of Carolyn, how about her job? Is she safe?”
“If we win this damn auction tomorrow, yes. I guarantee it. If we don’t—I won’t lie to you, Marc. I can’t promise anything. But I’ll do everything I can to make sure Carolyn’s looked after.”
“You better.” I took his hand. “I’ll hold you to that. And good luck tomorrow. For her sake, at least.”
“Thanks. I appreciate your understanding. Oh, sorry, there’s one other thing. The stuff you left in the office you were using? It’s been boxed up. It’s being shipped to your home. Simon Wakefield insisted. Security falls under Simon, so I couldn’t really argue.”
“And the computers?”
“Were any of them yours?”
“One of them. One of the new notebooks.”
“Then it’ll be in the box. You’ll have it by lunchtime.”
“And the company computers? Just out of interest.”
“Simon’s already set the IT boys to work on them. Stripping them down. Wiping the discs. Getting them ready for whatever tomorrow brings, I guess. With the level of access you had, you know we couldn’t just leave them lying around.”
I nodded. Wiping the computers clean was fine with me. I’d put a lot of effort into building those databases. If I wasn’t going to be there any longer, why should anyone else benefit from them?
From the Hardcover edition.