--- M A R Y C L A R K E
It started with a phone call from that idiot at UpStaart Corporation, Eric Masters. It came on a normal Tuesday: fruitless meeting, hour at the gym, hour returning phone calls that came in during the fruitless meeting, late-day contract scribbling.
Masters calls, introduces himself, and gives me some bullshit about him being a bridge between BIG Company—-my employer--and UpStaart. Did you ever notice there's always something smelly going on under bridges? Masters wants another copy of the bid request for computer maintenance, officially known as a Request For Quotation, that I sent out the previous week. UpStaart already has one. Like I have nothing better to do all day than make extra copies of stuff for people who are too lazy to go down the hall.
I wouldn't do it anyway. I'm absolutely obsessive-compulsive about my RFQs; they all get sent at exactly the same time using exactly the same carrier, I never give any information after they're mailed out, I won't accept any bids after the specified time, you get the idea. I don't generally fuss about things, my office looks like it suffered an explosion, but I think you have to be really careful that no one gets an advantage over anyone else with this stuff. After all, some of the contracts awarded to the bidders are worth a few million dollars a year.
Anyway, Masters reminds me that BIG Company just bought UpStaart, gives me some crap about us being on the same team and making things happen. I really hate these stupid sports analogies. If I were on a team, which I'm definitely not, it wouldn't be Masters'. As for making things happen, well, as my father would say, Masters couldn't score in a whorehouse with a hundred dollars on a Monday night. Score? Shit, I'm starting to do it too.
UpStaart doesn't win the bid, which is no surprise to me. They do good work, but they're too small to service a large computer center. They'd only been in business five years when all this started and they didn't have the technical talent, test equipment, or space and money to stock all the parts they would need for such a big project.
Masters calls back to get the bad news and his boss is on the line. This guy is a real bozo too. He gives me more same team bullshit and actually suggests that I'm falling off the welcome wagon by not giving UpStaart the bid. He's dumb, but he's got balls.
A few weeks later I'm preparing another bid package for an even bigger and more critical location. Enter John Drake, former middle-level manager at BIG Company, now vice-president of UpStaart. Wonder if he goes for that big fish/little pond shit or if he just pissed somebody off. He certainly pisses me off when he tells me, not asks me but tells me, that for this bid UpStaart won't respond on the date but will call after the bid opening, get the lowest price from me, and then enter a quote just lower than the lowest price. You just have to tell me what to beat, he says. I want to tell him exactly what to beat, but refrain. I say, essentially, no way. He reminds me that BIG Company now owns UpStaart and he uses the "t" word. He tells me that Steve Davis, God's right-hand man at BIG Company, wants this to happen. I tell him that Davis never told me to break the law, which is what he's suggesting. Now we're both pissed off. He hangs up and, in a weak moment, I think about telling my boss about the call. It isn't every day I get threatening phone calls from vice-presidents of subsidiaries. But the boss is the poorest excuse for a human being on the planet so I keep it to myself.
Well, not really to myself---I talk it over with Patty, another buyer and a good buddy, that day at lunch. She doesn't think it's as big a deal as I do; she reminds me that Drake doesn't work for BIG Company anymore, that he may be a VP, but he's somebody else's VP and he can't tell me what to do. Besides, she says, BIG Company would never want us to do anything illegal.
A few weeks go by, blissful weeks in which I slave over details of contracts, have fulfilling discussions with double-talking lawyers, duck lunches with sycophant salesmen, and forget about UpStaart. Until I get a call from Milton Russell, a lawyer I worked with in a previous job. Milton and I catch up on old times, even though we don't really have any, then he springs. As much as Milton can spring with that fat ass of his.
He tells me about the UpStaart buyout, I guess he thinks I don't read the company newspapers, and says he's calling because Drake told him I need to be updated on what is, and isn't, illegal. Russell is now general counsel for UpStaart and I'm sure he pissed somebody off. He wants to let me know that there is no statutory law prohibiting the award of business to a subsidiary.
I tell him I realize that, and that any subsidiary of BIG Company gets the same consideration that anyone else does who wants to do business with us. We argue for a little while about the status of wholly-owned subsidiaries, about the applicability of the Uniform Commercial Code, about the ramifications of using money garnered partially from a state-regulated business to fund a non-regulated subsidiary. Sadly, we just can't agree. Russell continues to maintain that there is nothing on the books that outlaws what UpStaart, and Drake, want me to do. I remind him that there was nothing on the books about insider trading either, but that I don't see myself in federal prison. I'm too long-waisted for jump suits and I don't play golf.
Now he's pissed off too and I'm realizing that, if this keeps up, no one at UpStaart will like me. What I don't know is that this will keep up and that I will acquire enemies in a lot more places than UpStaart.
The day after the Russell phone call, I have lunch with my old boss Ted. Ted still works for BIG Company, but in a different department. I tell him about the UpStaart thing and he says I worry too much. That Drake wasn't a brain trust before his transfer and he's just flexing the muscles he thinks come with a new title. That Russell is a weenie and just doing what he's told. That BIG Company would never ask me to do anything illegal. I feel much better and even get an ice-cream cone to celebrate.
Jump ahead a month or so and I'm down in Washington at a meeting. Someone passes me a note at the lunch break. It's from Gary Grossman, an almost big guy in the BIG Company hierarchy. Wants to see me in his office after the meeting. All I'm thinking is that I'll probably miss the Metroliner if I have to talk to this clown for too long. I'm forgetting what I learned in school--that anytime you get a note from anyone in authority telling you to be in their office after anything you're doing, you're screwed. Which is of course what happens.
Gary is so sleazy that I never want to sit on any furniture he may have occupied. So I don't sit down when I show up at his office, also I'm still thinking about the Metroliner. He tells me that he wants me to award a contract, a big contract, to UpStaart no matter what it takes. I don't work in Gary's department, but he is the equivalent of my boss's boss's boss, so this is some serious shit.
I explain my position to Gary and, what a surprise, he gets pissed off. So I give in and tell him that, if I get a letter at department head level telling me to give the business to UpStaart outright, I'll be happy to. Gary says we can't do that, that the bid process makes everything look on the up and up. Even I didn't give Gary credit for being this slimy. I tell him that giving one vendor advantage over another in a bid is illegal. He draws an imaginary line in the carpet with the toe of his wing tip and slams his foot down in a space just to one side of his line, telling me that what he is proposing is still within the bounds of legality. I tell him I believe it's illegal regardless of what he says, and that, furthermore, it's unethical. At the mention of ethics, he starts melting and shrieking like the Wicked Witch of the West. I'm surprised---I didn't think he knew what ethics were.
After his secretary gets him a glass of water and he calms down, I repeat my offer to give UpStaart the maintenance business outright and tell him that, if that's not good enough, he can get another contract specialist to do that portion of my job. I have enough to do anyway. He says no to both; I have to do the bids because, get this, I have a reputation for honesty in the industry. If someone else takes over and UpStaart starts winning all the bids, it won't look on the up and up. I point out that not only will it not look on the up and up, it won't be on the up and up. Too many ups are making me dizzy and I inch closer to the door. So you'll do it next bid, he says. Have I been speaking Dutch, I wonder. No, I'm sorry, I just can't, I say and leave before he starts foaming at the mouth.
All the way home on the local I try to calculate how many months I can live without a pay check. I fiddle with those figures in my head for awhile and remember how hard it is to find a job these days. And think about all the things I truly like about my work at BIG Company. But realize that I just can't fix a bid no matter what else happens. And go back to mentally cutting expenses and hitting my parents for a loan.
The next day my boss takes one of his half vacation days, the kind where he leaves at ten A.M. Which means I can talk to John, the Regional Manager, without him. I tell him all about the phone calls and about the impromptu meeting with Gary. Luckily, he's really appalled. He thinks he should confront Gary about it, but eventually agrees that we should, as he puts it, "take a wait-and-see attitude."
Well, we don't have to wait long. That same week Gary pays us a surprise visit. I happen to be in John's office discussing another project when Gary steams in with his flock of minions. That guy trails suck-butts like methane from a runaway fertilizer truck. He gives John and I one of his fulsome grins, asks after our general well-being, and starts on the UpStaart thing. John is several degrees less sleazy than Gary, sort of like the difference between Pete Rose and Mike Tyson. There I go with the sports again. Anyway, John knows enough to keep quiet while Gary goes through his spiel, trying to sound as if he knows anything at all about the laws of business organizations. I practically have to stuff my fingers in my mouth to keep from commenting. John gives me shut-your-mouth looks and I calm down before long anyway because, after all, matching wits with a gomer like Gary isn't even sport.
At the end of Gary's harangue, John winks at me, thanks Gary for his concern, reminds him that the maintenance contracts are the responsibility of his department, and says we'll keep his issues in mind. Gary can't tell if he's been heard or not and that makes him nervous, but he takes off anyway for another meeting, assuring us that we'll all eventually be on the same page. I love that—I can see the Bartlett's entry fifty years from now: "We're all on the same page" -Gary Grossman, Corporate Dick.
As soon as they leave, John drops the sphinx routine and starts blathering about Gary not being interested in the future of UpStaart but in the downfall of John. He's convinced that the whole mess has been concocted for the sole purpose of fucking him over. He goes through various scenarios about what the unknown perpetrators have as a goal, starting with me working for Gary and him losing big-dollar, high-profile contracts and ending with him getting transferred to the Accounts and Records Department, corporate Siberia. I tell him I'd take the gas pipe before I'd work for Gary and try to convince him that the UpStaart thing is not directed at him. He's not buying. He seems to honestly believe that several vice-presidents would actually get together and plan a complex action that involves many other people and unfolds over a series of months just to do him in. Why wouldn't they just fire his ass? I guess John pissed a lot of people off too and now he just waits to get it in the neck.
Two days later I get approached from another direction. Joe Seegar, a buddy of mine from the IT department, asks me to join him for lunch at a dark and quiet restaurant on the other side of town. I'd flatter myself that he's looking for some conference room slap-and-tickle, but I've known him too long. Besides, I doubt he's that subtle about sex. I'm guessing he's heard lay-off rumors about some mutual friends who've been waiting for the ax since last year. Joe and I work closely together on most of the large computer maintenance contracts but it doesn't occur to me that UpStaart is the issue until I'm almost at the restaurant.
Sure enough. Joe's on his second martini by the time I get there and I'm not even late. He tells me the third-in-command at the IT Department called him into a meeting the day before and introduced him to Masters, Drake, and Russell, the three amigos from UpStaart. They gave Joe the teams, bridges, and same-page crap they gave me. Joe says he got a real bad feeling from them and so didn't say much. Understandably. They stated that my department wasn't being cooperative and suggested that IT lean on us to do the right thing, the best thing for the corporation. Later, Joe went back to the IT boss and told him he was uncomfortable with UpStaart's suggestions and that he would continue to use the process we've been using for years. The "following-accepted-procedures" line usually works well with these guys. But the IT boss told him that times were changing and that he'd better keep up.
Joe orders his third martini and I'm worried that I may have to carry him back to the office. Over burgers we vow to remain steadfast because, after all, the ultimate decisions about vendors belong to us, we're respected professionals, and no one would try to force us to act against our principles. Joe may have been drunk, but I have no excuse for being so deluded.
A short time later I hatch a plan to appease UpStaart's hunger. Several smallish systems are coming off of warranty and will need contract coverage and they are the just the kind of thing that UpStaart can handle: non-critical applications, pretty standard equipment, and the location is close to their biggest warehouse. I am so pleased with myself; I just know this will make them happy enough to go away for awhile. I can be so off the mark sometimes. I call Eric Masters and announce smugly that I'm giving him the new business and wait for him to blubber with happiness. Instead, he coldly tells me that UpStaart can take over the systems I'm suggesting, but that he's gravely disappointed that they haven't been given the entire site. I'm floored. Six months ago he would've been kissing my ass at news like this; after all, it's a few hundred thousand dollars a year. Before I can answer, Masters says that what I'm proposing just isn't enough, that UpStaart needs much more of my business than that. He starts to whine that other customers will never hire UpStaart if they find out that UpStaart has less than 20% of BIG Company's business. After I hang up I'm still so disconcerted that I can't get anything else done. A salesman is disappointed that I've just handed him enough commission to buy a new boat? I go for a long walk and take the early train home.
My bright idea seems to piss everyone off at UpStaart; instead of seeing the new business as a start, they're insulted. Phone calls and demands for meetings come pouring in from seemingly everywhere. I repeat my mantra—UpStaart not big enough, illegal, unethical—to bosses up and down the line in IT and Purchasing. At first I think the IT big-wigs don't believe hiring UpStaart for large critical locations will get them into trouble, that they'll have more down-time than they could imagine. Then I realize they just don't care. They believe that Davis, corporate Apollo, has mandated this and they don't want to be the one who says no. Which leave me to keep saying it until I can't remember what yes feels like.
One day John, my district manager, caves in. He calls me into his office and tells me we can't hold out any longer. Meaning he can't. He claims they'll do it anyway, that IT will do their own contracts and the Purchasing Department will be left out of the loop. Out of the loop is a place I've often longed for, a much better spot, I think, than on the same page. I argue that they won't have the nerve to pull the contracts from us, they know the whole idea stinks and they're worried how it would look. They want to put the blame somewhere when all this goes south and Purchasing always provides a direction in which to point your finger when your ass is headed for a sling.
You have about as much luck reasoning with a more-than-mid-level manager as you do with a sheep, so round and round we go for hours. I finally give up the debate, but not the cause, and go back to my office to place a call to the Legal Department. I used to work in Legal so I'm pretty friendly with a few of the lawyers there, Milton Russell notwithstanding. Also, I still work with them on contracts in this job. I call Marie Booth, a really sharp attorney who's been doing commercial law for years, and ask if I can meet with her right away. She hesitates and asks what's up, but I put her off 'til I get there. After I tell her the whole mess she's outraged, as I'd hoped, and says she'll take it up with the General Counsel, the top lawyer in the department, in the morning. Before I get on the train, I pick up the paper and check the employment ads on the ride home.
Next day Marie calls and she sounds really freaked out. She says I need to come over there at six tonight and that's all she'll say. When I get there she tells me we're expected in the General Counsel's office. The news isn't good; she fills me in as well as she can on the elevator on the way up to the executive floor.
The General Counsel, whose name is Michael but I always think of him as "Buck", doesn't get up or shake my hand. I'd like to tell him we met at a conference last year but I figure it's a bad idea. Buck looks as pissed-off as anyone in this sorry skit so far. Before I can sit, he asks me if I've gone to anyone outside the company on this. When I get indignant, he points out that I've gone outside my department to Marie, over the heads of those above me. Funny he sees it that way; I'm feeling a lot more under than over.
Buck outlines his position which is, essentially, to do whatever Davis and company want him to do. No one goes to lawyers to be told they can't do what they want, he says. A lawyer's job, and a contract specialist's, he adds, is to keep the boss happy. I work up the nerve to ask him if Davis actually did say he wanted us to fix bids. Anyone who's had even a temp job in any corporation knows that if the CEO said everything that was credited to him he'd have to be talking non-stop twenty-four hours a day. Buck doesn't like that—he says fixing bids isn't really what's being discussed and that it's not up to me to question Davis. I tell him that maybe I'm not sure what is being discussed then, that giving a vendor bid information that can be used to win that bid sounds like fixing to me. Buck explains his definition of "fixing" which doesn't seem all that different. I am suddenly so tired of all this that I just want to go home. Even I can see I'm getting nowhere.
After we leave Buck's office, I ask Marie what she really thinks. Turns out she agrees with me but is totally upset that I've put her in this position. She doesn't feel she can back Buck but is slated for early retirement in less than five years and doesn't want to mess that up. I'm too old to start over in a firm, she tells me. I feel really bad that I've put her in the middle of this. I apologize and tell her I'll try not to bring her into it again.
Because I'm not going to back down. I continue my routine and, oddly enough, I don't hear anything about UpStaart for a few weeks. My bosses don't mention it even though it's always in the air, or so it seems to me. The IT people seem to actually avoid me, unless I'm just getting paranoid. I'm fatalistic about the whole thing now; I figure I'll just keep working as long as I can and, when the next big bid comes up in a few months, I'll get fired. Worse things happen to people. Worse things have probably happened to me, although I do feel sorry for myself occasionally.
Almost a month after the meeting with Buck, I'm getting ready for work and I hear on news radio that HUGE Company, an unrelated but similar business to BIG, has been charged with bid-tampering. I grab the paper at the train station and, sure enough, HUGE was helping one of their subsidiaries to get their business. Anti-trust infractions are cited and the Justice Department guy calls it "a duplicitous action that violates every code of fair business dealing." My office is buzzing about it and John calls me in immediately to congratulate us on not making the same mistake. That's why we're so valuable, he says, we're the ethics watchdogs in the business. He's certainly some type of dog but I'm just so relieved that I won't have to sell my house that I don't even care. Besides, I'm just tired.
So how does it all end up? The HUGE Corporation gets fined $36,000,000 by the Justice Department and their entire Purchasing Department, except for a handful of paper-clip buyers and file clerks, gets fired. No one at BIG ever acknowledges anything happened, at least to me, except Joe Seegar and John. These days when I go to meetings with the big bosses I get a chilly reception and I'm not included in most of the non-necessary conversation. I know I've retained a reputation as a non-team player who's not on the same page.
About three months after the HUGE scandal breaks, BIG runs a three-day ethics seminar in Washington that is mandatory for all employees. The irony of BIG running an ethics seminar in Washington is lost on many. I am forced to go and, after lunch on the first morning, Gary Grossman walks in to give a lecture on ethical vendor selection. I walk out and take the first Metroliner home.
© crossconnect 1995-2001
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |