Credit: Daquella manera @ flickr“Now you’re just being humble,” the CEO said with a wide smile that disappeared into his double chin, “I know you can fix it. Tell ya’ what, I’ll owe ya’ a huuuuge favor, how ‘bout that?”

Eric wasn’t exactly sure how to respond, or even what to think. This was his very first conversation with the CEO – in fact, it was the very first time he had even seen the CEO. At least, in person: his corporate photo presented a much less portly and a much less balding man. It’s not that it was a huge company (they were about 200 strong), but it was his third day on the job, and his job title wasn’t exactly helpdesk technician.

Sensing that it’d be the prudent thing to do, Eric acquiesced. “Oh don’t get me wrong,” he backpedaled, “I’m happy to help. But like I said, I’m a database programmer, and I don’t know too much about Windows.”

Eric followed his boss’s boss’s boss down the hall and up the stairs to a posh, corner office. On a coffee table sat a monster of a laptop. It was a crimson metal beast, the kind used almost exclusively by Hollywood hackers or gaming teens with an equally excessive allowance. But instead of World of Warcraft stickers, the machine was adorned with Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer. Clearly, this wasn’t the CEO’s rig.

As Eric fumbled his way through registry settings and whatever other voodoo was needed, he did his best to make small talk with the CEO, or Howard “Four” Thurstone, IV, as he had recently learned. Making friends with the man on top seemed like it could only help. Not only could he learn a lot, but you never know when you’ll need to call in your favor.

“I hate to bug you with this,” Howard asked, “but can I borrow twenty bucks? I forgot my wallet at home, and promised Mrs. Thurstone I’d pick up pizza on the way home.”

Wow, Eric thought, a favor *and* a loan? It was looking like the start of a wonderful career.

Four’d

The next day, Eric couldn’t help but brag about meeting “Four” to Brian, his fellow database developer.

“Ah-ha-ha,” his coworker chortled, “you got Four’d. The good news is, it was only twenty bucks. Consider yourself lucky.”

Eric rolled his eyes and shook his head, responding with an “uh huh, sure, whatever you say.” Brian chuckled, and promised to fill him in on “the story”. And only a few hours later over lunch, he made good on that promise.

The company was founded in 1907 by Howard Thurstone, and quickly grew to become the largest business-to-business machine parts distributors in the southwest. Things got a little rough during the Great Depression, but Howard Thurstone’s son, Howard Thurstone, II, was able to keep the company afloat and see its expansion through the Second World War. When Howard Thurstone, III took the reins, he steered the company through the digital age and worked very hard to preen his three sons to become successful business magnates. Before not too long, they became known as The Executive Trio and helped their father in various aspects of management and operations.

And then everything changed. One day, without any warning or notice, the eldest of the trio – Howard “Four” Thurstone, IV – announced that, effective immediately, he was the new CEO and neither his father nor brothers worked for the company anymore. No one knew how or why it happened, though the rumor mill produced endless talk of sneaky deals, usurpation, lawsuits, and interfamily drama.

Within months, the burgeoning company turned into a burgeoning lifestyle. Four upgraded his Corporate AmEx to a Centurion Card, and he began spending. Not for the company of course, but for himself clients, his wife more clients, and his friends other clients.

He ditched his company Buick for a company Mercedes. And a company Porsche. And a company Hummer. And a company Cessna.

Several of the executives – including the CFO, CTO, and COO – resigned, and were replaced in short order with Four’s college friends. Their comradery came in handy, especially for the lavish executive retreats (complete with caviar and ice sculptures peeing vodka) that they’d have at the newly-purchased company resort.

Fast forward a year or so, and the company started to have financial troubles. First went the benefits: profit sharing was axed and vacation time was reduced. Then came the pay cuts. And then the furloughs. The high-paid employees who didn’t up and quit got laid off. And that’s about when Eric came in.

“You are so full of crap,” Eric scoffed, “come on... a fountain that pees vodka? I’m pretty sure everything you just said was completely fabricated.”

Brian shrugged his shoulders, “I’ve lived through half of it, and the ‘executive retreat’ photos are just on the share drive, if you really want to see for yourself.”

Payback

Eric had seen jaded and cynical, but he had never seen anyone as far gone as Brian. In fact, just to prove him wrong, Eric stopped by the CEO’s office the very next day to collect.

He didn’t get very far, but only because the CEO was on a business trip in Italy for two weeks. It was easy enough to wait out, however. The day after the CEO returned, Eric casually stopped by his office.

“Hey Four, I was just about to head out for some coffee, but I’m short on cash. Do you happen to have that twenty I lent you the other week?”

“I don’t, but I’m glad you’re here,” Four said with a sense of urgency, “I had a special project come up that I need you to take care of. Actually, we better leave now.”

Eric was not quite convinced that it was database or even software related, and did his best to avoid it. “We’re doing a migration at 1:00, can it wait?”

“Of course, your migration can certainly wait. Ready to go? Can you drive?”

It turned out the “special project” involved a $500 remote control for a $5,000 receiver that was connected to a $50,000 home theater system. The urgency, apparently, was that Mrs. Thurstone had an afternoon movie party with her friends, and they didn’t want to squint at the paltry 50” television in the living room.

Prioritization

As the months went by, Eric became less and less enthusiastic about his special friendship with Four. But at least he wasn’t alone. “Everyone in the company reports to me,” Four would often say, “and it’s my job to prioritize what they do.”

In fact, getting pulled off of your day-to-day to focus on a “special project” had a name – getting four’d – and everyone was a victim. Usually it was easy work (researching games for his children or picking up gadgets at Best Buy), but sometimes it was tenuous (coordinating a home renovation project). But as bad as that was, Four’s meddling in actual work projects was significantly worse.

Eric’s first real project was the electronic expense system. Basically, it was a web app that allowed employees to submit expense reports to accounting, and allowed accounting to streamline the bookkeeping process. It was a relatively simple application, at least until Four commandeered it.

The biggest change dictated by Four was the ability for an “executive override” of expense rejections. Basically, when an expense report was submitted, an accountant would review each expense item and book it to the appropriate general ledger account. If an expense had insufficient backup (receipts, invoices, etc) or if it was non-reimbursable (games for children, home renovation projects), it would get rejected.

The reason this became such a challenge to implement was that no one in accounting wanted their name associated with non-reimbursable general ledger entries. And because expense report items are rarely one-to-one with general ledger entries, that meant a whole lot of logic had to be introduced for “un-rejections” – capitalization, depreciation, accrual, and all sorts of other accounting concepts.

Inventory Day

The last straw for Eric came on Inventory Day, a full four months after he started.

It’s not that he minded having to travel forty miles outside the city on a Sunday to visit the company’s warehouse. For the past century, everyone in the company – even the CEO himself – had been rolling up their sleeves and helping out with inventory at least once a year. Many saw it as an education and bonding experience that reminded everyone what business they’re in.

It’s not that he minded having to count hundreds of parts. The day goes by pretty quick and it’s awfully interesting to see the wide variety of contraptions that people need and order on a day-to-day basis.

It was the twenty dollars.

The argument between Eric and Four started over something small – the inventory tally method – and it quickly spiraled out of control. The “how” was easily answerable: Eric refused to back down. But the “why” remains a mystery. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the dust, or maybe Eric subconsciously knew it was time for him to find another job.

“We’ve been in this business for a century,” the CEO briskly said, furring his brow, “I think we know what we’re doing.”

“Actually, you’ve only been doing this for a few years, I’ve been in information systems for a decade. There is no audit control here and your on-hand reconciliation is a complete mess.”

Four clenched his jaw and vigorously shook his head, causing his double chin to jiggle rather sickeningly. “No, actually, to have my job, I have to not only be able to do your job, but do it better. And since there are only 60 hours in a week, I have to pay people like you to do a half-ass job.”

“Speaking of pay... are you ever going to give me that twenty dollars you ‘borrowed’? It’s been four months!”

“Are you kidding me!? I pay you how many hundreds of dollars a week, each and every week. Are you that cheap?”

Things went downhill pretty quickly, but suffice it to say, Eric did not report to work the next day.

Unexpected News

It didn’t take Eric too long to find a gig at a reasonable company, and after a few months, he had mostly forgotten about his experience working with Four. Until he saw the evening news.

There were two key phrases that lead him to pay full attention: “Howard Thurstone, IV” and “IRS Raid”.

The former for obvious reasons, and the second because he was largely unaware that the IRS conducted raids. Audits... of course. But armed IRS agents storming in with flak jackets and bankers boxes? He always thought that was the FBI, or something.

As it turns out, the IRS frowns upon deducting non-business items. They tend to get upset when you don’t report income. They tend to get really pissed when you generate fake invoices, embezzle property from your own company, sell it for cash, and then write-off the “lost” property. That, apparently, can trigger a full-on raid.

Over the next few days, the newspaper filled in even more details. The charges were tax fraud, and with interest and penalties, the expected liability was significantly more than Four’s net worth. As a result, the company’s assets were frozen, leaving it completely unable to business or to pay any employees.

It was at that moment that Eric realized he wasn’t upset about the twenty dollars anymore - Howard Thurstone, IV needed it a lot more than he did.