Some years earlier our European finance group decided to implement a new IT system, which like most such schemes, was late and over budget. Finally the UK was selected to be the first to implement the new systems. An external team was parachuted in to attempt to do in a few short months what should have taken a year or more. It was obvious that the system hadn’t been fully developed and the implementation process was horrendous and continued to be subject to endless fixes, that unknown to all, would leave gaping holes.
Another decision that was taken under heavy pressure from Europe was the appointment of a new Financial Director for the UK (who shall be nameless). Recruited in Brian’s time, Nameless came with glowing recommendations from his previous (internal audit) role. He initially appeared to be competent but over time I began to realise that his interpersonal and management skills were severely lacking and had brought this to the attention of Claude the VP Finance in Geneva. What I didn’t realise (until it was too late) was that he also lacked key functional skills that I might have spotted had I been more experienced. Whilst preoccupied with the pricing & margin scenarios that were playing out at the time I discovered that we had suffered a stock loss that Nameless had not revealed to me. The loss was not huge in relation to our business but large enough (at $250k) and the brown stuff hit the fan. Suddenly, everyone in head office was an IT and an accounting expert and making known opinions on the UK situation. An accounting hit man was put in to get to the bottom of it. The process rumbled on for months with the interim result that Nameless was fired and I would make a big mistake.
By this time the stock loss had become a cause celebre within the company and it was being used to settle scores. In the middle of all this Gregg had made one of his lightning lunchtime raids on me and demanded to know if I had known about the stock loss prior to it becoming public knowledge. My mind was in turmoil. If I admitted that I had known nothing of it, I would demonstrate that I didn’t have my hands around the accounting and IT functions in the UK (which was true enough). On the other hand if I said I was aware of it but hadn’t blown the whistle, I could stand accused of being complicit (which I wasn’t). In a snap decision that haunts me still, I lied and claimed I had been aware of the situation earlier. Ultimately, it became known that the loss was a paper one and stock had never physically disappeared. The issue had been faulty IT and accounting systems that couldn’t reconcile all the components of a transaction with the physical stock. The head office IT and Accounts people were in full CYA mode and Claude never forgave me for making known that his appointment (Nameless) was a very poor manager. He was also ‘retired’ a short time later but I came out of this episode badly.
Early in 1992 Gregg met me for what transpired to be the most open conversation we ever had. He shared with me his view that I was a very bright strategic thinker and a loyal manager. He went on to say that he felt I’d had a terrible set of problems to deal with but was too much of a nice guy who did not fight enough, “Nice guys come last!” It was clear from other comments he made that a fairly comprehensive image destruction job had been carried out on me by others in the head office team. He went on to share with me the news that he intended to integrate my company with another in the group (Linolite) and that I was not being given the role of heading up this new structure. I put up a spirited defence but to no avail. Gregg said that his view was that I had done a fantastic job in the past but that I might have been out of my depth with all the problems I’d had to deal with, “Anyone might have been.” he said and then added, “but I don’t want to lose you from the organisation.” I had worked tirelessly (and yes, in difficult circumstances) and could not have spent more time with either our customers or my people or had more support from them. I was deflated.
I was duly served with notice of redundancy but simultaneously what I considered a non-job was created for me. I had to sit on the sidelines, in a shiny new office, as my company was merged with Linolite by Gregg’s new protégé. The only factor the two businesses had in common was that they both sold via the distribution channel and I could only disagree with the manner in which the businesses were merged. My non-job was boring in an extreme and I took full advantage of the outplacement programme that was also offered to me.
My consultant, Max Eggert, was the most fascinating character who had the most profound and beneficial effect on me. Max put me through a battery of psychometric tests and the words he used to describe me from the results were, “tough, strong leader, stable, assertive, competitive, change agent, highly creative, socially strong, relaxed, self-assured, secure, open, self-sufficient, warm, enthusiastic”. These were very similar to results that I had been given some years earlier by a Professor of Psychology at Yale (Vic Vroom) describing me as, “a strong leader, visionary, with a participative and informal style and a transformational leader”. I felt somewhat vindicated, that I had been in the right role and decided that I would use my severance package to take a full time MBA and start afresh. I applied and was accepted for the programme at Bradford Business School to start in the October of that year. However, events soon took an unexpected turn that led me to decline the offer.
Soon after it was announced that our parent company GTE was putting the $2bn global Sylvania lighting business up for sale. Whether my analysis of the industry and presentation to the President had played any part in this, I have no idea. But I had clearly been correct in my analysis of the situation. Another decision was announced soon after; that Gregg was retiring. His replacement was Don, another American, and an accountant by profession from elsewhere in the organisation. The European business limped on hindered by a hiring and firing freeze with rumours and uncertainties rampant. I couldn’t have done too badly in my new non-job as my records show that Don awarded me a bonus for that year! As my redundancy was effectively placed on hold and my salary was still being paid I continued to fill my days as best I could. I ignored as many of the duties of my non-job that I could as they were futile. However, events overtook me and a life changing event took place that demonstrated to me that I hadn’t learnt all the lessons from my psychometric testing that I might have done.
Early in 1992 I took a call from Alain, the European VP for HR. I was asked if I would take on the role of European Product Manager for a group of our products and be based in the Factory in Belgium. My heart sunk as this was a role that filled me with horror. It had no line authority over the subsidiaries, their pricing or their activities but carried responsibility for the results. It was also the product group that I knew to be struggling the most (and has subsequently been killed off by EU regulations). I was never normally one to fail to respond when a challenge was put to me but I decided that this was a dead horse that would not respond to flogging. I entered into a delicate process of negotiation, claiming that I wanted to assist the company but that the details had to be right for both parties. I managed to drag the negotiations out for weeks whilst I did my research on life as an ex-pat in Belgium. I pushed and wrangled, had meetings and more meetings and continued to delay until I had got to the point where I could procrastinate no longer. Then, miraculously, at a minute to midnight, I was saved.
Alain came on the phone on the day I had committed to make a decision and said to forget Belgium. Louis was leaving his role as VP Marketing in Geneva to run the operation in France. This was the role I had wanted many years ago and I knew it would look good on my CV if things took a turn for the worse following a sale of the business (if indeed it ever happened). I started to negotiate but it soon became clear that, given the circumstances, they were desperate to fill the role and I was the only one in the frame. By the time we had finished I had on the table a salary in Swiss Francs that had doubled, a company flat with cleaner and all bills paid, a company car in Switzerland, the retention of my company car in the UK, business class travel to and from Geneva each week (or for Denise if she wished to join me in Geneva) and the guarantee of a severance package based on all this if I was made redundant from Switzerland (plus repatriation to the UK). Delaying only for a discussion with Denise I accepted.
Would it work out? Or had I gone from the frying pan into the fire?
Image courtesy of c&maccounting.co.uk