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We're only human we make mistakes

Oct 1, 2001 12:00 AM


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WARNING: If corporate inefficiencies or stupid management mistakes offend you, this column may be more than you can stomach.

The following stories are true. In the first, I was the beneficiary; in the second, the goat.

When I launched Footprint Communications, I intended to publish a newsletter, and then supplement that income consulting for publishing and printing companies. But then I spoke with fellow columnist Dick Gorelick, one of the most successful management and marketing consultants in our industry.

“Don't box yourself in,” advised Gorelick. “In a year, you'll be working on things you never anticipated.”

He was right — our company branched out into unexpected areas. Consulting, however, can be frustrating. Clients often ignored my advice and only occasionally implemented my suggestions.

SO NICE, THEY PAID ME TWICE

Several years ago I was retained by a Fortune 100 company, which shall remain nameless. (Trust me — it's a firm you know.) I flew to the facility and met eight executives, all of whom hung on my every word, taking notes faster than I could speak.

Naturally, the company ignored my advice to stay out of the printing industry, and wasted millions of dollars on its unsuccessful effort. But I digress.

As I left the plant, the division head pulled me aside and told me to bill the company right away. “It's tough to get new vendors into our system,” he warned. We promptly billed them, and four weeks later, we received a check. Two weeks later, we received a second check in the same amount.

“Can I tear up the check or do you need it back?” I asked my contact. His reply startled me.

“No, don't send it back,” the exec told me. “Just deposit it. It's too difficult to get it back through the system.”

I was shocked. That particular assignment has now gone down in history as my single biggest payday as a consultant.

Recently I shared this story with a former top exec from that company who is now president of another major vendor. His story was even better — he had been contacted by a supplier that had been paid six times for the same order. But, despite these blunders, the company continues to be a powerful force in the U.S. economy. Go figure.

The second story has taken me a year or so to tell — the pain and suffering were just too much to put into words. The lesson I learned is one all business people, regardless of industry, should heed. It also proves that people at small companies can make just as many stupid mistakes as those at big ones.

Our office is small. Our office manager, who had worked with us in various capacities for nearly 27 years, suddenly passed away. It was a devastating blow, but we had to move on.

We interviewed a dozen people for the position, and settled on “Evelyn” (not her real name). Most recently, she was employed at her husband's business, but she had previously worked for a publishing company and knew the lingo.

We asked for references and called several. One person, an acquaintance of mine, gave her a positive recommendation. So we hired her, and discovered that she was a quick study.

CHERCHE LA FEMME!

Because Evelyn was responsible for travel and other administrative expenses, we provided her with an American Express (AMEX) corporate card. Maybe we're too trusting, but in our 15-year history, we never had a problem.

Several months later, our AMEX bill arrived with about $2,000 worth of Evelyn's personal charges.

We confronted her and emphasized that the card was for business use only. Evelyn said that she had reached the limit on her own credit cards, but that she would give us a personal check. Of course, we revoked the card, pending her restitution.

As a small business, we pay bills as they arrive, but naturally we don't look for them. Evelyn quietly intercepted the AMEX bills.

The card company later called to tell us we were three months in arrears. We explained that we never got the bills, so the company sent them to us. We discovered Evelyn had made additional charges before we had confiscated her card. We confronted her again and she gave us a check to cover the charges.

But Evelyn also was responsible for making our bank deposits. You guessed it: She removed her check from the others she had been given to deposit and rewrote the deposit slip. Eventually, we discovered the discrepancy and fired her.

Going through her desk, we found unmailed letters and bills, as well as undeposited checks and various uncompleted office tasks. We took her to small claims court, and were awarded a judgment, which we never collected. We eventually wrote off her charges as bad debt and later found out that she had pulled the same shenanigans at another company.

The moral of these stories is that neither big nor small companies are immune to human frailties. If you don't keep your eye on the ball, it will cost you. You might not mind if you're the beneficiary of the gaffe, but trust me — you will feel like a complete idiot when you're the one being taken.