Posts Tagged ‘Fraud’

Layoffs & Excel: How I Started Writing Shimmer

August 17th, 2010 Comments off
Somehow, when I was 35 years old, I found myself as Chief Operating Officer of a $15 million publishing company. We employed 200 people, we published all over the country, we had plans to grow even bigger, faster. I think I got that title largely because of a moment some years earlier, when we were trying to raise money from venture capitalists, but lacked a CFO who could provide them the details they needed. The owner of the company looked at me and said, “Do you think you can put together a spreadsheet?” I had no financial background. Minimal understanding of accounting. I’d been hired as an editor. But the owner was, like so many entrepreneurs, one of those people to whom it is almost impossible to say no. “Sure I can,” I said. I locked myself in my office for a month, taught myself the dark inner workings of Excel, and proceeded to construct an extraordinarily — perhaps ridiculously — elaborate model of all aspects of the company’s operations. When I was done, it was more than 500 pages long. There was no Ponzi scheme behind the model. But as we presented it to potential investors, it became clear that the complexity of the model gave it a self-fulfilling quality. The investors studied the numbers. And they wanted to believe. And so, in those same meetings, my mind started to wander. What would it be like to create a model built on a lie? At night, in the morning, I started to work on Shimmer. Meanwhile, the publishing company had grown too fast and gotten too big. We started cutbacks, layoffs, firings. It was awful. I stood in rooms of 20 people, all of them getting laid off. I met with a woman who’d just had a baby, laying her off as she cried into her hands. I laid one person off over the phone, calling her at home because she’d been sick, using a speakerphone to end it as she lay in bed in her trailer. She’d been with the company for 10 years. Those moments haunt me still. The realization that with my extravagant title, my elaborate model, and my power to have hired so many of these people, with all that I had taken these people into my trust. Every layoff and cutback, however, felt like a violation of that trust. I violated it often. In 2002, I bought five cases of beer, called a staff meeting, and told the remaining 60 people they no longer had a job. We had found investors, but they turned out to be in financial trouble beyond anything I could have imagined. The bank cut our funding. They stopped taking my calls. In the end, there wasn’t even enough money to file bankruptcy. We just walked away. For weeks, the phones still rang. The Web sites were still live. Even the email worked. I assume it was the landlord who finally shut off the lights.

Robbie Case and the Real-Life Frauds – The three parts of Robbie

July 28th, 2010 Comments off
Someone asked me about the similarities between Robbie and any real-life frauds who run companies around the world. One note about the following is that, a year or so into the first draft of Shimmer, I realized that Robbie, Perry and Trevor had never appeared in the same room together. That realization, and the way in which each of the three formed the kind of whole described below, is what led me to end the book the way it ends. Without going too far with this, when I think about whether Robbie is symbolic of any real-life corruption, I have to think of him as three people — he’s Perry, Robbie and Trevor all in one. They are three views of the executive in the midst of the fraud. Trevor is at one extreme — the person who knows about the fraud, who was actually part of setting it in motion, and doesn’t care. Perry is at the other extreme — living in a kind of hopeful denial, wishing what he feels to be true wasn’t real, yet nonetheless working quietly to bring the fraud to an end. And then there’s Robbie, in the middle, knowing what he is doing is wrong, struggling with the ethics and morality of it every day, wanting not to benefit from the fraud, but unable to confess to the fraud, or to reject the fraud completely. So how does that relate to real-life frauds? I think the truth is that real-life frauds are more varied in their motivations than we want to admit, more so, at least, than the press often shows. Some of these people are purely and consciously diabolical. These are the Trevor’s of the world. But some are clearly more conflicted, they are swept up in a corruption that, while it’s of their own making, they want to undo it, like Robbie. And some are blind to the truth because they believe in what they’re doing but are, eventually, too smart and too caring to deny the truth forever, like Perry. Perry, for instance, in my mind, would have become a whistle-blower had Robbie not agreed to give everything up. Whistle-blowers — of corporate or government corruption – are modern heroes, I think. The pressure and threats that they face when they fight their bosses, when they speak truth to power, it’s unimaginable. We all can talk a good talk about doing what’s right, about avoiding anything unethical, but if it’s you’re job — the paycheck that feeds your children, that heats your house, that puts food on the table — if all that is on the line, would you speak up? Would you put yourself at risk? So many people wouldn’t. Perry, in that sense, is the true goodness in the novel. Not just because he listens to his own ethical voice, but especially because he helps — pushes, goads, enables — Robbie to find his own best self, the self that can give everything up, that can do what is right. Put another way, some of these frauds we see are, I am sure, awful people. People I wouldn’t want to share a cab with, wouldn’t enjoy a drink with. But other people who we see getting led away from the courtroom, I think that most of us would, if we spent time with them and learned what led them to them to their fraudulent and corrupt acts, we’d find that they were actually quite nice. Quite decent. Well intentioned. Human.