Monday, November 24, 2014

Roadies With Uncle Buck

“No bumps?  No powder?  Do you like sex?”

Ben Walters was a tax division partner and a fixture in the Andersen Denver office. He was a large man with little hair and wire frame glasses.  Ben had several nicknames.  The one I can repeat is Uncle Buck, after the title character in the 1989 movie starring John Candy.  The analogy is fitting in that Ben seemed an authoritative babysitter struggling to understand his young charges in the Tax Division.

Ben specialized in the real estate industry.  He also possessed textbook knowledge of the partnership provisions of the tax laws.  I think of Ben as a throwback to the old school accounting professional: very competent in tax  "technical" knowledge but lacking in bedside manner. It was a luxury to have a resource like Ben available for questions and strategic planning.  That luxury came at a price.  Advice from Ben usually came at the cost of some grumbling and moaning that went something like this:

"Why did they do it that way? That doesn't make any sense."

"I don't know Ben.  They did what they did and we are trying to get to a better place."

"I hope we didn't advise them to do it this way. Anybody can see this isn't the right approach."

"So can we talk about how we might approach a solution?"

"I can't believe they did this."

"Yes Ben, whoever did this should lose their license and go to jail.  Can we get into problem-solving mode?"

I was always tempted to bust out the concept of sunk costs, but it wouldn't have done any good.  Ben had to go through his "cranky" phase on his journey to advisory mode.  An artist suffering, or making others suffer, for his art.

I shared three Colorado ski area clients with Ben: Steamboat Springs, Copper Mountain, and Crested Butte.  Ben, a transplanted Texan, loved the Colorado mountains and owned a luxurious condominium in Silverthorne, Colorado.  Andersen did not generate a ton of tax fees from these clients but everybody wanted to have them.  Ski areas were high status clients and a ready excuse to enjoy a day on the slopes under the guise of client relationship. Then again, “enjoy” may be too generous a term when your ski buddy is Uncle Buck.

On Super Bowl Sunday 1991 Ben and I hit the road for Copper Mountain.  I had lobbied Ben to make this a Friday excursion but he opted for Sunday instead.  Giving up a workday to ski with Ben is no big deal. Days off at Andersen were scarce so giving up a Sunday to ski with Ben was a much bigger sacrifice.  The plan was that Ben would meet me at my house since I lived west of Denver and was “on the way” to Copper Mountain.

Ben pulled into my driveway right on time Sunday morning.  He was driving a very long older Mercedes sedan.  I agreed to drive since my car had a ski rack and was better in the snow.  We loaded up the car and backed out of the driveway.  Ben stared at his car parked in front of my house on a quiet side street and fretted a little. 

“Can I put my car in your garage?”

I didn’t see the need.  The car was safe where it was and there was no threat of bad weather.  But owing that he was the boss I agreed.

 “Sure, just make sure you pull it all the way in, it looks pretty long.”

Ben maneuvered the Benz into the garage and worked his way back into my car.  I hit the garage door button and started to pull away just as Ben screamed:

“My car!”

Oops.  The garage door had slammed down on the back bumper of Ben's Mercedes.  The fact that I had warned him to make sure it was all the way inside was not going to absolve me from guilt.

“Sorry, Ben,” I lamely offered while inspecting the bumper.  “Doesn’t seem the worse for wear.”

I think Ben snarled at me.  He then backed the car out of the garage and left it sitting in the driveway.  On the third attempt I was finally able to pull out of my side street to begin our excellent adventure to Copper Mountain.

It took Ben and me a little while to reach a d├ętente with respect to our road trip audio choices.  I had Billy Idol’s Vital Idol CD playing in the car when we started out.  Apparently Mony, Mony is not one of Ben’s Sunday morning favorites. 

“ What is this crap? Can’t we just find some talk radio?”

“Fine by me.”

Ben went through every dial on the spectrum before landing on some type of outdoorsman show.  I can safely say that for five minutes I learned more about camouflage than I cared to know.  Thankfully we quickly moved far enough into the mountains to lose radio reception.

“What other CDs you got?” Ben barked.

“They are in the center compartment.”

Ben pulled out the eight CDs and gave them the once offer. Surprisingly he found one to his liking and loaded it into the player.  Soon the soothing Sunday sounds of Kenny G were filling the silence.  I was actually kind of embarrassed that Ben found Kenny G in my possession.  To his credit Ben never mentioned this music weakness of mine in public.

Aside from a few minor admonishments concerning speed, speed for the conditions, and speed for the proximity of other vehicles, Ben and I passed the remainder of our trek to Copper Mountain in happy comradeship.  The upcoming Super Bowl game between the Bills and the Giants was on paper one-sided, but it made for good road trip discussion fodder. I think we even reviewed some tax planning topics to discuss with the Copper Mountain Chief Financial Officer, Marshall Hendricks.

We met Marshall in his office at the base of the ski area.   Marshall was probably halfway in between Ben and I age wise. Like many people who held professional financial roles at ski areas he worked too hard to be a true ski bum.  Still, he was too close to a world class ski mountain every day to not be a pretty good skier. Marshall handed the coveted passes to Ben and me and the ski schmoozing session began.

At the risk of offending the wonderful throngs from Texas that often frequent the Colorado slopes I will mention that Ben skied more like a Texan than a Coloradoan. Ben preferred fast, groomed slopes.  He equated skiing a moderately steep slope as fast as one could to "expert" skiing. True skiers of course look for the powder and the bumps for a real challenge. Marshall and I agreed to indulge Ben's terrain choice for the morning runs.

Ben and I switched off riding the ski lift with Marshall.  During my rides with Marshall we reached a two-pronged understanding that we then communicated to Ben.  First, today was about skiing and we could save our brilliant tax planning ideas for some other time.  Second, after lunch we needed to find some bumps and powder to liven things up a bit.

We were able to put in a fair number of morning runs given the “fast and groomed” slopes we pursued.  Ben appeared to be having a really good time at the expense of a little boredom for Marshall and me.  We had an enjoyable lunch of burgers and soup and headed out for the afternoon shift.  The morning crowds were thinning as people started to head home to watch the game.

“I will lead the way.  I know where we can find some good powder,” Marshall said as we transferred to a second lift to take us higher up the mountain.

Ben appeared to develop amnesia over the prior agreement. “Powder, I don’t want to ski any powder.”

We pretended not to hear him and headed off through some moderate powder.  There was four to five inches of the fluffy stuff.  Enough to get a little bit of a floating ride, but not so much that it would defeat a solid intermediate skier like Ben.  This is what I thought, anyway.

“This is awful.  It is going to take me all day to get down from here.  Why did we have to come over here?” 

Marshall and I waited at the bottom of the run for Ben.  It was pretty slow going.  We suspected that when he reached us he would set us free to ski without him the rest of the day.  However, when Ben finally navigated his way to the bottom he did not tell Marshall and I to do our own thing and meet him at the end of the day. 

“Well, now that you guys got that out of your system let’s go back to some normal skiing like we were doing this morning.”

Ben hijacked us back to the cruiser runs for the rest of the afternoon.  Evidently “the customer is always right” did not apply to ski slope choices.  On what we all agreed was to be the last run of the day Marshall directed us to a slope we had not yet skied. He headed off and I followed down a fairly challenging big bump run.

It was too late for Ben by the time he realized what was happening.  I confess that I felt bad for him.  A big man with stiff posture trapped in the bumps is not a pretty thing.  There was a lot of complaining directed my way.  Evidently Marshall’s client status did protect him from being the target of the tirade.  Still, Marshall had finally heard enough whining and hollered up to Ben:

“No bumps?  No powder? Do you like sex?”

Ben did have enough game left to shout back “Of course I like sex.”

The ride home was mostly silent.  I am sure Ben thought I had conspired in the whole powder and bumps thing.  At my house I unloaded his skis into his car and Ben departed with a “See you tomorrow, enjoy the game.”

I got inside just as the crowd was going crazy over Whitney Houston’s rendition of the National Anthem.

On another “John and Ben go skiing” episode we ventured to Steamboat Springs.  Ben and I planned a two-day trip.  We would drive up on a Friday morning for a Friday afternoon business meeting with our customer.  We would ski into the early afternoon on Saturday and plan to get home by dinner time.  This time we left from the office downtown and Ben drove his big Suburban.  I guess I lost driving privileges after Copper Mountain.

At the end of our Friday afternoon meeting Greg Miley the CFO from Steamboat Ski and Resort asked us if we were skiing tomorrow.  I tried to silently wave Greg off. Before I could save him he had invited himself into our Saturday morning skiing festivities.

It snowed all Friday night and Saturday morning dawned as a once in a lifetime ski day.  We awoke to fourteen inches of famous Steamboat Springs champagne powder and bright sunny skies.  The snow piled up on the trees like in a Christmas card.  I had skied hundreds of times before that Saturday in February and hundreds of times since then, but never seen a more beautiful ski day.

We met Greg at his office on Saturday morning and he too bestowed on us the coveted free passes.  Ben wanted to run to the ski shop so Greg and I made small talk until he returned.

“What are those?” I asked when Ben came back with some funky looking ski goggles.

“The latest thing.  They have a fan built-in so that they don’t fog up.”

“And here all this time I thought we never sold any of those”, Greg kidded.

With that we set off on what should have been an epic half day of skiing.  There would be no debate today about to powder or not to powder.  The whole mountain was a cotton bowl of powder under a golden sun.

Trouble started before we finished our first run.  Half way down run number one Ben asked Greg where the nearest pro shop was.  Seems his never fog goggles were fogging up really bad.  Greg and I were not having any trouble with our low-tech sunglasses.

“Oh come on Ben, forget about it.  I have a spare pair of goggles you can use”, Greg offered.

“I paid eighty bucks for these and by golly they are going to work” Ben replied.

Greg and I looked at each other in disbelief.  Ben went to torture some guy behind a goggles display.  After about a half hour he returned.

“OK, that should fix it.”

“I hope so.  We just lost two runs waiting here” I scolded. Normally I would not have scolded a partner but this was the greatest ski day ever.

The problem was not fixed.  Ben repeated this exercise on the next two runs.  Greg left us after the third stop.  Only a saint would have stayed longer.  I am no saint but I couldn’t leave because I needed a ride home.  Instead of making nine or ten runs on the greatest ski day ever I made two.  To this day I don’t know if Ben really cared that much about his goggles or if he was just looking for reasons to avoid the great powder we had that day.  Paybacks are hell I guess.

To add insult to injury Ben handed me his music cassette case on the ride home and told me to “pick what I like.”  I couldn’t find anything even at the Kenny G level.  I selected a Perry Como and hoped for the best.  The Steamboat to Denver drive is pretty long and I had to choose again.  My second selection, Nat King Cole, was mellow and smooth.

Kamori Kanko, a Japanese corporation, owned the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort at the time.  One of Andersen's competitors in Denver had a Japanese national in its partner ranks and he actively tried to poach the client from us.  After a protracted beauty contest Andersen was able to retain Steamboat in its stable of high-status, low-fee ski area clients.  In the process though, Arnold Mortenson, the partner in charge of the Denver office, scooted Ben and me off the job for some “fresh tax blood”.  It was the only time I was removed from a client in my thirteen years at Andersen. Greg did not offer support for Ben and me during the discussions.  Perhaps Greg was as bitter about the goggles episode as I was. 

I was not the only person with stories from travels with Uncle Buck.  My favorite involves Ben, his son, and two young guys from the tax department: Doug Downs and Joel Rollins.  These four gentlemen had gone pheasant hunting one Sunday morning on the plains of eastern Colorado.  They fanned out in formation as bird hunters do, but something was a little out of sync.  The dogs flushed the birds and the shots rang out, followed by these words:

“Joel, did my dad just shoot you?”

“Yeah, judging by the holes in my vest, I think so.  Just a flesh wound.”

Ben did have a softer side.  When he wasn’t shooting our staff people he tended roses in his garden.  I also learned one night that he was a poet.  It was very late and I thought I was the only one in the office.  I sent a document to the printer room and went to pick it up.  I blindly grabbed what I thought was my memo and went back to my desk.  Instead of a brilliantly written technical analysis addressing a client's exposure to "built-in gains", I found myself reading an old-fashioned love poem from a man to his wife.  I went through the darkened hallways until I noticed the light on in Ben’s office and Ben at his desk writing away on his computer.

I tiptoed away and put the poem back on the printer and claimed my document.  I don’t remember if I thought the poem was any good.  I do remember that the thought of Ben writing a poem to his wife made me smile.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Tears of a Family

This story is of my most powerful Andersen memory.  I can feel the events each time I reread or try to improve on what is written.  I know I have not done it justice.  This is the only tale from the Andersen Years where I asked permission of the main characters to share the memory after giving them a draft to review.  I thank them for that permission. 

“I am a good mother.”

“Who was that lady with the gorgeous hair?”

“That lady is Tammy Myers.  She just transferred to our office from the San Francisco Arthur Andersen office.” 

The year was 1991 and the question came from my girlfriend at the time, Whitney.  We had just exited an elevator as Whitney and I were headed to lunch in downtown Denver.

Indeed, the first thing most people noticed about Tammy was her beautiful hair.  It was, auburn, long, and thick, but still wavy.  Tammy reminded me of a gothic model.  She was tall with a pale complexion and often wore stylish dark suits and bright red lipstick.

One might ask why a sophisticated lady from San Francisco would purposely transfer to live and work among the rubes of Denver.  The simple answer was love.  Tammy Myers had met Tom Byrnes at the Arthur Andersen training facility in St. Charles, Illinois.  Tom worked in the Business Consulting Group in the Andersen Denver office.  Tammy did leave a piece of her heart in San Francisco, but mostly she followed it to Denver.

In theory the Andersen rules frowned on intracompany romance.  In practice relationships and marriages between coworkers were pretty common.  Since Tammy worked for the Tax division and Tom for the Business Consulting division there were no work rules preventing their careers and relationship from growing in parallel.  In due course Tammy Myers became Tammy Myers Byrnes.

Tammy was one of my charges under the Andersen mentoring program.  We talked often about how she could best further her career.  Tammy ultimately decided to stake her claim to the compensation-related aspects of the tax code.  Nobody else in the Denver office specialized in this area at the time.  Many people considered the compensation arena to be unsexy and cumbersome, even by tax law standards.  It was a smart choice though.  Tammy now had the coveted "niche" to carve out an expertise and serve clients across all industries. She quickly began to build her competency and reputation in her focus area.

As Tammy and Tom were mapping out their careers they also started to map out plans for a family.  In the first half of 1994, after suffering through a miscarriage, Tammy and Tom had a son whom they named Harrison, Harry for short.  I met Baby Harry for the first time in the spring of 1995.  Tammy brought him into the old office on California Street shortly before we moved to our new offices near 17th and Lawrence.  Tammy sat Harry atop one of the cubicles and we all gathered round to entertain him. 

“How can you name such a perfect little baby, Harrison?” I asked.

“He will grow into it” was the reply.

Harry was a perfect little person, happy and handsome.  Tammy and Tom were justifiably proud parents.  The new Andersen office on Lawrence Street was just a block from an office building that housed a premier day care facility on the ground floor.  Tammy and Tom enrolled Harry there and were close enough to visit him during the course of their busy days.

Not by coincidence Andersen moved to the Lawrence Street address at the same time the Colorado Rockies baseball team was christening its new home, Coors Field, at 20th and Blake Street.  The partners in our office recognized the status and client entertainment advantages of being near the stadium.  As the owner of a fractional interest in Rockies season tickets I appreciated this proximity.   On game days I could park in my normal parking space in the garage underneath our building and walk to the ballpark.  

I took a random vacation day on Wednesday May 3, 1995. I didn’t really have any plans other than not working.  A radio spot that morning reminded me that the Rockies were playing that afternoon and I remembered I had tickets for the game.  The tickets were in my desk at work so I had to venture into the belly of the beast to claim them.  I parked my car in the garage and headed to my office on the 27th floor.

I had timed my entry for lunchtime in the hopes of avoiding contact that would suck me into any unforeseen responsibility.  It was an overcast, cool day but I sensed a layer of something worse than gray day blues in the few people I saw walking through the halls.  I was in no mind to find out what was going on.  It was my vacation day and I had tickets to find and a game to attend.

Brad Strom, a good friend and fellow tax manager, walked into my office as I rummaged for my tickets.  Brad is somewhat of a high school sports legend in Colorado owing to his exploits at Cherry Creek High School.  In college he started at quarterback for Oklahoma State and married a cheerleader.  He played a little pro ball but eventually the glamour of public accounting lured him in.

Brad and Tammy had what you might call a love hate relationship.  Brad loved to tease Tammy about her prim ways and unexciting career focus. Tammy hated it. Brad would say something like “Tammy Byrnes, where good times go to die.”

Tammy would offer a “whatever” in return. 

“Did you hear?”

I looked up as something in Brad's voice was dire yet lifeless.  There were tears in his eyes.
"Tammy's baby died.”

I heard the words but couldn't put them together.  I garbled something about the how and the when.

“I don’t know, I just heard about an hour ago.”

“Where is Tammy?  How is she doing? Why didn't somebody call me?”

We realized we were screaming at each other and closed the door.  Brad gathered himself and continued with what he knew: “Tammy is flying home from St. Charles.  I am not sure where Tom is.  I think he went to the day care center.  I don’t know everything but I think the baby died at the day care center.”  Brad, a father of two young children then went to his office to cry alone.

I closed my door and sat motionless on the floor staring out the window for maybe twenty minutes.  The sudden force of a lives-altering tragedy left me stunned.  What must be going through Tammy and Tom's hearts right now?  I envision somebody walking into a training session and asking Tammy to step outside.  I imagine Tammy walking to the door with that sense of dread that had to be taking hold of her.  I hear the words of that person who had to deliver the news.  I see the shock and grief in Tammy’s eyes.  Did she scream?  Did she collapse in agony? Was she too stunned to speak or move at all? How will she get home and what kind of tortures will consume her on the flight back to Denver?

I see Tom having to look upon his lifeless son.  I sense him having to endure this moment alone with his wife a thousand miles away.  I hear him screaming the question of how this could happen. I feel him worrying whether Tammy can stand this kind of pain.  I wonder does he lament that she decided to keep working after Harry was born. 

Nora Stephens was also a tax manager in the Denver office in 1995.  Nora was a small, mousy woman with a rather severe short blonde hairdo.  The partners loved Nora because she was efficient.  She got her engagements done early and she billed her receivables on time.  Her peers, myself included, tended to waste some time enjoying the social aspects of the Andersen experience.  We routinely worked late hours and weekends to recoup time wasted and fun had during the "work week". We could have all learned something about time management from Nora.  We just weren’t willing to sacrifice a long lunch on a sunny patio or a spirited afternoon debate about nothing important to achieve the same level of efficiency.

Nora created an even stronger polarity among the staff and seniors.  She played a role in the recruiting process whereby Andersen and the other firms courted and hired graduating accounting students.  Nora recruited people in her image.  Conversely, I and other recruiters in the Denver office leaned towards more free-spirited personalities.  These free spirits nicknamed Nora "Dieter" after the disaffected Saturday Night Live character played by Mike Myers.

Context can severely limit our perception of others. All my petty notions of Nora faded in the tornado of service she provided to Tammy and Tom following Harry's death.  Nora channeled and orchestrated the compassion of Tammy‘s tax department coworkers into a myriad of support activities.  She directed the preparation of meals.  She helped Tammy with the logistics of the funeral preparation and completed personal errands for Tammy.  She helped plan and schedule whom would complete Tammy’s work obligations.  She even helped schedule times for Andersen people to visit the Byrne's home so they would not be overwhelmed by well meaning visitors.  I admired the way Nora supported her friend. 

On Friday evening I drove three friends to visit Tammy and offer support.  Chris Turner a mid twenties staff person was one of my passengers.  “Most Fridays we would be heading to happy hour somewhere about now." This wasn't most Fridays but it felt like a time when we needed to spend time together.

The sudden nature of this tragedy was something all of us were trying to grasp.  We talked how forty-eight hours ago Tammy and Tom were busy parents, successful business professionals.  Now they were confronting a void that seemed too dark and deep to overcome.

Nora met us at the door when we arrived at the Byrnes's home in the foothills southwest of Denver.  She told me that Tom was upstairs trying to get some sleep.  Tammy welcomed us and we asked the obligatory questions about how she was doing and what we could do to help.  Though I knew Tammy well I found myself struggling to put the right words into a sentence that wouldn’t feel contrived.  Mostly we sat there and commented on what a beautiful baby Harry was and how we appreciated that she had introduced him to us.

Tammy looked extremely tired, pale and thin.  She told us when the service would be and said our support meant very much to her.  We stayed about forty minutes.  I know Tammy needed the company but we had no magic words and I felt like we had not done enough.  Perhaps if we were “family” rather than work family we could have more comfortably just been present in the moment and navigated the silence.  We offered our hugs and left Tammy to her pain.

That night I knelt and prayed at my bed for the first time since my childhood.  I did not reach out to God.  Where was he when an innocent child reached for a capsule on the playroom floor? What act of evil chance had he set in motion?   I would feel a hypocrite to pray to a God whom had fallen asleep at the wheel.  Young Harry though must be in a special place.  “Please give comfort to your mom and your dad.  Please help them survive losing you.”

Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral sits on the corner of 14th and Washington Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It opened for services in 1911, built in the Late Gothic Revival Style; heavy stone on the outside, ornate and spectacular on the inside.  Even though I had lived in Denver all my life I had never been inside this landmark until the day of the memorial service for Baby Harry Byrnes.

The weather was gray and overcast as I rode with several coworkers the short distance from the Andersen office to Saint John’s.  Everybody from the tax department attended the service and I assume most of Tom’s coworkers from the business consulting division did as well.  I sat in the middle of a pew about nine rows from the altar between my friends Brad Strom and Paul Jacobs.

The ceremony started and Tammy approached the microphone.  I was relieved to see that she looked much better than she had during the Friday visit.  She had some color back in her face and a sense of purpose as she started to speak.

“I am a good mother……” she began.  But that is all I heard.  That is all I heard because my mind locked into those words and froze in analysis of them.  How did it come to be that these good parents were mourning their beautiful son?  How did it come to be that this mother must have felt compelled to defend the care she had given her child?  How did it come to be that during this season of rebirth and new life we were grieving the death of a young life just begun? What words followed?  What does a parent say in the face of a loss so great?  Maybe I couldn’t bear to listen.  Yes Tammy, you are a good mother.

We proceeded outside to a courtyard on the east side of the building.  There lay a special walk path where urns are laid to rest under earmarked paving stones.  As the priest began to speak a light rain started to fall.  Across the street from Saint John's is Morey Middle School.  The voices of children outside playing carried to us and blended into the background of the prayer for the soul of Baby Harry.  The poignant irony was almost unbearable.  Men shuddered and sobbed. Women cried out loud.  I looked to my right to see Ben Walters, a partner in the firm and an advisor to Tammy, bow his head as tears rolled down his cheeks.
To this day there is a certain color of day, a certain teary rain that conjures this memory.  In these moments I pray for and to Harry Byrnes and remember the grace of my Andersen family.