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:
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 détente 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.