Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Lord of Longboat Key


“Who is that tool running through the parking lot?"

It had been a long journey.  As I made the 20-mile drive from Siesta Key to Longboat Key with only watery blackness on either side of the two-lane road I reflected on the circumstances that had brought me to this moment.  Like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now I was finally on the brink of chasing down my Colonel Kurtz.  For many weeks rumors had floated back to the Denver office about the exploits of Doug Downs who was on assignment to the Andersen software development office in Sarasota, Florida.  The growing legend had Doug leading a royal existence among a select group of followers.  Was he the leader of a renegade group of island party people or just a new Andersen manager doing his job in a distant locale?  In another half hour I would know the answer for myself.

My Sarasota odyssey was borne of disappointment. In May of 1988 the Denver Tax Division announced its manager promotions.  I had just completed my fourth busy season and had expected to be on the list, a year or two ahead of the normal five to six-year schedule.  It didn't happen.  Doug Downs and Steve Gray, each with five busy seasons under their belt, got the nod to manager.  Steve was a hard-working guy and deserved the promotion.  Doug?  Best I could tell his special talent was playing basketball every day with Jack Rayburn the partner who headed up the Tax Division (HOTD).  Doug didn't work very hard and I secretly hated and admired him for it.  When I asked Jack why I had not been promoted he stated that "Everybody spoke highly of your work, but you didn't work with enough of the partners and managers for the group to feel comfortable promoting you early."  I filed that explanation away for safekeeping.

The mid to late 1980's were a dismal economic time in Denver and all of Colorado.  In March of 1987 the Colorado unemployment rate climbed to 9.1%. The state faced downturns in the real estate, energy, manufacturing, and technology sectors.  Significant migration into the state early in the decade fueled speculation and overbuilding in commercial and residential real estate.  By the middle of the decade more people were leaving the state than moving in.  Denver became known as the city with the "see though buildings".  Numerous new office towers sat practically empty and one could see right through the windowed exteriors.  Late in the decade Denver had the lowest commercial real estate rates in the country at $13 per square foot per year.  More promising times gradually returned, but the Denver area was still closer to the economic bottom than the economic top in the summer of 1988. 

As the local economy struggled so too did the Andersen Denver office.  Our clients were going out of business or putting on hold any discretionary spending on outside professional fees.  Many Denver Andersen professionals sat around with little work to do.  In professional services firms the "chargeable hour" (an hour that can be billed as fees to a client) is the measure of a person's worth.  Simply put, if a professional is not working enough chargeable hours to justify his/her existence (or creating enough chargeable hours to help keep the office profitable if that person is a partner or manager), that person will have to leave.  The Andersen Denver office did not have enough chargeable hours to support its personnel base in the summer of 1988.  To avoid mass layoffs the Denver office partner group looked for opportunities to "loan" professionals to other offices.  In July of 1988 Jack Rayburn came to me with a proposition.

"John, how would you like to spend the rest of the year working in the Houston office?  They can keep you busy and it will give you a chance to work with some of the top oil and gas professionals in the firm."

Jack's suggestion made a lot of sense.  Though I had managed to stay pretty busy that summer I would soon be coming off a major engagement and would need to go hour hunting.  The Houston office was extremely busy and my energy sector experience would align nicely.  But I didn't want to go to Houston.  It was the summer.  Summers in Denver are wondrous. Summers in Houston are not so wondrous.  Plus I had this reel playing in my head.  I would go to Houston and do well.  The Houston office management team would say "John fits in well here, why doesn't he transfer?"  I didn't like the sound of that.  I had one card to play.  It was a risky card, but I played it.

I sat across from Jack in his office and countered: "I would love to go to the Houston office.  I am sure I would learn a ton working down there.  You had mentioned though that you couldn't promote me to manager this year because I had not worked with enough of the Partner/Manager team in this office.  It seems to me that going to the Houston office for five or six months means I could be in the same boat next promotion period.  I will either make manager in the Denver office next promotion period or leave the firm.  So I don't think it makes sense for me to go work in the Houston office at this time."

I had played my hand.  Jack sat quiet for a few seconds.  It seemed like a few hours.  Jack was a fair man.  I know he liked me, and I know I had put him in a difficult spot.  Jack folded.  "All right Johnny (he called me Johnny).  I will not send you to Houston, but you better keep your chargeable hours up. The next time I have a chance to match your background to a temporary assignment in another office you are going."

I left Jack's office feeling guilty and relieved at the same time.  I should have taken the assignment in Houston to demonstrate professionalism.  On the other hand my career was at an inflection point and I didn't see going to Houston for six months as a means to make manager in Denver next April.  I latched on to a long assignment working through some messy partnership issues and tax returns for a key uranium industry client.  I had bought myself some time on an engagement with a partner and manager with whom I had not previously worked.  My conscience eased a little knowing I was chargeable for the next couple of months and had expanded the number of people who could address my qualifications at the next promotion meeting.

Flash forward several months and Jack made good on his promise.  I returned from lunch to see the green "see me" note on my desk.  I walked into Jack's office and he just winked and smiled.  "They need somebody to work on the depletion module in Sarasota for a couple of months.  There is no discussion this time.  You are going.  Here is your itinerary."  I quickly glanced at the itinerary.  My flight to Sarasota would depart in four days on October 18, 1988.  My return flight was on December 14.  It sounded like dirty work, but somebody had to do it.  I grimaced a little and tried to feign disappointment at spending two months in Florida in the fall.  Steve picked up his phone to make a call and motioned me to vacate the office.

Arthur Andersen had recently acquired a tax software firm called A Plus.  The A Plus offices were in Sarasota, Florida.  It sounds primitive, but in 1988 preparing tax returns was still a pretty manual process.  At Andersen we prepared many tax forms by hand, or we used a third-party service called FastTax.  FastTax was not an efficient vehicle to generate tax returns.  It required us to complete FastTax input forms, send those forms back to FastTax personnel who keyed the information into their software program, and then wait for FastTax to send completed tax forms back to us.  The chance that forms would come back from FastTax exactly the way you wanted them to on the first attempt was as close to zero as one can get. Each FastTax iteration resulted in additional FastTax charges.  Any fees we had to pay to a third party reduced our margin on an engagement.  Andersen acquired A Plus to reduce the cost and inefficiency of preparing tax returns.

The A PLUS acquisition made a lot of sense in theory.  Practically there was one major issue: The A PLUS software required a lot of updating to address the tax complexity and diversity of Andersen's client base.  The Firm sent an army of subject matter experts (SME) down to Sarasota to work with the software engineers to scheme and test updates to the software code. My job was to construct the tax/code logic for the oil and gas depletion computation and to work with the coders on how to flow oil and gas unique line item amounts into the partnership K-1.  If that doesn't make any sense, don't worry.  Suffice it to say it was an exciting and sexy task worthy of a tax James Bond.

 I would be joining peers from numerous Andersen offices and Doug Downs from the Denver office.  Doug had already been in Sarasota for some time.  By now stories were filtering back to the Denver office of the mysterious Mr. Downs.  Rumor had it he was nowhere to be found in the A Plus office in Sarasota but he was well known around the party spots and the workout venues.  Doug was an early member of the Colorado triathlon community and I could readily envision him viewing the Sarasota experience as a training expedition with a little work thrown in if necessary. I was intrigued by the prospect of locating Doug and putting these stories into context.  I packed my clothes and asked a neighbor in my apartment complex to gather up my mail and send it to me once a week or so.  I had no living dependents, not even a plant, who would notice my absence for a couple of months.  The Saturday before I left I watched game one of the 1988 World Series at my girlfriend's apartment.  The Dodgers won when Kirk Gibson limped to the plate and hit a two-out walk-off home run.

On October 18,1988 I boarded an early morning flight for Sarasota. Four hours later we touched down and shortly thereafter I was hailing a cab.

"Where to?"

"The Harbor Tower Yacht and Racquet Club on Midnight Pass Road, Siesta Key."

I didn't know anything about the Harbor Tower Yacht and Racquet Club, but I liked saying the name.  It sounded like a place Thurston Howell III might stay.  We arrived at a six-story L-shaped structure with immaculately manicured grounds.  As the cab driver unloaded my bag I noticed dozens of little Florida lizards of some kind running amok through the lush flora.  It was six o'clock and still about 80 degrees. I checked in and headed to my unit on the fifth floor.  It was a double-suite floor plan with a bedroom and attached bath on both sides and a kitchen, dining room, living room in the middle. The unit had green long shag carpeting and painted whitewood furniture, with a big floral coach and two big floral chairs.  The window coverings were plain white and there was a nice deck that mainly overlooked the parking lot but had a little view of the bay.  My roommate, Owen Davies from San Antonio, had arrived an hour before me and bogarted the nicer bedroom suite.  We discussed some odds and ends and headed off to dinner in the spirited 1988 Red Pontiac Grand Am that we would share over the next two months.

Over dinner I learned that Owen was a family man with two young children and that he looked forward to bringing his wife and kids down once or twice during his tenure.  The Firm would pay to fly you home every other week or to fly a significant other to stay with you.  Hmmm.  I don't think I would be flying back to Denver to escape any weekends of surf and sand. I liked the thought of Owen's family coming because that meant they would rent someplace else to stay and I would have the Harbor Tower condo to myself.  I thought it might be nice to ask my girlfriend to come and spend a weekend, but that would require a "non spouse" exception unless I wanted to fund the costs myself.  An impromptu ticket fare was outside my means.

"I hate to leave my family for such a long period of time.  But I guess that is the job.  Do you have any kids?"

"No, not even a plant.  I don't know what to expect down here but I was kind of looking forward to getting away from the office.  Work is sparse, and though I had stayed pretty busy, things are kind of tense."

"I hear you, San Antonio is the same way.  People are sitting around wondering how they will be able to keep us all. From what I have heard the biggest issue down here in Sarasota will be boredom. There seems to be a lot of waiting involved in the SME role."  

The next morning we headed to the A Plus office in downtown Sarasota to get our assignments and meet our technical contacts. Owen let me drive and even though we were on the central gulf coast side of Florida it all felt a little Miami Vice- ish.  We passed palm trees and pastel-colored art deco mansions.  We waited as a draw bridge opened to allow a yacht with a helicopter on its deck to pass on its way to wherever very rich people go.  We rolled down the windows and let the warm Florida morning air rush through as I Wanna be a Cowboy blared on the radio.  It wasn't a Porsche, but our Grand Am handled the curves OK as John "Tubbs" Routa and Owen "Crockett" Davies wound their way into the heart of the Sarasota business district.

The fantasy ended with a thud as we pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript set of three white three-story stucco office buildings.  We had arrived at A Plus headquarters.  Owen would spend his days working in building A on an assortment of real estate partnership items.  I worked in building B in a large conference room on the third floor.  There were always four or five other SME's in the conference room working on their little piece of the A Plus puzzle.  Owen and I would meet up at five o'clock sharp each night to head home.  Unlike life in the Andersen worlds we came from, there was no need  to burn the midnight oil in the "Groundhog Day" existence we lived at A Plus.

Every day at A Plus followed the same pattern.  As a SME I would meet with my technical contact (TC) to address his computational questions on the task we were working on that day.  I would explain what the tax result should be.  The TC would take lengthy notes and then go away to code.  I would try and stay awake until lunch time and then go on a long lunch with my conference room mates who were leading the same existence.  One of our favorite places was Yoder's, an Amish restaurant known for its key lime pie.  After lunch I would usually receive the updates from the TC, review them, discuss the output and what needed to get fixed, and by then it was usually time to head for Harbor Tower.  Some days the TC would spend all afternoon working on the fixes from the morning and I would have no output to review in the afternoon. These were really long days.  We did not have laptops, email, the internet, or the other productive time wasters that permeate our lives today.  I had brought some technical reading to fill the many dull moments, but you can only tolerate so much of the Oil & Gas Tax Manuel or a stack of Private Letter Ruling summaries in one sitting.

During the week I lived for the three hours after work from five to eight. I had joined a nearby gym on a monthly basis as working out was a big part of my survival strategy at Andersen and had become more of an addiction than a habit. Then by accident a quite wonderful thing happened.  Siesta Key Beach was directly across the street from Harbor Tower.  I had a couple of hours to kill before going to meet some of my A Plus expats to watch the fifth (and what turned out to be final) game of the World Series.  I strolled on over to the beach and walked along the edge of where the water met the sand. Runners dashed by me in both directions.  Old people, young people, fast people, slow people - running people. Though I considered myself an athlete I had never been a runner. But running along the beach as the sun set, the waves splashed, the birds sang and the girls played volleyball -- that was worth a try.  I walked on over to the life guard stand and stashed my sandals.  I wandered to the water’s edge and took my first strides as a runner.  The sand was magically firm yet soft.  The night was warm yet cooled by the breeze and the water. I got home and asked Owen if he could get another ride to watch the game.  I needed the car to make a purchase.  I found a Foot Locker store and bought my first pair of running shoes, a pair of Nike Pegasus. From that night on I have been a runner.  For 26 years I have found my sanity on the trails where I run.  Thank you Siesta Key Beach.

I had not abandoned my hunt for Doug Downs.  Sure I spent evenings running the beach and weekends on the dock of the bay (literally) with a cold one watching the pelicans glide over their catch.  If you quiz me real hard I will admit to spending a week night or two at the Beach Club Bar, a Friday happy hour now and then at the Sand Bar on Ana Maria Island, and an occasional Saturday night in a St Armand's Circle hotspot where Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder ( stepped on my foot on a crowded dance floor.  He was a large man.  I did not want to go to these places, I had to. Really.  My efforts at finding Doug in the A Plus offices always seemed to leave me one step behind his most recent departure.  I was merely looking in the places Doug would likely go.  Four weeks had passed and I felt like I was tracking a ghost.

Then it happened, I sighted the ghost. It wasn't a dramatic moment, but a mundane glance out the window.  We were getting ready to go to lunch one Ground Hog Day late morning.  I and a fellow conference room SME, Frank, walked over to the window to check on the weather.  From our three-story perch we saw a shirtless guy dashing across the parking lot in wrap around shades and fluorescent, dare I say salmon-colored, running shorts.

"Who is that tool running through the parking lot?" Frank bellowed in good humor.

I did not ask Frank to define what he meant by "tool".  Yes it is usually an unflattering term people use to define "dudes" when the term "dude" seems too complimentary for the occasion.  Of the maybe 300 definitions in the urban dictionary I think Frank might have used tool in the "tries too hard to impress other people" sense.  That might have been a fair construction if you were looking out a window on a parking lot as we were.  But to someone who knew and worked with Doug it was not a fair assessment.  I happened to know two things about Doug: He really didn't care what others thought about him and he was fashion challenged.  He was not trying to impress.  He was just being Doug.  The only defense I could offer my Denver office brethern was "That's no tool, that is Doug Downs, a new manager in the Denver office."

Frank laughed and asked whether we had a different dress code in Denver.

Dashing down to the parking lot I caught up with Doug as he was grabbing his work clothes from his car to go take a shower somewhere.  Maybe the A Plus buildings had an on premise shower. Doug would know since he appeared to be using the office as a staging area for his daily training regimen.

"Hey Doug" I yelled.

Doug took off his Oakleys, squinted and yelled back "Is that you, Routa?"

"In the flesh".

I walked over as Doug did some post run stretching exercises.  "Just put in six miles.  I feel like Super Man when I train at sea level.  What are you up to?"

"Is that a trick question?  Living another day in boring paradise."

Doug, a taller version of Redford from the Sundance era,  looked genuinely perplexed. "How could you be bored?  Palm trees, great weather, pretty girls, and only an hour or two of work a day to get in the way."

And there it was.  What made Doug, Doug.  He had no work conscience.  He was in Sarasota.  He was getting his assignment done.  But he was doing it on his terms.  He didn't care if people wondered why he was never in the office.  Doug, the country western dancing urban cowboy was adapting to life on the gulf just fine.  He looked back at me, probably with pity, and said:

"This isn't brain surgery.  Don't take it so seriously. I am having a party at me place tomorrow, you need to come."

"Where exactly is your place?  I have never seen you at Harbor Tower."

"Routa, here is the deal. As a manager the firm gives me $56 per day to live in a hotel.  They think it is better than living at Harbor Tower because you don't have a roommate.  I hate living in a hotel.  Do the math.  $56/day is $1,700/month.  Do you know how nice a place you can rent for $1,700?  I got a great house that sits right on the beach on Longboat Key.  Costs me $1,100.  I charge-in $1,400, save the firm $300/month and have an extra $300 for fun and games.  I am going back in two weeks so I figure it is time to have a rager at my place. Be there."  Doug found a receipt in his car scribbled an address and four lines of direction.

"Do you need me to bring anything?"

"Just that girl that plays beach volleyball and beach clothes. My fridge is well-stocked and I have all the staff people bringing the reinforcements."

Hmmm. My mind went in two directions.  The girl who plays beach volleyball, let's call her Lisa, was a fifth or sixth year senior at the University of South Florida Manatee.  I met her on one of my almost nightly beach runs. We ran together once or twice a week and occasionally met at the Beach Club on Tuesdays, ladies' night.  I had no idea how Doug knew of her, nor did I really know how to find her except by accident --- on the beach.  The idea of Doug being the Pied Piper to a bunch of hard partying staff people was not hard to fathom.  It was concerning, though, I thought, and laughed to myself.

My Friday evening run did not result in an accidental encounter with Lisa.  Probably a good thing.  "Hey Lisa, want to go to a party on Longboat Key with a bunch of accountants in a couple of hours" was not a line I personally could pull off in a way likely to sound like a good plan for a party girl's primary party night.  So I cruised to Longboat Key alone.  Owen had departed to meet his wife and kids at some water-themed park in Tampa.  I had the Red Grand Am all to myself for the weekend.

Doug's rental pad was on an extremely dark street, but party central was hard to miss.  Cars were everywhere.  Music flowed from the open windows and dozens of people had spilled into the yard.  It was quite a scene.  Doug was 27 and likely the oldest person at the party.  Young guys and gals drinking, smoking (legal and non legal) hanging out, and making out were getting the weekend started.  There were many familiar faces from the A Plus office but nobody I knew well.  I didn't see Doug. 

Somebody called me over to an open seat at a table where six or seven guys and gals were sitting, beer mugs nearby.  Rod Stewart's "Forever Young" was playing as the pounding and exotic choreography began.  Unknowingly I had entered into a rousing version of the drinking game "Thumper".  How do you play Thumper?  Let's just say it involves a lot of pounding on the table, stomping on the floor, a profanity driven catch phrase, and rapid-fire hand gesturing that starts to look like a complex Broadway Jazz routine.  My drinking game pedigree consisted mainly of "quarters" and trivia-related drinking games of knowledge.  Thumper moved fast, required lots of hand eye coordination, and a good sense of rhythm.  The people at the table were not playing their first game of Thumper.  I was a newbie and way out of my league.  Before two more songs had finished playing I had "lost" enough rounds to down two mugs of beer.  I wanted to run on Saturday morning, so I diplomatically excused myself to go look for Doug.

I wandered to the back of the ranch style house and found myself in a quiet backyard with a hammock, stars, and the sound of water near the beach.  This was nice.  The hammock beckoned me and I started to let my mild buzz wear off as I listened to the music and sound of voices from the house.  After about twenty minutes Doug found me in my state of calm lucidity.

"Want another beer."

"Not even close.  Two much too quick in that game they are playing in there.  I think they were making up the rules as they went to take it to the new guy.'

"Thumper?  Yeah, we play that a lot.  Couple of times and you get in the flow."

"I am not used to having to keep a beat in my drinking games."

Doug laughed. 

"You are a genius" I told him. " Living the dream in a beach front house on Andersen's nickel.  You got balls."

"Well, what are they going to do?  I am actually saving them money while living like a king.  Plus, when Chris comes down here we have a romantic spot to be alone and sort things out."

Chris Tinsley was a staff person in the tax division in Denver and Doug's on and off girlfriend.  Chris was a unique gal.  She was a little older, maybe 32 to Doug's 27.  She had a pre Andersen professional life the specifics of which I don't think I ever knew.  Chris was active, athletic, with long blonde hair and model good looks.  She recently had been accepted to medical school and she and Doug were likely going to sort out whether they had a future together when she visited. I suspect Doug knew in his heart that he and Chris had reached a point where their lives would move in different directions.  Knowing that, a last week together in a great house on the beach on Longboat Key didn't sound like much of an abuse of Andersen rules.  Doug looked wistful, melancholic as he looked out into the night.  Doug could be confidently dispassionate about most aspects of his life, but not Chris.

"At least you are playing it out, giving her a choice to make."

Doug nodded and walked back towards the party.

1 comment:

  1. Hey John ... Nice read.

    I was a member of the A-Plus beta testing team in AA's Richmond office; we analyzed, changed, documented, and then recommended changes to calculated (or raw) figures that flowed through to various tax forms but which were too complicated to change ourselves. I believe it was either the AMT, K-1 or Sch. E income from passive investments--something extremely sophisticated tax-wise--where I found a significant bug we couldn't fix ourselves. I don't remember specifically because it was 1990! It was a pretty cool program that could perform mighty tricks in those days for completing tax returns.

    That was some quality software programming for complex tax accounting issues. I was proud to have contributed to the effort, updating the instructions and also finding some critical issues that needed fixing--and that one specific issue that wasn't behaving as it should, but which we couldn't change ourselves.

    I’ve been waiting for decades to get back to living by the sea; I think I’ll go rent a house on the beach.

    Fi0n@ M@ri$$@