Ross M. Miller
Posted June 7, 2004
It all began with what seemed like a perfect moment. The
last time I felt this way, I was heading out of town on I-15 and
didn’t notice how fast I was going until a dozen troopers stopped me
at the state line. When they saw the box with the gold bracelet on the
passenger’s seat, the troopers withdrew their weapons, congratulated
me, and let me know that breaking double the speed limit was not a good
I managed to keep my guard up for
eleven years until one October morning on a hilltop green, miles from
the nearest officer of the law. After slamming a forty-foot downhiller
into the back of the cup, I stood and looked out over the ten thousand
acres that I called home. I turned and looked beyond the seventeenth
fairway to the enormous glass cylinder that was now visible through the
forest. I could—for the briefest instant—embrace the illusion that I
was both happy and in control.
This time nature interrupted.
I heard their honk before I noticed
them cloud the horizon. I had come to expect airborne intruders, but
nothing like this. It was as if every Canadian goose had received its
migration cue simultaneously. They flew directly overhead but high
enough that thoughts of Hitchcock arose only on later reflection.
It was minutes before they passed and I
felt composed enough to return to my drill. I had just lined up a testy
putt that would skirt the fringe alongside the right bunker when I heard
a droning fade in from the direction where the honking had faded out.
I initially dismissed this annoyance as
a blower clearing the night’s accumulation of leaves from a distant
green. (I toyed with banishing the blowers, but I had been conditioned
to avoid actions that might be considered micromangement.) Soon the
drone had blossomed into a mechanical whir with a familiar beat. I was
used to seeing V formations of black helicopters in the distance, only
this was a white chopper, unescorted, and headed straight at me. The
yellow hexagon betrayed its payload.
It was not Roland’s style to drop in
unannounced. With over two hundred patents to his name, Roland Thompson
had done more than anyone else to turn the industrial dinosaur formerly
known as General Forge and Foundry into the powerful conglomerate now
legally recognized by its initials. He rarely just visited and I could
only count on seeing him in June when he would arrange a brief layover
on his trek up to the compound he maintained a hundred miles due north.
Moreover, Roland—who was one of the few to take the company’s
admonition to “spend our money like it was your own” to heart—only
exercised the option to fly the corporate jets and helicopters at his
disposal in a real emergency.
Roland’s chopper hovered over the
woods before landing in the center circle of an asphalt basketball court
eighty yards downhill from me. The surrounding forest had long ago
consumed the concrete landing pads where majors and generals had once
touched down. I rarely thought about how the end might come, but when I
did it always started something like this.
Roland bounded uphill with his usual
swagger and met me a little more than halfway. He filled out his
signature bomber jacket and stood tall in his alligator cowboy boots.
Reading between the lines of the face that peeked out from under a mop
of gray hair, I could still detect shadows of the man who was once
presumed dead when his Cessna was reduced to splinters among the snow
only to surface a week later in a remote Cascade cabin swapping stories
After we shook hands, Roland flipped up
his sunglasses and said, “Hey, Doc, good to see you again. My short
game can use some work.”
Sure. Right. That’s why you’re
here. But rather than say that, I muttered a perfunctory greeting.
As one of GFF’s most senior
executives, Roland saw no need to explain his presence. Whatever he
packed, I would have to wait until he was ready to draw.
“Get a load of these,” he said.
Roland was cradling a virgin sleeve of golf balls in his left hand. I
took the sleeve from him and switched into a defensive frame of mind.
They seemed like the typical premium golf balls that GFF’s privileged
executives (and the pros they played with) used as range balls.
He goaded me, “Open ‘em. Go ahead.
I had learned long ago always to do
what my boss tells me to do when he is standing directly in front of me.
I removed the plastic wrap, tore off the end tab, and dropped the first
ball into my hand. It was covered with hexagonal dimples. On the back,
where GFF’s hexagon would normally appear, was the distinctive
silhouette of an imposing shaved head. It was Mike, the man who had
turned Roland’s inventions into big bucks before he outmaneuvered a
roster of fifteen contenders (including Roland) to become GFF’s
chairman on his forty-third birthday, which was not coincidentally the
day after his second divorce became final. Roland was still on his first
wife back then.
It seemed like Mike was on
everything—magazine covers, television, and even specially
commissioned Wheaties boxes. Roland, in contrast, was a more private
person and could still go wherever he pleased outside of the company in
relative anonymity. To learn anything about Roland one had to wade into
the depths of GFF’s proxy statement. In the listing of GFF’s five
best-paid executives (all of them fast approaching the mandatory
retirement age of sixty-five), Mike came first and Roland came last with
three vice chairmen sandwiched between them—if only on paper.
Roland was at least as important to
Mike as any of the vice chairmen: He was both Mike’s confidante and
his golf coach. With Mike’s game in rapid decline, Roland’s tutelage
was all that saved him from embarrassment on the links. It was a good
relationship; Mike got a ton of money and all the glory while Roland got
five million a year and easy access to the country clubs that did not
hold GFF’s past criminal actions against its management.
Roland, who was beginning to look
annoyed because I was staring dumbly at the balls, always came off as a
no-nonsense guy who insisted on being called Roland. No one dared refer
to him as Rollie or Tommy.
Mike, on the other hand, was a complex
man with a raft of names. He was born Michael Patrick Quinn III in the
obstetrics ward of the Boston Hospital for Women. Throughout the GFF
Empire, everyone called him the Mighty Quinn behind his back and Mike
whenever his presence, either real or imagined, was felt. (Those within
the company were on an informal first-name basis with each other, so
Mike was never called Michael, Trey, Quinn, Mr. Quinn, or—worst of
all—Dr. Quinn.) At corporate headquarters, known as “the hive”
because its main building comprises sixty-four hexagons joined in a
honeycomb pattern, he was occasionally referred to as the Quinn bee when
he was traveling abroad. Anti-nuclear protesters pronounced him
“Megaton Mike” because the company’s was especially proficient at
building systems to deliver nuclear warheads to their intended target.
Some people respected Mike while others feared or hated him, but no
one—especially not Roland and his other direct reports—liked
Confronted with Mike’s nearly
spherical avatar, I placed a second ball in my hand and said to Roland,
“I see you’ve got Mike’s balls. I hope you aren’t hiding the
rest of him in your golf bag.”
“What I’ve come here about may be
important enough to tear me away from the hive,” he said, “but
it’s not so important that I would involve the man directly.
Not yet.” That was the first time I had heard anyone refer to Mike
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said.
Perhaps I could draw Roland out.
“Anyway,” he continued, “the less
Mike deals with Alaska, the better. I’m much happier if he thinks of
it as our forty-ninth state rather than as a laboratory nestled in the
Adirondacks with a hundred and seventy-five of the world’s smartest
misfits on his payroll.”
Roland would, from time to time, assure
me that Mike knew essentially nothing about Alaska, which was the only
reasonable explanation for why it still existed and I was able to run
it—or, more accurately, stand by and watch it run itself—without the
Alaska was hatched as a military
program funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,
in the late Nixon years. It was written ALASKA—short for the Advanced
Laboratory for the Acquisition of Scientific Knowledge and its
Amplification—back then. ALASKA’s original mission was to understand
why certain people could perform tasks better than others—for example,
how some pilots made top gun while others bailed out of flight school on
the first day. (As with most military acronyms, ALASKA’s name was
intentionally misleading, having little to do with what most people
would consider science or knowledge.) This research was seen as a
necessary step in the design of smart weapons that would have humanoid
capabilities programmed into them. GFF was awarded a no-bid contract to
operate ALASKA for the Defense Department.
Roland was fiercely protective of
ALASKA and was the godfather to its military parentage even if no one
dared call him that to his face. After the Berlin Wall fell, it seemed
inevitable that the program would be curtailed for budgetary reasons.
The military had lost interest in blue-sky research and so had GFF.
Roland, who by that time had left the lab bench to become head of
GFF’s Research Laboratory, saved ALASKA by noticing that it had some
potentially valuable assets—inventions of no value to our (or any
other) military, but with numerous industrial applications.
Roland drew up a new contract between
GFF and DARPA that made ALASKA a subsidiary of GFF and gave it clear
title to all its nonmilitary inventions. The licensing fees from the
resulting patents made the lab self-sufficient from day one. To further
protect the laboratory, Roland demoted all but the initial capital to
lower case and built it a new home in the Adirondacks fifty miles
upstream. Roland penned Alaska’s new mission statement, which
consisted of three simple words: Do good stuff.
Whatever was on Roland’s mind, he was
going to play with me first. This was one of several occupational
hazards of being a game theorist and a former professional
gambler—people always want to play games with you, especially if they
think that they have a chance of winning.
Roland took back the golf balls that he
had handed me and then retrieved the remainder of the dozen from his
bag. He dropped them to the ground, pulled a sixty-degree wedge from his
bag, and chipped the balls in rapid succession onto the green in a
manner reminiscence of a Bobby Jones training film. From thirty yards
out, he holed one and rolled the others to within six feet of the pin.
Roland reached back into his bag and
gave me a dozen standard-issue GFF golf balls. He dried off the wedge
and presented it to me with these words: “Watch it now—Tiger wants
I chipped toward the hole with
respectable results even if I holed none of them. On our way to retrieve
the balls Roland said, “Let me tell you why I’m here having fun with
you rather than wasting this glorious Monday morning sitting in on the
Session A’s with Mike.”
I had almost forgotten about Session
A’s. On the first week of each quarter the heads of GFF’s twenty
major businesses report to the hive to go over their financial results
with Mike and his staff in an ordeal known as a Session A. In his first
Session A as Chairman, Mike got everyone’s attention by saying,
“Take him out on the front lawn where everyone can get a good look at
him and shoot him” when the head of GFF’s industrial adhesives
business unabashedly admitted to missing his numbers.
The culmination of this hell week was
the release of GFF’s quarterly results before the stock market opened
on Friday morning. GFF prided itself on being among the first companies
to report to Wall Street each quarter and for the reliability of its
I had gone many places with Roland, but
never to a Session A. In fact, I had never been in the same room at the
same time as the Mighty Quinn. Roland said that I was too valuable for
him to take the risk that I might be summarily executed.
“The reason I’m not partaking in
the festivities is that in preparing for one of the Session A’s we
uncovered some disturbing things.” Roland made solid eye contact with
me as he spoke. “As you may have heard, the Mighty Quinn has been on a
bit of shopping spree lately. He started out on a roll and nabbed
several bargains, like that cable network, and they’re doing nicely.
It appears, however, that we may have gotten ahead of ourselves.”
“You don’t say,” I replied. In a
company that wanted its job candidates to confess that their greatest
personal flaw was working too hard, “getting ahead of ourselves” was
the only acceptable spin to put on a major screw-up.
“We dropped a hefty chunk of change
on The Lowell Group, a Boston-based investment manager that hit it big
in mutual funds. Things seemed fine at first. So what if they were a
little light on their numbers in the second quarter—the hive made the
usual fuss to give them religion, but we could deal with it. Then, last
week, we were going over their third-quarter numbers and Mike didn’t
like what he saw. The shortfall was expanding. We had the audit team dig
around and they traced the problem to their flagship fund—Lowell
“Anything special about it?”
“For one thing, its manager, Kenneth
Paine. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you?”
“That book of his, Market
Myths, is hard to miss,” I said. “He looks disarmingly
smug on the cover.”
“Ken may be smug, but at least he’s
not arrogant like the others at Lowell. And as famous as Mike is, Ken is
David Hasselhoff. I was in Kuala Lumpur last month visiting a fab plant
and a street vendor tried to sell me a poster of him.” I wondered
whether the poster was of Paine or Hasselhoff, but I let it slide.
“The thing is that after thirty-seven straight quarters of beating the
market he and his fund started sucking wind. And this comes immediately
after we bought those guys.”
“And . . .”
“Mike can’t issue the financials or
talk to the Street until he knows what is going on there—the SEC has
this thing about full disclosure and they make Mike sign off on every
single number. That Sarbanes-Oxley crap that was foisted on us.”
“They make you sign, too?”
“No way,” Roland said, “I get a
free ride. Nobody knows what a chief technology officer does, much less
cares if he takes a perp walk. But even if we leave prison out of the
equation, there’s the matter of perception. That’s what bugs
Although it appears nowhere in the
company’s hefty business manuals, every GFF manager quickly learns
that when it comes to Mike, perception is reality.
Roland brushed an orange maple leaf
from his shoulder. “In the eighteen years that Mike’s been Chairman,
he’s always reported the numbers on time and he wants this quarter to
be no exception. Aside from personal pride—which Mike has in
abundance—the market won’t like it if the numbers are late. We could
see the stock down several points and each one of those points
translates into ten billion dollars of our shareholder’s money. So
Mike gave the problem to me and said ‘Fix it. Whatever it takes. Just
fix it fast.’ That’s what brings me here today.”
I was prepared for much worse, but I
knew to conceal my relief. “So, how can I help?”
“When he was shorter in the tooth,
Mike would have hired a bunch of overpaid consultants to map out the
alternatives. That’s not possible here. For one thing, consultants got
him into this mess. For another, involving outsiders broadcasts the
problem. Wall Street never liked this acquisition—they said we had no
business treading so close to their turf—and we don’t want to do
anything that would give them more ammo.”
“No, we wouldn’t want to do
“And, worst of all, the audit team
thinks that someone—maybe the feds, maybe the press—might know more
than we do. A lot more. We have surveillance tapes that show guys in
suits rummaging through Lowell’s trash.”
“I know how to be discreet. If I went
rummaging through someone’s trash, I wouldn’t wear a suit.”
“I hope you won’t have to do
that,” Roland said with a hint of a smile. “What we need are smart
insiders who can put some fresh eyeballs on this. That’s why I rushed
up here to see if you could put together a SWAT team that can parachute
into Boston and find out what’s really happening and report back to me
by the end of business on Thursday.”
I guessed that he meant “parachute”
figuratively. He paused long enough that I found something substantive
to say in response.
“I’m glad you thought of me, but no
matter how discreet we are, I don’t see how we can poke around a major
financial institution and not attract attention.”
Roland gave me a
meaningful-to-the-point-of-glaring look and responded emphatically,
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m the last one who’d want to see Mike or
the audit team traipsing around here, but Alaska’s future may very
well be in The Lowell Group’s hands. A Boston mutual-fund manager may
seem like small potatoes, but we’ve seen what happens to other
companies when a financial scandal runs out of control. No one wants
that to happen here.”
“A scandal, Roland? Is that what
brought you here?”
“I hope not. You never know. But if
one’s brewing, you’re the only one that I feel certain will get to
the bottom of things.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
“As well you should,” That said,
Roland looked away from me and toward the green as he continued talking.
“What’s ironic about all this is that in vetting the purchase of an
investment management company, we consciously avoided firms with the
slightest taint—legal or ethical. The Lowell Group stood out from the
pack as a traditional company that was squeaky-clean. If Mike has to
learn about a scandal from someone else, I’m toast and I don’t have
to tell you what that means for you. All I can say is that scandal or no
scandal the Lowell Aggressive Growth Fund is starting to hemorrhage
cash. Withdrawals from all their funds are inching up relative to the
competition. The Lowell Group thinks this is our fault, but I don’t
buy that for a minute.”
“I wonder what would create that
Roland didn’t respond to my sarcasm,
he challenged me to a second game of closest-to-the-pin instead. This
game had virtually the same outcome as the first. He then put the wedge
back in his bag and said, “Let’s take a tour of the lodge while I
fill you in on the details. I’d like to see what you’ve done with
Our walk took us by the basketball
court where Roland’s chopper sat. We passed several tennis courts and
entered the building through the back. The lodge was a meeting and
recreation facility with thirty guest rooms. It was as far into Alaska
as visitors, including job candidates, were allowed to venture.
“Nice cruelty-free facility you’ve
got here, Doc,” Roland said as we entered the main hall, which was
devoid of the taxidermy, leather furniture, and antler-based works of
art typically found in an Adirondack lodge.
“As cruelty-free as a place that
serves the best barbeque in the North Country can be,” I responded.
We sat down on two cruelty-free, but
comfortable, chairs and Roland said, “Here’s the deal. We closed the
Lowell acquisition back in February and for the rest of the first
quarter everything was fine. Ken’s fund was up four percent in a flat
market. Not spectacular, but more than enough to keep its five-star
rating. Things started to get dicey in the second quarter but at least
the overall market was strong. The averages were up six percent while
Ken eked out a two percent gain—the first time in over nine years that
he didn’t beat them. But that’s only a single quarter and because
the five stars are based on a full year’s performance, all’s still
copacetic. Well, the third quarter, which ended last week, was terrible.
The averages tacked on another six percent and Ken’s down three.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said.
“The hive is abuzz because of a single mediocre quarter followed by a
lousy one. Probabilistically, that’s not so bad and no reason to
suspect a scandal. Even the best have runs of bad luck.”
“I have a gut feeling that luck
isn’t involved. However you slice it—quarters, months, weeks, even
days, Ken’s fund consistently lags. We can’t afford to wait this
“Aside from the Mighty Quinn’s
nanosecond attention span, what’s the issue here?” I always knew
when someone was holding back and Roland knew me well enough to know
that I knew. Roland seemed distracted, so I used the extra time to add,
“What aren’t you telling me?”
Roland responded in a managerial
voice—impersonal and detached—something he rarely did with me.
“Well, Doc, we acquired Lowell because they lacked the capital,
technology, and management acumen to continue to go it alone. Ken’s
fund opened doors for them—a bunch of financial planners came on board
because their clients responded to the media attention that Ken and his
fund were getting. They even signed some small-to-medium companies up
for their 401(k) program, but they simply couldn’t provide the same
products and services as their larger competitors. As for the
institutional market, especially the pension funds, Lowell just
couldn’t get in the door. The guys at our pension fund thought they
were a joke.”
I started to say something about the
pot calling . . . but caught myself.
Roland leaned closer to me. “We
figured that we could do a better job than Lowell of promoting Ken’s
fund and then build the company up around it. We weren’t the only ones
with this idea. GFF had to outbid the big European banks in order to get
Lowell and it’s beginning to look like we overpaid. If something is
fundamentally wrong with them, we’re looking at an ocean of red ink
and a big hit to our credibility.”
Roland had said a lot, yet had dodged
my pointed question. It seemed futile to press him further, so I simply
remarked, “Well, no one can say the Mighty Quinn isn’t ambitious.
GFF starts out in the financial markets by lending steel mills money so
they can afford to buy its open-hearth furnaces and fifty years later it
wants to take over the stock market.”
“Ambition aside, I’d like you to
look around and tell me what you think. Boston isn’t Vegas, but then
as they say, it takes a . . . “
I never thought of myself as a
thief—a hustler, maybe—but I caught the gist.
Roland rose up and said, “Take anyone
you need with you. Post your expenses directly to my account. I don’t
think you could cost more than our consultants if you tried. Your best
guys are clever enough that three or four of them should be able to do
the work of a whole stable of consultants. There’s that brilliant guy
with the webbed feet—”
“Right. Yes. So, that’s what you
call him. He should fit right in with The Lowell Group. I’m sure you
can manage to drag him and a few of the others away for the week.”
“Anything you say.”
“We’ll start with a breakfast
meeting tomorrow at seven-thirty in Lowell’s waterfront boardroom.
Alice will take care of your hotel and anything else you need. Only your
attendance is required at breakfast, we won’t need the rest of the
team until later in the day.”
Then Roland unzipped a side compartment
of his golf bag, pulled out a large yellow binder, and said, “Here’s
some bedtime reading for you and your team. We pulled this background
material together for the Lowell acquisition. It’s sensitive stuff, so
I’d like it back at breakfast tomorrow. By the way, have we made it to
a thousand pictures yet?”
just last week. We’re already up to a thousand and three.” Some labs
measure their success in patents, others in publications. Alaska uses
“Good stuff. Speaking of pictures,
I’ll arrange to have GFF identification cards issued for everyone in
your party. It’s best not to be flashing your Alaska IDs. You can stop
at the old lab on your way to Boston and get them made for you. It
shouldn’t take long.”
“It’s still there?” I asked with
an inflection that would let Roland know that I knew that the Mighty
Quinn could disappear a facility many times the size of Alaska. His
lawyers and accountants (with the rubber stamp of his hand-picked board
of directors) put the best illusionists on the Strip to shame.
“In a manner of speaking.” Roland
looked up at the ceiling and said, “That place brings back
The “old lab” was how Alaskans
referred to our new lab’s birthplace on those rare occasions it merits
mention. That was where I started working for Roland. He had found me in
Vegas, talked me into coming east, and made me his special assistant. In
exchange for sitting in on the occasional meeting with him, I got to
spend the rest of the time doing research with all of GFF’s formidable
resources at my disposal.
Things were going along fine until Mike
slashed GFF’s research budget as part of a cost-cutting program
designed to keep giving Wall Street the double-digit earnings growth to
which it and the company had become addicted. When it looked like the
old lab might vanish altogether, Roland put his best people, including
three Nobel laureates, into “the lifeboat” before he got kicked
upstairs to an office next to Mike’s at the hive. Despite my relative
youth and inexperience, Roland put me in charge of Alaska. Roland’s
successor to the directorship of the old lab was a CPA and Wharton MBA
who cared only about what the lab cost the company and not what it
invented, which was the way Mike wanted things.
“I’ve gotta get back to the
hive—who knows what Mike will do without me?” Roland said as he led
the way to the door.
Once we were outside, I asked, “Do
you miss the old lab?”
“It’s hard not to considering that
I did my best work there even if it’s no longer the same place. What I
miss most is being young. At least as a physicist, I could stay
productive into my forties. It must be tough on you mathematicians. By
the time you’re twenty-five, it’s all over.”
“Some of us make it to thirty and we
can always start something new in our old age.”
“You certainly can, Doc. It’s
always great to visit here. See you at breakfast tomorrow.”
Roland walked to the chopper and ducked
his head as he climbed aboard. I raced to my car and sped through the
forest until nothing came between me and the glass cylinder. Now to deal
with the misfits. My misfits.
Copyright 2004 by Ross M. Miller. Permission
granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250
words or less provided a citation is made to RiggedOnline.com.