Take the Money and Run? by
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(70 Stories)

Prompted By Close Calls

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I checked the WSJ for the stock price, did the math and took a deep breath.  Gentlemen don't tell, of course, but the resulting number was deep into eight figures, and that was before the decimal point.

 

UPDATE NOTE:  Of course, like most everyone else on Retro, I currently have more time than ever to write my stories. And I find a disproportionate sense of accomplishment in writing them these days.  However, when I pondered this week’s prompt of “Close Calls,” I realized that, never having been in a life-threatening situation (other than, maybe, right now, along with everyone else), nor having extricated myself from a romantic situation that would have been truly disastrous (“Regrets, I have a few, but, then again, too few to mention….”), my closest call was, prosaically enough, a career one that I wrote about two years ago when the prompt was “Temptation.” So I have chosen to republish it this week.

The two prompts are hardly analogous, but they are certainly related.  To state the obvious, temptation often leads to close calls.  I think, in particular, of alluring sexual partners — the proverbial femme fatales–  who would be horrible life choices.  Or the sort of stupid dare-devil behavior that young guys often are often attracted to and which can have fatal results.  (Feel free to read any edition of the Darwin Awards for a litany of examples of where the calls ended up being on the wrong side of close.)

However, I also realize that one can have a close call that is not in any way the result of temptation.  It can be entirely fault-free, such as walking into a bank when a robbery is in progress or being on the sidewalk when a car spins out of control. I will be curious to see if other Retro stories on this week’s prompt can be viewed as the result of one’s own temptation, rather than just random unluckiness. In any event, mine is about temptation.

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Like most guys, when the topic of “temptation” comes up, I immediately think of sex before money.  And with gigolo not being a likely career option for me, for many reasons, I can’t realistically imagine combining them.  Plus, as I was born into a comfortable professional family and have been a comfortable professional all my adult life (starting off as an associate at a big NY law firm has a way of assuring that), I have never viewed money — or at least accumulating a lot more money — as much of a temptation.  Reminds me of the joke about the old Jewish guy who is hit by a car and the good samaritan who places a coat over him as he is lying on the sidewalk waiting for the ambulance asks him if he is comfortable.  “I do OK,” the guy replies.

In any event, when faced with this prompt, I did realize that I had at least one moment in my professional life where money was indeed a temptation.  In 1999, by pleasant coincidence, I was offered the General Counsel position at two separate firms.  One was the international component of the accounting firm where I had worked for many years.  The other was something being offered by consultants at my old firm, but it was for a start-up dot.com that they were putting together with a big telecom.  Much as I liked the wooing, I felt that the former was clearly the more comfortable (that word again) choice for me.

But then the consultants threw a compensation package at me that included not only a nice salary but also stock options based on a formula tied to my salary and the current price of the telecom’s stock when the start-up went public – – as, of course, it would inevitably do. I checked the WSJ for the stock price, did the math and took a deep breath.  Gentlemen don’t tell, of course, but the resulting number was deep into eight figures, and that was before the decimal point.

I was not unmindful of the downside of the start-up, beginning with the inherent riskiness of it, my uncertainty of the consultants I would be working with (who dismissed my accounting colleagues as “bean counters”) and the fact that, at least for a while, I would have to commute most weeks from my home and family in NY to Denver — albeit I was assured that most of the travel would be on the corporate jet. Still, a part of me starting thinking that I could do this for at least five years (when my options would vest) and then, as the movie (and the Steve Miller song) says, “Take the Money and Run.”  And do whatever the hell I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Ultimately, I took the other position instead.  Again, it just felt more comfortable.  But I surprised myself that I could have even been tempted to consider the start-up position, based solely on the amount of money they were throwing at me.  At some point, I began to wonder if I was the punchline of another old joke: “We already know what you are.  We’re just haggling about the price.”

Sometimes one is able to later see the “what ifs” of resisting or succumbing to temptation.  Happily, this was one such situation.  I took the former job and was comfortable there for many years, just as I thought I would be, even if I didn’t feel as if I had hit the lottery.  As to the start up, well, this was 1999, remember?  The business — and they could never even satisfactorily explain to me what the hell it really was — never went public, folded within 18 months and its parents wrote off about $100 million.

Did I wisely resist temptation or was I just a chicken?  I report; you decide.

 

 

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: been there, funny, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    John, this is a great story about the temptation of money, not sex. (Only a couple of the stories on this prompt are about sex, as it turns out.) Your temptation and response are nicely laid out, and I love both of the jokes you include: “I do okay” and “just haggling about the price.”

    How nice that you were vindicated in your choice by the fact that the startup folded within 18 months. There were certainly many other startups that did make millions for those who were in on the ground floor, and you would probably have been kicking yourself if this had turned out to be one of those. Were you wise or just chicken? Hard to say. I have no idea what I would have done in your place.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I am sure that I am the better person for my resistance to this temptation. Just kidding. If this had been the next Microsoft and I had walked away, you would probably find me huddled over a drink in a cheap bar every night mumbling to myself “I coulda been a first-mover…”

      Word to the wise: stay away from businesses with the word “Cyber-Solutions” in its name.

  2. John Zussman says:

    This story is a great take on the Temptation prompt and I love the insight and humor with which you tell it. It really hit a nerve with me, having spent my career in Silicon Valley, where so many of us have stories like this, and not all with the same happy ending. (I could tell you about the time Larry Ellison personally offered me a job at Oracle, years before their IPO when it only had about 250 employees, and I turned it down because I didn’t want to work in a big company like that!) But I like the way that, despite making what turned out to be the right decision, you understand it might easily have come out the other way. In the end, all we can do is make the best decisions we can at the time, and try not to have too many regrets in, well, retrospect.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    What a great way to respond to this prompt, John! I love that you added the age-old Jewish jokes (yes, I’ve heard them, but they are so apt, and still funny). The second offer was tempting, but there are not guarantees and hindsight being what it is, there is not doubt you made the correct decision. On the other hand, doing that sort of grueling commute wouldn’t have been fun either, so I’m sure that weighed into your logic at the time.

    And IPOs frequently don’t work out. My husband (who was there when Andersen Consulting turned into Accenture and profited handsomely from it) tells the story that a million things had to go perfectly for him to walk away with as money as he did. That is extremely rare. We all know what happened to Arthur Andersen (remember Enron). AC was lucky to have gotten out from Andersen Worldwide before all the cookies crumbled. Long story, lots of legal arbitration internationally, but it all worked out for my family.

    • John Shutkin says:

      You are so right, Betsy, about how impossible it is to predict how these things will work out. Indeed, at KPMG, things went in the exact opposite direction. When KPMG Consulting spun off and went public, it ended up in bankruptcy a few years later. KPMG — the “bean counters” in my story — is still doing just fine as a Big Four. In fact, that was another temptation I resisted: the early opportunity (i.e., “temptation”) KPMG partners were offered to buy KPMG Consulting stock options. As I think about it, maybe I am a financial genius after all.

      Nah….

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Never having been a huge risk taker, except when I started my school, I would have done the same thing, John. This story does work for close calls because you almost made the other choice, which would have been a financial disaster.

  5. Sounds like you were a wise chicken!

    Years ago I worked in a large school
    library under a wonderful head librarian, named Dorothy, a woman about my mother’s age.

    I was newly married at the time and confided to Dorothy that my husband was a young business man who had warned me that his biz was sometimes cyclical and we might have some rough times.

    Dorothy told me her late husband Arthur had been in many businesses and they indeed had had their ups and downs.
    Once years ago he had been approached by a young man seeking investors for a new business. It sounded risky to Arthur and he said No.

    The guy was seeking investors for drive-thru hamburger stands. His name was Ray Kroc.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dana. A great story. And, of course, the CEO of the dot com seeking to hire me could have been Bill Gates.

      Maybe we need another prompt for the other side of “close calls;” something like “the time I blew up by being too cautious.” One example springs quickly to mind. Just about when my first wife and I were married in 1974 and about to start our legal careers at big NY law firms, my father-in-law mentioned to us that he had heard of a house — a whole building, not just one apartment — for sale right on Gramercy Park, complete with the coveted key to the Park itself. Our immediate reaction was to roll our eyes and say, “How do you expect us to come up with that kind of money when we’re both making $15,000?” So we kept renting our one-bedroom apartment. If only…..

  6. Typical NYC real estate story!
    John, forgive I am trying to place all my new Retro friends, where are you living now?

  7. John, I’m tempted to take your featured image and Photoshop your face in, but alas, no profile image of you.

  8. mbw000 says:

    John–
    Perhaps if you had joined the startup firm it would have been a phenomenal success, as a result of your acumen?
    Mike Wallace

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Mike, but not a prayer. And for at least three reasons. First, it’s hard to see how a General Counsel or other lawyer could do much to create corporate success; at best, he/she can minimize disaster. Second, this was your classic 1990’s dot com all hype/no substance story. As mentioned, they couldn’t even describe to me what exactly they intended to do; it was nothing but buzzwords, heavy on “optimize.” And third, I do not suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I am well aware of how much I do not know.

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