Reeling 'Em In

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I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why a senior manager who seemed as competent as Dellano would need consultants. This was a real puzzlement. He knew what he wanted to do, he knew how to get there, and he was not one of those managers afraid of making decisions. Nevertheless, Dellano indicated that he did use consultants from time to time. As we continued to chat, I kept looking for that hook to land a consulting contract. Chase would be a great account, and think of what I could learn just rubbing elbows with a guy like this. I was convinced from the start that working for him would be a blast. Not to mention, Dellano obviously had the clout to get things done. In the past when I thought of strategy, I thought of people who couldn't walk across the street by themselves. Dellano was a different breed of strategist. Not only was he an astute business executive, but clearly he understood technology beyond the buzzwords. No FUD was gonna work here.

Before I knew it, my hour was up. The only commitment I was able to get from Dellano was an agreement to meet again. This was going to take time. Nothing worse for a consultant than spending time when you can't bill for it. Sometimes you need to know when to quit, but I was already determined to win Chase as a client, no matter how much time and effort it took. The free time would be easy to rationalize. I was earning my union card to work as a consultant at Chase.

I brought Will Logan along for a couple of the follow-up meetings Dellano set up with other managers. I knew there was risk, given the Pitney Bowes experience, but his presence could also prove important, particularly if anybody starting firing away to determine my technical credentials. In addition to his consulting knowledge, I wanted to demonstrate that this was more than a one-man firm. As if a two-man firm would make a difference.

From the platform waiting for Metro North in Fairfield, Connecticut, until we got off the subway at Jay Street, Borough Hall, I tried to coach Logan prior to each of these meetings. "Please, Will, think before you speak, let them do most of the talking, and don't get emotional about stuff." Not that it ever did any good. He would give me a condescending scowl, as if I were merely a facilitator and should remember my place, leaving all the thinking and serious talk up to him. Once we were in a meeting, I knew anything could happen. I tried my best to keep us away from any technology discussions that could become religious. Overall, I had to be honest with myself. Logan was at the top of his game. The best part was that nobody went storming out of the building.

My one-on-one meetings with Dellano also continued, between the "dog and pony" shows with Logan and various groups of Chase employees. There must have been three or four additional meetings with Dellano. As I got to know him, I realized we had things in common. Michael Dellano came from a family of New York City cops. My father had been a cop for twenty years, starting on a beat in Harlem and retiring as a lieutenant detective out of the District Attorney's office in Manhattan. In the old days, cops from both of our families rooted for the Dodgers, affectionately referred to as the "bums." This might have explained why they were quick to invoke this affectionate term whenever anyone got the least bit out of line. There were other similarities. We both had to work for people we respected. He was madly in love with his wife and liked to talk about her. A cashed-out Wall Streeter, she was now an entrepreneur in retail who made over double what she was making before. I was madly in love with whomever I was dating at the time. I envied him that he found one person where the passion had lasted.

I took him to lunch several weeks after our first meeting. As much as I enjoyed his company, it had finally come down to fish or cut bait. We needed to start getting some billable hours, and I had promised Logan that if I couldn't crack Chase this time, I would move on. I planned to full court press. Dellano's secretary had suggested I take him to a place he liked called Casey's, which was in the MetroTech complex. It was the perfect place, especially with it being a bitter cold day and the restaurant just a few hundred yards from the Chase building. Started by a couple of retired New York cops, it was a favorite lunch spot during the day and watering hole at night for many of those Chase people who had been banished from Manhattan and didn't want to fight rush hour when they could stop for a pop instead. It combined a rustic Irish pub with an upscale restaurant serving northern Italian cuisine. The best of both worlds, so to speak.

After we were escorted to the table, I extended my hand, offering the seat against the wall. "Think we're safe here," I said. "I usually never sit with my back to the door, but I'll make an exception today."

"OK," Dellano barked back. "You've already proved to me that your old man was a cop. Either that, or a wise guy."

"Don't I look like a wise guy?"

"More like IRA. So what kind of name is Romaine? Doesn't sound Irish."

"It's not. My dad was Lithuanian. The name was chopped when his parents got off the boat at Ellis Island. For some reason, more of the Celtic came out in my looks and temperament. You think maybe the milkman ... ?"

"That's what I hate about this new DNA testing I've been reading about... . Can't get away with anything anymore... . So your dad was a New York cop? But he wasn't Irish. Hmmm ... he married an Irish girl. Must have been a social climber."

I had established an early rapport. First objective in any sales call.

Lunch continued for the first few minutes with nonwork-related conversation. I'm not sure how we got on the subject, but we talked about some of our favorite books and movies. They shared a recurring theme -- good guys fight bad guys. This common interest in similar entertainment could possibly have been a by-product from growing up around cops. At least for me, I'm sure it helped reinforce a binary view of life. From a cop's point of view, you're either a crook or you're not a crook. Sharing the same taste in entertainment also may have signaled a nostalgic craving for a simpler world when battle lines were more clearly defined and armies wore uniforms. A time before free agency, when teams had distinctive personalities that you could count on remaining virtually intact from season to season; some you loved, some you loved to hate. Of course, it's easy to sugarcoat the past.

"It's a shame the bad guys don't wear black hats anymore," Dellano said. "It so much easier when you can pick them out right away. You can never be too sure anymore."

"As Michael Corleone would say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

"But that was always true."

Conversation eventually turned to Chase Manhattan and some of the things Dellano was doing. It was time to try and bring this thing to closure. "I have one question. You know we have met with a bunch of folks. Have we been vetted to your satisfaction yet?"

Dellano smiled as he continued to talk about his work-related activities. Something called client/server was busting out all over Chase at just about all departmental levels.

There was the Internet lurking in the background, but most of the hype from consulting analysts was on this thing called client/server. Client/server was the next big breakthrough after open systems. Client/server went hand in hand with open systems. It was part of the revolution displacing mainframes. Mainframes connected "nonintelligent" terminals to large, centrally controlled systems. Client/server was a network connecting personal computers, usually in close proximity on the same campus. On a local network, the personal computer and the software that made it "intelligent" became the client. Clients generally shared one or more servers. Servers were stripped-down departmental systems where data, printing, and other services could be shared without requiring a large mainframe computer. Client/server wasn't exactly industrial strength yet, but the vendors and consultants kept promising. "Get rid of the IBM mainframe and save bucks with client/server, and we can help you do it."

It wasn't that I was against client/server. Will Logan and I had recommended client/server solutions at Pitney Bowes and Connecticut Mutual Life. I just didn't think it was the universal answer for everything. Certainly the cost advantages were overstated -- for one thing, they were leaving out the ongoing consultant costs. Logan and I didn't spend the last five years building a bench with client/server specialists like so many other consulting firms had done. I liked to think that made us a little more open minded about using it. One of the few advantages of being small -- we had no investments to protect, at least not yet.

Dellano explained that Chase was just getting started in a comprehensive effort to reengineer revenue reporting for the entire wholesale side of the bank. Then he finally answered my question: "I'm going to give you and Logan a chance to demonstrate what you can do." This was huge. I tried to be cool about it. Perhaps we could fit Chase in.

Chase was one of the market leaders in wholesale banking. The effort to develop a more comprehensive approach to reporting and analyzing financial results was driven by a question asked by the chief financial officer. He wanted to know how much money Chase had made in a previous quarter from one of its top corporate customers. It wasn't that the question couldn't be answered. The problem was that he got at least three different answers. Different groups were reporting revenue differently. There was no comprehensive system for tracking and reporting. I pictured back rooms with hundreds of different sized and shaped people, all wearing the exact same thick, horn-rimmed glasses and matching sneakers, working late through the night. They were taking numbers from different computer printouts and tabulating totals from an adding machine with rolls of paper spilling over desks to the floor.

Dellano wanted us to review the work to date and interview a bunch of people involved in revenue reporting and systems. There was a client/server solution currently in its pilot phase. It was called System 10, and it came from a relatively new high-flying database company called Sybase Inc. Unlike its previous solutions, which were geared for departmental users, System 10 was billed as a solution for the entire enterprise, the mainframe killer.

Chase had agreed to test a prerelease "beta" version, before it became generally available. Select customers could test a "beta," which meant it wasn't ready for prime time yet. Computer defects, called bugs, needed to be uncovered and fixed. The customer would test in a work environment for the vendor, helping to fix the problems prior to general availability. This was a great way for a vendor to hook a customer. The argument went that the customer would get a break on price. In addition, the customer would get up to speed on the new product faster than the competition. As part of the agreement, the customer ended up making people investments to help get the kinks out of the new beta version of the product. If the product was a no-go for the customer, the investments were wasted. Nobody wanted to waste investments. Often, during beta testing, the customer got lots of great publicity for itself while praising the new product, sometimes speaking at conferences. It became a partnership approach for making the product a success. For a vendor, it was a great way to shift some of the start-up risks and costs to the customer, as if you were doing them a favor. The refined product would hit the market after beta testing had been completed at a much lower cost for the vendor.

Chase executives were getting lots of press for their willingness to push the envelope on technology. Many at Chase believed System 10 could be rolled out to address the needs of the new revenue-reporting system. It was the prevailing view, according to Dellano. He wanted me and Logan to complete a thorough evaluation, make recommendations, and develop a plan for next steps.

"If I like the work you do, there's potential for follow-on work. If I don't, we can still chat now and then ... your nickel."

We shook hands over a fixed price that would cover about a month's work for two consultants. It was a step up from what we charged Pitney, but still lower than market rates for the more established guys.

I paid the check, and we got up to leave. As we were waiting for the coat check lady to retrieve our things, he told me that he had started at Chase as a key punch operator and had worked his way up through the ranks. At one point he had left Chase to pursue a new career as a consultant. He built his own business before Chase made him an offer to come back in from the cold. As a former mercenary, it occurred to me that Dellano was in a unique position. He knew the other teams' playbooks.

Dellano tapped me on the back as we slipped out the door, past the line of people waiting to get into the restaurant. "A few words of advice for the future. Don't buy lunch for potential clients without first getting the contract in hand."

At the beginning of 1993, Chase Manhattan Wholesale Bank was embroiled in a series of internal battles. My conversations with Dellano before getting the contract started to make sense. The big battle we were about to walk in on was between those who wanted to centralize all the customer-revenue data in one place and those who felt it should be distributed across a network of servers. The classic battle between the control freaks versus the "give them whatever they want and need" crowd. The appeal of System 10 was that it was billed as software that could satisfy both crowds. It was decentralized, but it performed and looked to the user like it was centralized.

The wholesale bank handled some of the largest and most prestigious international corporate customers. It was Who's Who of the Fortune 100, the envy of other banks. Great visibility if you did things right, and greater visibility if you did things wrong.

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