Reeling 'Em In

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Of course, we all got greedy, too. If you want to grow business in an organization like Chase, it usually means taking it away from someone else. Several of the other firms approached us about coming to work for them. We decided to play hard to get. There was an attractive saleswoman who worked for one of the integrators. In addition to being lean with tight curves, she was also smart, and with a wicked sense of humor. I liked her. She seemed to like me. We went out a few times. While we tried to keep our jobs out of it, work-related topics invariably bubbled up. At one time after she mentioned something about her business, I asked her to explain how it worked. It sounded brutal. They threw bodies at jobs, all shapes and sizes. As long as the consultants could be sold as a billable commodity, they had a future in integration. The idea was to extend the billing as much as possible.

One night over a couple drinks after work, I said, "Don't think I could ever do what you do. You're a shark."

"And whom do you think you're foolin'? ... You're a closet barracuda," she retorted without hesitation.

This was quite the compliment.

At one point, she set up a meeting between me and her boss.

"I don't want to work for anybody else right now," I declared.

"It can't hurt to listen ... and this is not only to explore you becoming an employee," she suggested. "Maybe we can strike a 'partnering' agreement."

That was of more interest. Her boss was one of the principal owners. The conversation didn't go very well. It was all about employment, not partnership. After explaining that I could do both selling and consulting, he explained that he would want to start me out as "billable," and thought he could sell me into another project at Chase.

"But I'm capable of more than that... . I want to be more than 'billable meat.'"

"Billable meat? If that's what you think of consultants ... then we have a problem. Consultants are the lifeblood of our business. I don't think of them as billable meat and no one who works for me should, either."

"Sorry, poor choice of words."

Discussion continued. He wanted to know about everything I was working on with all my clients to determine the proper "fit," based on my skill set and experience. He could call it or not call it what he wanted, but I couldn't help thinking that in his mind I was just another slab of marketable beef. As we talked, I had the feeling he was busy trying to kill two birds. First, figure out what business I was doing that he could move in on, and second, determine how much he could bill me out at. Feeling like I had better hold tight to the wallet in my pocket, I developed a quick case of amnesia. He was a little more than annoyed when I got fuzzy on the particulars regarding my work at Chase. You have to be wary of professional sharks.

Instead of forming a partnership, I continued efforts to outmaneuver my friend and her boss for future business opportunities. They kept trying to get more of the front-end business. I tried to get implementation work that could be subcontracted to less threatening integrators. They were a big firm compared to me, and at best, I was merely a slight annoyance. It didn't really matter. Carter kept defining the projects and, for the most part, he kept us swimming in separate tanks.

"You gotta decide what you want ta be," he told me. "If you want ta do strategy, fine ... stick with it. If you want ta manage projects, that's something else. I personally prefer projects. It's where the action is."

The money was better, too. Eventually my friend's company was bought out by Amdahl for several million dollars.

In spite of my best efforts to generate other business, we couldn't break out from getting the front-end architecture-related work. The integrators were cleaning up on the more lucrative implementation projects that came later in the cycle. Somehow it didn't seem fair. We were helping companies make the important up-front technology decisions, or at the very least, providing coverage to management as those decisions were made. Other consulting and integration firms were being commissioned to implement these plans for the really big bucks with engagements running over extended time periods.

We had been lucky with Chase. I was beginning to realize that Informed Technology Decisions, by itself, didn't have the scale or name recognition to provide the sufficient level of insurance to minimize the risk factor for new prospective clients. When we were hired, people seemed to like the work we were doing. It was just that the people they worked for had never heard of Informed Technology Decisions. That didn't seem to hurt us at Chase, but it could with other potential clients. Most senior managers had heard of the big consulting firms such as Andersen Consulting or Price Waterhouse. The decision to hire us could be questioned. In the risk averse '90s with everyone looking over their shoulders and waiting for the next corporate realignment, questionable decisions were to be avoided. Who would question hiring a reputable firm like Andersen, the consulting arm of the prestigious auditing firm Arthur Anderson? Skills and capability seemed less important than comfort level. If we were going to grow this business, we needed to smarten up.

I met with Tom Carter to plant the seeds for winning future business and get some of his street-smart advice. He, too, was a regular at Casey's. We met for lunch, sitting at his favorite table in the corner. Like Dellano, he told me to be patient. Additional business would come. I told him that patience wasn't one of my virtues.

"You can't expect to break into Chase in one fell swoop," he said. "You've done very well. Give it a little time."

The messages from Carter and Dellano were in sync.

What struck me most about Tom Carter were the apparent contradictions. There was a hint of the rebel, suggested by the cowboy boots he would wear underneath his dark blue and gray suits. People who worked for him described him as warm and caring, yet they seemed to be afraid of him. While he wasn't very tall, his presence somehow managed to overcompensate. He had all the necessary street smarts and controlled toughness of an urban individualist, but he was also very effective in communicating with top management and orchestrating meetings to gain their buy-in. At one point he told me that over the years he had helped bail out a lot of senior executives. "Hopefully, they won't forget," he said. "You never know when you might need to pull the card."

During our conversation, Carter mentioned that he had gone to Bishop Loughin Memorial High School with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in Brooklyn, New York. It must have been a breeding ground for maverick types. Some may have considered Tom Carter a little out of touch with the times, but that was fine by me. He was one of those guys who believed you "say what you mean and always think team."

Several months went by. I was starting to worry that Chase had forgotten about us. Logan and I worked on a few smaller contracts with other clients. On the tail end of another client's engagement, I received a call from Tom Carter. He wanted to see me as soon as possible to discuss a major contract opportunity. We met at a French gourmet cafe, somewhat out of place, deep in the heart of Brooklyn, not far from where my dad had grown up.

Like most corporations, Chase was under considerable pressure to improve profitability. The contract was to recommend a new profitability and portfolio-analysis system to be used throughout the Chase wholesale bank. Chase executive management had become highly focused on measuring profitability more effectively. This system could play a critical role in helping them make decisions related to this extremely important measurement. They liked what we did with revenue. Profit was the next logical step. This time it wouldn't just be recommending systems. More important, it would entail redefining a consistent measurement for profitability and how it should be reported across the wholesale bank. There were lots of different opinions on how it should be counted.

"So, you interested?"

"When can we start?"

Carter agreed to pay us big bucks on an hourly basis. "What you should know, is that this will be highly political," he said.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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