Life on the corporate side of the mergers and acquisition world is somewhat slow paced compared to the alternatives. Decisions within a corporate development department of a large corporation on what to buy and what to sell usually involve long-winded meetings on strategy and "positioning" with the senior executive corps. That in itself is a cat-herding like activity. It often takes something as dramatic as a radical management change to spur any kind of real movement and by the time that comes along, well, usually the corporate development office gets swept out along with all the other old trash. Suffice it to say that the corporate side was a bit less engaging as a career choice and the people who gravitated to it are perceived in the more rarefied circles, wrongly in my view, as those who couldn't cut it in the more intense deal driven professions. The hours were definitely better, however.
I had braced myself for a flurry of training and "teambuilding" exercises. Fall back into so-and-so's arms and the like. I, like most business school students, had read Liar's Poker and was deeply prepared for the world of finance to be fully as intense and testosterone dominated as the book portrays it. Never mind that Liar's Poker was about sales and trading and was written in 1989. Some things never change.
If I expected that kind of dramatic welcome in the corporate development office of my new Fortune 500 home I was to be disappointed. I walked in, introduced myself, was ushered into a very modest and messy office of what I assumed was a co-worker, and was promptly introduced to the CFO. I almost laughed out loud, figuring it was a joke. It wasn't.
It is not that big offices, expensive carpeting, and wood paneled conference rooms are important to me (well not only that) it is just that the recruiting process, where these palatial edifices are prized and flaunted centerpieces for a buffet of excess, transforms the one-upmanship of "total headquarters spend" by the larger investment banks into a sort of expectation. The interview process exposes one only to such a rarified population that after the third or fourth headquarters visit it becomes hard to imagine that any place doing mergers and acquisitions work would have carpeting that cost the owners less than $350.00 per yard.
It is hard to overstate the sometimes outright gaudiness this seems to engender. Indeed, to face the harsh, neon glare of the Kohn Pedersen Fox designed Lehman Brother's building in Times Square (it was originally built for Morgan Stanley) you'd think you were standing on The Strip in Las Vegas and that the structure housed a casino. In a way perhaps it does. To know what used to be the highly conservative (almost aristocratic) history of the firm it seems hard to believe this is a shell they would ever want to inhabit. Overhead inflation is a driving force. Part of the deal.
This did not look like a mergers and acquisitions office. Nope. Not one bit.
My cube was typical and typically small. I hadn't spent but two hours in it when I was called into a smallish conference room filled with a bunch of other me-like new employees and lectured to sternly on the problems sexual harassment presented in the workplace by a immensely tall, glowering and foreboding woman, the head of Human Resources, who looked like she could break Margret Thatcher in two. It was pretty clear she took this entire process VERY seriously.
If the lecture was dull, the film, "Sexual Harassment - A High Price to Pay," was beyond funny. I couldn't believe it had been produced with such deadpan seriousness. This was a major issue. The random girl next to me whispered, "Perhaps the prostitutes in the area are overly expensive?" and that set off the girl on the other side of me who could barely stifle her laughter. It only went downhill from there as the entire room gradually began to snicker at the outrageously implausible situations portrayed in the film. Two guys across the table were having the most serious problem even in the face of the increasingly annoyed look on HR's face. She looked like she was ready to engage in some serious workplace violence.
And THAT was the highlight of my career in corporate mergers and acquisitions. It is true, the position was for three more months. It is also true that after that first day I literally spent the next two months and 26 days working on the divestiture of a call center. The majority of the work involved trying to predict what the place would look like financially as a stand alone company. With no fat-cat parent to pay its bills. This seemed silly to the non-analytical side of me since another fat-cat parent was probably going to buy the place and start paying its bills.
All of the accounting was so tied into the parent company one had to make pretty wild assumptions to get an answer. Guesses about how much of total general and administrative expense could be attributed to the call center, and how much was the rest of the company. Ratios of employees to expenses times headcount used to extrapolate overhead. The amount of guesswork was pretty severe. The analytical side of me was rather uncomfortable with this much money hanging on my entirely inexperienced swags. Of course, when I presented some of my guesses to my superior, he frowned and asked me to rework them so that the expenses looked lower. We wouldn't want to depress the price a buyer paid, would we?
Three days before the summer was over senior management decided to keep the call center. I spent the remaining three days making little paperclip sculptures. I think the one of the chair looked best.