ALL ASSETS, NO LIABILITIES, SUPERHEROES FOR THE CUBICLE-DWELLERS
Author's Note: The header quotes for each section come from Dictionary of Accounting Terms, Second Edition by Joel G. Siegel, Ph.D., CPA and Jae K. Shim, Ph.D., published by Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1995. Thanks to Darby Bray for letting me borrow his copy, not knowing that it would be used for such nefarious purposes.
ZERO-SUM GAME: competition in which the total gains of the winner exactly equal the total loss of the loser.
TIME: early one weekday morning.
PLACE: any office complex in America.
It's only two hours into the workday and his stomach feels like it has been eating itself since last night. Sleep had come in fitful chunks. When he didn't sleep, he lay on his side and stared at the blue glowing digits of the alarm clock. Minutes had squeezed by. His eyes burned and blurred as he watched the digits morph from one into the other and waited for the irritating pulsating screech to kick on and roust him out bed.
Now they burned and blurred while he started at the contents of his e-mail inbox.
He blinked the thick wetness away and sighed. The full cup of coffee next to his computer had grown cold. Normally by now he would be sipping on this third for the morning. The parent company had started buying a gourmet blend for them a year ago. It had been the last of the perks from them.
He chuckled at the pun he had made, a flash of humor that fizzled when the computer made the cheery two-note sound signaling the arrival of an e-mail. He looked at the sender's name and exhaled in relief. It wasn't from the woman in human resources who had come in earlier in the week from the parent company. For the past month several of his colleagues had received the solemn "Please see me before you leave today" from her. They'd go in and come out later with a final paycheck that included a month's severance, along with handful of paperwork about continuation of benefits. Then they'd carry their history with the company packed into a copier paper box out to their cars and themselves into unemployment. Or, if they were really lucky, a brand new job.
He and his wife had both started out as code jockeys, first as co-workers, then as friends and later lovers and spouses, during the dawn of the dot-com era and were able to watch it crash and burn, safe with their knowledge of other programming and scripting languages beyond HTML, making them more valuable in the job market without having to do something short of a pole dance to snag a job. After their honeymoon, she took a position with a healthcare company while he signed on with a new programming shop that his boss had started at his parents' kitchen table. Five years later, after it had moved from the parent's house and into a cozy suite of offices, larger companies saw its profitability and came a-wooing. A firm based in Raleigh-Durham made the best offer. The owner/founder accepted and they were welcomed into its family. And the gourmet coffee began arriving.
Then the parent company started acquiring others, including ones similar to theirs. Redundant positions among the acquired were eliminated. Including the ones in his office.
The first wave of terminations was immediate and large. The human resources manager, one of the charter employees of their small company, couldn't stand to go through another one and left abruptly one afternoon. A second wave decimated the programming team, leaving him and two others. The employment situation at other companies where he could be useful wasn't good. His wife's employer had a hiring freeze on. Her job was secure, but her workload was ramping up. He worried about how it would affect her during the pregnancy. They were expecting twins. The other two at home, girls aged four and two, were excited about the new babies. They had told all their friends at their daycare, the cost of which had just jumped last month. Both sets of grandparents still worked, still years from retirement and all aunts and uncles were either out of state or still in school. Their neighbors were mostly in the same boat, so there was no chance at getting almost-free care for the children.
He and his wife had been reminiscing about music videos they had seen as kids. They were trying to remember who did the one where some teenager, browbeaten by a principal, a teacher, or a parent, would be sulking in his room or in the school office. There would be a low rumble, walls would start to crack, dust would fall from the ceiling and in a roar of collapsing crap, a metal band in long hair, spandex and wraparound belts would storm into the kid's life, sing a song of rebellion and doom for the oppressors of the young and make a genuine ass of whatever authority figure was hassling the dour teen.
He took his eyes off his computer screen and stood, peering over the edge of his cubicle. It was quieter now that fewer people were there. But he listened for that low rumble. And slowly scanned the walls for cracks. . .
ANALYTICAL REVIEW: auditing process that tests relationships among accounts and identifies material changes.
As if taken from an unseen cue, the four men in dark suits around the table slipped dark glasses onto their faces. One of them pulled a cigar from his jacket and placed it in front of him. They do it with the speed and un-self-consciousness of someone who has just stepped out from his home and into the light of a sunsplashed day.
But the simple action transforms the four professional men. It turns a quartet of accountants into The Accountants, who bring forth on stage their musical arsenal of ballsy, flat-out rock-and-roll that satirizes and skewers many of the personalities and situations found in the corporate universe: one that is full of liars, cheats, toadies, credit-stealers, bullies, Peter Principle incompetents, greedy executives, incomprehensible policies and reams of business doublespeak that so often blocks the sunlight from those who are only trying to work hard, produce good results, have empathy for their colleagues and teams, enjoy their jobs and actually contribute to the workplace.
Plus it's a precautionary measure.
"Some of us don't want to have to worry about where our kids get on the bus if this thing really busts out," the one who calls himself Peter said. "You never know. There's a lot of people who know who we are, nationwide and internationally."
"We hide in plain sight," Sid Luscious, the band's rhythm guitarist, said.
Peter continued. "We think everybody can relate to our message and what we're about. It's been described as `Dilbert' set to music and I think everybody reads `Dilbert' because it's about their lives, whether they live in a cubicle or work in an office.
"We're writing for those people. We are those people."
We sat around a long table at the Louisville Pizza Company, a combination sports bar and family-friendly restaurant in Jeffersontown in the Southeastern part of the city. The four men in The Accountants had just finished working at their respective jobs, their dark suits still fresh and buttoned, white shirts still crisp as if they had just walked out their front doors, ready for a full day's work after having a good night's sleep and a solid breakfast. In addition to Peter (whose official title is Chief Guitar Officer, or CGO) and Out of Controller (OOC) Sid Luscious, the remaining officers of the organization include Chairman of the Bass (COB) and vocalist Ben and Chief Rhythm Officer (CRO) Pound. Among them they have six Bachelors degrees, two of them hold MBAs (with another one almost finished with his), another holds a Ph.D., two of them are Certified Public Accountants and one is a Certified Management Accountant, making them the most credentialed band in the nation. Three are married, two have children and a fourth is divorced, or, in his words, has exceeded his requirement of having to split his crap with somebody else.
As The Accountants, they do not reveal their real or last names, nor do they discuss where they work, only that their band headquarters is based in the proximity of Jeffersontown.
Any hint where that might be?
"Do you ask Batman where the Batcave is?" asked Pound with a grin.
You also don't tug on Superman's cape, mess around with Jim, or ask a member of The Accountants where they are based or to remove his shades when in character.
While not solely intended for protection of the innocent, The Accountants use their minimal disguise of sunglasses, single and stage names and secret hideout location symbolically. Anyone they work with can come out and see them play, so it isn't an attempt to completely obliterate their real identities just to sing about the bad stuff that happens at their jobs. One of the symbolic uses of a mask or a disguise is to protect the wearers from the powers of sorcerers and others who want to hurt them (or make them work overtime and on weekends). By simply donning sunglasses and minimizing their names, The Accountants are putting up their shields and drawing their swords, using their powers as superheroes for the corporate cube-dwellers and against the trolls who make the workday world miserable.
"It sounds awfully serious," CBO Ben said, "but when we play live we're out to have a good time and share that with the audience."
Far from being a bunch of professional guys who get together every so often to noodle around on their instruments and play a church picnic or two, The Accountants are a functioning rock band with a high-decibel, driving sound. And with a debut CD that has been available for nearly three years, Corporate Punks Amuck, The Accountants are ready to unleash another one called Keepin' Up With the Joneses, a thematic continuation of the type of songs found in their debut release with more of a polished sound, including an actual love song.
"A lot of our music is satirical," said CRO Pound, "and a lot of it is meant to drive a stake. . ."
"And a lot of it is meant to damage your hearing," added CGO Peter.
"People always tell me [we're not] faking this," Ben said.
"We want people to have fun," Michael said. "We have a blast when we play."
"At the end of the day, we're just a fun rock-and-roll band," Pound said.
NEGATIVE ASSURANCE: method used by the CERTIFIED PUBLIC ACCOUNTANT to assure various parties, such as bankers and stockbrokers, that financial data under view by them is correct.
On the walls or lining the hallways of many company offices are framed rectangular posters with a stunning photo on a black background, under which is a single-word concept followed by a stirring, thoughtful description of it. They're concise, one-shot visual attempts at motivation and morale boosting. Countering those is a series of posters that look exactly like the ones that attempt to motivate, but instead take a more cynical (some might say realistic) view of corporate life. One of them states that "If a pretty picture and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon."
Which also explains the popularity of Dilbert and why The Accountants do what they do. Put another way: the framed motivational posters are expensive and can only hang in areas that can be easy to ignore unless you specifically look at them. Dilbert cartoons can be clipped from a newspaper or printed from a web site and pinned at eye level on a cubicle wall. And just about everyone has a CD player at the office.
"We're not really on the warpath," the Manifesto on their web site explains, but they are on a mission: to show what it means to live and work in Corporate America, where "there's a certain amount of crap we all must put up with before we even get to work. And then the games begin - the things people do to take the enjoyment out of the jobs most of us actually liked doing at one time."
"We just tell it like it is," Peter said. "You've got a lot of people out there who really make an awful lot of money, got a lot of perks and privileges. And then you've got a lot of people who are hard working, they show up for work on time everyday, bust their butts. And when the next quarterly earnings squeeze comes on, the company has a big layoff and those people are out of a job."
"We're not against people making a lot of money," Luscious insisted. "Our issue is with people doing the right thing."
Ben agreed. "We like money," he said with a wide grin.
So The Accountants aren't turncoat capitalists who collect a juicy bi-weekly paycheck but preach the tenets of Karl Marx when they're on stage. Nor are they closet collectivist revolutionaries with Che posters on their living room walls and six-packs of pre-bottled Molotov Cocktails in their trunks. They are capitalists, believers and practitioners of the words of Adam Smith, entrusted with watching the money made by others and making sure it is being used and reported within what the laws provide.
And if there's any Marx to be quoted, it comes from Groucho. Not Karl, who could never afford to give you a hundred dollars if you said the secret word.
"It's about greed," Peter said. "Maybe a certain measure of greed is good. But the impact it has on most people is not good."
"I would rephrase that and say ambition is good," Luscious added.
ANALYTICAL REVIEW: auditing process that tests relationships among accounts and identifies material changes.
Ambition is central to any kind of effort. Even more so if you want to develop the twin careers of professional and rock star (two terms that are hard to take seriously when put that close together). But the members of The Accountants managed to do it and even zero in on the elusive target that many performers dream of: a niche.
"Pound and I started playing together when we were 12, 13 years old," Peter said. "So we played in a band all through high school and early into college. Pound went on the road with a couple of bands and I kind of went on to begin my career. . ."
"After college," Pound reminded him.
." . .[then] we came back together about six or seven years ago in the form of a cover band called Boneheads, with this entire lineup."
Around the turn of the millennium, Peter reconnected with Todd Smith, producer and head of Louisville's Label X and music promoter Susan Weber. Smith was looking for an original project. A lunch with Peter handed it to him.
Peter resumed the story. "We went out to lunch one day and I just went on this tirade about greed and corporate America, downsizing. And Todd looks at me and goes, `Dude, that's great! You ought to write some music about that. We could do something with this!'
"I'd never tried to write music before. So I said okay."
Keeping track of his ideas in a journal, Peter developed two songs: an unused composition called "Downsize" and "Executive Comp," which found a place on their debut recording Corporate Punks Amuck. Pound then sent the songs to Smith.
"He said, `I think we've got something here. I think we need to do something with this.'"
The next issue: how to assemble the band. Would it be Peter with a group of hired musicians with Smith producing? Or would they create a full band from scratch?
"I told him we've got the band," Peter said. "I'm already playing in Boneheads. Everybody in this band is as strong as anybody that you could bring in off the streets. So he came to a party we were playing on Halloween. He listened to two or three songs and came up to me afterwards and said, `I don't think we need to do another thing. I think the whole band is right here.'"
INTERNAL CONTROL: plan of organization and all the methods and measures used by a business to monitor assets, prevent fraud, verify the correctness and reliability of accounting data, promote operational efficiency and endure that established managerial policies are followed.
With the green-light from Smith, The Accountants began the task of creating a product in early 2001, working weekend-to-weekend in the studio, writing songs, recording demo tracks, climbing through the process idea by idea. In August of that year, they blocked off some time at Quad Studios in Nashville and began recording Corporate Punks Amuck. It is when, as Peter said, things got serious.
A few months later, the disc was mixed and mastered. The Accountants were ready to open their books and bare their guts about corporate America. Their first gig as a band with that name and copies of Corporate Punks Amuck all shrink-wrapped and ready for the public, was on December 3, 2001 at Caesars Indiana at a private function for Arthur Andersen, the once-formidable Big Five accounting firm (and Peter's former employer) that performed Enron's audit and was convicted of obstructing justice for their part in the fraudulent scheme that caused the company to fail and its employees to lose all money they had invested in company stock. Enron's upper executives had gobbled up cash from selling the stock to employees and the public as the price fell, knowing full well the company was failing. A fact they hid from the rest of the world. After the conviction Andersen surrendered its license and shut down operations.
While the successive failures of Enron, WorldCom, Tyco International and others from executive greed aren't a reason to immediately switch to the same kind of economy that rationed toilet paper, it does illustrate the primary gripe The Accountants have with corporate America: the wrong people take the hit when a company fails or has cash-flow problems. Another gripe? Some managers sling enough crap at their employees every day that hard work doesn't seem worth the effort.
"In the worst companies," Peter said, "they make it not fun to come to work anymore."
"They put a ceiling on what [employees] can do," Sid said. "They take away the incentives for excellence. It's not too much different from the things we talk about."
"Greed is the trump card. That's the thing that gets played so often. It's like, `I'm gonna take care of all these people, but when it comes down to it I'm gonna take care of myself first.'"
"Even the right person at the right time for a position," Pound added, "thinks they're doing the right thing gets enough thrown at them. Then they have to make cuts. They're not cutting themselves. They're getting promised more to make more cuts."
"But you can only do so much of that," Peter said.
SUNK COST: costs incurred in the past whose total will not be affected by any decision made now or in the future.
Now that nearly four years have elapsed since the release of Corporate Punks Amuck, The Accountants want to continue the mission outlined in their manifesto. A big part of that is their second release, the forthcoming Keepin' Up With the Joneses. Lyrically the themes that run through the band's previous work are mostly still there. The difference is that not all of the songs are in dynamic 4/4 time. Rhythms are more challenging in some of the selections and they actually have a love song, "You," that they had contributed to the soundtrack of Stu Pollard's recent film Keep Your Distance. Another song is a tribute to a character from the movie Office Space. Plus Pound recites a tight rap during the hard-hitting screed "Fraud & Conspiracy." A love song and a rap in a new CD: next thing they'll be asking for pitch correction machines on stage, their own choreographer and line of designer colognes and have their songs appear on Now That's What I Call Music, or The New Crap the People Who Produce These Things Think the Public is Actually Listening To and They Probably Are, the Tasteless Drones, Volume 1,224.
While they may be stretching out musically, their lyrics still reflect their feelings about what goes on in the office complexes and behind the cubicle walls. Their music is about empowering those who always seem to get the short end of the corporate stick, too scared to try to do something about it that won't get them forcibly escorted from the building.
"Here's what we're trying to do," Peter said. "Fear is probably always going to exist, because there are certain managers who are going to abuse their privileges and have dominion over people. We try to say what everyone else wants to say, but they can't."
"Our lyrics are the focal point of what this band is," Pound said. "Even in the songs that are tongue in cheek, there's still a message to be said there."
"Sometimes it's tongue-in-cheek," Peter said, "and sometimes our tongues sticking straight out."
It is too easy for someone who hasn't walked a carpeted mile in a cube-dweller's loafers to snarl "corporate America sucks." That same someone probably hasn't had their daily calendar filled with meetings they didn't call for, or have to handle last-minute emergencies because a manager somewhere has bailed on a part of a project that a client needs by the end of the day. But the people who are most qualified to make that proclamation and deal with corporate drudgery need a means of catharsis, a way to kick down the cube walls, knock the motivational platitude non-artwork off the walls and do the pogo in the hallways. They want to hear from an outfit that knows what it is like to go through all that, not from someone who pretends to know because he or she has read some coffee-house socialist tract about it, but from someone who will smash through the walls to mock the jackasses who drain the joy out of the work we do, the stuff that lets us provide for our families and live out our dreams.
They want to hear it from The Accountants.
Find your new heroes at www.cparock.com.