As Ray Miller cradled the phone on his shoulder and typed a few keys on the computer, a spreadsheet appeared on the monitor. Glancing at the picture of Gloria and the kids on his desk, he said, “Honey, I’m really sorry. I know, but I’m still working on this report for tomorrow. Just go ahead and eat without me.”
Ray sighed as he hung up and turned his attention to the screen. His heart sank. Megna Electronics’ profits had fallen short of corporate goals for five months running, and this past month’s results were no better. As the company’s controller, it was his job to present the monthly accounting report, and he hated to be the bearer of bad news once again. Sorting through all the other data his staff had pulled together — sales reports, cost analyses, and departmental budgets — he tried to think about ways he could present the material, as if the sheer quantity of information could somehow camouflage the sorry news. He combed through the numbers for something positive to say, or even for ways to explain Megna’s disappointing performance. There were tons of data but not much to work with.
Ray stretched and rubbed his eyes. He called the deli downstairs and ordered a chicken sandwich and a Coke. It looked like he wasn’t even going to get home in time to see the kids before bed.
At this point in his career it wasn’t supposed to be like this. He’d spent many late nights crunching numbers in the past; he’d accepted them as a part of paying his dues. Fifteen years ago, fresh out of Wharton Business School, he had fully expected to make a real contribution to the world of business someday, but he had understood even then that he needed to master the details before he would be able to make a difference.
Many of his business school friends had gone into investment banking or corporate finance, and some of them had made a pile of money over the years. Accounting wasn’t regarded as the most glamorous profession, but he believed strongly that managing a business required having an understanding of its financial underpinnings. If the object of any business was to make money, then understanding a company’s finances would help keep it on track and growing. Sure, he expected to earn enough to live in a nice home, send his kids to college, and enjoy some of the finer things in life — that’s why he’d gone to business school in the first place. But he also had this idea that it would be satisfying simply to help make a company successful.
Ray felt he had been trained well at Arthur Andersen, his first job out of business school. There were certainly late nights then, but it was exciting to help audit the records of companies whose names were household words. And later, after he had switched over to the corporate side of the business, he had enjoyed learning to be as good a manager as he was an accountant. His staff respected him, and the accounting department had gained a reputation for thoroughness, accuracy, and on-time delivery.
But now, after eight years at Megna Electronics, the thrill was definitely gone. As controller he had plenty of responsibility, corporate visibility, and a boss he liked and respected. Ray was well paid, received generous benefits, and got four weeks of vacation every year. He should be content, but the work itself had become stale. Looking at his ninety-sixth financial review on the screen in front of him, he wondered how it could possibly benefit anyone. Here he was, mechanically cranking out a report that would have no more impact than the ones before it, and he was shortchanging his family to boot.
Before he and Gloria had married, the trade-offs hadn’t been so great. Gloria was working then and often had to stay late at the office, too, and there were no kids to disappoint. Sometimes they would meet at a restaurant, briefcases in hand, for a late-night supper and then trade stories about the day. Gloria told great stories — mostly stories that made him laugh. But she was also a great listener and would give him her complete attention as he described a meeting with his boss or shared some office gossip.
That seemed like a long time ago. Now evenings were full of soccer practice and science projects, which were fine, but there wasn’t much time to just sit and talk. He had once tried to describe his frustration with work to Gloria, but she hadn’t even had a chance to listen, as she was busy too.
Ray was glad, he guessed, that his salary allowed them to live comfortably enough without Gloria’s paycheck. She had wanted to stay home to raise the kids, and for the most part, that had worked well. They lived on a shady street in one of the top school districts in Texas. Gloria managed the household well and kept them all clean, fed, and organized. They belonged to an exclusive country club. They weren’t really the country club type, but Ray loved to golf and Gloria played tennis, so it seemed worth the money. He thought they had just about everything they needed.
But Ray had to admit that sometimes he felt burdened with the pressure of being the sole breadwinner. Job security had become much more important to him than he had ever expected, and when you’re afraid to take risks, things can get a little dull. Then again, even if his job had become a little monotonous, it at least paid the bills. Maybe he’d just have to wait to do something truly important until after the kids finished college.
In the meantime, one could see all the signs of Ray’s success at work: his corner office looked out over Megna’s beautifully landscaped grounds, and beyond them you could see the city skyline. There was a round glass table for when small groups came to meet with him and a “power” desk and leather chair that had been a gift when he was promoted. One wall was lined with management and accounting books, and an oversized greaseboard was mounted on another.
The greaseboard was Ray’s favorite thing about the office — it had been ordered according to his specifications and had become his trademark. Almost every meeting with Ray included the squeak of his marker on the board. It was how he kept his thoughts straight. Tonight, however, the greaseboard was blank, reflecting Ray’s mind regarding the monthly accounting report.
His sandwich arrived. Ray tipped the delivery boy and started to unwrap his dinner. Then he changed his mind. Who was he fooling? He wasn’t going to get any more done tonight. He’d just have to come in a little early tomorrow, fix a few charts, and wing it at the meeting. He picked up the phone and called Gloria. “I’m on my way home.”