When big meets little: A morality tale on corporate envy.
Once upon a time there was a little corporation that, due to circumstances mostly beyond its control, had fallen off the Fortune 500 list. Its revenue was a bit flat. Cost cutting during lean years had left the little corporation less able to compete in a robust operating environment. While it had for some years proudly claimed its status as one of the 500 premier corporations, now it could no longer do so.
Saddened by this twist of fate, the little corporation took itself down to a local watering hole in the middle of a weekday and claimed its customary seat at the bar. “Hey, Lefty,” it said to the bartender, a grizzled fellow who used to be an in-house controller before his job was shipped off to a consultancy in Cincinnati. “Set me up. And keep ’em comin’.” And there the little corporation sat, mulling the unfairness of Business and dreaming in a pre-strategic way of how it might return to a position of prominence.
After some time, another corporate entity slipped into the establishment and took its place at the bar. “Hey, Lefty,” it said to the former financial executive, who was wiping the wooden expanse with a limp 401(k), “set me up. And keep ’em comin’.”
The new patron was as different from our little corporation as Buffett is from Madoff. It was big, ample in its midsection, well nourished with executive compensation. Broad in the shoulder, wearing a bespoke suit, it had beady eyes beneath its tall hat. “I’ll have another,” it said to the bartender, motioning with a fist the size of an executive exit package. “And one for my little friend here.”
“Thank you,” said the little corporation, moving down to take the stool next to its new companion. “May I ask you what brings you to this sodden place in the middle of a workday?” The large and well-appointed corporation stared into the depths of its dark-brown drink. “My friend,” it said at last, munching on the rind of a lemon, “you are looking at the corporation that was just named No. 1 on the Fortune 500.” The little corporation expressed appropriate envy and congratulatory zeal. “Ah, well, you might think so!” said the big corporation. “But consider. My revenue is high this year, but only in comparison with others’ that have been depressed, as yours has, by conditions that may change. Worse, my growth curve cannot be sustained without extraordinary and pyrrhic operating efficiencies and possibly even some dramatic M&A activity. You know what Wall Street thinks about that. Right now, every analyst on the Street is looking at me, hard. They think I’m as good as I can be right now and have only one direction to go — down. Lefty! Another round for us both!”
The little corporation sat and thought, and began to feel a bit better. “I was dejected about my status,” it said to itself. “But I’ve got nothing but upside compared with my established friend here. My best days are ahead. I can grow without a lot of fuss and muss. My ’09 options are already in the black!”
And so they pondered together for a bit, the one increasingly cheerful with its snoutful of grog, the other sinking into the murk. “Hey, wait a minute!” said the big corporation after yet another bottoms-up. It had turned and was eyeing the little corporation with acute interest. “You’re a good-looking fellow. You’re fit. You’re friendly. You’re fun to be with. You’re on the come. I could acquire you and solve a lot of my problems right here!”
“Well!” said the little corporation. “Just look at the time!” And it got out of that bar as fast as its lean little legs could carry it.
Moral: The big and powerful have the same problems we all do — only theirs make them more dangerous.
Stanley Bing’s new book, Bingsop’s Fables: Little Morals for Big Business, is available at any bookstore that still exists and, of course, on a variety of digital platforms.