Jim Stack was big and tough when I met him. He had white hair, glasses, and a booming laugh. He’d spent most of his career as the head of internal audit at General Electric, which means his job was to catch people stealing from the company. He grew up in Vermont but had most recently lived in Iowa, where he’d been the CFO of a large magazine company until his wife got sick and he needed to move closer to home.
Jim was a bull in a 176-year-old china closet. He’d hired me to help him modernize the Providence Journal Company, which was then the oldest newspaper company in the country, and one of the most antiquated. His method was brute force.
I had showed up just after getting married for the first time. I was in my late twenties and hadn’t really taken my professional career seriously up until that point. I’d managed to get decent jobs in finance, but to me it was more about just showing up and getting paid. My new job in Providence came with a big salary increase, so I went about doing my time and cashing my checks. But I was in for a rude awakening.
Most mornings Jim got to the office at 6 AM, and by seven he was getting itchy to land on someone. I also liked to get to work early, but that meant more like 8:00. Every morning I’d arrive to a message from Jim asking where the hell I was and asking a question that I didn’t have the answer to.
My job was to do financial analysis. That meant putting together budgets, creating board reports, and generally trying to get to the bottom of a financial reporting system that made absolutely no sense. After a few months, Jim asked me to prepare a slideshow for the board summarizing the company’s financial results. We had 12 television stations, a million cable subscribers, the newspaper, and a bunch of start-up ventures at the time.
I worked on the presentation for weeks, and, honestly, I did the best I could. This was 1993, so powerpoint hadn’t been invented yet. But I took the data I had and created cool graphs, complete with boxes and arrows, by hand. Finally it was done. I was too junior to attend the meeting, but I was very aware of exactly when it was going on in our windowless mahogany boardroom, the epicenter of power in our company.
The next day, Jim came by my office and flipped my presentation onto my desk. To my horror, it was covered in red marks. Numbers were crossed out and replaced with different figures. “I didn’t use it,” he said. “This is bullshit.” And with that he walked out.
He’d had the company treasurer, a guy who’d been at the company 30 years and looked like he kept a green visor in his desk, tick and tie my work and found it riddled with errors. Yes, we had five different accounting systems, all of which with different nomenclature and different ways of presenting the math, but there was a right answer and I had gotten it just about as wrong as was humanly possible. This had been a test I had failed.
My attitude changed the day Jim walked into my office. If you punch me in the stomach, I react with a vengeance. I think Jim saw that underneath my cavalier attitude I would respond to his abuse by figuring out how to succeed.
Before I turned 30, Jim had left and I had been named CFO, running the board meetings that before I had not even been allowed to observe a couple years beforehand. At 32, I took that company public and 90 days later architected its sale for $2 billion on the back of an obsession with the financial reporting system I had put in place, allowing me to know exactly what was going on in each of the company’s properties from Seattle to Orlando.
—Photo 666isMONEY â˜® â™¥ & â˜ /Flickr