My mother always would remind us that no news is good news. Years ago, I was involved in a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) where an employee at an agency had suddenly died. Many companies offer CISD’s that have the purpose of allowing the coworkers of the deceased a safe and structured setting to express their thoughts and feelings as a group/and or as individuals. Upon my arrival at the location where I was to lead the CISD, I found myself locked out, unable to gain access to the building, on a sweltering day. Not a good omen I thought.
Inside the building at last, I went to meet with the contact person, the manager of the employees, who were coworkers of the deceased. When I introduced myself and explained why I had come late, she showed little cordiality toward me. In conducting prior CISD’s, managers had expressed gratitude toward me in assisting them handle a most unpleasant task. I did not feel any of those vibes by this woman. Although I was turned off by her abrasive manner, I thought her unfriendly demeanor might have been related to the stress caused by the death of her employee. After she showed me to the office where I was to meet with her staff, I asked her if there was a concession or cafeteria in the building where I could grab a light bite. She said there was some extra food remaining from a potluck for the employees, and that I was welcome to have some. I asked if she were sure, and she confirmed it with a nod. After I had waited a few hours to see her staff members, the manager came in and, in a mocking derisive tone, told me that she no longer needed my services. I did not choose to inquire about what I had done to arouse her ire, but rather asked her if she was sure, which she said she was, so I, both frustrated and uncomfortable, departed without having seen any employee.
About a week later, I received a phone call from the insurance company that had hired me to do the CISD. When the caller identified himself, I told him I was sure that he was not contacting me to give me good news. “No,” he commented, and then proceeded to tell me about that same manager reporting to him that I was unprofessional, having notes on scrap paper and, furthermore, I had eaten food that was meant only for staff. When he allowed me to explain my view of what had transpired, he appeared satisfied.
When you are a contractor like I was, and still am, it is extremely rare for someone to call to give you compliments. I always have said: “bad news travels faster than good news,” especially, for example, if there has been an airplane accident. But there is an exception to the rule “no news is good news.” In 1991, I did not have a broker and was wanting to begin my ascent (or descent) into the stock market. At a workshop I attended, a fellow participant gave me a business card and told me to contact a broker, named Al, at Bear Stearns. He told me about all the money he had made following Al’s decisions.
So, I contacted Al, who told me that Bear Stearns, his company, was sponsoring a “great deal” as Kohlberg and Kravis were going public with RJR Nabisco, a company they had bought on a leveraged buyout. For a brief moment, I winced, fearful of the thought of buying a stock that was affiliated with cigarettes. Of course, I knew very little about the fundamentals but seeing dollar signs flashing in my mind, I listened to what Al had to say: “It’s a great buy and besides everybody eats cookies.” Because I already believed in him, there was very little that he could have said that would have dissuaded me and, consequently, I bought 500 shares at $11. A week later Al phoned me and said RJR Nabisco was currently selling at $12 and, hinted that I should buy some more. I politely declined telling him that I was just a novice and did not need to be a hog. Soon after he called, the stock took a downward turn, never recovered, and coincided with Al’s sudden disappearance. Dismayed, I finally decided to sell my 500 shares at almost exactly half the price I paid for them bidding Al a firm adieu. Since that time, there has been a book and a movie made about Ross Johnson, called “Barbarians at the Gate,” that featured the greed and ruthlessness of CE0’s with Ross the principal honcho. The merger that Mr. Johnson had crafted between RJR, the maker of Camel and Winston cigarettes, and Nabisco Brands, the home of Oreo cookies, was never a good fit.
This experience taught me that when a broker calls, it’s often the opposite of “no news is good news.” Rather when he/she suddenly vanishes, let the buyer beware!