As we left the last segment, I had accepted a position as Chief Administrative Officer of a family owned regional equipment related company with expansion plans. There were numerous strains on our family. Rock Star and I had made difficult decisions and were proceeding with our plan.
Off To a Big Start
Upon starting as part of my job description I was to arrange a new, more company advantageous banking arrangement that provided financing for new facilities and equipment inventory in new locations. After getting that successfully done, the new bank’s commitment letter was given to the ownership to execute to start the loan documentation The company and bank attorneys were authorized to negotiate the final language and terms. This was done over the course of that first month of my employment and the financing package was executed by ownership.
As part of that financing, the company agreed to provide CPA audited, unqualified opinion financial statements for the bank to review each year to determine the company’s financial situation. In the past when their financing needs had been much less, the lending bank had only required reviewed financial statements. The testing requirements for CPA reviewed financial statements are far less stringent than with the former. Since there was much more funding involved the new lender wanted assurances that what the company represented was accurate. They had no problem with continuing to use the company’s existing CPA who had formerly worked for the international firm of KPMG. In addition the bank required a third party appraisal of the company’s equipment and parts inventory to be completed annually. Again, the ownership agreed.
Thankfully for me, the owners had only themselves to blame for what happened next.
About three months into my employment I had already observed numerous activities and situations that were very concerning. First, it appeared the CEO was on drugs, as in Percocets in a bottle he left out out on his desk, yet, did not exhibit or talk about any illnesses or disabilities. The presence of which probably explained some of his wild mood swings. The primary owner, the patriarch of the family, was elderly and never visited the offices, but apparently also was a druggie per a few employees who made deliveries of personal items to his home. His wife owned a business adjacent to the company headquarters and appeared to handle the executive decisions with her husband after consulting with the company attorney. Even that came into doubt later.
Over the ensuing months I made documentation changes and reworked the flow within the office. I noted equipment would periodically not be found on the lots, yet listed as being in inventory on the computer. I noted disturbing events and suspected they were committing insurance fraud with the assistance of a couple of off duty local law enforcement officers they employed as weekend security at the main location. Items would allegedly be stolen at night and a homeless vagrant arrested and charged with the theft. The equipment would never be recovered by the investigating police. The company would then make a claim on their insurance. The insurance company suspected fraud, but had no proof and could not deny the claim because the police would pick up a reported thief and charge him.
Each weekend one of the off-duty local police officers working security of the equipment lots at the primary warehousing area would be on duty when the thefts happened. The same officers who somehow helped apprehend each homeless vagrant right after they had supposedly stolen equipment. Then one day I had a conversation with a long time contractor friend who disclosed he had bought used equipment from the owners out on their farm outside of town. He paid cash for the equipment at about 25% of value. That led me to more quiet investigations as we tried to account for the inventory on the books in advance of the CPA audit after year end. The CEO would just smile and say, “It has been a mess for a long time.”
It became obvious they were selling the company’s equipment for cash. The homeless guy who would be arrested could care less, he would have a roof over his head and food to get out of the heat or cold for awhile. As long as a charge was pending or a conviction occurred, the company was in the clear for financial reporting purposes.
The owners never removed the old fully depreciated equipment from the books because some of it was actively rented. It would be included in their appraised assets, if the items still existed, on the equipment appraisal. Of course no income from the sale of this or the “stolen” equipment ever hit the income statement or tax return. The same would be true of some of the fully depreciated equipment that was rented if paid by the customer in cash. That cash went into their pockets. So the bank believed they had a larger value of equipment as collateral than actually existed and the IRS never received the taxes that would have been due from the sale and rental of said fully depreciated and “stolen” equipment had it been left on the books. State and local sales taxes also should have been collected on legitimate sales that were also fraudulently avoided.
The long term CPA knew about it all and more as it had been going on as a practice for decades. He had a problem as well, the completion of the audit with the new financial reporting requirements would blow the whole thing wide open.
But wait , there’s MOAR!
Reverse Oil Wells
If you have a business that sells and services equipment, you are required by law to dispose of waste fluids in accordance with local, state and EPA requirements. There are costs and fees associated with the disposal. But there are no costs associated if it disappears. The company would pay to dispose of a nominal amount to reduce suspicion. Much of the rest would disappear into a septic tank in the ground at one specific branch location. Oil, antifreeze, waste fuel, etc, poured into the drains leading to the septic system in the ground. Until the state underground storage bank (UST) board found out about it in a routine soil test near the company’s old fuel tanks. In which case a review was ordered. A fine was charged that was minuscule compared to the normal costs and fees of disposing of it all legally on a daily basis. Which they appealed and it was reduced. Since the company had been paying the state assessed fees for clean up of underground storage tanks (UST) per state and federal law, they became eligible for state removal and cleanup as the septic tank was located adjacent to the fuel tanks. A little help from friendly politicians at the state level and the project received sufficient funding of the clean up of the site of the fuel tanks as well as the septic tank from the state’s UST fund.
The City authorities then ordered the company to connect to city sewer to seemingly end the nasty activity.
Except they continued disposing illegally at that location and others by pouring it into the storm sewer system or taking it out to their farm to do God knows what with it.
I had started with the company in the summer and it was now nearing spring in mid March of the following year. Much was known about some of their past sins of operation and I had devised and implemented plans to fix the more glaring. This included buying a small environmental remediation company that had equipment that could be used to legitimize the company’s waste operations, whose products could also be sold to other customers. The profits of which would pay for the acquisition in a few years and the company would go from EPA villain to good citizen.
In reality the owners did not want me to know some of what I knew that was so damaging. One of my key hires I had placed in charge of the equipment and parts inventory requirement of the audit as well as the appraisal. He and the CPA had been working closely together, going to lots and tracking equipment and parts inventory. The CPA had warned me a month before that we would not like what we would find. It did not matter, the bank required it for the loan funds the owners were using for their expansion and they had signed the documents. It would be whatever it was and we would deal with it when we knew.
But that warning told me what I needed to know, the CPA was in on it. He had been their CPA for 18 years and the company was perhaps his largest client. This was confirmed when my guy reported his audit findings. We were both shocked. Well over a $1 million of equipment inventory and $200 K of parts inventory was missing. No documentation of what happened to it was found and it was not physically located on any of the company’s sites or rented to customers.
Two days later I was terminated along with my two handpicked employees. I had just turned 40 years old.
Picking Up The Pieces
After the sting wore off for being so dumb as to being blinded by the compensation package and taking a job without doing better due diligence, I called a long term friend who was in ownership and the CEO of a small business lending operation associated with a small bank holding company in a nearby city. He had asked me to work with him for many years and had even visited with me at the equipment company at which time I referred him to a business customer of mine from my previous banking position. I told him the sad story and asked him if his employment offer was still on the table. He asked when I could start, that he would have an offer letter to me the next day.
The position would be in business development and there would be commission attached with a modest salary. However, it would allow me to work from home and provided important medical and dental insurance with a 401-k. I could work my long term existing professionals referral network for customer financing requests on my own time. They expected no production out of me that first year and a reasonable amount annually thereafter.
Rock Star told me it did not matter to her if I worked on a garbage truck as long as we could get by. She said she would call a mortgage company owner she knew and work part time with him to make ends meet until I had my new line of work established. She would be home in time to pick up our daughter from school. We decided we could afford to go on a scheduled week of vacation to the beach before starting our jobs since we had already paid for the lodging. We needed time to reflect on our new situation and just breathe.
My next call was to my long term attorney to discuss what had happened and for him to review my employment contract with the equipment company. We needed to talk when I got back.
We enjoyed the vacation and discussed what we needed to do. Upon our return I went to my new employer’s offices to meet with HR and visit with all of the senior officers. I already knew what the job entailed, so I picked up my office supplies and headed home.
Within the first few months I was able to originate and go on to close a large loan transaction with some former business customers that made my new employers very happy along with Rock Star when I handed her the commission. We could breathe a bit easier as I continued to build a book of business. It was not long until executive management asked me to attend a popular training series they used that was based off the best selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that was written by Stephen Covey. I kissed the family goodbye and headed to conference center a couple of hours away for a few days of training.
Many of you may be familiar with this book and the training, or have at least heard of it. I decided that if the Lord wanted me to learn something, he would make it obvious as I needed to retool and rebuild my career in a way that honored Him. Which is exactly what happened. It was eye opening for even a middle aged business warrior. I left there thankful and began a daily process of building the seven habits into my life. It also inspired me to get back to more serious Bible study.
Everything seemed to be heading in the right direction. I enjoyed my new found freedom of working from home. Until a knock on my door one afternoon 363 days from my termination from the equipment company. The deputy sheriff at the door handed me papers. I had been sued by the equipment company in civil court for theft and embezzlement of company assets. Yup, the same people who stole from themselves and committed all sorts of criminal acts for cash, drugs and such; were accusing me of being the bad guy. I wasn’t even surprised they waited until the last days before the statute of limitations applied. Fortunately, I had addressed many of the potential repercussions with my attorney upon our return from the vacation. I had clearly learned that bunch was capable of anything.
Yet, this feeling of being their scapegoat overcame me.
Next time we will pick up it up from here as I continued the process of rebuilding my career, only to be knocked sideways by the legal community, law enforcement, FIB, DODGE and the judiciary. I learned first hand about thirty years ago what many are just now learning about those “industries”. Being innocent does not mean anything if they want to cause you pain.
My 40th year on the planet had started a chain of events. There’s something about that number.
What appeared to be a personal disaster to the world around me and the business community in which I had spent many years, in reality, had led me to the narrow gate that changed everything. Praise be to God!