Monday, January 14, 2008

WOW, Part 2, Ch. 2

The conference table was littered with coffee cups and legal pads. A dozen large sheets of paper were taped on the walls, each covered with scrawling, handwritten text. Chairs were left at all angles by their former occupants. It was almost three in the afternoon, and the directors of surfing’s largest corporation were still at lunch. They were in no hurry to resume what had become an increasingly contentious meeting triggered by Cheryl Corlund’s resignation.

* * *

The entire issue of board governance of publicly traded companies had become front page news after the corporate melt-downs of a few years ago, but Wavelife had been so successful for so long that the company’s outside directors had never really paid much attention to how the board was structured. The fact that the CEO was on the board and the chairman was her husband was not a big deal at the time. All that changed in a heartbeat when Heath Larson’s heart stopped.

Fortunately, his heart began beating again, but now Wavelife was under a microscope. Writers used to doing surf star puff pieces began diving into documents they couldn’t understand. It wasn’t investigative journalism by a long shot, but the surf media was owned by the same conglomerate that published a string of tabloids across the country, and so a whiff of impropriety was transformed into a gale force wind of purported corporate malfeasance. Never mind that the leveraged buyout had been publicly announced. Never mind that the SEC was well on its way to approving the deal because it did indeed benefit the shareholders. Perception became reality, and when Corlund couldn’t handle the heat and resigned, it took but minutes for the directors to realize they were now on the hook for investor losses stemming from their lack of supervision of the corporation. Then the word ‘lawsuit’ was mentioned and they all got on their cell phones to their lawyers. An hour later, they were back at the table and all agreeing on one thing: their only chance to stay out of courts was to take up-front responsibility for Wavelife’s future by re-launching the company under their own management. The idea had merit, and with their respective backgrounds, they looked like the makings of a good team on paper. But by the time they’d adjourned for lunch, they’d accomplished next to nothing.

Steve Palua was the first to stake out a position since he had a lot to lose if the investors he represented lost everything. He argued for a makeover that would reflect a new commitment to the “core values of the surfing community”, and that if they were ever to get their products back in the stores they first had to get the surf media off their backs. But Richard Black didn’t like that idea at all. He wanted out of the surf industry altogether and pushed for getting more into street wear, even though Wavelife had no experience whatsoever in that market niche, because he figured they could turn a quick buck “selling all that X-treme hip-hop stuff” he saw on TV.

Bart Thomas wasn’t a vision guy, but he knew the clothing industry inside out, and there was nothing about either idea that seemed viable long term. The more Palua and Black argued, the more he began to hold out for simply declaring bankruptcy. In language that turned the air blue, he tried to convince them that it happened all the time in the clothing business. But Palua was scared shitless over how his investors would react to Chapter Eleven, and Black’s ego was unable to even consider such a defeat. Then Gunter Jacobsen weighed in and the meeting fell apart. First he came out against Palua and Black and proposed spinning off a division he could run that would concentrate on windsurfing and snowboarding. Then he remembered he wanted to get out of apparel altogether, so he picked up on Thomas’ idea until he realized he didn’t want a bankruptcy on his resume. The more he talked, the less he said, to the utter frustration of the others.

With Palua unwilling to consider any other points of view, Thomas becoming increasingly obscene, and Jacobsen unable to think straight at all, Richard Black finally had no choice but to suggest they all go their separate ways and get something to eat before returning to the board room for another try later that afternoon.

* * *

Black walked back into the empty conference room, well aware of the consequences if they didn’t come up with something by close of business and equally aware of the slim chance of getting the other three men on the same page. He sat down at the head of the table and considered his options. Jacobsen was obviously thinking only of himself and was therefore useless. Bart Thomas, on the other hand, had made some forceful arguments against his idea of a hip-hop X-games transformation. His argument for bankruptcy, however, seemed premature, leaving them with nothing to work with, except Palua’s proposal. And he had agreed with Palua on the most important point: they had to stabilize the stock and something was better than nothing.

Well, he thought, I’m the chairman, and things are supposed to roll down from me, and not roll over me.

He found a legal pad and tore off all the pages until he found a blank one. He wasn’t going to wait for the others to return and muck things up.

His scrawl was barely legible, but the words were precisely what he wanted to say.
The board of directors of Wavelife International is pleased to announce the formation of a new management team. After a long and dedicated career in service to the corporation, we regret that Cheryl Corlund has tendered her resignation and will no longer be part of the Wavelife team. Roberto Mercante has also notified the board that he will be pursuing other interests effective immediately. Also leaving the board is Bill Massara, former Chief Financial Officer.

“What a bunch of bullshit,” he smirked to himself, but he kept writing.
Please join me in thanking them for their exceptional contributions, and in congratulating the new members of the interim management team,
Now he had to do some thinking. Well, on second thought, not really.
Richard Black, former senior vice-president of Wavelife, and Bart Thomas, apparel industry veteran, will take over day to day operations of the corporation. Gunter Jacobsen, president of European operations, will oversee international markets. Steve Palua, legendary Hawaiian surfer, will be Director of Sales and Marketing. The formidable talents of this team will be committed to maximum return on the investments of our sharehoulders.

He sat back and read it out loud. The language was so generic he was almost embarrassed by its blatant plagiarism. Yet it would work, and that was all that mattered. He got out his cell phone and called down to the office he’d once occupied years ago.

“Public relations, this is Julie speaking.”

“HI, Julie, this is Richard Black.”

“Oh, Mr. Black, hello, how are you? Oh, right, probably not that good right now, I guess.”

“No, actually, things are going to be better than ever. I’m in the boardroom and I need you to get up here right away. Or better yet, can you still take dictation?”

“Of course, Mr. Black.”

“Take this down, put in on Wavelife letterhead, and get it out to the entire P.R. distribution list.”

“Ready when you are, sir.”

“I’m ready, Julie. Here you go. For immediate release - - -”

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