The TWA lounge at LAX was crowded and the blind man was seated opposite me by the attendant. I looked up from my Time Magazine and saw that it as Ray Charles and he was staring straight at me for what seemed like an eternity. Feeling uncomfortable, I stared back at him. Then I turned my head to the right and he followed me and I turned my head to the left and he followed me. I was about to ask him why he found me so interesting, when I heard “ZZZZZZZZZZZZ” emitting from his direction. I guess I wasn’t too interesting. Apparently it was not Mr. Charles, but his dark sunglasses that seemed to be staring at me. Why I should have been spooked by sunglasses escapes me. I knew that they were inanimate objects. But they seemed to have morphed into organic binoculars.
Before one of our annual budget presentations, I suddenly developed cluster headaches that were made worse by strong lighting. As a remedy, I began to wear sunglasses in the office (as well as outside), unless I was reading a manuscript, in which case I switched to my normal glasses.
Sunglasses entered my life as a code word or code action by accident. Bill, my sales manager made the mistake of trying to tell me that he was fixing prices with our major competitor (which, of course is illegal). I interrupted him and told him that I didn’t want to hear about it, to avoid becoming part of the conspiracy. However, at our budge forecasting, the Chairman asked a penetrating question of Bill. “How can you expect to get away with raising prices by 15%? I could see Bill struggling for an answer (the truth would have incriminated the Chairman in our scheme). While the Chairman’s attention was drawn to Bill, the sunglasses seemed to squiggle out of my hands and fall on the floor twice. When I finally retrieved them, Bill looked at me, and began to swallow his answer. He was obviously distracted by my frantic actions which were quite innocent. I stood up, pounded on the table and said, “Damn it Ed! You’ll just have to trust us to exert pressure on our customers. Why would we be foolish enough to overstate our gross margin projections? The only thing we would accomplish by setting the barriers too high would be to screw ourselves on our performance-based bonuses.”
Somehow my sunglass juggling had an unexpected consequence. Bill kept his mouth shut and the Chairman accepted my explanation, after being taken aback by my sharp tone. After the meeting, I stared at the sunglasses for a while.
Bill, whose baldness at age 26 betrayed his neuroses, dashed into my office, looked at me open-mouthed and said, “Thanks for the fantastic signal. You stopped me from spilling the beans”. I nodded and thought I didn’t even know what the hell I was doing. But, for some reason my sunglasses came to life and suddenly together, we had developed a unique communications tool.
I had forgotten about it until several years later, when our division was being sold to a British company. The Chairman promised me a substantial bonus if I could negotiate a smooth transition. During the negotiations, it became obvious that Don, our Controller, didn’t fully understand our balance sheet. I inherited him when I took over the $4 million business. He was the Chairman’s “Lackey” and was sheltered by the corporate controller through the years. Now that we had built it into a $40 million business and he lost his support system, he was completely overmatched. Before the meeting, I warned him to keep an eye on my sunglasses and to be wary of his answers. He was asked, “How can you verify the validation of your inventories and receivables”? Don, who spoke like Elmer Fudd anyway, stuttered and showed his insecurity. My sunglasses removed themselves from my nose and fell on the desk. I picked them up and put on my regular glasses to study the balance sheet. Don clammed up while the potential buyers looked confused.
I took out our balance sheet (which Don should have done) and showed them that, “In our conservatism, we had reserved large sums for bad debts and questionable inventories, thereby understating our profits”. The deal went through, thanks for the creativity of my Ray-Bans. But the sunglasses told me that Don had to go.
When I joined another UK company, in charge of US acquisitions, people were making presentations to me, so I assume they had their own sunglass signals. I reported to the Finance Director from the Main Board, who wanted to accompany me to major negotiations. Although he was a financial genius, negotiating skills were not his strong suit. I gingerly suggested that, when he spoke, he keep an eye on me and my sunglasses. For example, in our first negotiation, we offered $125 million and it was accepted. Richard breathed a sigh of relief and was ready to terminate the meeting. But I hurriedly put on my sunglasses (in our poorly lit room), arose and, walking completely around the meeting table, said, “Wait a minute. We don’t have a deal yet, until you have your final Board Meeting. Since today is Friday, you will have to meet via telephone on the weekend”. (They had planned to meet on Monday to approve the deal), I knew that 3M, DuPont, and three other chemical giants had expressed interest in acquiring the company, introducing the possibility of an “Auction” scenario. I insisted on a weekend approval or there would be no deal. Board approval was accomplished and the other suitors were left out in the cold. Richard was pleased that I didn’t terminate the meeting when he wanted to.
Further expansion of my sunglass diplomacy involved another acquisition, with our Finance Director involved. The desired company was to be purchased from a larger company, who demanded $20 million while we were prepared to pay $10 million. In trying to avoid an angry negotiation, I called the President of the large company (who I knew from previous dealings) and said “Paul, I want to short circuit a drawn-out negotiation with Richard and have a quick settlement. I would like to offer you $10 million plus $10 million on future profits. Will you accept that offer”?
Paul answered, “Absolutely! Let’s get the show on the road”.
On the flight to California, I told my boss to start negotiations, but defer to me when I put on my sunglasses. I did not tell him about my phone call. He complied and the sunglasses made a good deal for both companies. I wanted to avoid the need to interrupt my boss, but I needed to prevent him from fouling up the deal.
I used silent signals in lieu of interrupting and being disrespectful. What other silent signals could have used instead of sunglasses? I supposed I could have stood up and flapped my arms or had a violent coughing jag. But this might attract attention. I had the annoying habit of fondling my regular glasses but when I take them off, I can’t see. So that wouldn’t be much of a signal. I also may perform an act accidentally and have it taken as a signal. I could have fiddled with a pen or a pad, but I always do that subconsciously. So I needed something I couldn’t do unintentionally. Then serendipity stepped in and the cluster headaches gave me the opportunity, since very few people (other than the sightless and the Mafia) wear sunglasses indoors. By the way, the cluster headaches disappeared a long time ago. And I really don’t ascribe human qualities to the damn sunglasses.