Brother, Can You Spare a Perk?
(FORTUNE Magazine) - I was walking back from a totally valid expense-account lunch the other day when who should I run into but Mr. Brewster. I almost didn't recognize him. True, he is our chairman. But you don't expect the head of a $100 trillion corporation to be standing there in the snow, bareheaded, with nobody at hand to get him a cup of coffee or anything.
His shiny little dome glistened with melting snow, and his eyes darted around as if looking for rescue. He looked at me with a vague quiver of recognition.
"Hello, sir," I said.
"Hello, Bing," he replied. Then he just stood there.
"Can I help you with anything?" I inquired.
"I don't know," he said. He looked around, then beckoned me close. "Under proposed new SEC regulations, I might have to disclose any assistance I receive. That wouldn't sit well with our board."
"Really?" I asked. "What kind of rules would require an old man who works 20 hours a day to stand in the snow?"
"I don't know," he said. "But it seems to be so." His eyes slid left, then right. "Have you got a couple of bucks? I'm a little short." I gave him a twenty.
I went back to my office and looked out the window. Brewster was still standing on the corner, shivering. He had a cup of coffee in his hand now, and the occasional passerby was dropping a few coins in it.
I called my pal Ambrose, who heads up HR. "Ron, did you know that the chairman is outside freezing to death?"
"Yeah," he said. "It's a problem."
"Can't we do anything to help him?"
"I don't know," said Ron. "We're checking with Legal right now."
"Why can't he just come inside?"
"I suppose he could, but that wouldn't help him get to Phoenix for his meeting."
I was shocked. "Can't we send Allan?"
"Oh, Allan was let go," said Ambrose. "The compensation committee felt that under new disclosure rules it wouldn't look right for the chairman to be employing a car and driver."
"So he's waiting for a cab?"
"That's right." Ron sounded defensive, but also proud. I knew where he was coming from. We like to be on the cutting edge of things. "I hope he finds one soon," he added. "The traffic to O'Hare is murder at this hour."
I nearly swallowed my tongue. "Brewster's flying commercial?"
"Yeah. Use of a company plane adds up to more than $1 million a year in disclosable comp."
"But ..." I couldn't think of anything to say. "He's not wearing a hat!" was what I finally came up with.
"I know," said Ambrose. "That temp we got for him doesn't cut the mustard."
"Temp?" This was getting worse.
"New disclosure rules seem to suggest that any personal assistance offered by support staff may be deemed of significant value and therefore injurious to shareholder interests," said Ambrose. "Edna had to be let go because it was deemed that more than 80% of her duties were now excessively personal."
"Including reminding him to wear his hat?" I thundered.
"I don't make the rules, Bing. I just try to understand them."
I felt so sad all of a sudden.
"What's going to become of us, Ron?"
"I guess we're going to have to live like other people," he said.
"Other people ..." I thought about that. "Like, we can get in at 9 A.M.? Leave at six? Take vacations that are not interrupted by conference calls? Leave our cellphones at home when we take a walk with our family? Have a quiet burger for lunch with a couple of pals? Dinner every night with the kids? Weekends our own? No more board dinners? Or waking up at 3 A.M. worrying about how many things we have to do between now and next Tuesday?"
"No," said Ambrose. "We'll still be doing that."
"Good deal," I said, and hung up.
Brewster was still standing in the snow. I put on my coat and went downstairs.
"All these yellow cars keep passing by me, and yet none of them stop," he said.
"You have to stick out your arm, sir."
"I do? By myself?"
It didn't take me long to pull my own car around and get him into the front seat, and the traffic to the airport wasn't as bad as I thought. I left him at the curb, staring up at the enormous terminal building. I figured he would do okay. He always has.
I didn't let him give me anything by way of compensation for my time, of course. Who knows what kind of trouble that might have caused?
STANLEY BING's latest book, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends, and Wage the REAL Art of War (HarperBusiness), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at email@example.com.