You can’t take it with you

By Mike Johnson

The call from the east coast arrived at 6 a.m.

An old boss of mine had passed away due to an aneurysm. Oddly, just three minutes before his passing, his wife was pronounced dead from a heart attack at his bedside.

I met Stan (not his real name) in 1981 when I was hired by a convenience store chain to oversee a group of six stores. A twenty year veteran close to retirement, Stan distrusted young supervisors.

The convenience store industry is a funny business. You have to offer 3,000 items from every possible product category to attract customer traffic, yet more than half of what you sell consists of low-profit beer, soda and cigarette categories. Hence, each store barely makes money and there isn’t enough income to have management supervision on all shifts.

Left unwatched, in those years before security cameras, many employees made the choice to steal by not ringing sales and then pocketing the customers’ payments.

Naïve to this weakness of human nature, I almost quit a hundred times after polygraph examinations identified one key employee after another as a thief. How do you build a cohesive team when each month you have to strap your employees to a lie-detector to question their honesty?

As luck would have it, Stan was the best in the business at “shortage control.” He had a no-nonsense reputation of quickly firing anyone he suspected of dishonesty – and those suspicions often included the store managers who operated each store.

But Stan had a soft side too. Each month he’d ride stores with us supervisors to perform written inspections. One day, after yet another store manager let me down with a bad score, Stan walked over, put his arm around my shoulders, grinned and said, “Boss, wouldn’t it be nice to have a job that paid 50 grand a year and was based entirely on your own efforts?” The old man DID have a heart.

Five years later, Stan had a heart attack and had to take permanent retirement disability. I was given his job. Now I REALLY understood why Stan had been Stan.

Stan lived near one of our stores and we’d occasionally run into him there and teasingly ask if he’d tapped into that profit sharing account yet. He’d just chuckle, shake his head and change the subject.

I left the company in 1991 to follow a writing career but kept up with Stan through a close mutual friend. She was the one who called at 6 a.m. to report the news of his passing.

A day later she called again to report the funeral plans – and a conversation she’d had with Stan’s daughter. The daughter had come across Stan’s profit sharing statement. The daughter asked my friend a haunting question. “He worked for 25 years to accumulate all this money. He’s been retired for 12 years. Why didn’t he and mom do all those things they were always talking about doing someday? They could have done anything. There is $750,000 in that account.”

My friend had no answer.


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