Perspective | First She Lost $100,000; Then She Burned The Books
Years ago, I worked for a trailblazing international services consultancy. Pioneers have to make it up as they go along. We made mistakes, but then so did everyone we dealt with.
Our branch office in Milan, Italy racked up the greatest number of errors, both in-house and out-house. The term ‘branch office’ was a little grandiose: Our Italian operations were composed of one man with extensive contacts throughout the Italian industry, and his secretary, Lucia. What a woman she was.
Our man sauntered about Milan, cutting deals over endless lunches, so Lucia was never supervised. Without permission, she ran a series of personal businesses from our office, we later discovered, and considered herself royalty.
When she made an extraordinary blunder that resulted in our losing about $100,000, Lucia vigorously denied culpability even after incontrovertible evidence was presented.
It fell to me to negotiate the claim with the insurers.
For my visit to Milan, Lucia booked me into a hotel that remains to this day the finest — and most expensive — hotel I have ever stayed in. Two manservants anticipated my every need.
The day before I was due to meet the insurer, I went to the office to review the voluminous documentation relating to our claim. It took until midnight to complete my preparations for the meeting the next day.
Finally declaring myself ready, I closed my briefcase and made ready to leave the office.
I couldn’t get out. The door was locked from the outside, and I didn’t have the key. I also didn’t have a phone number for Lucia.
Speaking hardly any Italian, I couldn’t phone the emergency services, had I even known their number, to request they smash the door down. Our man never answered his phone, not one of the seven habits of highly effective people.
I spent the night on the couch. And the next night, too.
Fearing she would lose face if I succeeded in claiming on the insurance company, Lucia had locked me in and taken a few days off.
She let me out on the Saturday morning. “I come to rescue you,” she said, her arms spread wide.
She explained with a shrug that she had temporarily lost the keys, and that was that.
Oh, and by the way, she added, she had visited the insurance company on my behalf and accepted their decision to decline the claim.
I admit to having become a little unreasonable at this point. Unused to her subjects arguing with her, Lucia did the only sensible thing under the circumstances: She threw a typewriter at me. It missed; I left.
After we hired legal representation, the insurer eventually settled the claim in full.
Lucia had lied about seeing them, but she was fireproof and stayed with the company longer than I did. In the eight years we had an Italian office, it never once made a profit.
Lucia’s final action, I’m told, was to burn the company’s accounting records.
My abiding memory of the whole experience was a comment from the extremely friendly insurer: “If you don’t make mistakes, you never learn.”
Lucia must therefore have been the wisest person I ever met. &