A rocky on-work affair leads to big trouble for Acme

Acme finds itself in trouble when an executive stops doing what comes naturally

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Acme Outsourced Services Co. is the first name that comes to mind when most plant managers want to outsource a particularly troublesome maintenance function. During the 11 years Acme has been in business, the firm has been riding a consistently positive growth curve, which many in the firm attribute to the fact that Acme's on-site technicians are the crème de la crème skimmed from the most competent members of the nation's expanding pool of unemployed engineering talent. The fact that Acme's customer service reps and account executives have a knack for developing excellent business relationships certainly doesn't hurt.

Minnie Stronni is a typical example. A long-term employee, she landed her account executive job when one of Acme's partners, a genuine rainmaker whose previous fortune vanished in the dot-com bust, grabbed the first opportunity to bail out, cashed in his Acme stock options and retired to a waterfront mansion on 100 acres in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Afterward, Acme shuffled established sales territories to take up the slack.

Minnie is a quiet-but-assertive, bespectacled, plain-Jane person, but that doesn't detract from her no-nonsense business style. She relies on quiet competence and, in a typical month, spends about two weeks on the road visiting every active account in her six-state territory. Then, she spends another five days developing new business, tracking down leads and inventing and implementing creative ways to meet maintenance decision-makers to demonstrate to them the financial wisdom of being under Acme's protective umbrella. Like almost every other Acme rep lately, Minnie meets her quota of new service contracts, but just barely.

Minnie's supervisor, Viola DeGamba, is a study in contrast. Viola, a tall, blonde, curvaceous, physically fit party girl, favors spandex, miniskirts, flashy jewelry and the judicious use of makeup. But she, too, is hustling just to make her numbers in the four-state territory that came her way in the shuffle. Viola believes Acme's is clearly a relationship business, and her sales approach reflects that belief. She's an outgoing and gracious hostess who wines and dines clients and prospects; finds tickets to sold-out ball games and theater shows; and always remembers names, faces, birthdays, anniversaries and other dates important to the members of her target market.

Beyond that, Viola demonstrates good managerial skill in herding Minnie, Joe and the four other account executives that keep Acme's name in front of plant managers and maintenance professionals across the country.

Al O'Verraugh is Acme's vice president of customer relations. One of the first employees Acme hired a decade ago, Al now oversees Viola and her direct reports as well as field employees who keep customer plants humming and Acme revenue rolling in.

Having to buy out a partner who then took the money and ran depleted Acme's cash reserves by an alarming amount. The denizens of Mahagony Row put the burden of refloating the corporate cash box directly on Al's shoulders. Generally viewed by most Acme employees as an autocratic, pompous stuffed shirt (or worse), Al is under a bit of pressure to make the quarterly numbers and, for some obscure reason, nobody seems inclined to volunteer much help.

It was with a certain sense of sweaty desperation that Al orchestrated the territory shuffle. Change is good, he thought, and new faces would invigorate the sales team and generate even more marketplace buzz. He started traveling with the account executives and participated in joint sales calls in an effort to get closer to the customers.

He felt that if his strategy was sufficiently successful, it would garner him the first of many Acme year-end cash bonuses and stock options. It was with that goal as firmly in mind as obsessive behavior can make it that Al called Viola into his office for a conference.

"I want you to fire Minnie today," Al intoned in his characteristic nasal drawl.

"Why would I want to do that? What did she do?" asked Viola, somewhat dumbstruck by the order.

"As you know," he replied, "revenue from her territory is marginal at best."

"I get the same weekly financial reports you get, Al," replied Viola, "and I interpret her numbers as being perfectly acceptable, given the circumstances. She's got the right work ethic and I see no justification for firing her."

"I really don't care what reasons you use," snapped Al. "Just replace her. Try this on for size. She doesn't present very well. She doesn't have the image we're trying to project. Let's say Minnie doesn't meet my standard for acceptable attractiveness in a position that involves so much customer contact."

"Wait a second," Viola gasped, not believing she heard him correctly. "That's a lame reason, Al. What about my other people? Old Joe Clark, for instance? Does he meet your standards for movie-star quality?"

"Certainly not," Al replied sternly, "but Joe consistently exceeds his quota."

"No, Al," Viola said assertively, her eyes aglare. "I won't fire Minnie without a good reason, and you certainly haven't given me one yet."

"That's insubordination," Al replied through narrowed eyes. "I gave you a direct order, Viola. If Minnie isn't out of here by the end of the day, you better start looking for a job, too."

With that comment ringing in her ears, Viola merely turned, walked out of Al's office and went to the empty cafeteria to calm herself and contemplate Al's threat to her livelihood and career goals at Acme. A few minutes later, Jeanie, Al's administrative assistant, was taking a shortcut through the cafeteria. When she spotted Viola, she made a mid-course correction.

"I heard that conversation between you and Al," she whispered conspiratorially after she sat down at Viola's table. "There's no real privacy at my area. The walls are too thin. I hear everything."

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