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My Favorite Business Story, from Victor Niederhoffer
I have always had a love of stories, as they calm me, let me experience great events, transport me to great places, and make me happy -- especially because they remind me of the immemorial custom in my family to have a story read to me each night by my father or mother. My favorite book of stories is Monte Walsh, a collection of tales by Jack Schaefer about two men -- Monte Walsh, an expansive free-wheeling genius on horses, a la Jack Aubrey on the sea, and his more reflective and competent-off-the-horse sidekick, the future country banker Chet Rollins -- as they perform their jobs, and meet the challenges of the open range cattle business in the 1880s.
Schaefer, who knows his field as well as L'Amour or O'Brian know theirs, describes his goal as "to sketch the over-all story of the open-range cattle business, its brief beginning, and its myth-making heyday, and its inevitable decline, symbolized in the single lifetime career of my Monte Walsh, a man fitted fully to it, faithful to its spirit to this own finish, with counterpart supplied by his more adaptable, once inseparable companion, Chet Rollins."
My favorite story by far is Payment in Full, and I'd like to share some of its highlights with you. The story opens with an accountant, "the desk man" paying his annual visit to the Consolidated Cattle company division in Colorado to check on the books. He sits with his derby hat by his side as he examines the revenues, percent foaling, and expenses of the general manager, Cal Brennan. The Consolidated Cattle Company was apparently a limited partnership, paying out annual divisions based on profits. That partnership has bought and leased the range land, built the structures, wells, windmills, and tanks, cattle and horses and hired Cal to run it for them."But the Slash Y was really a group of men alike only in general cattle-country background, and rawhide toughness of muscle and willingness to risk their necks to get a job done, loyal to each other and to the outfit that paid their wages, brought together by Cal Brennan."
Cal apparently had his wife and kids killed by Comanches, and knew everything about the cattle business that anyone from Texas ever knew. The preliminary audit of the desk man turns up some problems this year in the p&l, with the calf crop only 82% and some expenses for a party which he calls to Cal's attention. "As a matter of straight fact, if you can find another outfit in the whole territory that done better'n 75, I'll eat that silly hat lying there begging somebody to put a bullet through it," Cal said. I often wish to give a similar answer to potential customers and those who had a winning trade or two they'd like to brag about when they ask me about what happened in this or that bad month that I had along the path of my fund's or my partner's performance. I can see that fat hat right now. With a touch similar to MFM Osborne who liked to say when he found some academic like Morgenstern or Madelbrot writing about something they had no experience with, "Somebody's going to eat crow, raw, squawking and fully feathered, and something tells me that ain't going be me," Cal's drawl fades, "Plain too, no sauce to help it down."
A new problem emerges. There's a claim from the Santa Fe railroad, for 1,000 bucks for damages to their equipment that arose from a practical joke the Fe train men wanted to play on the Slash Y'ers after they had spent three days rounding up stray horses as an economy measure for their owner's back in Chicago. "Something intangible suddenly swept suddenly into the room, something between two men suddenly indifferent to the desk man's presence, a big dusty cowboy standing relaxed yet watchful, looking down, and a lean ageless man, Cal, sitting easy and limp in an old armchair. This is the story they told.
After breaking their necks for three days, the Slash Y was about to corral all the horses that had cost them limb and sleep for three days when "In the locomotive cab the engineer sat relaxed on his stool, head out the window. A slow smile spread on his ruddy rough featured face. Hey he said. Let's have a little fun. He reached up and took hold of the whistle cord. SCReeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
The horses, they's killed themselves to collect scatter, a fight breaks out, a trainman pulls out a wrench, a Slash Y shoots it out of his hand, the Y's win, they go collect the horses and bring them back. The desk man at first figures he'll get the Y's to pay. "Oh, they'll pay all right, my boys pay if I put it to them. They'll get together, them that was in on it and them that wasn't an they'll hock all they got if they have to, except of course their saddles. An they pay. But that be might y expensive for the company because they'll quit rite after" Cal said. Well at least I can file some counterclaims. "No, you don't understand this thing atall. The boys had the best of it. They tromped on that train crew right through. That means there's got to be no quibblin. Payment in full.
In a nice touch of understanding of the business mentality, Cal says to the desk man, "The boys have good feeling to the company. They're proud to the company, of this outfit. Proud to be working for it. They ain't bright enough to understand the reason they're proud of this outfit is the work they been doing for it, what they've made of it. They just proud they mad the Slash Y brand an the boys that carry that iron mean pleny everywheres cowmen still ride horses an swing a loop."
The desk man reflects and says, "I'll do my best for you boys." A chorus of Yow-ee's and you're all right Plug Hat " greets the desk man as he leaves.
I know that the people at my establishment and the remainder on the spec list feel this same sense of pride in their accomplishments and pursuits that the boys at the Slash Y and other good firms that are built on proper foundations feel. Hopefully those who like to brag and bluster as they ride their ephemeral trains, will keep the low character of the Sant Fe engineer and fireman in mind.