Friday Free-for-All #80: Corporate screw-ups

How McDonald’s made a bet on the Olympics and lost big and how a former boss of mine shot himself in the foot.

Friday Free for All

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments. Yet again this week, I had three questions ready, but the first one took up the whole article.

What is the funniest corporate/business screw up you have heard of?

One is corporate and the other is personal.

The corporate one happened during the 1984 Olympics, which took place in Los Angeles. This was kind of a big deal, because it was only the third time that the U.S. had hosted the summer Olympics, the two previous times being in 1904 and 1932.

It was even more of a big deal because the first Olympics in the U.S. had been hosted in St. Louis, Missouri, while the second, 28 years later, took place in Los Angeles, California — and by the time the Olympics came back to the U.S., they also came back to Los Angeles, 52 years later.

McDonald’s saw a marketing opportunity, and so they launched this promo: For every medal that the U.S. won in competition, customers would get a free item — a soft drink for Bronze, fries for Silver, and the big-ticket item for every Gold medal, a Big Mac.

Just one problem: In retaliation for various things Olympics related, including the U.S. led boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (in addition to the USSR just being pissy in general), the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics, along with 17 other countries, although several of those (Albania, Iran, and Libya) boycotted for entirely different reasons.

Without competition for those countries, the U.S. had a very good year, taking home a total of 174 medals: 30 bronze, 61 silver, and 83 gold.

Remember: This was a national promo by McDonald’s, so they had committed themselves to giving out those prizes in all 50 states, for the duration of the Games. And while the U.S., USSR/Russia, and China are consistently the top-three medal winners, 1984 was a particularly good year for Team America.

While McDonald’s has always been tight-lipped over how much, exactly, they lost through this promo, since the Big Mac was one of their biggest money-makers and they had underestimated the number of gold medals badly, combined with many franchises just plain running out, their losses have been estimated in the millions.

Ironically, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles were one of the few successful Olympic Games in history. Not only did it not bankrupt the city (like it did many others), but it made over $200 million in profits, largely by enlisting big corporate sponsors, like Coca-Cola, M&M/Mars, and… McDonald’s.

As for the biggest business mistake, personal edition, I could have sworn I’d written about this one before, but I guess not. In this case, it was an attorney I worked for very briefly — just under a year and a half.

I had been through a very interesting transition leading up to the gig. I was abruptly fired from my first office job after six and a half years in one of those typical, “Department splits, new manager comes in, figures out which supervisors he can control and which ones can think, gets rid of the latter.”

I was the latter. Plus I probably could have made a very solid case that homophobia was definitely an element in my firing but… I was over that corporate gig. Besides that, earlier that same year, I had taken second place in a major playwriting competition at a big regional theater, and while I’m not exactly certain, I think that I must have found out that said theater was going to produce my play some time before I got fired.

So I spent the next few months living on a nice severance plus unused sick time from former employer, unemployment, and then weekly royalties, although I had to start looking for work pretty quickly after the play ended and then… the L.A. Riots (the Rodney King ones) happened, and put a crimp in the works for a bit.

As they were ending, I signed up with a temp agency, and they sent me out on an assignment that, they said, was with an attorney in Brentwood, working as his bookkeeper. I agreed, and it wasn’t until I got the address on Monday, my first day, that I realized it was in Inglewood.

If you know L.A., you know that Brentwood and Inglewood are polar opposites of each other. Also, we had just been through a major race riot, and ground zero for that was actually about half a mile from this attorney’s office — he’d escaped being attacked while driving back from the courthouse in Downtown L.A., in fact.

Now, while I was a giant white guy driving a Honda, I also knew Inglewood, since I’d worked there during and just after college and my college was in the next neighborhood over, and Inglewood was basically the black version of suburbia in L.A.

So it was kind of offensive to me that the temp agency felt like they had to lie to get me there in the first place — or maybe it was the client who had lied to them, which was probably the more likely scenario.

In any case, I started working as bookkeeper for an attorney who was one of the least ethical people I’ve ever met. For one thing, he only handled bankruptcies and evictions — but for the banks and landlords, not for the debtors and tenants.

He also represented a couple of governmental entities that served as mortgage lenders and guarantors. In other words, a right, total bastard.

My job as basic bookkeeping — keep track of the bills that came in and what was due, keep track of his hours and what he was owed, bill clients for same, and then every two weeks give him a report basically saying, “Here’s what you’ve earned, here’s what’s been paid, here’s who you need to write checks to.”

Now, you’d think that someone who regularly represents creditors would get it, right? Pay the people you owe money to, period. Except maybe it was because he represented these bastards that he felt like he knew how to skate around it, so inevitably I would hand him a stack of bills, many of them 90 or more days past due, explain to him what needed to be paid, and he’d look at the stack and brush it aside.

“Write me a draw for $200,000,” he’d say, while refusing to sign any of the checks I’d placed before him. In laymen’s terms: “Make out a check to me for $200,000.”

He certainly had enough to cover it in his corporate account, but he also had enough to cover all those other expenses, and then some — largely because he overbilled the hell out of clients, his government contractors in particular.

At least he was always able to cover payroll, the one small touch of decency about him.

Anyway, long story short, he was a total asshole. In October of 1993, I flew to Dallas for what was supposed to be just the weekend because I was in a crazy stupid long-distance relationship at the time. Between the Friday I arrived and the Sunday I was supposed to leave, the budget airline I’d flown on went out of business, stranding all of its return passengers.

Luckily, I had a free place to stay, but I had to call the boss up to tell him that I wasn’t sure when I’d be able to make it back, and he took this as a sign that I had embezzled all of his money and was about to run off to Brazil.

He demanded that I get the next available flight back to L.A., but since that would have cost at least $900 — more than my rent at the time — I politely told him, I would if you paid me more, but you don’t, so I can’t.

Then, near the end of that week, my immediate ex had a stroke of conscience and left a message on my home phone, which I heard when I finally got back the Sunday following. I had been accepted into a year-long screenwriting fellowship program, meaning that I no longer needed to work for asshole attorney.

I wrote and printed out my two-weeks’ notice that night, and handed it to him in the morning, after I’d found out that he had hired some forensic specialist to go over my computer to see how I’d ripped him off. (Spoiler: I hadn’t.) He accepted the notice immediately even though I knew something that he didn’t, and this is where the funniest business screw-up, personal edition, kicks in.

See, being a total nerd, I had cobbled together his entire accounting system using a consumer version of Quicken, and a bunch of macros in order to get Excel and Word to speak to it. I’d enter hours in Excel, have it generate invoices in Word and export data to Quicken, enter billing data to Quicken and have it export data to both Word and Excel to generate payment statements and track those costs per creditor, and so on.

The key to it was knowing which macros to run in which programs through which keystrokes, and at which point in the data-entry process. And I’d given two weeks because I knew that I’d need to teach that to someone.

But… Captain Asshole had refused, so when I walked out, I was done. I received three more phone messages from the office, moving up the food chain from receptionist to paralegal to boss, each one basically saying the same thing. “Please call. We can’t figure out the system you set up.”

I replied to none of them and just laughed. Should have thought about that before he accepted my two weeks’ notice immediately because he was being paranoid — although projection is frequently a trait of the greedy.

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