Scrooge 15 Years after the Graveyard

Image from 1938 film of A Christmas Carol

For Immediate Release:

Announcing an International Media Event:  Sir Ebenezer Scrooge interviewed by Sir David Frost (the spirit of).

London – December 23, 2014 – The Financial Times has arranged for the ghost of Sir David Frost, OBE to conduct a first ever celebrity interview with Sir Ebenezer Scrooge, OBE.  Until now, Sir Ebenezer has been publicly silent about his life after A Christmas Carol, the often unflattering and unauthorized memoir/novella written by Mr. Charles Dickens.  Mr. Dickens’ commentary about his A Christmas Carol and Sir Ebenezer Scrooge’s life post ACC has remained the same since the book was published.  Dickens repeatedly says: “just read the bloody book, that’s all you have to do, read the book… the rest of the story is uninteresting.”

Well, we at the Financial Times believe that the rest of the story is anything but uninteresting.  The metamorphosis of Scrooge and Marley from a third rate counting house with ten shareholders to the global enterprise known as SM-ATR Ltd (NYSE SMRT) with tens of thousands of shareholders is one of the great stories of the last quarter century.  Under the leadership of Sir Ebenezer, SM-ART has erupted around the globe with more then a dozen important businesses, describing a path that seems literally fantastic, with one who-would-have-guessed-it twist and turn after another.

Two years ago we mobilized our research department to search the info-world for Scrooge, and to help us determine if there was a story worth telling you, our FT reader.  After a year gathering every bit of data and media material about SM-ART and its Chairman, Sir Ebenezer, we realized that the only proper way to get to the heart of this story was to do the impossible.  We needed to get the story from Sir Ebenezer himself, directly.  We needed to convince him to do what he has to date stridently resisted.  We needed to conduct an in depth one-to-one interview with him.  The odds against his agreeing to such an interview were over the moon.

We began by summoning the ghost of Sir David Frost, perhaps the twentieth century’s most accomplished English speaking interviewer.  We found him (his ghost) at his summer home (an undisclosed location in the heavens) and after several days of spirited negotiations, he agreed to accept one last public assignment, to conduct a full-on Interview with the famous but fiercely reclusive Sir Ebenezer.

Then came the greater challenge!  How could we puncture the media shield that so assiduously guards the reclusive Sir Ebenezer?  In this, we were aided by having Frost in hand, so to speak, and of course we are the Financial Times; that counts for something too.   Over the next year we initiated a flurry of back channel outreaches, direct approaches, dozens of strings were pulled, and many of his influential friends were contacted, until finally there was a breakthrough.  We were suddenly invited through the veil of privacy by an invitation from Sir Ebenezer’s public relations Czarina, Samantha Cratchet.  It was Ms Cratchet who led us through to the prize, an off-the-record face to face meeting with Sir Ebenezer himself.  We met him at his home, Chateau Joie de vivre, a sprawling estate and vineyard that abuts Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in the Vaucluse region of France.  After several hours of conversation, Sir Ebenezer rather cheerfully agreed to do the interview.

END Press Release.


The Financial Times are pleased to present The Ghost of Sir David Frost and his in depth interview with Sir Ebenezer Scrooge, fifteen years after the graveyard.

Chateau Joie de vivre, Valcluse region, France December 23, 2014.

“Good morning, Sir Ebenezer, thank you for welcoming us to your home.”

“Nice to see you again Sir David, we’ve missed you on the Tele, and yes Happy Holidays!  It is a wonderful time of the year isn’t it?  Remind me to ask you off camera what Christmas is like in Heaven.”

Both men laugh.

“It is a wonderful time, Sir Ebenezer.  If I may though, I’d like to start with Mr. Dickens.  In his story A Christmas Carol, he suggests you were not so jolly, in fact, quite an unhappy man. Did he get that part right about you, Sir Ebenezer?”

“Yes, as embarrassing as it is to have one’s life splattered across pages of a cheap penny-a-pound novella, parts his story are true, even though it was outrageously presumptive that he should pretend to channel me, or tell my story,  I was not a lover of Christmas, in fact I didn’t love anything except perhaps money.”

“Here is how he described you in those days, the days before your visitation, and I quote:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features….”

“Was that you in those days, a covetous, clutching old sinner?”

“Yes, as best I can recall it, I was that sort of person.  Certainly that was how others saw me.  I was a hard old nut, uncrackable, or at least I thought I was uncrackable.  But you know none of us comes off well if the person describing us has an agenda, and in this case, the agenda was to tell a story that sold many books, and god knows he succeeded on that front, and I’ll just say this too, that fellow Dickens, he never missed twisting the knife with ten words when one might do, long windy sentences loaded down with gaudy adjectives for the sake of excess!  He was writing for the blood and guts of it, and as it turns out, my small story was the grist for his mill.  So yes, the gist of what he says about me back then is true if not quite so dramatically true, if you get my meaning.”

“I do, yes.  But we can’t ignore the fact that A Christmas Carol continues to be an international best seller.  He captured something important to many people, it seems.”

“If you say so.”

“But putting Mr. Dickens on the shelf for the moment, how would you account for the change in your life that followed, in your own words.  Was there a ghost of Christmas past, present, and future, was there a moment when you saw Tiny Tim’s grave, and your own?

“Yes, yes, and yes again.  And you Sir David should appreciate the power of spirits, or ghosts!”

Both men laugh again.

“Yes, I did see them.  I saw Marley’s head on the door knocker, and I did hear much of what other people said about me, the hard things, my own grave, Tiny Tim’s as well, no, St Paul had it easy, he just got knocked off of his horse, I spent a night of poignancy and terror, in alternating waves until I thought I would go mad.  Then I fell into a pit of despair, then quite magically awoke in my own bed on Christmas Day, with the rest of my life in front of me, it was quite something, I must say.”

 

“So Dickens said:”

‘I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me . Oh, Jacob Marley, Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this. I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees.’

“So, are we done with Mr. Dickens?  There was a change, yes, and I believe the change has carried through to today, which is as I recall was reason for our interview.  Let me see here, yes I have it right here in my notes, Sir David; the subject of the interview is: What Is It Like to Be Scrooge Fifteen Years On, that’s it isn’t it?

“Yes, Sir Ebenezer, and thank you for the segue. After your experience with the ghosts, you did something that has flummoxed observers ever since.  You bought out all of the old Scrooge and Marley shareholders.  Yet at the time, the word on the street was that you paid a big premium to purchase those shares.  Why pay a premium when we understand the shareholders were perfectly happy to hold them?”

“Well, they hadn’t gone to the graveyard with me for one thing, and yes they were content to hold their shares mainly because they owned a piece of a business that was run by a legendary skinflint, a tight fisted nasty piece of work.  Me, I mean.  Those people liked my way of doing business, tough, grind everyone and everything to a miserable fine point and extract every ounce of blood and life out of the enterprise and then distribute it to the shareholders.  But at that time, after the graveyard, I was a man with a very different idea about life, and therefore about business.  I was the majority shareholder, and if I wanted to, I could have shoved my new ideas right up their greedy snouts.  The problem is that such behavior would have been just like the old Scrooge.  Don’t you see, that is what the old skinflint would have done.  I couldn’t, in good conscience, act that way any more.  To make the changes I was going to make, I needed to settle accounts with everyone, including the tight fisted skinflints I had as shareholders.  So the first step was to buy them out with a premium, and I am pleased to say they all behaved true to form, grabbed the money and the premium faster than a thief in the night, every shilling taken in the blink of an eye.”

“And so for the next five years you held all of the shares, you were a private business.  You carried on as a counting house, and then what?”

“Well let’s see, the first year we were a counting house, yes.  We had 20 employees, and I needed to try my ideas out with them.  I decided I was going to own a business that would engage in commerce for the benefit of the members of the firm, from the janitor to the chairman, a business what was a rich place for people to work, a place they could learn, a place where they could earn a fair wage, a place where they would participate in guiding the business and share in the business success.  It took me a while to figure all of this out by myself at first and with them later, so really for the next five years we were, yes a counting house, then a counting house that also sold consulting services, then a mini-conglomerate as we began selling certain types of specialty insurance, mainly to other businesses, then came…well before I get to that, we also renamed ourselves, and I distributed a substantial portion of the shares to the staff, so they could buy and hold shares or were given options to do so.  Finally at the end of five years we had become SM-ART Ltd, a closely held private commercial community that was made up of , let’s see, yes, eight businesses.”

“The name came from…?”

It came from Scrooge and Marley, that’s the S and the M, and ART is because I realized running a commercial community, a multi faceted business was more art then anything else, SM-ART Ltd fit the bill perfectly.”

“Speaking about that time, five years on, you weren’t exactly receiving glowing reviews.  Our Financial Times writers for example didn’t warm to you or your new ideas, as you call them, and on one point they were positively howling.”

“Yes, thank you for reminding me, that article on your pink paper, entitled something like Scrooge Gone Bonkers, yes I do remember.”

“What was your reaction to it?

“My reaction was that they can and will say what they want.  They didn’t like the idea of profit sharing, they really didn’t like our selling shares to the employees in a small closely held company after I had paid the earth for the same shares purchasing, them from the old Scrooge and Marley gang. And they were apoplectic about our publishing an Annual Report, an exhaustive set of year-end financial results, in the Times.  Perhaps that’s what triggered the Finical Times article, we didn’t buy space in your newspaper!”

“Were their criticisms warranted, were the FT right?”

“From their point of view, yes of course they were right.  Your employer is named the Financial Times for god’s sake, what do you think they care about?  Profits, that’s what they care about, law and order in the markets, doing things in a prudent and careful (usually tight fisted) way.  But, today I take issue with them about many things, except of course profits.  I agree that a business enterprise must earn a profit, but what you do with those profits, and how you earn them, well that’s where we tend to disagree.  I sold options and shares because I believe that a person who works in an enterprise should be able to invest in the place he/she works, and we made it so.  I also believe that everyone should have a share in the profits.  I also think the purpose of a business is to be a place where people choose to work because it is a wholesome, challenging, fair-minded place to spend most of your waking hours.  That the people who work there are a part of a community, that yes, works hard, but they do so because they want to work hard, work together, in reasonable harmony.  I also thought and continue to think now more than ever, that just because we were private in those days, we still needed to be transparent, open, honest, and direct to the world around us as to how we did things and what the finances of the company looked like.”

“So that’s the item I don’t quite understand.  What about privacy, and the rights of private ownership?  Shouldn’t or wouldn’t you have been more prudent to keep all of that information to yourselves, away from the prying eyes of your competitors for one thing, and from the world at large for another?”

“No. I don’t think that.  Privacy doesn’t mean that we owe nothing to the world at large.  For heaven’s sake, we are alive and functioning in a broader society, one that has given us great resources and opportunity with which to succeed.  We have laws, we have rules, we have roads, utilities, we have many support services, fire and police.  We are a part of many villages, cities, counties, countries from which we derive structure, protection, a money system, and markets that allow us to conduct our business.  Whether we are a public company or a private company, these entities have a stake in our business too, and we owe it to them to share information about what we are doing and how were are faring with what they have given us.  If competitors learn something, well, in this age, they have access to far more information about us than we’ve ever published, I’m sure of that.”

“And then Sir Ebenezer, you dropped the bomb!  Your private business, SM-ART took center stage and went public on the New York Stock Exchange no less.  Why did you go public, and why New York?”

The first part of your question is simple, we went public because we wanted to expand well beyond the intrinsic limits of our closely held shareholder structure.  Look around you, these fields have sprouted grapes for four hundred years.  We had a gigantic opportunity to move into the winemaking business in 2007.  All of these fields and the Chateau with outbuildings were being offered at a huge discount.  But the terms were cash.  This happened during the darkest days of the recession. A promissory note was not very attractive to a seller trying to accumulate a horde and take it to Switzerland.  As a public company, a very successful public company I would like to add, we had plenty of cash, and so we were able to make the deal. Our wine business was cash positive in year one, and the subsequent years have been amazing.  As for New York, well it is still called The Big Board, so it was where we wanted to be, nothing against our lovely homeland, just a matter of being where the main action is, simple as that.”

“Indeed, I suspect Queen and countrymen will forgive you as long as you continue to be successful, but what about the ruckus at your last shareholder’s meeting?  It is a very dangerous world on the New York Stock Exchange.  A large and influential institutional shareholder mounted a nasty challenge too, what they called, your indulgent and wasteful leadership model.  They tried to dump you.”

“Yes, they did!  And as shareholders, they are entitled to make such challenges.  That’s the price of capital.  But beneath their snowstorm of paper and publicity was a drive to force a big payday.  They wanted to commandeer our values, our vision, our culture.  To start with, they insisted we scrap most medical benefits, demanded we slash our training budgets, and abolish our retirement investment plans entirely.  You may know we establish a plan for each of our employees when they are hired. But what that group really wanted was to take all of that money and distribute it to themselves, the shareholders.  Now the motion was easily defeated.  If you’ve followed the aftermath, you will see that they are divesting themselves of our shares as we speak, which is fine.  We make a concerted effort to communicate to our shareholders and prospective shareholders that we are not in this for immediate quarter to quarter profits only, we are in these businesses for the long haul.  We believe we can run an excellent businesses producing world-class goods and services at competitive prices by investing in our employees, their health and well being, their learning and development, and to recognize the obvious; everybody ages, and at some point later in life most people don’t want to work any more or can’t work any more.  When that happens, they will need money.  Very few governments provide for old age, so we do.  You know a dollar set aside when you are 25 or 30 will be close to $10 when you are 65 or 70.  So we are not interested in getting blood from a stone, we are not going to grind our people down to meet some quarterly earnings report.  We are the antithesis of that, and if people want to invest in a hard-driving tight fisted, zero sum game business, they should not invest in SM-ART.  They should look elsewhere, there are plenty of those types of business around.

“Sir Ebenezer, don’t you think that perhaps this generous, some say, pandering treatment of employees is out of step with current economic theory, that it is out of step with the current market trends too?  How can you possibly compete with companies that don’t pay for these types of benefits?”

“Good question!  As to this modern economic theory you refer to, it has incited many businesses to move from a position of doing what is best for human beings to doing what is legal, shifting from a moral criteria to a narrowly defined legal criteria.  So when the institutional investor mounted a challenge, they based their complaint on their belief that if medical benefits aren’t required to be paid by law, we had a fiduciary responsibility not to pay them.  I believe in laws, certainly, but more than that, we believe in the human spirit and human capital.  We run on human spirit: that is the only energy that truly fuels an enterprise.  Yes some economists say Greed is at the center of all human behavior, but that’s not our view, and we have plenty of successes to show for it.”

“But how do you compete with third world countries, where some people are working in slave labor like conditions?”

“We don’t.  Take clothing.  A pair of trousers can cost anywhere from two dollars to hundreds of dollars.  We produce our clothing in third world countries, with profit sharing, with medical benefits, with a retirement stipend and we sell our garments in markets that will support the prices we need to charge for those pants.  Listen, you don’t have to be the bottom feeder to succeed.  An unnaturally low price (because of underpaid labor) doesn’t reflect the real cost of that product.  At some point some of those employees are going to get sick, at some point they are going to need to grow by training to be more efficient, at some point they are going to want to retire.  We say we will compete by providing for those things and sell the products at a price that is profitable.  Business doesn’t need to act like capitalism is a zero sum game. For example, we support charities, good causes around the world we give a portion of our profits back to.  We do it through our philanthropic arm, the Jacob Marley Trust.  There is plenty to go around. You may recall, Jacob needs all the help he can get; he wasn’t as lucky as I was, to see the ghosts and so on, at least not before he died.  Now he’s wandering the earth with those chains.  I hope the Trust and its good work will help him.”

“Yes, but you must know, to many this just sounds frankly naive, paternalistic, socialistic even.”

“Well yes, those labels, you are this or you are that.  Socialist?  Why don’t you just say what you are thinking and call it communist?   Yes, some label us that way.  What is missed when people generalize like that is, for example, we have twice as many applicants than we can possibly hire at virtually all of our companies.  We attract and get the most energetic and dedicated people because of our philosophy, our culture, we get people who have exceptional experience, people who want to learn, collaborate, work hard.  We are overrun with people wanting to be a part of our community.  So, Sir David, if you were given a choice, wouldn’t you want to work for us?  And if you see that we offer say health benefits, do you think this is squandering money or do you think you would rather roll the dice and not pay for health benefits.  Well you can work at any one of the hundreds of businesses that don’t offer them or a retirement benefit.  And one last thing.  If we can’t provide a superior product or service because the market won’t support our prices, we won’t enter that market.  We are building businesses, commercial communities for the long haul, that’s the abiding philosophy, and if a market won’t support us, we have no interest in it.”

“So what about your future Sir Ebenezer?  Where do you go from here?”

“Well the first place I go is to step down as chairman in eighteen months.  We have very strong leaders coming from the next two generations.  It’s time for them to get out in front of our businesses including SM-ART itself.  I too grow older, and although I’ll keep a seat on the board, the ethics and compensation committees, I look forward to Bob and Tim Cratchet’s generations leading us into the next twenty five years.”

“Does this mean retirement for you?”

“Oh…well, partial retirement.  I’ve already passed on many of my responsibilities to others.  You know I don’t really run any of these businesses now; I’m no longer the Managing Director of SM-ART, I’m its chairman, but not the chief executive.  I quite like wine-making though, I like to teach, but what I like most is being with my extended family.”

“Do you ever wish you had married, or had children?”

“No, it was what it was.  But I have plenty of family, and the children in our extended family are my children too.  And I get to celebrate Christmas each year with family all around, three generations, soon to be four!.  By the way, how lucky you arrived for this interview today!  It’s December 23, Sir David!  We would be honored if you would join us for a pre-Christmas and candle-lighting dinner tonight, here at the chateau.  Do you get hungry or thirsty when you live in the spirit world?”

“I am honored.  I would love to join you.  And I’ll try not to scare your family with my ethereal presence.  As for getting hungry?  Well no, we spirits don’t really get hungry or thirsty, but we have heavenly taste buds, the flavors are ever so amplified.  I enjoy a taste of this and a sip of that, so thank you, I would be delighted to stay for the evening before I fly home.  But, one last question if I may.”

“Yes?”

“Could you summarize for our readers what you have learned over the last fifteen years? What stands out for you after your visit to the graveyard and seeing your own tombstone?  I think our readers would like to know, I know I would.”

“I have seen the power, the positive and life affirming power of the human spirit.  I have seen it, I have benefited from it, and I intend to do everything I can do to champion it.  People are generally good, they usually want to do good things and they really do want to get along with each other.  I am blessed to have seen kindness and cooperation at work and then to help create a place where this spirit can soar, expand, reproduce itself and advance good causes, worthwhile lives, and fun and adventure thrown in as a bonus.  And since you have so skillfully brought me to this point in the interview, I want to thank you for coming down from the heavens and putting me through my paces.  It has been an unexpected pleasure.”

“Thank you, Sir Ebenezer Scrooge. Now I know Mr. Dickens and his book caused you a lot of discomfort.  But I would like to end our session today by reading what he wrote about you as you awoke to what was arguably, your first real Christmas, after the omens, after the ghosts, after the graveyard.  Here is what he said:

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

“Sir Ebenezer Scrooge, thank you for being a gracious host, and for sharing what it has been like to live a life transformed by ghosts!  I am sure there are many Financial Times readers who will disagree with your opinions, but none could question your integrity or your passion about the human spirit and the potential for business to be life-affirming.  Happy Holidays to you, Sir, your family, your employees and to all of our Financial Times Readers”

 

 

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