A Meeting in Sardinia
(FORTUNE Magazine) – There's been a lot of nonsense criticizing Dennis Kozlowski for a perfectly innocent corporate retreat he had on Sardinia a couple of years ago. As you may know, the CEO of Tyco, with a heart as big as the seat of his pants, spent $2 million on the trip, which happened to include a birthday party for his wife, Karen. Showing restraint, I think, he charged only half of that tab to his firm. Now it's being used against him in court. He could end up going to jail. That would set a dangerous precedent.
It's easy for those who don't know about our world to come down hard on a guy who's trying to do the best for his business and his shareholders. You put an event like that meeting under a spotlight, and you catch a raft of guff from envious, ignorant journalist types who don't know a Lincoln Town Car from a Ford Crown Victoria.
Well, readers of this column work in the real world, and we know that the party makes perfect sense to anybody who understands about expense-account living.
Travel and Entertainment, ladies and gentlemen. That's what I'm talking about. It's in two parts, both important.
First there is Travel. Nothing beats a gathering on the road to get the juices flowing and start sparking those associations that eventually yield fruit, or nuts, or whatever it is you're looking to yield. Usually the Kozlowskis met friends and influenced people in Nantucket for Karen's birthday. How boring is that? Once you've dunked in the cold, flinty Atlantic a couple of times and slapped a dozen shrimp on the barbie, well, you've pretty much been there and done that.
Sardinia, on the other hand, is on the Mediterranean, which is warmer and requires a long plane ride, which can get your business partners' heads in a completely different place. I've been to meetings in New York and Los Angeles and also on Marco Island, Fla., and Bermuda, and people got more exhausted and stayed up later at the latter than the former, and built tons of morale, if I remember things correctly, which I don't.
The second part of Travel and Entertainment is Entertainment, and that's a lot more difficult to come by these days. Where before there were only three networks and chicken chow mein, now there are 500 channels and a range of Mandarin and Hunan cuisine, not to mention sushi. It's harder to light people's wicks is what I'm trying to say. You need to do something special. The Kozlowski bash was that in spades.
Which of us would not wish to be greeted by lithe, supple young people in Roman garb rather than the seedy, tweedy coat-check people one usually encounters at such events? How much new Tyco business was generated by such a gesture of good will? Lots, I bet. I hear some of the greeting extended into the night. As did the eating.
And don't forget the drinking. How can one keep that compelling? Everybody has drunk his share of vodka by now, and there's very little that's engaging about pounding down another everyday tumbler of grog. But pour that vodka out of a small but appealing portion of Michelangelo's "David," and you've got a cocktail and a half!
Sure, it looks a lot like egregious hedonism, but let's not be hasty. Unemployment continues to rage throughout Europe, and even to a certain extent in the U.S. Nowhere is that idleness more apparent and devastating than in the arts, where musicians are very often forced to play in the streets. Thanks to Dennis Kozlowski, there is one less hungry family to worry about--the Buffetts, whose favorite son, Jimmy, was paid $250,000 for a one-hour performance. If one little Buffett went to bed with a full tummy that night it was worth it.
Music. Joy. Drunken sex. These are the hallmarks of a great corporate retreat. Does a business need these niceties to enter the ranks of the great and the near-great? Oh, question not the need!
Finally, there are matters of the heart, which always look excessive to the uninitiated. I wish I'd been there when Karen's birthday cake came out--in the shape of a naked woman with sparklers exploding out of her bosom. I bet there wasn't a dry eye in the house. What is the value of that kind of interpersonal experience?
There is but one question left. Should Tyco have picked up its share of this worthy tab? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, depending, I guess.
Should the company pick up your car home on a night when you're tired and crazy with work? Should the company pick up that lunch with a couple of pals after a morning from hell? Should the company pick up the cost of your country club? How about your car? Your first-class plane tickets? Your laptop?
Yeah, it's easy to poke fun at the vulgarians at the gates. But ask not who's on the other end of the line when the bell tolls. Just hope it's not for thee, baby.
By day, Stanley Bing is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at email@example.com.