When In Rome, Eat Romans What do you expect from Huns? They're hungry!
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It takes a lot to shock me now, after a certain number of years behind the plow every day.

I don't get upset by layoffs anymore, for instance, as long as they're not too close to me, and by that I mean involving either me or somebody who works for me, or who I once worked with, or who I know personally and think is a good guy, or who I had a drink with in the past 14 days or so. In certain circumstances, I can get behind strategic reductions that produce value for the shareholder. That's how far I've come or, if you prefer, how far gone I am.

And I'm not shocked when I see somebody promised a big raise and a contract, and he doesn't get diddly. Or when a really great person who gives 140% to the company is stiffed on his bonus for no apparent reason. Or when guys leave a corporation after 30 years of service without so much as a memo to bid them goodbye. Or when big companies take over small companies and eat them up, wasting them in the incinerator of consolidation, or when small companies take over big ones, either. I don't waste a lot of time agonizing over it all.

But things can still get to me.

I had this conversation with a former friend who works as a high-level functionary and crony of the chairman of a corporation that just took over another one. This guy hasn't been inside for long. He was a consultant to the company a few months ago. Now he's a big wheel in the horde of Visigoths that's preparing to swallow Rome. I called him up to ask whether he could help a young pal of mine who's right now out on the street. He said no.

"Your guy is too small a fish," he said with an odd, feverish excitement. "We're looking for the best and the brightest over here." I didn't know whether my friend was either best or brightest. I haven't met all that many best and brightest in my time. Maybe they're all over at this guy's corporation.

"Well," I said, "I'm not going to oversell him. I just think he's smart and could probably make a pretty good contribution either there or somewhere else. Any suggestions?" He had a few. There was a good Website, apparently, that posted jobs. And the Help Wanted section in the newspaper also seemed to hold many opportunities. I thanked him for his insights and prepared to hang up, but I thought I would at least exchange a pleasantry or two. The fellow seemed suspiciously jolly and willing to talk.

"How are things over there?" I asked. "You guys must be pretty excited, with the merger all done and all."

"Oh, yeah! It's fabulous! We're hiring tons of new people and getting ready to transform this company into something that's never been seen before!"

"Gonna make changes, are you?" I said. I didn't like the tone of this character's voice at all. There was something bright and shiny about it, like the coins they used to put on a dead man's eyes.

"Oh, yeah!" He was positively ebullient. "We do things differently than they do them over there!" A dark feather of contempt wafted up in the air between us and darted around in the ether for a while.

"Like how," I said.

"They're fat," said the guy who just was talking about hiring all those best and brightest. "And they're all hung up with process. Edgar doesn't do things that way." A quality of religious awe had crept in. "Edgar has this uncanny sense of what needs to be done at every level of the operation, and he's dedicated to the interest of the shareholder. He is monomaniacal about that. And he's not afraid to do what needs to be done."

"You guys gonna fire a lot of people, huh," I said, trying to wade through his greasy bonhomie.

"Oh, no question about it." He was chuckling. "They've been plump and happy around here for a long time, and there's a lot to do. A lot of...opportunities."

"How many opportunities, do you figure?" I'd heard this kind of talk before, but never from one so new to a company. "Hundreds?"

"Thousands!" He was almost singing. "And when we're done, the company will be a far better place than it was before."

"You're gonna keep the best and the brightest, huh?"

"Well...yeah." There was a little hesitation there.

"...while making sure that most of the people come from the other side, I guess."

"Well," said the former consultant, who was now close to the chairman who was going to transform the new company into the best and the brightest in the firmament. "We bought them, didn't we?"

I didn't bother to argue. It is rare to glimpse the horrible face of conquest, and it does no good, when you do, to gape at it and say, "Hey! You're ugly!" And of course it isn't, either, not really--not to its mommy and daddy.

But I prefer the face of hypocrisy, the rosy complexion of all those good deals we read about in the press releases and the slavish business media, and most of all in those objective reports done by securities analysts from the firms providing the financing. I like it when two great companies come together to make two plus two plus two equal ten or 11, and synergy does not mean crushing any flower you did not plant; when bullet-headed bean counters do not swagger in to tell guys who were born with the technology in their mouths how to get things done the new way; when the smart guys are smart enough to know what they don't know; when the Huns and Visigoths look around and carefully pick a whole bunch of qualified Romans too. You know. The best and the brightest, as my pal would say.

But I'm dreaming. When in Rome? It's Romans who are on the menu.

Remember Chrysler? It got together with Daimler in what the Germans called a merger of equals. Today, under the leadership of Jurgen Schrempp, Chrysler is run by Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche and operating officer Wolfgang Bernard. It's easy to pick on the Germans, of course, but who can blame them? They know cars. They certainly know how to take things over. And they bought the place, didn't they?

For the record, I don't think I'll be talking to my ex-business associate anytime soon. I work in a company not all that different from his, and I don't want to give him any bright ideas.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.