Take Me To Your Leader
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – "We can't do that without talking to Corporate Headquarters."

Beebe was looking at me with a worried expression. Guys in finance often have worried expressions because, Arthur Andersen aside, they tend to be the ones who (a) know what's going on, and (b) want other people to know it too, if only to take the weight of responsibility off their cute little shoulders.

"I don't know, Harold," I said. "Which Corporate Headquarters do you mean?"

It was not an idle question. I really wanted to know. Everybody is always talking about Corporate Headquarters. What is it? Where is it? Who is it?

"Let's give Molloy a call in Bethesda," said Beebe. The issue concerned a fleck in our distribution structure in Biloxi that reported directly to that bucolic town in...what is it? Maryland? Perhaps Beebe was right. That was as good a Corporate Headquarters to start with as any.

"I'm not approving capital expenditures at this point in time," said Molloy. "You should probably go to Corporate Headquarters about that."

"But, Molloy," I said. "Aren't you Corporate Headquarters?"

"Not on an issue like this one," he said, and we hung up.

"Let's go to Fresno on it," said Beebe. Bethesda reports to Fresno. Perhaps that was a more appropriate Corporate Headquarters to approach.

"Did you speak to Molloy about it?" said Pritz, who grants Molloy his bonus from a continent away. We told him we had. "Well," he said after a time, "I can't clear a capital item like that without going to Corporate Headquarters. Last time I tried, they kicked it back to me." We hung up. Fresno was not Corporate Headquarters after all?

"We're gonna have to talk to Borgland in St. Louis," said Beebe, and I could tell he wasn't happy about it. His boss' boss' boss reports to St. Louis. We were getting near the center of the portion of the corporate tree whose branches led down to the same section of trunk that was fed by our root system. Nobody likes to do that, not on a matter of substance anyhow.

"I'll approve it," said Nielander, whose office is in a black tower that peers out over the Mississippi River. "But you'll need a countersignature from Corporate Headquarters." He sounded sad. The limits of authority have tightened around all of us since growth warbled into the low single digits.

"Which Corporate Headquarters?" I asked him, just to hear him say it.

"New York, of course," he replied.

"Why are you guys bothering us on a matter like this?" said Kay, who lives in a spire above one of the great arteries that feeds international capital in downtown Manhattan. "Corporate Headquarters can't deal with every little capital-improvement project that comes down the line." He wasn't really annoyed. I know Kay, and the only thing that really bothers him is when something happens he didn't know about before somebody else thought of it.

"I know, Larry," said Beebe. "But we went from Bethesda to Fresno to St. Louis looking for the proper corporate center on this one, and here's where we ended up. With you."

"Why don't you sign it?" said Kay.

"Us?" The idea made me very nervous. To be the top signature on a financial document is to accept a certain standing that begs scrutiny. Was it possible that in this case we ourselves were to be granted the status of Corporate Headquarters?

"Sure, why not," said Kay. He sounded stressed for a guy at Corporate Headquarters. "I gotta run right now," he said. "I've got a meeting at Corporate Headquarters." He punched his release button and was gone.

I thought about what he said. What Corporate Headquarters could he possibly be talking about? Ah! I thought. Chicago! Where the Chairman lived, the home of the holding company that counted our entire company as one vast subsidiary. Chicago! Broad-shouldered, steam-stoked engine of the continent, or some damn thing like that! Chicago!...where Arnold was. Arnold, who lived above the sky in a giant finger of steel and light. It was all pretty simple, then. Your Arnold or mine, Corporate Headquarters is where Arnold is.

We called Biloxi and told Kerrigan, who runs that part of the machine, that we had approved his capital request.

"You guys?" he said, not impolitely. "What do you guys have to do with it? I thought it had to be approved by Corporate Headquarters in Montgomery."

"That's all right," said Beebe. "This part of Corporate Headquarters has a dotted-line supervisory role with the portion of Corporate Headquarters that you deal with."

"Well, that's good," said Kerrigan. "Because I spent the money six weeks ago."

We said goodbye and went out to get a sandwich. That's still the kind of capital acquisition you can do around here without approval from anybody.

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.