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Saturday, March 07, 2009

The bean counters among us

By Dick Hirsch

When I first joined the company and met Sweeney, I was impressed. He had an office with a view and signed his letters as “Controller.” Sweeney seemed to be an agreeable guy in most situations, especially on our Tuesday bowling nights or whenever we happened to meet at the neighborhood hardware store on weekends.

Soon after his situation changed. He wasn’t exactly promoted, because his role was essentially the same but his title had evolved and he became “Treasurer.“ I never knew whether the new designation brought him a salary increase, but he seemed happy in his role. He was a busy man, obviously dedicated to his work, and in relatively quick succession he rose through the corporate ranks, first being elevated to “Chief Financial Officer” and eventually becoming “Senior Vice President of Finance & Administration.”

I was young and innocent, unfamiliar with the world of business. I soon began to hear whispers about Sweeney, references that were degrading and derogatory. The allegation was that he was a bean counter. I had never heard the term, but its meaning was obvious. You’re surely aware of the designation, referring to men and women whose role in a business is to handle the money, monitor the accounts, and keep a very watchful eye on those other executives who in one way or another were involved in sales and marketing or manufacturing. As I observed Sweeney over those first months I was on the job, I realized he was the prototypical bean counter. Over several years I came to realize that although we both had the same goal---to make the company profitable---we had opposing strategies.

He was anxious to cut costs. Those in sales and manufacturing wanted to expand, to develop new product lines, seek new contracts, and buy new equipment that would enable us to be more productive. We might be willing to negotiate a lower price in order to obtain a sizable order or develop a new customer; Sweeney believed such an approach reflected weakness and poor salesmanship.

If you have been around long enough, you have encountered individuals like Sweeney. They are firm in their belief that they know how best to navigate the road to success.

They are bean counters. They are not born that way, but, somewhere along the way as they mature, they develop a fascination with numbers and a preference for black ink over red ink. Those on the other side have the same ink preference, but an approach that emphasizes words like selling, volume, customer service and quality manufacturing. That difference of philosophy often creates conflict between bean counters and their colleagues.

Over the years I’ve learned that in some venues the term bean counter is not considered negative; rather it can be an accolade directed toward a person who is determined to demonstrate the importance of close attention to spending. They claim any successful business needs to try to reduce costs no matter how low they may appear.

Incidentally, the description of bean counter is often used interchangeably with the term number cruncher, but business semanticists insist the words are not synonymous. Number crunching is more of an assignment than a philosophy. Number crunchers often work under the direction of bean counters, with the bean counters establishing policy and the number crunchers carrying out that policy.

As you can tell, I’ve never been a bean counter, and in my career have often found myself in conflict with them. But, in fairness to all, I felt I should try a little bean counting of my own as part of the research for this story.

Any serious research effort requires a historical review designed to reveal any relevant aspects of the researcher’s background that might result in bias. Thus, I admit I grew up believing there were only three types of beans: green, yellow and the kind Heinz baked and packed in cans. Maturity broadened my vision, and the other day I started my first serious bean counting, beginning at the top of a formidable list with three beans I never heard of: azuki, anasazi and appaloosa. It was a daunting task as I counted and counted, and quit at 49 bean varieties, after going just halfway through the alphabet, ending my counting with mung. I never even got to navy, pinto or soy. It proved, if there was ever a doubt, that I don’t have the personality of a bean counter.



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