Adventures on Everest
June 1 2000 by Joe Queenan
Not of long ago, the Wall Street Journal published a story about unusual tasks faced by CEOs in America’s strange new economy. Seemingly, David Friedensohn, CEO of online movie company BigStar Entertainment, one day received a worrying e-mail from a vacationing employee named Kipum Kim. The employee, an information systems manager, had taken six weeks off to climb Mt. Everest, not on a lark or in an effort to prove what a stud he was, but in order to recover the body of a friend who had died on an earlier climb. And now Kim himself was trapped 18,000 feet above sea level.
The article went on to describe how Friedensohn whipped into action, contacting a group of volunteer climbers in Katmandu, who rescued Kim and his companions. Back at work in New York, Kim has had to take a bit of good-natured ribbing from his employer, who warned him that his once-in-a-lifetime “Get Off Everest Free” pass has now expired. But in the end, Friedensohn said he admires such pluck in his employees. “The people you want working for you are people who are like mountain climbers, who say, ‘I want to climb Everest.”
Assuming that employees with hobbies like Mr. Kim’s are becoming more prevalent, and that CEOs with attitudes like Mr. Friedensohn are also becoming more common, it is not hard to imagine the following stories appearing in our newspapers in the near future:
New Duties for CEO: Rescue from Turkish Prison. Peter Saroyan was sitting in his office at Pacific Mirage, an online hair products auction house, when he got an unusual e-mail. “We’re trapped in a Turkish prison and the guards are threatening to shoot us at sun-up,” read the message from Jake Cantrell, an information systems manager who had taken six weeks off for an “extreme vacation” in a Turkish prison. Seemingly, the adventure travel group that had arranged the vacation had gone belly-up, and now Cantrell and his group were suspected of being drug smugglers. “If we don’t get help by dawn tomorrow, you’ll have to get somebody else to install the encryption software.”
Saroyan, who has relatives in Turkey, immediately swung into action, arranging bribes to get his employee out of jail. Since returning to work, Cantrell has taken a bit of good-natured ribbing from his employer. “Jake told me that because he’d had the soles of his feet beaten to a pulp while inside prison, he was having trouble getting around,” explains Saroyan. “I just told him: You get into work on time each morning or I’m shipping you right back to that hellhole, you little knucklehead. Your one-time-only ‘Get Out of Turkish Prison Free’ pass has expired.” But Saroyan is not really upset that his IS manager opted for such a dangerous vacation. “We encourage our employees to take vacations in Turkish prisons,” says Saroyan. “At least that way we know where they are.”
Big Surprise for CEO: Rescue From French Foreign Legion. Kate Pearson was sitting in her office at RubenesqueOxygen, a Web site for affluent, full-figured women, when she got the strangest e-mail she had ever received. “We joined the French Foreign Legion for the weekend and now they’re telling us we signed up for life,” read the e-mail from Bernard Simmons, Web site designer. “If you don’t get us out of here before they ship us to Senegal, we’ll never have that presentation ready by Friday.”
A francophile and frequent visitor to Paris, Pearson immediately swung into action, contacting the American embassy and arranging for the release of her employee. Though Simmons lost three fingers and an ear in a raucous poker game with a couple of Croat gunrunners who had joined the Legion to escape prosecution at home, he was happy to be back. Pearson was not bothered by his escapade. “A young firm like ours encourages employees to join the French Foreign Legion for the weekend-though, obviously, if he’d lost both eyes in the card game, there wouldn’t be much room for him here.”
Unexpected Chore for CEO: Rescue from Cosa Nostra. Bob Haberstram, CEO of Bob’s Burgers, an Oakland, CA, restaurant chain, was sitting in his office when he got the strangest e-mail ever. “I paid the Alto family half the juice and two-thirds of the vig, but now they want the interest,” read the message from Sam Chapell, the company’s accountant, who had taken six weeks off to fulfill a lifelong dream of joining the Mafia. “I thought the vig was the interest,” Chapell wrote, “so now I don’t know what to do. If I don’t come up with 30 large by the end of the day, the Altos are saying that tonight I sleep with the fishes.”
Haberstram, who admits he never really liked Chapell anyway, fired off an e-mail saying the accountant’s employment was terminated, and he would have to sort out his own problems with the mob. “This is a traditional sort of business. We do not encourage our employees to join the mob or climb up Mount Everest during their vacations,” he said. “Call me old-fashioned, but that’s just the way I am.”
Chapell’s body is believed to be buried under 75 tons of industrial waste in Fresno. Several of his co-workers plan to spend their summer vacations excavating his corpse. Bob Halberstam is not among them.
Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.