The Espirito Santo building, a thirty-six story glass and steel tower at 666 Brickell Avenue in Miami’s financial district, was built by the newest Fortune 500 company, the Bernebau Company. The top third was utilized as administration offices by the metastasizing organization. The 36th floor served as home for founder and CEO, Cyrus St. Loreto.
The core narrative of most successful business’s culture is invariably the story of its founder. And, in the myths and legends that take root and grow in the developing social matrix, are found the most telling of insights into the character of the people running the business. These corporate cautionary tales also serve as counter balance to resentment, an inevitable decay in morale, whenever one individual advances too quickly. This is very much the Wharton School of Business’s version of Robert Johnson and the crossroads. The original was the story of a dirt-poor guitar player whose ambition brought him to a midnight meeting with the Devil at a Mississippi Delta crossroads. The bargain: his soul in exchange for becoming the greatest of all bluesmen. Whether the arts or business, some things never change.
In high-rise cafeterias and commuter train cars, executives and secretaries amused themselves exchanging versions of the story of the beginnings of the Bernebau Company. Like the pages of illuminated manuscripts in Medieval times, the value lay in the exchange of information, real or imagined, rather than in their factual content. Among the tales:
Cyrus is never seen in public, as his face is hideously scarred. (According to the story), the plane he was piloting, crashed off an un-charted Caribbean island. The CEO of the Bernebau Company has never set foot on bare earth. He suffers from a phobia of germs so powerful that he avoids all surfaces not artificial. One of the first tales of the Bernebau Company a new employee learns is that the company’s founder, Cyrus St. Loreto has never been seen in direct sunlight. (Everyone enjoys that one and it’s the one they would most like to believe is true.)
And so on, each story more fantastic than the last. As with most myths and legends, there is, at heart, something of truth, insinuated like pre-cancerous cells, in the words.
The grand opening of the Espirito Santo tower provided fertile ground for old and new myths to take root and flourish.
To the surprise of the business community, the announcement of a dedication ceremony for the new building appeared to signal a significant change in the corporate demeanor of the aggressively expanding Bernebau Company. It’s founder and CEO, Cyrus St. Loreto, was long known to be a reclusive, albeit, charismatic leader. The list of dignitaries invited to the ribbon cutting was quite ecumenical. Among the guest list were both the Mayor and the Archbishop of Miami, a major Hollywood celebrity, the owner of two professional sports franchises, long rumored to have close ties to the underworld and one Senator. The press, which would not have stayed away for any price, were going all out in their coverage. They hoped for something new and exciting from the person who, single-handedly, built the seventh largest development company in the United States. However, as we all learned before we knew we were being taught, a tiger does not change his stripes.
When the date and time of the dedication ceremony was announced, eye brows were discreetly raised. The ceremony, December 21, 2004, would begin at 5:30 pm. It was testament to the respect the Bernebau Company had earned, (or extorted,) from the business community, that the unusual time of day generated little speculation and less ridicule. This quiet acceptance was not complete. It was telling that it was noted, discreetly, that given the date, it was actually evening when the festivities were to begin. There were some members of the business press, the younger reporters, could not restrain themselves when a bronze plaque, set a little too high on the lobby wall to be easily read, was unveiled. The positioning on the wall betrayed a somewhat archaic viewpoint. Being the 21st Century, common, everyday technology neutralized what might have been an attempt to make the inscription not overly readable. Of course, the camera in a cell phone solved the problem of reading lettering so high on the wall. Translation of the words required two clicks on the browser. The words:
“Fura ceea ce se poate, cumpara ceea ce trebuie atunci repossess rămâne.”
It took only minutes for the translation of the obscure Romanian dialect. It quickly reproduced as text messages on any number of phones in the crowd in the lobby: ‘Steal what you can, buy what you must, repossess the rest.’
What the Bernebau Company did was as fundamental an endeavor as fishing the seas or cultivating crops. One might argue that Cyrus St. Loreto became the seventh largest developer (commercial and residential), and a darling of Wall Street, for his talent for the third oldest profession.
The Bernebau Company acquired property and re-sold it at a profit.
“Cyrus, Mr. Lassiter from the Financial Times is here for his 6:00 interview.”
Genevieve Novak was loved by all the new employees of the Bernebau Company and respected by the old. She was the third most powerful person in a company that, including subsidiaries and affiliated organizations, employed over 3,000. Common among entrepreneurial businesses, the most powerful people in the organization are those with the greatest tenure. Genevieve Novak also conformed to the profile of an old-school start-up business in her lack of formal education or training. The core employees, in this non-traditional business model are always recruited without the benefit of an outside agency. Of course, none of the twelve apostles were recommended by a head hunter.
Occasionally, a reporter would see Genevieve as the angle to a story, the profile of the founder, Cyrus St. Loreto, being done to death. They would request an interview with the founder, but spend all their time talking to his administrative assistant. The result was the offer of a press release and validation of their parking. On the very rare occasion that a particularly talented man or woman succeeded in asking too many questions about Genevieve Novak, they would be offered an interview with the man, himself. None of their business profiles ever saw the printed page. To say Bernebau was a company where information was kept close to the vest, would be an understatement.
“Mr. Lassiter? You may go in.” The reporter, engrossed in whatever filled the screen of his phone for the 20 minutes he’d been sitting, stood and made a show of stretching. He walked towards the administrative assistant’s desk with a studied casualness, his friendly smile thrown ahead, like chum onto the surface of otherwise quiet waters. As he stood before her desk, Genevieve said, “May I have your phone? We have a strict policy against cell phones. Mr. St. Loreto is a bit of a photophobe. I’ll have it right here on my desk for when you’re done with your interview.”
“What? I need it to take notes. Surely an exception can be made for me.” His smile had the practiced ease of an experienced pickpocket. Genevieve smiled in return, an expression that would leave a trusting, (or overly confident), person believing that, were it up to her, they would have been allowed to keep their phone.
“I’m so sorry. Mr. St. Loreto is quite adamant on this matter.” She saw the reporter’s smile fall, while simultaneously, the upper edge of his lip began to raise, in curl. The woman continued in a voice that held a suggestion of regret, “Given that Mr. St. Loreto grants so very few interviews, I make it a point to personally write the requirements and expectations letter that you received.”
Andy Lassiter had two Pulitzers and a moderately successful first novel. His attention varied between the short-term promise in the blonde woman, and the longer term potential behind the double office doors. Putting one hand on the desk, he leaned in, prepared to overcome one more obstacle in the endless procession of people who stood before him and his work. His voice dropped half an octave and a third in volume, (the better to get them to lean in to hear), as he turned to his persuasive voice. Skilled in a field in which persuasion was more valuable than knowledge, the tone of his voice conveyed a confident assurance that it was only a matter of understanding his needs that stood between the two. “I get that you have your job to do, I respect that. I really do!” His smile became more personal. “If you want, you can tell your boss that you didn’t think I had a phone with me. I’ll even vouch for you.”
Genevieve smiled back at the increasingly animated man. With a twinge of guilt, sufficient to make its existence felt, insufficient to alter her intention towards the reporter, she leaned towards him and widened her eyes and raised her eyebrows with a hint of desperate hope. “Gee, Mr Lassiter. I don’t know.” As he began to straighten up in his posture, assured of his dominant position in the exchange, Genevieve reached with her right hand into the top drawer of her desk, found a steno pad and offered it to him. “Do you have a pen? I have an extra here somewhere, if you need to borrow one.”
Watching frustration bloom into anger, Genevieve felt her guilt evaporate. The true character of the man, that of a bully and likely abuser, evident in the tensing of formerly relaxed muscles and the increased furrow between his eyebrows. She stood up.
“Or I can have your car brought around. If you’d prefer.” Her smile turned to sweet and merciful. She felt a momentary desire to prevent this reporter from going in for the interview. She knew that her boss was a man of infinite patience and unlimited appetite, and, for reasons left unspoken, Genevieve made it a part of her job to arrange for disappointment to visit her boss on occasions. She found that it was helpful in maintaining a certain equilibrium and served to keep his ravening ambition in check. The key was the interval and frequency. Too much frustration or too little, both were bad for the Company and, not incidentally, not such a good thing for her. Whenever she manipulated an event that frustrated the owner of the company, he always discovered who was responsible.
She almost wished that the reporter from the vaunted Financial Times would get angry, he seemed the type of man for whom anger must always be justified in the actions of others. To know that it was simply pride was not acceptable, far better it be an obviously bitchy secretary would allow his credibility at the newspapers to remain intact. Better yet, a bitchy dyke of a receptionist.
Genevieve saw the calculus of ambition and pride, work out the equation in the back of his eyes as he took the steno pad and smiled. Less of, ‘have I got a treat for you’ and more of a ‘will I get back at you for this’.
The buzz of the intercom interrupted her speculation as to which would be more pleasant, and turned and looked at the double doors and said,
“Step right through there, Mr. Lassiter. Mr. St. Loreto will be waiting for you.”
The police detective seemed to take note of everything in the room, even as Roanne Avila closed the front door behind him. Thin, but not tall, he projected an energy that seemed to cling to the trail of his words as he spoke. Roanne found herself thinking, ‘Like a Jack Russell in a sports coat and an ugly tie’. A giggle broke free and jumped to it’s death on the living room rug. The sound shocked her more than it offended the policeman.
“May I get you something to drink, Detective…” Roanne felt her face redden, as she groped for the name she’d been given less than a minute before. The policeman didn’t seem to notice and continued his survey of the room and it’s occupants, which consisted of herself and Sister Catherine, who sat quietly on the sofa. Her daughter Patrice was in her bedroom and Edwin, miracle of miracles, was still asleep in his room.
“Sorry, sister, didn’t see you there. The habit kinda blends in with the dark couch and all. Try an smile from time to time, so I’ll know that you’re awake.” Detective Glen Trahmani grinned his laughter, to assure the nun that he was not being too disrespectful.
Sister Catherine sat quietly and watched, as the detective moved about the room. “I have the utmost respect for those in your profession. I promise not to interrupt your questioning.” Her silver wire-rimmed glasses threw shards of light as she continued, with a smile that barely moved her lips, but pushed one eyebrow quite high, “Perhaps you’d like to know my whereabouts at the time of Mr. Avila’s death?”
Naturally competitive, excessively confident, Glen Trahmani possessed a highly developed talent for picking his battles, held up both hands and said, “Ya got me, sister! ‘Sapientiae Timor Domini Initial.'”
Seeing the distress in the face of Roanne Avila, Sister Catherine said, “Your detective here is showing off for me, and just said, in passable Latin, ‘The fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom’.
The homicide detective turned to the young woman, “I have just one question; can you think of anyone who would want to harm you or your husband?”
Roanne Avila seemed startled by the question.
The man nodded and stepped towards the small mantle that framed a soot-browed fireplace, the brass-link screen half-open, a kitchen match, burnt down to a pencil point lay on the ashes. Picking up the sheaf of papers that was weighted down under a pink and pearlescent conch shell, Glen Trahmani stared at the top page, his eyebrow an unsubtle semaphore, “So, Roanne, it looks like the bank is foreclosing on your house?”
The note of friendly casualness in the detective’s voice fit seamlessly with his use of her first name, Sister Catherine was off the couch and had a protective arm around her before she could respond to the question. Walking her back to the sofa and getting her to sit, the nun turned towards the detective with a smile, “I can see how much you want to solve this mystery and help Mrs. Avila, Mr. Trahmani, but clearly she’s been through a great deal. Perhaps you could come back and we can continue with your questions tomorrow?”
The police detective, four inches taller than the nun, stared down at her. She smiled back up at him, clearly intent on remaining as she was, for as long as necessary. The tension in the room grew until Roanne got up from the couch, barely-audible sounds of a waking child coming from the hallway.
“Sure, Sister, thats a great idea. Why don’t we do that.” Glen Trahmani’s smile shrank away from his eyes, which took on a more focused stare. He held out a business card, Sister Catherine, her own hand extended, waited until he placed it in her palm.
Once outside on the porch, the detective turned and said, “Before our next meeting, you might want to ask Mrs. Avila about the life insurance policy that was taken on out her husband a month ago.”