25 Stories About Work – Industrial Decay

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

Somewhere in a Northwest Indiana formerly industrial city, the ’90s…

We had a utility client in Northwest Indiana. The city used to be a large industrial town but had been hit hard by various plant closings and also the rout of the US steel industry in the ’70s and the ’80s. A friend of mine joked that you wouldn’t be surprised to see a dinosaur walking around the abandoned ruins of the nearby towns and city. For some reason I thought that was really funny after working there for a while.

At our client they had multiple buildings that were connected by walk ways that were sometimes rounded or with all around glass. We called them the “habitrail” just like the hamster homes you could buy for your pets.

The work onsite at the client was grim. I was given the least exciting areas to audit, the balance sheet and plant accounting. The balance sheet had assets that were not documented that were stagnant for years. At that point in auditing all you did was to re-word the notes from the prior year accounts and then put them back in this year’s file. After just a few hours as a novice auditor I pointed out that the notes didn’t make sense and started to do a bunch of new analytics when they told me to stop and just gave me something else to do. This is where you get the joke

Why did the accountant cross the road? Because they did it last year.

If you tell that joke to an accountant I am telling you they will laugh their heads off. It isn’t really funny to anyone else but it sums up the drudgery of what auditing used to be.

One day the partner came out. Now we were all packed in a grimy little room. These were also the days when you could smoke like a chimney in the office and we all wore wool suits so I might as well have smoked 3 packs a day too. I stunk. It was after noon and I was hungry and I broke the silence by asking if we were going out to lunch. The whole room swiveled their heads at me and I got a tongue lashing later from the manager. I wasn’t supposed to talk or ask any questions while the partner was on site. Live and learn.

Driving to Indiana from downtown Chicago was a long effort. The air conditioning in my car wasn’t great so I’d usually just drive in a T shirt and change when I got near the facility. One time I was pumping gas in a gas station nearby when the auto shut off didn’t work and I got gasoline all over my suit. That did not make for a pleasant afternoon of work.

Another time when I was pumping gas a deranged, toothless local came up to me with his arms waving.

Don’t sign the deed! he screamed. Don’t sign the deed!

I didn’t.

Cross posted at LITGM

13 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Industrial Decay”

  1. Semi-sorta OT, but why do corporations annually re-hire the same financial/accounting audit firm year after year?
    Seems to me they know where the skeletons are buried, and will dutifully pile more manure on top to keep them hidden. A new, inexperienced or non-familiar audit team would/might uncover some of the buried problems.
    Is that a fiduciary duty of the boardroom? Personally, I think so.
    Any thoughts?
    Keep the stories coming, they bring back many memories of ‘work’.

  2. I got the joke, and remember hearing of the absurd rule about not speaking when the partner was in town. Wearing suits, too. It’s crazy how absurd the regulation way of doing business was, and how disconnected from reality. Auditors could not audit or display independent thinking, while the auditing profession proclaimed the importance of independent evaluation and the attest function that was at the heart of what they had to sell.

    Nothing like wearing stuffy wool suits to be certain to never have any useful interaction with the people actually doing the work, and enforcing a laughable status hierarchy resulting in resentment and even more disfunction. Not to mention the many practical shortcomings in bad weather and many other environments.

    These dinosaurs are still hanging on to some extent, but inexorable arithmetic is grinding up and spitting out most of the holdovers, as old ventures fail to adapt and improve, and the world goes on without them. It’s much better being part of a lean, adaptive, privately held company where only results matter, not following the rules of order, such as they were.

  3. I remember when the auditors had to wear hats when visiting clients.

    AICPA motto: Tick and tie and don’t ask why.

  4. “I wasn’t supposed to talk or ask any questions while the partner was on site.”


    One of my pet theories of bureaucracy is that a big part of the psychic reward for many people is the ability to engage in cruelty and degradation of their subordinates.

    Large law firms have their share of that sort of thing.

    “Don’t sign the deed!”

    You didn’t, but I bet he did. And that’s why he went nuts.

  5. As far as auditor rotation, there are some practical cost reasons why they don’t rotate – the first year there are extra costs with setup and learning about the company. But these aren’t very significant.

    In reality, it takes a while to build a relationship w/the external auditor and to figure out how they apply accounting policies where there is “wiggle room” and thus when you get a new firm to some extent you “start over”.

    Accountants don’t like change – either on the part of the accounting firm doing the auditing, or on the part of the firm hiring the auditor.

  6. Accountants don’t like change

    It’s almost like there are individual differences and different types of people are attracted to different types of work. Crazy talk, I know.

  7. One of the biggest shocks I go years ago was crossing from Chicago to Gary Indiana.

    I have dubbed Gary one of the armpits of the country.

  8. “not speaking when the partner was in town”: how could any grown male bear to put up with such rubbish?

  9. Carl, dear brother, I was at Coopers in the 80’s and had manufacturing clients in the Midwest. You forgot about the part where the auditors were stationed in the conference room above the 2 ton press brake, where we could watch the pencils jump off the table. Good times.

  10. A did a couple of years in the 80’s in a Big “8” firm.

    One client had an inventory listing that had to be re-totaled to verify the balance. 120+ pages with 60 or so line items per page and NO page sub-totals. Try adding 7,000 individual numbers together sometime with no real way to verify without doing it twice! Needless to say it didn’t balance, but the Audit Manager said that it was close enough, within our level of materiality amount, so don’t worry about it!

    I contend that auditing by the big firms for public consumption is one of the last great “scams”. The people doing the actual work don’t understand what they are doing or why. The Senior Auditors who oversee the day to day work of the audit will simply tell you to just follow last year’s work-papers and don’t worry about it. You see they really didn’t know the answer to the what and why questions either, but surely didn’t want a lowly Staff Auditor figuring that out.

  11. I will have at least one inventory story coming up, and a story about counting numbers pointlessly too.

    Things have changed a lot and auditors are much more aggressive but back in the day it was the exception not the rule.

  12. “I wasn’t supposed to talk or ask any questions while the partner was on site”

    Cool. At times I wish I had a job like that. Since I can’t talk and can’t ask questions, I get to do whatever I want. I don’t have to ask permission. I don’t have to say what I’m doing. And if I get stuck, I can take a long lunch break to think it over. And never explain.

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