Public Accounting and Travels Around the States
My experience with being from the Midwest is similar to Dan’s. I started out as an accountant for one of the “Big Six” accounting firms (it started as the “Big Eight” and has been whittled down to the “Big Four”, if you’re counting), and they are 1) KPMG 2) Ernst & Young 3) PriceWaterhouseCoopers 4) Deloitte and Touche.
Back then over 1 ½ decades ago when you started as an auditor you went to auditor “boot camp” where they taught you how to become an auditor. Sure, in school, you learned the “concepts” behind accounting, but each firm had a very specific style of documentation that they used on all their workpapers (in the days before computers). You needed to put certain tickmarks next to the numbers in a particular fashion or else you’d be written-up. During the 2 week course I actually had dreams about tickmarks, no kidding.
The interesting part wasn’t the tick marks, it was the fact that this firm hired staff from all around the country. You’d be thrown into the classroom with instructors and staff your age and pretty much instantly people sorted out by geography.
The sorting went like this 1) California 2) East Coast (Boston and New York) 3) The South 4) The Midwest. The California people were too cool for the rest of us, they had a haughty air about them and seemed to wear something distinctive or carry themselves in a manner that showed that they knew something you didn’t. The East Coast people were quick witted, aggressive, and obnoxious. The Southern people were polite and well mannered and the women had everyone swooning. But then, you had the Midwest. The Midwest consisted of mostly people from Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee / Madison, Iowa, and some of the more far-flung outposts like Omaha and Cleveland. The Midwestern people were a cross between the bunch, being pretty firm in their confidence, hard drinking, but a lot friendlier than the East and Left coasts.
During the course of my travels I worked in pretty much all of the US States. I found it very pleasant to work in places like North Dakota (Bismark), Wisconsin (Eau Claire) and Minneapolis. Why was that? Because generally people in these towns are well educated, intelligent, easy to get along with, family orientated, and they like to drink a lot.
There was a major engagement in California when I was in public accounting. This client, who was infamous, was a major businessman embroiled in a big scandal. He had legions of lawyers and in those days before computers for a big lawsuit you needed armies of educated, trustworthy and bored staffers to copy documents and the like. This job was essentially limitless in budget so the firm put everyone who had a pulse on the plane to California.
Back then for staff people they paid by the hour for overtime. Thus, if you were young and already out of town, and the opportunity presented itself, you could earn a decent pile of extra money by working extra hours. This opportunity provided a core test for “Midwesternness”. The California people started clearing out at about 5-6 pm (surfs up?). The East Coast and Southern people dropped somewhere between 8-10pm. But more often than not a lot of the Midwesterners stayed until the wee hours of the morning and then got up early again and started the clock over again.
It was usual for us to leave Sunday night for the job site, start work Monday morning at 7am, have a dinner, and then come back to work until after 10pm. EVERY NIGHT. During “busy season” we worked all the weekends, and I didn’t come home for six weeks straight.
On the one hand, we were stupid. I can’t say that it was necessarily smart to work those hours. We didn’t do anything but work, eat, sleep and occasionally drink. But it was expected of everyone, and back then we just put our heads down and did it.
Although this is a bit out of chronological order I went to school in the Midwest. During one summer I took summer school at the University of Colorado in Boulder. What a hippy town! I didn’t realize that the university was full of extremely wealthy “trust fund” students who stayed for an extended period (5-8 years) out at UC, hiking, skiing, going on spring break, and generally living a good life.
My nickname was “Midwest”. Why? Because I had classes at 7:30 in the morning and went to every class, even though I was out until the bars closed the night before. The class was stupendously boring, as well. On the contrary, the other people I lived with could barely drag themselves into class for their midterm or final exams. I remember knowing that my roommate’s final had moved (because I went to the classroom building) but I knew he’d never know (unless I told him) because he wasn’t going down there for weeks on end. I briefly toyed with not telling him just to see the look of terror on his face but figured that wasn’t very sporting. Still, he never would have known unless I told him. He had been thoroughly “Boulderized”.
For years I worked as a consultant. The general rule of thumb in consulting is that you don’t know everything when you bid out a job. The job might be far more complicated than you originally thought, necessitating a (painful) discussion with the client about expanding the budget or cutting back on scope (doing less work).
In my dealings in the Midwest, while a painful process, I found that if you give a little, the other party will generally be fair back with you. One time a client double paid us to the tune of over $1M. We took this check right back to the CFO and gave it back to him. They probably wouldn’t have caught it for years, if ever. The next month, the client did it again and we returned the money again. One thing is for certain, when we met that client for future negotiations they assumed that we were being fair with them and didn’t give us too much trouble in changing the scope to reflect the real work requirements.
On the other hand, negotiations as well as day-to-day working relationships require a totally different mindset on the East Coast. You need to brutally fight for every nickel under the assumption that your opposite is trying to screw you and will take advantage of you the second your back is turned. If you take the “let’s be fair” approach that works so well in the Midwest on the East Coast, you are meat. They will roll over you and stick it to you and put it in your face.
One time the head of our office came to my big East Coast job and he was literally speechless during the status meeting. My opposite calmly explained to everyone that me and my team were clueless buffoons and a waste of money (there were multiple contractors on the job fighting for budget from different firms). I barely let him get a word out edgewise before I let loose a stream of profanity about his firm and their ineptitude, and of course I brought facts and detail to my tirade so he was sent on his heels (that time). This went on for an hour, and basically didn’t accomplish much of anything. We eventually got a couple of the other firms thrown out but in the end locally connected people got us thrown out, too. While never happy to see a job fail from a professional angle, I was happy from a personal angle not to have to deal with those people anymore (the project subsequently failed and they pulled the plug).
The real question is, which method is better? Is it better to assume that your opposite is trying to screw you, and to go after him / her from the outset? If they don’t fight back then you just roll over them and take whatever you want, or stick them with the lousiest terms they’ll accept.
But is this really better? To negotiate / survive in this atmosphere, I need to bump up my prices up front, because I know that you are going to chop them down. I need to prepare for every meeting like it is a bloody cage match since that is what it is going to be. But all of this time and mental energy really isn’t going towards a better outcome, and it is just making everyone (who is not a psychopath) miserable. Teamwork is down the drain, and everyone just wants to get it over with.
Drinking and the Weather:
For better or worse, Midwesterners drink. A lot. Go to any town in Wisconsin… there might be three businesses, but there are 2 bars. Go to Wrigley Field for a day baseball game. Go to a Bears game. Show up for St. Patrick’s day. Then see for yourself. Not necessarily something to be proud of, but the work hard / drink hard ethos is a key part of the character, in my experience.
The weather is also pretty lousy. California has beautiful weather, and Arizona has the changing of the seasons. It gets a LOT colder in Chicago / Minneapolis / Madison than it ever does in New York City or Boston (because of the ocean). To some extent we are kind of crazy to stay in this weather, but we are here, and since we are stubborn and our family / jobs / sports teams are here, too, it is here we will stay.
Who is a Midwesterner?
Generally people in the Midwest are FROM the Midwest. People from California tend to go back to California. I can’t say that I blame them, see the weather up above. People from New York City also can’t wait to get back to NYC. There is a lot going on in NYC, and for people from there Chicago just seems like a big Cow Town. People from the South do come up, but the weather takes a toll, and the pace is still faster than from whence they came, so generally they filter back.
So there you have it, my 2 cents. Midwesterners:
- work hard
- drink hard
- live in lousy weather
- generally try to behave fairly and assume you will do the same