Numbers Only

The evening crowd had started to flock into the Mulberry Arms pub in Waterloo and though it was just half past five, the place was fairly packed.  Andrei Kowalski should be arriving any minute now, I muttered to myself, as I grabbed a quiet table by the far left corner of the room.  This should be a good place to talk.  I wondered what Andrei wanted to discuss with me.  I had received an urgent call from him asking me to meet with him this evening.  It was a complete surprise, particularly given the nebulous ending of our last encounter.

I had first met Andrei nearly four years ago at an investor conference in London when I was starting my career as a journalist at Numbers Only, a financial publishing house.  He was, at that time, the Business Development Head for Harvey Enterprises, a multi-billion dollar company with a young, controversial CEO by the name of Peter Harvey at its helm.  But it was at our second meeting – yet another investor conference-that I got to know Andrei a bit better.  At the networking session over drinks, he recalled our previous meeting and I took the opportunity to gently probe him on the IPO plans for Harvey Projects.  He spoke about the IPO in very vague terms and seemed more keen on moaning and whingeing about the general work conditions at Harvey Enterprises and how Peter was so intent on riding his brain without giving due credit.  It turned out that Andrei was originally from Warsaw, who had moved to the UK after marrying an English lady.  But even after having lived in the UK for several years, he still considered himself an outsider, remarking that it was never easy for Eastern Europeans.  The conversation took another twist when he asked me if I’d like to join him for a private dinner after the conference.  I politely responded with “I can’t”. “It is not often that I have the undivided attention of a smart beautiful lady such as yourself”, he had replied with a benign smile, “but I understand.  No problem, I take rejection well.”

Since that incident, I had no further contact with him till last evening when he requested for an urgent meeting.  I would have turned him down but the scoop junkie in me told me that a revelation about Harvey Enterprises was on offer.  Hence I agreed to meet him.  Little did I realize then that the meeting would recalibrate my career.

“Thanks, Lisa for making time to meet with me at short notice”, he said as we shook hands warmly.

“Not a problem.  Though I was surprised to receive your call,” I replied.

“Ah, yes.  That scoundrel Peter Harvey is at it again!”, Andrei said raising his voice and sounding impatient.

“You need a drink.  Let me just get us a couple of beers and then we can talk”, I answered calmly.

I returned with a couple of pints.  Andrei took a long sip and massaged his forehead.  He seemed tired, a bit balder and thinner than the last time I had seen him.  He must be pushing 50 now, I thought.  I also noticed that the wedding ring on his hand had disappeared.  He wiped his thin lips dry before launching into the conversation.

“You see Lisa, Harvey Enterprises owns a company called Harvey Projects, which invests in assets globally.  Two years ago, the parent company decided to float 25 % of Projects on the London Stock Exchange.  The share price at the time of the listing was three pounds sixty pence”, he said.

“Ah, yes.  I remember this well.  In fact I had also covered this story at that time.  The listing had been received well by the market and Peter Harvey had specifically recruited this chap Mark Beeson as the managing Director for the new company”, I added, sipping my beer.

“Oh Mark’s a great guy.  I worked with him briefly.  Jovial, efficient and straight.  No wonder trouble started brewing between him and Harvey shortly after his joining”, Andrei said.

“Yeah, I heard that he didn’t last too long there.  I believe it was last year that he finally handed in his papers”, I responded.

“That’s correct.  Then Peter brought in Thomas Higgins.  A bit of a wheeler dealer, if you ask me.  But he’s exactly what Peter would like, a total yes-man”, Andrei said, taking another sip of his beer.  He was draining his glass faster than I.

“So what happened then?”, I inquired.

“Well, Higgins’ arrival at the firm coincided with the global economic crisis. Over the course of the last few months, the share price of the company dwindled down to the current price of 50 p.”

“That’s a pretty steep fall!”, I exclaimed.

Andrei nodded in agreement.

“But trust that scheming, conniving bastard Peter to turn a disadvantage in his favor.  Last evening he called a meeting with the business heads to discuss his plan to take Harvey Projects private again by offering the minority shareholders a share price of 60p.”

I let this piece of information sink in.

“But that would be cheating the minority shareholders out of any future upside in the valuations”.

“Exactly”, Andrei said, leaning forward towards me.  “You’ve hit the nail on the head.  This is completely unethical and I want you to expose Peter”.

I sat back for a moment and stared at my near empty beer glass.  As a journalist, it was indeed my role to highlight malpractices in corporates and participate in efforts to improve governance in companies to protect the interests of the shareholders, particularly the minority ones.

“Andrei, I’ll write a piece on this.  But why are you doing this?  Are you too a shareholder in Harvey Projects?”

“Nope, I don’t hold any shares in Harvey Projects”, Andrei replied.  Then draining his glass completely, he returned it to the table with a loud thud.  “I simply despise that racist prick Peter”.

Later that evening, I had a detailed discussion with Alex Turner, the editor at Numbers Only.  He agreed to run the piece on the Peter’s plans for taking Harvey Projects private.  I stayed up all night, writing and burnishing the article and had it published first thing in the morning.  The reaction to the story was swift and sharp.  My piece got picked up by other finance papers and quickly snowballed into an unpleasant controversy for Peter Harvey to explain.  The minority shareholders organized themselves in a short space of time and lodged complaints with the regulatory bodies.  Legally they would not be able to stop Harvey from buying their share but they wanted to create a great deal of din to make Harvey uncomfortable about his actions and possibly deter him from depriving them of their rightful share.  Some of the media attacks on Peter Harvey were rather severe and personal in nature.  He ended up being portrayed as a rogue entrepreneur, who had managed to scrounge himself an empire.  Juliana Hill from the Financial Estate went a step further and publically labeled him as a Greedy Cat.  That snappy nickname drew out a chuckle from me when I first heard it.  Two weeks later, under pressure from the intense furor that the story had created, Peter Harvey issued a press statement that Harvey Projects would not be taken private.  The minority shareholders erupted in joy on hearing the news.  Back at the office of Numbers Only, Alex arranged a small celebration to congratulate me on my fine reporting.  I also received a bottle of champagne from an anonymous sender that I placed on my desk as a badge of honor.  I could only guess that it was from Andrei.

Four months later, I was at my desk working on a piece on hedge funds when Alex asked me to come to his cabin.

“Ah Lisa!  Come on in.  Have a seat.  I have some news for you”, Alex said.  I thought he sounded a bit grim.

I settled down for a serious conversation.

“I’m leaving Numbers Only”, Alex said in a matter-of-fact way.

I looked at him a bit surprised.  I thought Alex would wait to retire from Numbers Only.  At 57, I didn’t exactly picture him as somebody keen to hop over to another company.  But then who would be the next editor?  Perhaps, me?

He continued speaking in the same matter-of-fact way, “I suggest you also start looking for a new role elsewhere”.

I was stunned to hear this.  I groped around my mind space fervently for words.  Alex noticed the alarmed look on my face and calmly explained, “Well, there was a deal done last night.  Numbers Only got acquired by Peter Harvey”.

The room fell into a long, deep silence.  And though there was no sound, I thought I heard the Devil ringing his knell.