Bernie Ebbers defrauded WorldCom investors of $11 billion, for which we owe him our deep gratitude.
We're not forgetting the tel-com giant's gut-punched stockholders, nor the employees who lost their jobs and their retirement cushions as the company's share price fell. But the nauseating saga should be a welcome cautionary tale for any restaurateur, at any level of an organization. If the CEO of a major corporation could be responsible for malfeasance on that scale, under the scrutiny of a board, subordinates, accountants, regulators, and shareholders, what hope is there for a harried supervisor tallying the day's cash take in a back room, far from any oversight?
Is there anyone in the business who hasn't heard of a restaurant that maintained one set of books for the IRS and another for the sake of reality? Whole chains are rumored to do as much cooking in their accounting departments as they do in their kitchens.
And who hasn't encountered a person of responsibility who concocted a way to divert dollars into his or her pocket, whether it's a bartender keeping the cash for drinks he'll pass off to management as buy backs, or a server who slips an extra round onto a large party's tab? Ingenuity can have a dark side, and the shadows of the restaurant business seem to foster that sort of craftiness.
Of course, those shenanigans seem like mere pranks compared with the goings-on at places like Dennis Kozlowski's Tyco International, where "corporate expenses" included an $18 million Manhattan apartment. But our industry has had its share of humdingers, too. As we've reported, the parent of the Buca di Beppo and Vinnie T's Italian-restaurant groups has accused its former CEO of using corporate funds to buy a villa for himself in Italy, as if no one would notice. And, apparently, no one did voice concerns for a considerable stretch of time. Joe Micatrotto reportedly agreed to turn over the house and $900,000 to Buca Inc. after the scandal broke.
Or perhaps I should say that particular scandal. Buca's new management team has continued to uncover suspected improprieties in the company's near-term past. Two executives were recently suspended and then fired because of their dealings with a technology vendor several years ago. The company did not divulge details, but said it would investigate the situation further. At the same time, Buca announced that it had hired a forensic counsel to probe past accounting policies, such as how headquarters had expensed free meals, bric-a-brac for the kitsch-cluttered restaurants, and consulting fees.
Buca isn't the only restaurant operator that has raised eyebrows during this time of Nero-like corporate hi-jinks. Securities investigators want to know how Krispy Kreme went from darling to donkey in less time than it takes a "Hot Donuts Now" sign to flicker on. And how about the way headquarters handled franchises awarded to former executives? Regulators are apparently asking questions of the chain, which should make plenty of other franchisors squirm, given how many companies ease the sting of a dismissal by turning the fired exec into a franchisee.
The restaurant industry, we'd like to believe, fosters no more corporate misconduct or dishonesty than any other business. But some onlookers could get a different idea from the almost daily warnings that one foodservice company or another is restating earnings or delaying the release of financial results because of bookkeeping problems ("No Blame Game in Accounting Mess," page 18). Not long ago, those actions were akin to being fingerprinted and mug-shot at the nearest precinct house. In reality, the advisories are nothing more than the fallout from confusing changes in the way accountants are expected to enter leases on the books. Acknowledgements of the difficulties are indicators of responsibility, not begrudged confessions of corporate bungling, as some observers might have concluded. Instead, because most restaurant companies straightforwardly addressed the situation, investors seemed unfazed.
The confidence of all investors is likely to be rattled by the lapses of high-profile figures like Ebbers, Kozlowksi, or Kenneth Lay. The restaurant industry handled the accounting situation in such a straightforward way that it didn't become a problem. It deserves credit for acting in a manner that counters a growing mistrust of business.
Ebbers' situation should be the trade's reminder to maintain its vigilance.