Unchecked, Unbalanced

Like most CEOs, ComputerLand's Bill Millard thought the ideal situation was operating with no one looking over his shoulder
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Here's a refrain you must have heard more than once:

Boy, it must be great to be running a small company. So much power! I envy you, being your own boss.

No doubt you manage to favor the speaker with a polite smile, even while you're rolling your inner eyes skyward. Oh, right, all that power. Every time you want to try something, you have to convince your board, your vice-president of marketing, or your shiftless brother Charlie, who despite his shiftlessness owns half your company's stock. And when you do make a move -- a new product, say -- you feel as if you've bought a lottery ticket. Will the employees do what you need them to? Will you have enough capital to see it through? Will there be any customers?

How pleasant it would be to escape these constraints . . . to be free to run things exactly as you want . . . to build a company that -- yes! -- skyrockets to the top of its industry, completely under your control. Before this fantasy gets out of hand, however, I recommend you read the riveting tale of William H. Millard, as told by Jonathan Littman in his new book Once Upon a Time in ComputerLand (Price Stern Sloan, 1987). Millard had everything a company owner might wish for -- which was exactly why he failed so spectacularly.

Bill Millard was an entrepreneur with a magic touch. He founded IMS Associates Inc. (later IMSAI Manufacturing Corp.), an early entrant in the nascent personal-computer market of the mid-1970s. Customers snapped up his machines as fast as he could make them. When IMSAI ran into trouble anyway -- Millard never was much for financial controls -- he somehow managed to segue smoothly into the other end of the business: retailing computers. Within six years ComputerLand had more than 300 stores generating more than $300 million in revenues. Millard, who owned 95% of the stock, was dubbed by Forbes magazine "the instant billionaire."

Millard had what every executive wants: rights to the biggest name in his industry, and a market growing at a dizzying pace. Since his company was wholly self-financing, he had no bankers or venture capitalists to question his strategy. Nor was he held in check by the people around him. Gifted with a magnetic, even charismatic personality, he easily persuaded managers and employees to follow whatever course he prescribed. "Many were convinced that Millard was a genius or a prophet," writes Littman. "Whatever Millard suggested, people did."

A paradise? Only a fool's. Because Millard, being human, and getting a chance to do as he damn well pleased, did some pretty dumb things.

You might have seen some glimmerings of this tendency earlier, at IMSAI. Millard ordered a new Cadillac Seville for himself, to be paid for with company money, the same day he wrote in his diary, "Don't know if the company can last another 60 days." He jetted around Europe, ostensibly opening up new markets, in fact spending several hours a day studying French and several more in the company of a young woman not his wife. At ComputerLand, his propensity for overreaching threatened the firm's future. He alienated Ed Faber, his second in command, the man credited by nearly everyone with making ComputerLand a success. He approved a new franchise agreement so one-sided in favor of the parent company that suddenly the flow of prospective franchisees dried up.

In the end, it was a truly pigheaded blunder that proved his undoing. When IMSAI was in its early stages, Millard had grudgingly borrowed $250,000 for five years from an investment group headed by P. Loring Reed Jr.; by the terms of an agreement signed shortly thereafter, the note was convertible upon request into 20% of the stock in any company started or owned by Millard. Later, the two men fell out, and Reed committed the unforgivable sin, in Millard's eyes, of challenging his power. Reed's crime: refusing to subordinate his note to a bank loan, leading the bank to pull the plug on Millard's line of credit.

From then on Millard treated Reed essentially as an enemy. He reorganized his corporations in ways that seemed to threaten Reed's rights under the note. He refused to send the financial reports Reed was entitled to. By 1980, with only one year to go on the note, IMSAI was bankrupt; but ComputerLand was by then earning nearly $1 million a year, and Reed claimed a right to 20% of the stock. He, however, was sick of hassling with Millard, and offered to sell the note back for a piddling $300,000. Stubbornly, incredibly, Millard declined, figuring he'd wait a year and pay it off at face value. Reed then sold the note to a consortium of investors, who sued Millard for their 20%. They won not only their case but a whopping $141 million in damages -- a judgment that eventually forced Millard out of the business.

Littman's story unfolds like a Greek tragedy: the here who accomplishes great deeds is blind to the flaw that ultimately undoes him. But this is life, not fiction -- and in the real world most people have protection against acting quite as foolishly as Millard. That protection can be someone whispering in their ear that they're about to do something stupid; or it can be the hard realities of the marketplace, which punishes misguided moves with the scourge of red ink. Millard walked blindly into a catastrophe because he had escaped those checks and balances for so long.

So the next time one of your personal checks or balances begins to grate on you -- the next time you're tempted to tell Charlie or the banker to take a flying leap -- stop and think about where you'd be without them. You just might be doing something you shouldn't.

Last updated: Mar 1, 1988




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