Folks, I'd like you to meet Edward Mike Davis, former Texas oilman.

Only, you can't meet him, because he died last week. So, we'll have to get to know him via his legacy--a trove of 40-year-old, typewritten, corporate memos, including some of the harshest, most acerbic, and flat-out "grumpiest" missives you'll ever read.

Start with this one, for example, dated January 13, 1978, distributed apparently to every employee of the three Texas oil companies he ran at the time:

Do not speak to me when you see me. If I want to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don't want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you sons-of-bitches.

Or this one, dated February 8, 1978:

TO: All Employees
SUBJECT: Celebrations of Any Kind

Per Edward Mike Davis' orders, there will be no more birthday celebrations, birthday cakes, levity, or celebrations of any kind within the office. ...

If you have to celebrate, do it after office hours on your own time.

(Signed)
MICHAEL D. CARROLL
for EDWARD MIKE DAVIS

What kind of person--what kind of boss?--writes something like these memos, and sends them to his entire company? Or is this just how bosses treated employees 40 years ago?

A self-made man, sort of

Let's start with some context. Davis was born on March 1, 1931, but as the New York Times reported, it's unclear where. Reportedly he served in he Army at some point, and he was one of seven children, all of whom predeceased him.

His big break came when he worked as a chauffeur for a Denver heiress named Helen Bonfils, and later married her (he was 28; she was 69 at the time). When they divorced a little over a decade later, Davis took his divorce settlement and headed to Texas, and the oil industry.

Soon, he had his own company--several, in fact. And now that he was the boss, he apparently didn't tire of reminding his employees how successful he was, and how they needed him much more than he needed them. For example, from three days before Christmas, 1977:

If you are not happy working here, I suggest you get a job somewhere else. ... Any conversation of unhappiness or unrest among my employees pertaining to this will mean immediate termination.

Or this one, announcing the hiring of a new finance director:

I have tried to get the work done in the past under everyone else's ideas, and it hasn't worked, so we will do it my way now. ... I am not asking you, I am ordering you. If you don't like it, that is your problem. ...

We are going to do it the way I want it done. If you have a suggestion on how we can improve our methods, your suggestions are more than welcome. The best way to submit a suggestion is to put it in writing, sign your name, and send it to me by registered mail -- then you can't say it got lost. I DON'T WANT ANY EXCUSES.

(Signed)
EDWARD MIKE DAVIS
Owner of All Companies and The Boss (if there are any questions, test me)

Memos of note

Without the memos of course, there's no reason that the Times would have devoted an 800-word obituary to Davis after he'd fled this mortal coil on September 18. He had made news with his celebrity divorce and later when billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian sued him alleging fraud, after an oil deal that went bad, but it's doubtful either of those moments of notoriety would have done it for him.

Otherwise, there's just the memos. The Times knew about them because Shaun Usher, founder of the website Letters of Note, included them in a new book. Usher won't say how he got them to begin with, although he says he included them in the book with Davis's permission.

Did his former employees mourn his passing? Hard to say, of course, although the Times reports that on social media, "old friends and colleagues" -- no mention of the people who actually worked for him, of course --

agreed that Mr. Davis had been difficult to work for, but they found redeeming qualities. ...

On Facebook, one consultant wrote, "I remember the first time I was cussed out by him"; a former employee saluted him as "truly one of a kind"; and a colleague hailed him as "one of the last of the great oil field wildcatters."

Speaking ill of the dead

I've often written about the passing of great entrepreneurs and businesspeople--the man who invented the pet rock, for example, or the CEO whom Inc.com at one point called the best CEO in America.

Looking back on their lives, you can see lessons to be learned, and examples to follow. It's good to remember them and take inspiration from their stories.

But as much as I hate to do this, Davis's legacy seems to be all about what not to do--how not to motivate your employees, and, probably, how you don't want to be remembered. There's nothing in his legacy about building great things, or elevating people, or leaving a positive mark on the world.

Instead, it's all about the boss being the boss because he's the boss. As he wrote at the end of one very long memo in 1978:

There is one thing that differentiates me from my employees. I am a known son-of-a-bitch, and I care to remain that way. I have the privilege of swearing publicly, in front of anyone, or doing anything I want to because I pay the bills. When you work for me, you don't have that privilege. ... I am not a preacher or I am not trying to save the world. I just intend to run my business the way I want to.

He wasn't trying to save the world, and he succeeded. If you're a boss, don't follow in his footsteps. But you might want to check out the rest of the memos, here, here, and in Usher's book, Letters of Note: Vol. 2.

Published on: Sep 27, 2016
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