It's never good news when your business adviser calls out of the blue and says, "Wes, we need to talk."
That's what happened to me one spring morning not long after I'd arrived at my office. I own a small agency that handles speaking engagements and literary rights for Christian entertainers, authors and leaders. I started the business in my 20s and it grew to about a dozen employees, earning me enough to provide a comfortable living for my family and to send my kids to college.
That year, though, the company hit a rough patch, so I'd hired a business consultant to give me some ideas for improvement. He's the one who called that April morning.
"Wes," he said, "your company is in more trouble than you know. We need to get together. Soon."
Before I could ask what was wrong he told me he had already been in touch with my banker and my accountant. "How about we meet at your house tonight?" I stammered out an okay and spent the rest of the day in a knot.
That evening, Ken, the consultant, Ed, my banker, and Tom, my CPA, sat down in my living room. Normally they were laid-back Southern guys. Tonight they looked deadly serious. Tom pulled out some spreadsheets and other documents. "Wes," he said, "do you realize how deeply your company's in debt?"
My eyes widened. A while back I'd transferred much of the day-to-day running of the company to two people I trusted. One was my chief operating officer. The other was Tim, my vice president. Tim had joined the business eight years earlier soon after graduating college. The COO had been with me 14 years. We were a team and close friends besides. Most weeks we spent far more time with each other than we did with our families.
Ed, the banker, said, "Wes, I've been getting these phone calls from Tim asking questions about the company's accounts I didn't think were proper."
"Did you know about this line of credit?" Ed continued, pointing to a paper with my signature authorizing the loan for a substantial sum of money. I didn't remember agreeing to borrow that much.
"Take a look at these expenses," Ken said, indicating high-priced hotel rooms and restaurant bills Tim and the COO had charged to the company.
I felt the color drain from my face. What on earth was going on? Yes, the past year had been difficult at work. I was in my 50s and eager to dial back, but I often disagreed with where Tim and the COO wanted to take the company. Still, none of our arguments ever suggested either of them wanted to deceive me.
"The bottom line, Wes," said Ken, "is it's pretty clear these guys are taking advantage of you. We need to do some more research, but at the very least you're going to have to let these guys go. Legal charges may even be in order."
I was stunned. The three of them went over some more figures then told me to lie low till we'd gathered enough documentation to make a clear case for dismissal. "In the meantime we're going to have to figure out how to get your company's finances back in order," said Tom. "You're in a pretty deep hole and it'll take some doing to climb out."
They left and I stumbled upstairs. My wife, Linda, was getting ready for bed. I told her everything. Her face turned ashen. "Wes," she said, "I can't believe it. Those guys are our friends. They betrayed you! Why?"
I shook my head. Until Linda used that word I hadn't thought of it as betrayal. These men were among my best friends. For some reason they'd taken advantage of my trust and drained money from the business we'd worked so hard to build. Maybe there was some explanation. Maybe it wasn't so utterly awful.