Life was pretty sweet for Blake Ritchie. Great job. Great boss. Great prairie-style house in an upscale neighborhood. Then nine o’clock Tuesday morning came.
First sign he was in deep shit was his boss’s face. Aimee Hickok was as easy as they came, a CEO who excelled at guiding her staff with a light touch and a ready smile. Her meetings always started with a welcoming smile to put everyone at ease.
There wasn’t a smidge of good cheer in her soft oval face. Rather the opposite. Beneath the stark white bangs, decisive hazel eyes sent a clear message to listen up.
“This won’t be fun,” she warned.
Blake sat up, all attention. This was a one-on-one meeting with the door closed. Another bad sign.
“Our financials suck,” Aimee began in an icy voice. “I’ve been going over the numbers again, and they’re depressing. As you know, this is our third consecutive quarter with declining sales.”
He did know. As Chief Financial Officer, it was Blake who had recently dropped that disappointing nugget on her. “The economic downturn,” he offered by way of explanation. Even to him it sounded lame.
“I get that, but we can’t use it as an excuse. Prospects for the next two quarters don’t look any better.”
Blake swallowed hard. Wherever this conversation was headed, he had a bad feeling he wasn’t going to like it.
Aimee angled her head toward him. “We’re barely getting by. How long we can continue doing that, I don’t know. We’re not in dire straits yet—but that’s bound to come if we don’t get our arms around our cash flow problems. We can’t depend on the economy to improve, so we need to get proactive.”
“How do you mean?”
The hazel eyes narrowed. “For years you’ve told me how antiquated and confusing our accounting systems are. That’s no criticism of you, Blake; both of us inherited this rat’s nest when we joined the company.”
He was relieved she acknowledged this. It wasn’t his fault the company’s record-keeping was confusing. Previous CFOs could be thanked for that. Unfortunately, the relief didn’t last. Aimee wasn’t finished.
“We have to move on.” She glanced down at the financial printouts on her desk before looking at him again. “Every year since I took over as CEO, the company has ended the fiscal year with unreconciled losses, confusing deferred expenses, inconsistent asset allocations.” She tossed up her hands. “Because every year ended with a hefty profit, we could afford to eat those miscellaneous losses and look the other way. Not anymore.”
Blake’s stomach churned. She wasn’t going to leave this alone. Did she know? Had she figured out he’d been cooking the books?
In a hardened voice, she added, “The company’s leaking money. If we don’t plug those leaks, we’ll have to make some grim choices.” Her usually engaging feminine eyes held a ferocity he wasn’t used to. They bored to the back of his skull. For a second he was afraid he’d break down and confess his crimes right there.
He cleared his throat. Tried to mask his anxiety. “Grim choices?”
“Layoffs. Plant closures.”
“That shouldn’t be news to you. You gave me these numbers.”
“What I want is for you and your team to drop whatever else you’re doing. I want you to put our finances for the past two years under a microscope.”
Blake shifted uncomfortably. “The company financials were reviewed six months ago.”
“And nothing new came out of it,” she grumbled. “Clearly, we didn’t dive deep enough. Do it again. This time don’t assume anything. Look at every expense again. Every sale, fee, surcharge. Every tax and deduction. Every billable. Everything.”
Aimee’s sleek eyebrows lowered. “And make sure you give a lead role to that new cost accountant.”
“Who? Maggie Chen?”
“No, the other one. Cathy.”
“Sure, if you want. She’s only been with us six months,” he cautioned. “Still figuring out our systems and processes.”