Many, many people spent a busy weekend hammering out the details of the government rescue of Citigroup that was announced last night. The rescue clearly is a Portentous Event, so I went searching this morning for insights about what the portents are portending.
I got as far as the third paragraph of the Wall Street Journal story, where it says Citigroup is “in 106 countries.”
“Oh yeah?” I thought. “Name them.”
Several years ago, around 2001, I was, briefly, among the world’s foremost experts on How Many Countries Citigroup Is In. I was part of the company’s employee communications team at the time, and someone higher on the food chain had gotten impatient with seeing vague references to Citigroup as being in “more than 100 countries” (which is how other news organizations are describing Citi today). I was tasked to track down the precise, official number of how many countries Citigroup is “in.”
Oh my goodness.
OK, let’s look at internal websites. I’m no longer an employee, so I can’t view these sites now, let alone post links. But suffice it to say there were conflicting numbers and lists of countries on various intranet sites. The most popular numbers were something like 101 and 103.
I reported back to my betters that there appeared to be a good reason to cite “more than 100” countries. Now, if you’ve ever been a corporate gumby in a huge organization, you know how that was received: not good enough. “It’s a simple question, you ought to be able to track down a simple answer.”
There were at least two different keepers of what was described as the “official” number. I think one was the Corporate Secretary’s office (since they had to know where the company was incorporated), and the other was the global real estate department. So I got the two lists and compared them, expecting to find two additional countries on the larger list. Well, no… each list had a handful of countries not on the other list. I don’t remember which countries were on the bubble, but I came up with half a dozen questionable countries, and started trying to verify them one by one. It turns out that whether or not Citigroup is “in” a particular country is sometimes a matter of opinion.
Do you go by whether we have a subsidiary incorporated there, or whether there is a physical office vs. a mail drop, or whether we have employees domiciled there full-time? What if there are no longer any employees, but we’re still incorporated there? Does a joint venture count? When I talked to the various regional headquarters offices, sometimes they were unwilling to talk about whether we were actually “in” such and such a country, because of local political considerations. There were differences of opinion about when or whether the Country X office had closed.
Also, how do you define a “country”? Each list broke out Puerto Rico, for example, as a separate country. There is a logic to that, even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States, because there are important jurisdictional differences that affect companies doing business in Puerto Rico. Also, if you toss out Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, Macao, Hong Kong, Isle of Man and Jersey, all of a sudden you may no longer be able to say “more than 100 countries.” Heaven forfend.
Eventually, to get the poobahs off my back, I abandoned the search for Truth, picked one of the “official” numbers, and prepared to start defending it. I envisioned saying to anyone who challenged my number, “oh yeah? Here’s my list, let’s see your list. What’s that? You don’t even HAVE a list?” But I left the company before I had an actual opportunity to have that conversation.
The moral of the story: If you know how many countries your company is in, you’re not truly a global company.
All you gumbies and ex-gumbies out there — what’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever spent far too much time tracking down in corporate America?