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.
The next morning in the office I knew it was that awful. Shock and dismay must've been written all over my face because the minute I said hello to Tim and the COO they stiffened and gave each other a look. The company's offices were small, a two-story brick building in a complex outside Nashville. My office was downstairs. The other two guys worked on the second floor. That day and the days following I sat at my desk listening to the profound silence upstairs. The office was unbearably tense.
A stream of shocking revelations came from my advisers. They compiled paperwork on Tim first. The day I let Tim go I called him into the conference room with Ken and me, laid out the evidence and said, "Tim, we've come to the end of the road here. I know what's been happening and the company's in real trouble. I need to fire you, effective immediately." Tim didn't say a word except that he needed to get some things from his desk. On the way out he surreptitiously turned off his computer, effectively locking it since only he knew the password. He didn't say goodbye.
With the help of a computer expert, we got into Tim's computer and discovered the full extent of what he and the COO had been up to. They'd aimed to drain resources and clients from my company into a new shadow company they'd created. They intended to put me out of business then walk away with my clients. I now had enough evidence to fire the COO. The day I planned to let him go, he resigned. I immediately went to see a lawyer. The lawyer, surprisingly, told me that though I could sue both men successfully, he wouldn't recommend it.
"It'll eat up years of your life when you should be working to repair your company," he said. A lawyer, willingly turning down business! Maybe it was a sign from God.
Except I didn't want to hear from God. I was over the initial shock and now I was just angry. Bitterly angry. Tim and the COO even had the nerve to set up their new company right across the parking lot from my office! What had I done to deserve this?
I thought back over all our years together, our good times in the office, our celebrations when we landed a particularly big client. I knew they chafed at my authority, especially when I started handing them more responsibility. They didn't like me weighing in on all their decisions. But it was my company! I'd built it and I had a right to say where it should go. No, I simply needed to admit that this was the reality of human relationships, especially in business. People were cutthroat, kindness was an illusion and trust was for fools.
I went on like this for months. One day I found myself driving along I-40, returning to Nashville after dropping off my daughter at college in Knoxville. The rolling green hills unspooled out the window and it seemed like I was heading from nowhere to nowhere. I felt weighted down and alone. Alone with my anger.
I often stayed up late at night poring over financial documents. Sometimes I screamed at the wall. My relationship with Linda was strained. I was terse and grim at the office too. It was no way to live, but what was I supposed to do when every day I pulled into work and saw my former friends' cars parked right across the lot? Surely no one expected me to forgive them?
The moment that thought entered my mind I felt a kind of stilling of my heart. Forgiveness. I'd heard plenty of sermons about forgiveness. Heck, I'd scheduled plenty of speakers on the topic. But senseless betrayal by close friends? Who could forgive something like that?
The hills rolled by, silent and serene. I heard no voice, felt no presence—indeed, I'd never felt emptier. Yet all of a sudden a prayer came unbidden to my lips: "Lord, fill my emptiness with your presence." I spoke those words and it was as if a film was immediately lifted from my eyes. Not only was forgiveness possible, it was required. It was the only way to fill the emptiness and stop the anger. Forgiveness was the presence of God. I would have laughed except I was so dismayed. I knew what I had to do. I just didn't know how to do it.
In fact, it took me three years, a Christian men's retreat and a final face-to-face meeting with Tim to reach that place of forgiveness. Along the way I let go of my self-righteousness and admitted that I'd been unfair, expecting two subordinates to take the reins as I neared retirement and yet still follow my direction. That didn't excuse their betrayal, but it felt right to acknowledge my own role in our failed relationship.
I read those powerful words in Matthew, "Love your enemies," and I realized that in the end I had to forgive both men whether or not they ever apologized. I opened my heart to reconciliation.
Sometime later Tim got in touch with me (I still haven't heard from the COO). By that point their new business had foundered and Tim was at loose ends. I didn't offer him a job, though my company's back on sound financial footing. What I offered was friendship. We're still in touch and I can honestly say I hold no bitterness toward either man.