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Monday, November 19 , 2018, 4:23 am | Fair 47º


Paul Burri: The Ethics of ‘Dummy Workers’

Criticize the method, but what we did was not fraud

A recent column of mine evoked a firestorm of honest — I hope — criticism. Honest but misguided, in my opinion. And because I am extremely sensitive to the implication that what my partner and I did was fraudulent, I am compelled to respond.

Paul Burri
Paul Burri

In that column I told the story of an incident that happened around 1975 when my partner and I were trying to start a small contract assembly business. We had a small shop equipped with a few pieces of equipment, numerous work benches and lots of hand tools. The real assets of the company were the extensive manufacturing experience that both my partner and I had. Among other things, I had more than 11 years of experience managing several highly competitive contract machine shops and my partner had about 12 years managerial experience at a large, well-known aerospace company.

What we didn’t have, since we were just starting out, was a few customers. The column went on to tell how we solved the problem of trying to convince a prospective customer that we were competent to handle his job.

So, now back to some of the criticism I received. One reader complained that, “Isn’t that outright lying and fraud?” Then he went on to ask, “If that was a government contract wouldn’t that be fraud to use taxpayer money?” Another asked whether “... deception, fraud and misrepresentation are OK as long as you’re competent?”

Aside from wondering if those readers really read and understood what I said in the column, I wonder whether those who use the word “fraud” so freely have a dictionary that reads the same as mine, which defines fraud as “one who is not what he pretends to be.” Also when I look up “defraud” it is defined as “to deprive of something by deception or fraud.” My partner and I were exactly what we said we were — experienced and competent manufacturing experts and business managers. Furthermore, we deprived no one of anything; on the contrary, we delivered a more than satisfactory service to our customer on time, as specified and for a competitive price.

As to the question about using taxpayer money, it was not a government contract. But even if it were, what taxpayer money was it that we were supposed to have used? My response to that reader is to have someone read the column to him again.

Lastly, to the reader who wrote, “Wouldn’t the honorable thing to do have been to explain to your prospective customer that while not yet fully established, your fledgling company was up to the task? You could simply have said, ‘We have the experience and knowledge to hire the people, design the equipment and do the job for you’,” I have this to say: I am not so sure about how honorable it would have been but I do know how totally naïve it is to think that. Obviously, this reader has never looked for a job, gone on a job interview or tried to bid against 15 other hungry competitors. Just explain to the interviewer that you are competent, have the education and the experience, and you are sure to get the job over the 23 other candidates waiting to be interviewed. Just tell the customer that your company has the experience and knowledge to hire the people, design the equipment and do the job for him. See if that won’t get you the job over those other 15 competitors who already have the people and the equipment in place, as well as the same experience that you do. (And whose price is possibly a bit lower than yours.)

Once again I’ll explain: We performed the work for our customer as promised, we delivered it on time as promised, we did it for a competitive price, and the customer was pleased enough to give us a lot more subsequent work.

Where’s the fraud? Who, exactly, got cheated? I suggest that those few (I hope) readers who saw what we did as fraud consider whether we shouldn’t be considering lawsuits for fraud against men who have hair transplants, women who have breast implants, people who wear a suit and tie to a court appearance, and people who use teeth whiteners, underarm deodorant, breath mints, contact lenses and Midol — not to mention Botox and Viagra. They surely fit into the definition of fraud as being “someone who is not what he pretends to be.”

If it’s still someone’s opinion that we committed fraud, well then — mea culpa. I guess it’s me and Bernie Madoff; two peas in a pod.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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