If You Want To Keep The Beer Cold, Put It Next To Mom’s Heart

by Mark Manney
Posted On: 10/29/2018

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Starting in 2002, Mark Manney has exposed dishonest employees in more than 70 vending operations across 27 states. From 2004 to 2010, he was National Automatic Merchandising Association security/loss prevention know ledge source partner.

Manney has been featured in the leading industry publications over the years, including VENDING TIMES and Sunbelt Vending & OCS. At the suggestion of Sunbelt’s publisher, the late Ben Ginsberg, Manney authored a series of what are, in effect, detective stories based on his real-life experiences in vending.

We are reintroducing The Loss Prevention Chronicles as an ongoing series presenting loss prevention insights in a gritty, entertaining real-world style to help our readers understand the importance of managment’s constant emphasis on a controlled work environment and proven security practices to enhance bottom-line profit.

Prairie Food Services, based in a small town in America’s heartland, hired me to help stop the P&L bleeding that they knew was caused by internal theft, but didn’t know how to fix. Leading the charge was the company’s office manager, David Barron. A beef processing plant was our first stop on a week long assessment of four of Prairie’s 14 massive cafeterias. We ended the week back at headquarters, where we made a mandatory assessment stop at the money room.

Prairie Food Services is spread out over six states, with the bulk of its growing business in those beef processing plants. These mammoth sprawling slaughter-houses hold from 2,000 to 5,000 workers.

The company brought me into the first cafeteria of our tour because of its unexplainable high product costs. The owner and his daughter wondered whether the cafeteria’s manager was pilfering.

I had been working in cafeterias at chicken and hog slaughterhouses for two other vending and foodservice companies, with dramatic and exact P&L success. As a loss-prevention expert, I had a long track record of unravelling dishonest employees’ convoluted thefts with indisputable evidence, confronting them with a recorder and a witness, and terminating this insidious breed of disloyal worker.

After the bleeding is stopped, the next step is installing interconnected prevention programs that prevent profit hemorrhaging and help management build the controls into the company’s culture.

The Investigation

As we arrived at the cafeteria, the manager suspected of being the culprit behind the pilferage prudently slipped out. But by leaving me alone with his employees, he made a huge tactical miscalculation.

I had a saying I called the four workplace Es: “Everyone, knows Everything, about Everybody, Eventually.” I knew that, in any retail operation, no one was watched more closely than the manager. So, if you could get the rank and file to open up, they would offer up a dishonest manager on a silver platter with an apple in his mouth … if you could get them to trust and believe you.

I specialized in trust and belief. I had come up through the ranks, and I knew that the shortest distance to the harsh truth was a direct line from an employee’s lips to my recorder’s ears (or microphone).

In a passive fact-finding interview, I quickly convinced the second-shift supervisor that she would be “protected” if she was candid and honest about her boss.

She had unconsciously gritted her teeth when I asked her about the manager’s work ethic and it wasn’t long before the manager’s 30-hour work week and happy hour habits surfaced. She soon opened a desk drawer of Z tapes (end-of-day cash register summaries) that she had secretly run of a register the manager was operating for an hour or two occasionally … a register whose contents never made it into the office.

After a few more fact-finding interviews with other employees I was able to gather enough intel to plan a no-nonsense accusatory interrogation.

The manager was an outgoing, smooth shmoozer who got by on a gregarious personality. He was divorced, with tardy child support payments ringing off the office phone hook. He binge-drank on weekends and was known to regularly visit the casino, probably with Prairie money. He came in late, left early and was rolling (or as it’s sometimes called, “kiting”) deposits. He was playing Prairie Food Services like a six-string guitar.

The second-shift supervisor and office manager really ran the cafeteria; and the district manager (whom I hadn’t met yet) evidently was a three-Bs kind of DM. He “blew in, blew up and blew out,” and apparently had retired…but had forgotten to tell the company.

As so often happens when employees feel they have an anonymous safe outlet for exposing a lazy, corrupt boss, the dishonest manager was given to me on a silver platter.

The Interrogation

My frontal assault convinced the manager that he was trapped (because he was), and he quickly caved in by echoing the phrases I offered him. He agreed that he “borrowed” cash out of the safe because he got “jammed up.” He also eagerly agreed to pay restitution when I asked him “Are you willing to make this right?” This tactic usually works in sliding out a greasy confession by my implying – but not stating – that he could make it right with the company and avoid the police.

The manager eagerly confessed as I minimized his “errors in judgment.” No one knew how much he had stolen in the last year, including him; and, as most trapped dishonest employees do, he admitted to a fraction of the amount he had actually stolen.

When I brought up the phantom register sales, he panicked, knowing that this might mean felony charges. And he knew he didn’t have the cash to “make it right.” He scurried out of the building like a scalded dog. The next day, he mailed in a check for the fraction of cash he had admitted he had “borrowed.” I let management decide whether they wanted to build a case jacket and legally pursue this dishonest employee through the courts.

Barron and I sat with Prairie Food Services owner Hank Hanley, vending operations vice-president Harry Evans and vending general manager Ricky Stephens. We relayed the highlights of the week to them, and the details of the cafeteria manager case. We also reported on a cashier in the same location who was exposed under ringing $300 a shift; the clueless district manager; and the numerous glaring accountability and physical security issues that had been observed.

I explained how my 30-year retail loss-prevention career had begun with a focus on “boosters” – professional shoplifters – in the world of organized retail theft, and had I taken an accidental turn into the vending/foodservice industry when I spent three years with a North Carolina vending company. I’d helped take their cash/product losses from 1.65% to 0.28%. I reported exposing 24 dishonest employees on the long and winding road to profitability. That client had led to another, then another, then even more; and now I worked exclusively in the vending/food-services industry.

I explained the “culture of controls” I had developed: its design, over decades, and the assessment phase, management training and task force creation by which it’s implemented. I reviewed the tools, the process, the metrics, the benchmarks and the culture shift that will bring the reaction to critical mass.

Mom And The Money Room

I probed the managers for behind-the-curtain intel about the Prairie money room employees. I knew that, in terms of theft frequency, machines were the number one problem, but with regard to theft severity, the money room was the often overlooked bottomless well of unaccountable cash losses.
The money room manager was nicknamed Mom. She fussed over the route men like a mother hen, clucking when they didn’t wear coats on cold days or when they were sloppy or late with their collections.

She fawned over her favorites and fussed at others. Occasionally she put out plates of cookies or brownies for the route drivers. Mom had been on the job for 24 years, most of her adult life. She was a fixture in the room where all the money was collected, counted and wrapped for deposit.

For some unknown reason, she had seemed to avoid formal company functions over the last half-dozen years, as her demeanor shifted to cool and aloof towards senior management. No one thought Mom was stealing. After all, she was Mom. Still, the owner had a gut feeling something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. At my suggestion, he had installed a digital CCTV system in the money room and brought in lockers for all the employees – making sure that he supplied the locks – and keeping a master key. The camera covered the lockers.

As I started my money room assessment on the fifth day of that first week in Prairie Food Services, I asked a standard question about Mom’s work habits. When I got the answer, every investigative instinct that I had honed over my 33-year loss-prevention career lit up. I soon discovered that if you wanted to keep the beer cold…put it next to Mom’s heart.

The Next Day

I quizzed Ricky Stephens, the vending manager and Harry Evans, the regional manager, about both money room employees. I peeled away the layers of the employee onion by exploring their employment backgrounds, lifestyles, hobbies, work-related attitudes, senior management interaction, any past or recent life crises, any observed personality changes and idiosyncrasies. I learned what they drove, where their husbands or wives worked, gossip about them, when they came in and when they left. I asked whether purses and coats were allowed in the money room. Were checks allowed to be cashed there? Who else had access to the money room? And so on, through a dozen more interconnected questions.

I also ran their national criminal history, a credit header check searching public records for any liens, judgments, or even a bankruptcy; and lastly, another public record search on assets, cars, boats, homes, etc. I wanted to know everything about the most vulnerable site that houses the highest- risk employees in any vending company: the room where all the money was counted, and the employees who counted it underwent temptation, day in and day out.

Mom had been with the company all of her adult life, endlessly counting money, millions upon millions in coin and bank notes for two and a half decades. She had just gotten back from a cruise. She played bingo, having often bragged about her regular luck. She drove a new car and her husband worked off and on as an independent air conditioning and refrigeration repairman, but he had mostly seemed to be off for the last couple of years. He drove a nice car as well.

She was nicknamed Mom by the drivers because of her mother-hen treatment of some of them, but over the past few years, she had found excuses to miss the two major company events that everyone attended: the annual Christmas party and the summer picnic.

Both managers had heard gossip that she felt underappreciated, underpaid, and that she seemed to dislike the owner, but no one knew why. Both mangers agreed that she had grown distant over the years, mothering her favorite drivers and cold towards management. A day or two a week, she came in early and left early but neither manager thought that was unusual as she was a fixture in the money room … after all, she was mom.

Mole Tick Thieves

Since I had left big-box retail and stumbled into the vending industry by ferreting out “mole tick” thieves (they look like harmless blemishes, but they’re dangerous parasites), I found about a third of my clients had them buried deep inside their money rooms where they methodically sucked the lifeblood out of the P&L. I knew that most long-term employees who were caught up in secret long-term theft often unconsciously rationalized their guilt and the secret grinding stress it produced  by vocally blaming their employers for low pay, overwork, poor working conditions, yada, yada, yada.

I had also witnessed long-term thieves’ guilt manifest itself as an irrational festering resentment, a simmering anger towards senior management. Many perversely blamed “Them” or “The Company” for their succumbing to temptation. I also knew that successful long-term theft breeds twins: greed and complacency.

Vices: Habits, Then Addictions

The company had taken some of my foundational advice and installed a digital CCTV system in the money room, as well as personal lockers for the money room employees. The camera covered the lockers.

In questioning regional manager Harry Evans about the money room employees, I discovered Mom often started work early, alone, and left early, leaving the other employee alone, about twice a week.

I knew whenever anyone was left alone in the room with all the money, it was dangerous, but when they did it by design – on their own – it was a lead. It was 9:30 a.m. and, at my request, Evans played back that day’s tape until Mom came in at 7:12 a.m. – alone – 18 minutes before the other money room employee came in.

As they both watched Mom in her taped opening routine, Evans gasped, gulped and started to hyperventilate. Mom brought her purse into the money room, took a check out and put it with a stack of money, then as casual and as routine as if she was shopping at the mall Mom selected bills from bag after bag running some of it through the counter, stuffing all of it into her purse. She then nonchalantly took her purse to her locker, left it inside, came back into the money room and started working like the efficient counting robot of her well-deserved reputation.

Barron and I set up in the conference room to interview Mom at 11 a.m. as scheduled as she and other key employees were notified about the assessment by email the previous week by Barron.

The Final Interrogation

Mom came into the conference room. I explained who I was (a business loss prevention subject matter expert); what I did (reduced vending/foodservice companies’ unaccountable losses); and how I did it (using an interconnected program I called the Culture of Controls).

I then brought up every Loss Prevention tool and technology known to man, planting seed after seed in the fertile ground of Mom’s guilt, leaving the impression these tools had been covertly used at Prairie Food Services for quite a while. I named four common theft methods, including that some employees come into the money room early to “borrow” cash before anyone else comes in, followed by three other ways employees cause losses.

Mom was stunned with a deer-in-the-headlight expression frozen on her face at what I had just said. I had told her I knew what she had done without directly accusing her, sandwiching it in between other theft methods, giving her no chance to deny it while accusing her ever so clearly, yet obliquely.

The Beginning Of The End

As the pause deepened, I told Mom how the video from this morning was being copied and enhanced at this very minute and I wanted to settle this problem – this error in judgment, this mistake – between these four walls…if the truth, the whole truth came out. There was a recorder running on the conference table that I had casually clicked on during my opening, telling Mom I didn’t want to have to take notes.

I let Mom trap herself in lie after lie as I gently attempted to pry open the secret vault to every employee’s betrayal, the holy grail of every loss-prevention investigator’s interview – the first time she began stealing.

Then Mom suddenly asked, “What’s going to happen to me?” I knew it was the beginning of the end.

Confession, Pro And Con

I escorted Mom to her locker and together we retrieved her purse stuffed with stolen cash. I wasn’t surprised at her complete silence. Barron retrieved the personal check that Mom had left in the money room that she used for cover in case someone actually reviewed the video and saw her removing cash.

Mom’s confession was painfully slow, flat, cold, emotionless and filled with one minimized lie after another. Even though she was trapped, and her purse contained more than $1,000 in stolen ones, fives, tens, twenties, and two fifties, she had tried to convince me this was the first time she had borrowed any cash from the company.

Cracks appeared in her icy demeanor as she clung to the hope she would just be fired and the police not called. She tried acting indignant and even blurted out once, “I’m not a thief or anything like that.”

Finally, she answered my relentless probes as I searched to pin her down to the first time. She confessed to have started stealing two years ago to pay some bills, but with just three thefts since then. I knew she was lying and made run after run at her, but that was Mom’s story and she was sticking to it.

She took cash four times in two years to pay for bills, total thefts of $1,700. I knew she had probably stolen that much in a slow month, but it was all I could wring out of the unemotional, unrepentant, indignant, 24-year employee known as Mom.

When I asked Mom how she felt about stealing from the driver’s commissions and implicating some of them as having stolen when their collections came up short, she gave him a baleful bored look and coolly shrugged her shoulders. I knew then without a doubt … if you want to keep the beer cold … put it next to Mom’s heart.

When the police officer walked into the conference room and Mom realized she was not just getting fired, she gave me a look that could wither a cactus. I just smiled and whispered, “Wow.”

 » Mark Manney is the founder and chief executive of Loss Prevention Results Inc.(LPR). He is also the author of: “The Brave New World of Micromarket Loss Prevention” a 50-plus page step-by-step Micromarket Loss Prevention manual available in the Vending Times Bookstore (vendingtimes.com/bookstore-sales).   For more information on LPR’s versatile capabilities, call (919) 812-3602 or e-mail mmanneylpr@gmail.com or visit the LPR website at losspreventionresults.com.