The Collectibles by James Kaufman is one of those books that when you start reading it, you do not want to put it down because you want to know how it ends. Even though it’s a novel, the scenes play out in the corporate boardroom every day. It’s often recommended that authors should write about what they know. An attorney and former judge, Kaufman is the founder and CEO of The Kaufman Group where he assists companies worldwide to meet challenges, and help them to restructure and subsequently flourish.
His knowledge of business makes the scenes realistic and the characters believable. The book starts off with two scenes with the two key characters in their teens. Joe Hart who is orphaned is being raised by his aunt and uncle. He and his uncle – a mountain guide – are on a trip in the mountains for some male bonding, when Joe tells his uncle that he is average. His uncle doesn’t agree with Joe’s assessment of himself and reminds him that he won the All State Swimming Meet, received many academic and athletic awards and has many colleges offering him scholarships, as well as being instrumental in saving Preston, another youth, from drowning. Joe’s uncle gives him some solid advice, “Do what the other fella can’t. Be what the other fella ain’t. And then help the other fella.” Joe ponders this advice then goes to sleep with a promise to himself, “I may have to go through this world being average – but I swear I’ll be uncommon along the way.”
Meanwhile in another area in the country, Preston Wilson the guy who Joe prevented from drowning, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents sent him off to private school and he only sees them on major holidays. Preston is lonely and craves more time with his parents especially his father, who doesn’t really want to spend much time with him except for when he forces him to go on a mountain tour. Preston talks to his mom who promises that she will talk to her husband bout spending more time with Preston. Preston decides to position himself so that he can eavesdrop and gets more than he bargained for. He hears his mom telling his dad that she loves him, but doesn’t respect him, and that she will no longer be financing anymore of his business deals which never deliver, and informs him that she will be filing for a divorce and he should move out. She also tells him that he is an abject failure. The father wants to know where he is supposed to stay, and the mother suggests that he could stay with one of women he cheated on her with.
Preston is stunned and makes a promise to himself before he goes to sleep, “I’m going to be a bloody financial success no matter what. I will never be an abject failure.”
The story jumps 30 years to present day where Joe who is now a distinguished and successful lawyer and former Navy Corporal, is at an event with his wife and soul mate when she is killed by a drive by shooter. He is devastated and not taking her death very well. On the other hand Preston’s house of cards comes falling down, and his lawyers are recommending that he files for bankruptcy. Preston refuses to take that advice and asks Casey his Chief Financial Officer to find someone who deals with difficult restructuring cases.
Casey keeps on coming up with the name Joe Hart, who is the person of last resort that companies call on when they are in a really tight spot. The problem is they cannot find Joe and the clock is ticking. The bank is very close to calling in the loans to Preston’s company. As Casey relates what he found out, Preston realizes that he met Joe when his dad dragged him to the mountain for their trips. But he cannot recall where they used to go. With great effort, they discover that Joe has gone to the Adirondacks Mountain. With the help of a guide who knows Joe, they find him in the mountains.
The story really takes off from there. Joe is not impressed and doesn’t want to help Preston, but he overhears a conversation between Preston and Casey, where Preston is scared to lose his wife Marcia because of the mess he has created. Joe has compassion and decides to try and assist Joe. When Joe asks Preston what he would miss most if he lost it all, he responds that he would miss the view from his office. Joe is still not impressed with Preston and the things he values, but he keeps on remembering the overheard conversation. He agrees to assist Preston under three conditions and each condition is non-negotiable: 1) Preston has to tell him everything he wants to know and show him everything he wants to see, 2) He has to tell the absolute truth, and if he lies, the agreement becomes null, and 3) If he asks Preston to do something for him now or later, no matter what, he has to do it and that’s a commitment for life.
The first two conditions were a lot easier for Preston to agree to, but in the end he agreed to the third because desperate circumstances call for desperate actions. The skills and experiences of Kaufman now come into play during the negotiation with the bank, after Joe has prepared a comprehensive restructuring plan. Joe is honest, ethical, acts with integrity and treats people fairly, where Preston behaves superior and often crosses the line, which gets him into trouble. As part of the discovery process, Preston has to admit to his wife how bad things really are and how he deceived her. She doesn’t take it very well and decides to take a trip to visit both her mother and college roommate. She has to get away from Preston to have some time to think and recover her lost self.
The negotiation scenes are beautifully written, and you are transported to the boardroom, where your are a silent observer, and you get to understand the thought processes of the characters. You get to see Preston’s character develop as he becomes more human. The bank accepts the plan with some changes because Joe has convinced them that Preston is terrified of failure and will do what it takes to make it work. To convince them to accept his plan, he finds out from them under what circumstances they would accept the plan then he creates those circumstances. One example is an important addition to Preston’s management team.
The day comes when Preston has to deliver on his favour to Joe. Joe discovers that he is dying from an inoperable tumor and wants Preston to get to know some people, who Joe’s wife had always referred to as his collectibles. When Joe describes each person, all Preston can think of is that they are a bunch of losers. But Joe doesn’t see them that way, he sees the beauty and potential in each one. Preston has no choice but to agree because he gave his word, and now he is a different person, so it is very important for him to honor his word. Preston doesn’t know Joe is dying, he comes to his decision through his transformation.
As he met each of Joe’s collectibles, he discovered that everyone has something important to offer. He is a changed man and he gets back his wife, and now treats her like a true partner. During Joe’s funeral, several people talked about the impact that Joe had on their lives. Preston was baffled because Joe had told him there were six collectibles, yet he named only five. He suddenly had an epiphany, he was Joe’s sixth collectible. Joe wanted Preston to get to know himself, the real person beneath the superficial one.
The Collectibles is a story about love, loss, wrong doing and redemption. We are human, we all make mistakes, but the important thing is to learn from our mistakes and try to correct them when possible. I recommend The Collectibles by James J. Kaufman, and though it’s a work of fiction, it’s also a wonderful business story which will teach you strategies and techniques that you can use in work and life.
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