King of the Mississippi

Mike Freedman

August 5, 2019 
The following is an excerpt from Mike Freedman's novel, King of the Mississippi. Mike Freedman was born and raised in Houston. He volunteered for the infantry after 9/11, later serving three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S. Army Special Forces. He received his MBA from Rice University. King of the Mississippi is an uproarious satire about male vanity and the ruthless race to domination in a prestigious Houston consulting firm.

“Not everyone is meant to be a CCGer,” Brock Wharton said to himself as much as to the staffer who fumbled with the applicant folders.

Great consultants mastered the management of time. The muggy fall day that would usher the war home to the future managing director of Cambridge Consulting Group had commenced, like any other for change agent Brock Wharton, on the fast track.

“Next up in the holding pen,” Carissa Barnett said, pulling a manila folder from the stack.

Holding pen. She had not been on the job five weeks and already acted as if she were a veteran consultant with a short attention span. Confidence was contagious at CCG, even for the support. Wharton conceded to himself that the new twenty-five-year-old recruiting coordinator did carry a disproportionally generous bosom on her slender frame, which was managed expertly—the old conceal and reveal—in her pairing of formal business suits with blouses his colleague Piazza labeled “plunging.” Wharton waited for her to set down the folder she held out for him, as she exaggerated multitasking with God-knows-what application on her new smartphone that had transferred none of its claimed intelligence to its owner. That Carissa ran the task force to recruit a wider collection of out-of-the-box thinkers troubled Wharton, who as a principal at CCG had pushed the initiative over the summer after feedback from a client critical of CCG’s junior-level consultants.

Seven of them sat erect in chairs in the four-walled glass room. From outside the fishbowl, their conversation buzzed like a horde of caught flies against glass. All faked pleasantries with the other applicants while nervously hoping their newfound friends fell flat on their faces during the case interview. Although these seven applicants had done their first-round interviews at the smaller Dallas office, Wharton recognized a couple of the applicants from networking events the Houston office had sponsored. Five guys and two girls. Or was that six male applicants and one female applicant? Wharton studied the cropped hair and suit style of the suspect candidate. CCG was really leading the charge to beat McKinsey and Bain in their recruitment of the best and brightest from the LGBT community—though if pressed Wharton would be forced to admit that although he knew what the first two letters stood for, he wasn’t sure those belonging to the third letter should have their own category, and was still confused as to what the fourth letter represented in this “community.”

“Topper.” Wharton read the first name at the top of the résumé aloud and waited to gauge the manner in which he rose. The tall candidate was an easy read for the ex-quarterback. The burgundy tasseled Ferragamo loafers with yacht stitch detail, though not on the level of Wharton’s bespoke shoes, were a touch of class by Topper Musgrave IV. He wore a practiced smile (to match the sheen of light mousse he put in his hair) as easily as he wore a tight-fitting, European-cut suit favoring his athletic build. On the older side of applicants, he was close to Wharton’s age of thirty-three. Wharton predicted that within a year of starting, Musgrave would be on the website and in company recruiting literature under the caption For me, CCG is not only about developing the strengths you have but also about growing intellectually in a field where the learning never stops. His was an image cut from the Brock Wharton Catalog for out-of-the-box thinkers.

“You can’t be inimitable if you float on the same rising tide as all boats.”

Wharton led Musgrave down the all-white hallway to put him through the obligatory case interview. “How was the flight from New York?”

“Nothing quite like coming back home to Houston from the city.” Wharton understood this code-speak: I can play with the big boys on Wall Street, but I have chosen to return home and be a big fish in a small pond. Wharton liked the play. Wharton had benefited from comprehending the big-picture value of leveraging his fading status as a hometown hero. In New York, he would have joined the mile-long list of ex-athletes turned traders and bankers. But in the good-ole-boy network of Houston, Wharton was the marlin hung on the office wall. Inside his office, Wharton allowed Musgrave to take in the football given to Wharton by the Houston Texans on draft day that was mounted on its own wall. On the other wall hung his framed University of Texas jersey from the Holiday Bowl. Next to it was his Harvard Business School degree encircled by a bright, crimson-colored frame to achieve a layered effect juxtaposed with the majestic Longhorn dehydrated orange. Never one who was much for the aesthetics of interior design, Wharton adhered to a guiding principle of honoring achievement.

After sufficient time had passed for Musgrave to be intimidated but composed, Wharton put the résumé down and examined the applicant’s features for signs of awe or reverence. No wrinkles on the field under the perfectly stationary, coifed brown hair or above the thin eyebrow trails; big hazel eyes dialed in on the prize; the symmetrical nose and ears showing no genetic slight. Only born assurance. A familiar face stared back at Wharton in the award-winning pedigree of Musgrave: here was a CCG man.

Wharton began, “I usually begin a decision-round interview by providing the candidate with a face to put with our international reputation of excellence and seventy worldwide offices. Then I will ask you a few questions about your background to get to know your story, allowing you to walk me through your résumé. After which time we will proceed to the case portion of the interview, and then wrap up with any questions you might have. Sound good?”

“Sounds great.”

Wharton motioned to his football jersey upon concluding a brief internal debate to lend his own face as the best example. “When my football career ended in injury before my first NFL preseason, I asked myself, ‘What other challenges are out there for a game-changer in life, Brock?’ At first glance, it was investment banking. Which I did here in town at arguably the best bulge bracket investment bank for four years—logged a lot of hours and got up to speed on everything I thought there was to know about business. But it was while learning the case study method at Harvard Business School that I realized a well-trained monkey can perform the functions in banking.” Since Musgrave, a native Houstonian, had opted for Wall Street, Wharton decided to forgo his polemic on oil and gas as unnecessary; he calculated he was not alone in his derision of the industry as not meeting the ambitions of someone of their talent level. “It was that epiphany—which came to me during the twenty-fifth mile of the Boston Marathon—that made me realize consulting was the only place in the business world that provided a daily intellectual challenge for the extreme competitor in life. If you’re a competitor, you will never be bored and your future is limitless at CCG.” Wharton stopped to point at Musgrave and asked with a turn of the palm up to show the oyster that could be held there, “In what other job in the world can a recent MBA graduate stand in front of a Fortune 500 CEO and tell him how to fix his company? So, Topper, why do you wish to be a part of CCG?”

“Because it’s the best. And it can grow further.”

Further,” Wharton said, wrapping his tongue around the length of the word approvingly, in the manner of a python encountering a small mammal.

“We want the alpha male in the pack who sails across the ocean.”

“Houston was the number one city in job creation at three hundred and nine percent this past year. It’s about to overtake Chicago as the third-largest city in the country. This is the downtown where I wish to log my future late nights.”

Directed by this exhortation to his lectern, the future mayor asserted, “It’s not just an oil town.”

“My grandfather used to say, ‘Oil is a commodity you own, not something that defines you.’” Musgrave did not have to spell out for Wharton that his grandfather had uttered the platitude as a cabinet member in President George H. W. Bush’s one-term administration.

“You can’t be inimitable if you float on the same rising tide as all boats,” Wharton crowed, now rehearsing his speech as the first Mr. Houston recipient who would reject the celebration of oil—in his case, as not celebratory enough of his own distinguished talents, any industry that ultimately derived its success from the luck of drilling into the earth’s right spots. Where was the sport in that?

“At every stage in my life I’ve been the best, gone further. Whether it was graduating at the top of my class and still finding the intestinal fortitude to captain the basketball team at a little school in Boston, or serving as a leader after that by besting my peers on the trading desk.” Little school in Boston. The competitor speech had sunk the hook deep in this billfish. “Captained at Harvard, eh?” Was it even necessary to insult this captain by asking him for a solution to a case study? The rest of the interview would be better spent shooting clays. What a joy it would be to open the gate for such a competitor. To hit him with a tight spiral in the end zone during the Consulting Bowl. Even the future king of a city needed his lieutenants.

“All-Conference in the Ivy League can’t match being drafted in the seventh round,” Musgrave said with a fellow-club-member-sized grin.

Wharton marveled at the young pro’s subtle dropping of draft placement. Musgrave had clearly scouted CCG in Houston and re- searched some national who’s-who list of upcoming talent to watch. Wharton scanned to the bottom of the interview report and found the box labeled Fit for CCG? Wharton checked it and wrote beside it in his best mock Shakespearean: hire he or expire we. Next to it he sketched a small hourglass with an arrow pointing to the small amount of sand left in the top half and printed granularity unnecessary.

Each applicant was scored by the assigned interviewer in three categories: behavioral assessment, case performance, and fit for CCG. It was nothing if not subjective—something Wharton favored, though the case interview portion was supposed to be an objective measuring stick to compare the competing applicants’ analytical abilities. Wharton always tested one of two case problems. Both problems were based on actual consulting assignments he had worked on at CCG for six and eleven months respectively. The Dr Pepper branding case was his preferred test to sit in judgment of. In an interview, he allowed twenty to twenty-five minutes to present the case portion. He looked at his watch; they had plenty of time. Wharton shuffled the charts on his desk and called an audible, “Change of plans. You already did three cases in the first round, right?”

“Two cases.”

Two cases, three cases,” Wharton began, rolling his eyes to telegraph his would-be future protégé to play along with one of his favorite pastimes, “are we accountants? Well, you have at least three more to work through today anyway. I think at this point, with your credentials, it might be more interesting to stick with the behavioral part of the interview. Have you scan some charts and graphs and dis- cuss what qualitative data you can pull from them.” Pull qualitative data to make more money, that inalienable American commandment from J. P. Morgan that Wharton had taken an oath to uphold while in the womb. “Every top consulting firm can walk into any elite business school and come out with enough number-crunchers to boil the ocean, Topper. Between you and me, what we really look for are people who are not afraid to make a decision when faced with an impossibly large amount of data. We want the alpha male in the pack who sails across the ocean. I will ask you a favorite question here at CCG: What is your biggest failure and your biggest success in life?”

Musgrave suddenly lowered his imperious forehead and pantomimed a hesitant neurotic, only to shoot up to the surface and lock eyes with an awaiting Wharton to complete the variety act. “Is it wrong to confess that I can’t think of a failure?”

No,” Wharton said, rising from his chair, unable to stay seated in his excitement that the recruit had hit his line, “that’s the right answer at CCG!”


Reprinted from King of the Mississippi by Mike Freedman. Copyright © 2019 by Mike Freedman. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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