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HBR Case Study





World-Class Bull
Inspired sales ploy or ethical breach?

YOUVE GOT TO be kidding me, Sam, An ethics breach is an ethics breach.

Jeremy sputtered. Chris brought in As our code states, deceptive busi-
the single biggest piece of business ness practices are unethical. There
weve won here in more than two have to be consequences. And you, of
years. Hes our top performer! He all people, should know that.
broke that logjam with Armadillo! True enough, Jeremy thought.
He was absolutely brilliant! When he had arrived at SFS ve years
From the window of his 10th-oor ago, on the heels of an embarrassing
office at Specialty Fleet Services, kickback scandal, Jeremy had been
sales vice president Jeremy Silva a driving force behind creating the
spied two of the bright yellow repair corporate code of ethics. And now
trucks of Armadillo Gas & Power a it was being wielded against his star
block away, anking a rectangular sales animal, Fort Knox. How had it
gash in South Polk near the old Para- come to this?
mount building. Getting Armadillos
lucrative eet-management business One Tough Customer
had been a long, hard slog. Had it not been for the endishly Six months earlier, regional sales manager Will Meyers had
clever machinations of sales ninja Christopher Knox (known returned from yet another frustrating visit with Armadillos
as Fort to his colleagues, because of his golden touch), SFS CFO, Dale Landry. I just never get any closer, he said with a
would still be trying to dent Armadillos famously resistant sigh, collapsing into a booth with Jeremy and Fort, who were
armor. And now, to Jeremys amazement, human resources already digging into a late lunch at Texas Two-Step, Amarillos
vice president Samantha Williams was informing him that leading shrine to barbeque. Will was going to make them listen
she wanted to reprimand Knox for a breach of the SFS code to him vent no matter what, and Jeremy got him going.
of ethics. So, Dale didnt like the FleetNet demo?
Daniel Vasconcellos

If brilliant is a synonym for devious, maybe so, said Sam, He sat and watched, didnt ask a single question, and
eyebrows raised. Sam was Jeremys friend and frequent ally, shrugged when it was over, Will grumbled.
having helped him push through a reorganization of the sales
force, including new incentive and commission structures. But HBRs cases, which are ctional, present common managerial
she was also currently the chair of SFSs ethics review board. dilemmas and offer concrete solutions from experts. | May 2009 | Harvard Business Review 35

1116 May09 Humphreys layout.indd 35 4/3/09 10:41:25 AM

HBR Case Study World-Class Bull
FleetNet was SFSs new eet managers. It was conse- the guy with the hobby ranch by Palo
Offer your solution
online system for providing to the dilemma in quently a thorn in Wills side Duro?
customized support to clients. this ctional case that even though Armadillos Yeah, I think thats him, Will said.
study at sales-
Using GPS-enabled modules eet manager was enthusi- Only time he shows signs of life is when
installed in every vehicle, the astic about FleetNet, he had hes talking about his bull. He said he
system tracked location, miles to defer to Dale Landry, the showed it down in Lubbock last week-
traveled, fuel efficiency, and the drivers only person authorized to pull the trig- end, and it won some kind of a ribbon.
behavior (speed, jackrabbit starts, hard ger on a change in the companys eet- Whoop-de-freakin-do.
stops, and so on) in real time. It also service providers. Fort nodded and stared at the pile of
compiled maintenance and accident re- Worst thing is Dales always encour- bones on his plate. Would you mind if
cords, and tracked the cost of upkeep aging me to drop by to make another I took a run at the guy? I think maybe I
and repair for every vehicle a customer pitch, Will complained. I think hes can get his attention.
owned or leased, the vehicles up-to-the- kinda sadistic. Will looked over at Jeremy, and Jer-
minute resale value, and countless other Chris Knox licked barbeque sauce emy shrugged. At this point, weve got
data points of vital interest to clients off his ngers. Dale Landryisnt he nothing to lose, right?


article continued. The Benets of Beefing Up Servers

When it comes to servers, Ken the IT guy knows be on track with the lack of growth enjoyed
how to handle things. Its important that youve prior to these troubling times. Im not sure
got a separate server for every different process. the economy makes much difference. Things
Ideally, wed have a separate server for every single have been this way around here for a long, long
department. It makes our job about a thousand time. It might not be the smartest way, but its
times harder, but Im pretty sure that more servers our way. And nows no time to change what
means more power. And more power means weve been doing or havent been doing. Stay
you get more done. At least thats what were the course, thats our motto. Sure, we could
banking on. probably be doing a lot more. But we could
be doing a lot less, too.
It seems many companies are following Kens
lead these days, which is to say theyre spending
more time xing servers than solving problems.
Indeed, running around and having to maintain
servers all day long has become the bane of Kens
department. Frankly, its kind of a nightmare,
when you think about it. But thats just how we
do things around here, I guess.

And while business may not exactly be booming,

managing resources and reacting quickly to
problems arent a concern for the company.
Weve got bigger sh to fry with all these server
issues we have. Look, weve got a lot of computers
around here. And were counting on those
computers to help us get more done. Everything
else should work itself out. If not, well, then I
guess weve got problems. But well cross that
bridge when we get to it.

Thanks to the high maintenance costs and

licensing fees, many poor performers seem to

1116 May09 Humphreys layout.indd 36 4/2/09 2:17:51 PM

Nope, Will agreed. Ive done every- want you to think I was up to anything
thing I can think of. Its time for some- shy.
one else to try. By all means, she said. My husband
The commissiond be all yours, Fort and I are very proud of Big Buddy. Hes
offered. won numerous awards. Fort could al-
Nah, Will said. Itll take Armaged- most swear that Carol Landry blushed.
don to land Armadillo. If you pull it off, He thanked her, excused himself, walked
youll have earned the commission and back down the fence line to where the
youre welcome to it.
The two of you will split it, Jeremy
said. Fairs fair.
bull was standing, took a dozen digital
photos, and then went on his way.
On the long drive back to town, Fort
Bull Artist
Fort did his research. Dale and Carol
stopped by a bridge over a modest brook
that ran along the edge of some woods.
He watched the water sluice over color-
Landry had inherited their small but ful stones. It was hypnotic and serene,
Use virtualization
picturesque ranch (which Dale, being belying the restive forces at play be-
and you can lower
a CFO, would have admitted was the neath the surface.
your hardware
size of a rounding error compared with
costs right now,
some of the far bigger spreads nearby). Taking the Bait
The Landrys had a small herd of long- Hi there, remember me? Fort inquired
while improving your
horn cattle and, indeed, one bull in par- in a playful tone. Carol Landry did in- efficiency and
ticular that they were bumper-sticker deed remember the polite young man responsiveness. Ask
proud of as in, My Bulls Smarter than who had asked to take pictures of Big how people_ready
Your Honor Student. Buddy. She invited him in. It had been optimization solutions
Fort drove down to the Landry ranch a couple of weeks since their rst en- help you do more
on a Saturday morning. Hed planned counter, and Fort had a surprise for the with less.

I wouldnt want you to think I was

up to anything shy.
for the encounter to seem like a happy Landrys. He handed Carol Landry an el-
accident. As he turned up the winding egantly framed photo of the impressive
drive to the residence, he saw an enor- bovine.
mous longhorn bull standing by the The pictures turned out so well, I
fence, aloof from the herd. If pursuing thought you might like to have one,
Dale Landry hasnt worked, he thought, he said, beaming. In truth, Fort was an
lets see if I can get him to chase me. above-average amateur photographer.
Knocking at the front door, Fort was Even if it hadnt been part of his scheme,
in chess-player mode, thinking several he would have been proud of the photo,
moves ahead. Carol Landry answered the way hed captured something es-
the door. The game was on. sential about the subject an impassive
Hi, there, Fort offered cheerfully, his stubbornness, black eyes like glass. Forts
bright smile and personality on full dis- pleasure with the print radiated to Carol.
play as the two introduced themselves. I Wow, its just magnicent, Mr. Knox!
hate to bother you, but I was passing by she exclaimed.
and caught sight of that big bull of yours. Please. Call me Chris.
If you wouldnt mind, Id like to take She angled the photo on an entry ta-
some pictures of him. Hes pretty amaz- ble beside a leather-bound biography of
ing. Then he added, I always believe the British explorer Henry Stanley. She
its best to ask permission I wouldnt continued to thank him as he grinned
Because its everybodys___business

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HBR Case Study World-Class Bull

and made his getaway. But he wouldnt car (Cadillac Escalade) so that he could Springing the Trap
be gone for long. ensure that Dale would be home for his By the time of his next visit, Fort could
As Fort headed back down the road, next spontaneous visit. barely refrain from congratulating him-
away from the Landry ranch, a car He let three weeks pass three self as the Landrys driveway came into
came toward him over a rise. Behind weeks during which Dale Landry would view. He was brilliant! He was positively
the wheel he saw the impassive face of see and appreciate daily the artful clairvoyant! During the intervening
Dale Landry, full of chiseled concentra- portrait of his beloved Big Buddy and weeks, through casual observation (a
tion, entirely unsuspecting. (Of course, would hear from his wife (more than term he preferred to surveillance)
Fort had Googled Dale and Big Buddy once, Fort was certain) about the polite, Fort had discovered that Dale Landry
and had found a number of photos of thoughtful, generous young man who typically came home by noon on Fridays.
the two of them posed together, Big had taken the picture and had it framed Bingo! Fort said to himself. Not only
Buddy looking utterly indifferent to the for them. Time was his ally. It would was Dales Escalade parked in front of
ribbons in which, judging by the size of be foolish to betray any eagerness. Like the house, but he and Carol were out-
his grin, Dale was taking such pleasure.) rich tea, the ingredients of Forts strat- side, each brushing one of Big Buddys
Fort noted the make and model of the egy needed to steep. hefty anks.

38 Harvard Business Review | May 2009 |

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Dr. Landry, I presume? Fort said, aroused suspicion). Camera in hand, he Look, said Sam Williams, holding up
echoing, in a feeble British accent, ran into Dale Landry at a livestock auc- a printout of Jeremys e-mail in praise
Henry Stanleys famous salutation upon tion one beautiful Saturday morning. of Forts tactics, what if somebody sent
nding the elusive Dr. Livingstone. And in the middle of the following week, this over to Landry? How do you think
Thats me, said CFO Landry. Fort went to watch his nephew play a he would feel about SFS? Hed feel like
Dale, said Carol Landry, this is Chris, Little League game, and there was Dale, we made a fool of him and his wife!
the nice man who brought us that won- watching his own kid Dale, Jr. (nick- And hed be right! So, I think we have to
derful picture of Big Buddy. Then, turn- named Little Buddy!) play second base ask ourselves, as an organization, when
ing to Fort, she said, Im very sorry to for the other team. does a so-called smart sales strategy
say Ive forgotten your last name! Every time he spoke with Fort, Dale cross the line to become deceitful? Does
Knox. Chris Knox, Mr. Landry. They seemed more agitated and more curi- this sort of thing put our relationships
shook hands. ous about SFS. Fort tried hard to con- with clients at risk? Does it damage
Well, Chris Knox, Im real glad to be tain himself. He couldnt help thinking our reputation? The code requires us to
here to meet you. We truly do love the that Dale Landry was so accustomed to deal honestly with customers and other
picture you took. This old bull is almost being pursued that he seemed kind of stakeholders. Is this honest?
like family. So, thank you very much. lame as a pursuer. Fort was invariably Jeremy sputtered, Wheres the harm?
At Carols insistence, they went inside nonchalant, often redirecting their con- Nobody got cheated. Nobody paid a
for iced tea. So, tell me, Chris, what do versation away from business, as though kickback. Armadillo is getting a better
you do besides photographing large that was the last thing on his mind. service than it had before. And Fort
farm animals? Dale asked. Fort told
Dale that he worked in sales for Spe-
cialty Fleet Services. Wheres the harm? Nobody got
Really? Dale exclaimed. Thats a
heckuva coincidence. Im with Arma- cheated. Nobody paid a kickback.
dillo Gas & Power, and you folks have
been chasing my business for years. Af-
ter explaining that he worked a differ- On a day when Dale had left two mes- didnt violate a single item in our ethics
ent territory, Fort offered a morsel. We sages before lunch and one after, Fort code. When all this happened, Landry
provide our customers with lots of data, gured it was time to call back. Hed wasnt even a customer of SFS!
very customized. Because of that we barely gotten out Hey, Dale when the Technically speaking, maybe not,
tend to focus on really large accounts. Armadillo CFO cut him off. Id like to Sam said. But the story of what Fort
Im not that familiar with Armadillo see that demo again, he said. Can you did is now an official source of motiva-
Gas, but maybe you dont need the high and Will Meyers come over here some- tion for our sales force. God forbid, but
level of service we offer. Maybe were a time tomorrow and run me through it? will people be out in the eld trying to
little more expensive than what youve top him? The whole thing has me think-
got now. Time to Cut the Bull? ing that maybe the code of ethics has
Fort noted the slight aring of Dales It was a happy day when Armadillo a blind spot in it.
nostrils so interesting how people re- signed its contract with SFS. So pleased
ally do start to look like their pets. Well, was Jeremy Silva with Forts perfor- Does the SFS sales team deserve
I gotta run, he said. But, hey, Im real mance that he sent an e-mail to the en- an ethics reprimand or a clean bill
glad you liked the photo. He drained his tire sales team (subject line: world-class of health? Four commentators offer
iced tea, said his thank-yous, and left. bull) describing Forts every maneuver. expert advice.
Dale Landry called rst thing Monday Jeremy wisely credited Will with hav-
morning just as Fort gured he would. ing paved the way for what Fort nally John Humphreys (john_humphreys@
But Fort didnt return the call. Instead, achieved, making it easy for Will to be and Mildred Pryor
that Friday, he brought the Landrys a gracious toward his cocky colleague. (
calendar with photos of prize longhorns. But some at SFS were less delighted are professors of marketing and manage-
This is so beautiful, Carol said. But Dale than Jeremy and his team. Copies of Jer- ment at Texas A&M University Com-
seemed preoccupied, mostly asking Fort emys e-mail made their way through merce. Zafar U. Ahmed (zafaruahmed@
questions about this online service-net the company and, eventually, to the is a professor and the dean of
thing you do. ethics review board. Now Jeremy was the College of Business and Management
Fort also engineered a couple of forced to defend Fort from the very eth- at Fahad Bin Sultan University in Tabuk,
other encounters (too many might have ics process he had initiated. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. | May 2009 | Harvard Business Review 39

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HBR Case Commentary Does the SFS Sales Team Deserve an Ethics Reprimand or a Clean Bill of Health?

WHEN I was young, my father, a lifelong sales and did not evaporate once the sales contract
executive, proudly showed me his three-by- was signed. Likewise, he could participate
ve card le, a rich trove of personal facts in activities that would bring him in contact
about each of his prospects: their children, with the Landrys as long as his interest was
their hobbies, their illnesses. In the end, he somewhat sincere. One of the salespersons
told me, people buy from their friends. He most ecstatic moments, of course, is to nd
would spend a portion of every sales call ask- that a longtime friend has suddenly become
ing about customers personal lives. He took a sales prospect.
them to baseball games and helped them nd Im never surprised when salespeople like
the best summer camps for their children. He Fort push the envelope of acceptable behav-
became their friend. And boy, did he sell! ior. They get paid and paid well for making
In the SFS case, Fort Knox raised the sales. The incentive structure, particularly in
Kirk O. Hanson (kohanson@ friendship strategy to high art while, in my a time of recession, makes this an unavoid- is the University estimation, crossing several ethical lines able ethical hazard and a prime ethical risk for
Professor of Organizations along the way. I side with Samantha Williams many kinds of companies.
and Society and the executive on this one. Fort should have his hand, and What appalls me is Jeremys behavior. His
director of the Markkula probably his face, slapped publicly. However, e-mail shows that he doesnt understand
Center for Applied Ethics I think Jeremy Silva deserves even greater that such risks must be managed. By baldly
at Santa Clara University opprobrium for his e-mail in praise of Fort. But describing and praising Forts deception, Jer-
in California. He is also an more about that in a moment. emy has jeopardized the company. In an era
emeritus faculty member at I believe its permissible, even desirable, to of blogs and forwarded e-mail, theres a good
Stanford Universitys Gradu- share interests and passions with a prospect. chance his will be posted on a sales blog or
ate School of Business. (I have always wanted to know more about sent to Dale. Can you imagine his bull rage on
bull semen. Tell me about it.) Where Fort reading it? He might launch a vendetta against
went astray was in deceiving Dale and Carol SFS, damaging its sales for years to come.
Landry about why he was photographing Moreover, as Samantha warns, Jeremys
Big Buddy. Such behavior would have been e-mail encourages every SFS salesperson to

Fort crossed an ethical line by intruding

into the Landrys private lives.
borderline if he ran into them at a bull ex- try to top Forts ruse. Deceptive strategies
hibition, but Fort crossed an ethical line by will inevitably erupt elsewhere until there is
intruding into the Landrys' private lives. His a public airing of the companys manipulative
repeated violation of their personal space behavior. Jeremys kind of praise has done
makes the deception particularly distasteful signi cant damage in several well-known
and objectionable. cases. For example, in the early 1980s, after
How far can you go in developing a com- top managers at E.F. Hutton praised a branch
mon interest with a prospect? The ethical for its creative new ways of managing cash
principle here is from Immanuel Kant: It is ow, check kiting spread across many of the
improper to treat an individual merely as a brokerage rm's branches. Hutton never re-
means to an end. A salesperson cannot feign covered from the scandal.
an interest or manipulate a prospect just to I think Sam and the ethics board should
Wendy Wray

get the sale. If Dale or Carol were involved in publicly reprimand Fort. Jeremys e-mail
a charity, Fort could volunteer for it or contrib- has made that necessary. I doubt Jeremy is
ute to it as long as his altruism was genuine salvageable.

40 Harvard Business Review | May 2009 |

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Deception is never allowed in a
customer relationship.
FORTS ACTIONS were unethical. Aggres- to be his guest in the SFS box at the Ama-
sive sales tactics are often celebrated, as rillo rodeo. He could have introduced himself
they should be. But deceiving a current or pro- to Dale immediately disclosing his position
spective customer is always unethical. Period, at SFS and asked permission to take a pic-
case closed. ture of the prize bull for his own photography
Dont get us wrong: Secrets and deception collection (later sharing the photo with the
are a necessary part of business competition. Landrys). And arranging to run into Dale at
No business would want competitors to know the local Little League eld was completely Don Peppers (dpeppers
the truth about its strategic plans, for instance, legitimate. and Martha
and outright deception of competitors is com- Because of the short-term bias built into Rogers (
pletely ethical in many circumstances. But the structure of most sales commissions are the founders of the
theres a big difference between deceiving and incentives, great sales personalities like Peppers & Rogers Group, a
to compete more effectively and deceiving to Fort will always be tempted to resort to sub- consultancy headquartered
trick a particular customer. terfuge and tricks. The immediate reward in Norwalk, Connecticut,
Our plain-and-simple rule for avoiding this is certain, and the long-term consequences specializing in customer
kind of lapse? Deception is never allowed in probably arent even tracked. But what kind relationships. They are the
a customer relationship. Any company that of future can SFS possibly have with Dale? coauthors of Rules to Break
hopes to build long-term value for sharehold- After the subterfuge is revealed, how will any and Laws to Follow: How
ers has to earn its customers trust. A con SFS manager look someone from Armadillo in Your Business Can Beat
man can nearly always make money on a the eye and even pretend to offer trustworthy the Crisis of Short-Termism
one-off deal. But only a trusted adviser can advice? (Wiley, 2008). Rogers is also
succeed with a customer over time. The CEO of SFS should immediately re an adjunct professor at Duke
It shouldnt have taken a visit from Saman- Jeremy, discipline Fort, send an e-mail to all Universitys Fuqua School of
tha to make Jeremy realize that circulating a employees rmly asserting that deceiving Business.
description of Forts sales conquest, includ- customers or prospects is not the SFS way
ing all the little deceptions he perpetrated, of doing business, rewrite the ethics code to
was highly irresponsible. When that e-mail specify that deceiving a customer or pros-
comes to Dales attention and eventually it pect is always a violation of company policy,
will SFS will be embarrassed and wounded. and meet personally with Dale to let him know
By hitting the send button, Jeremy dem- what has happened (before he hears about it
onstrated that he does not understand the from others).
policies and behaviors that build long-term At this meeting, the CEO should tell Dale
shareholder value. By itself, Jeremys e-mail everything SFS is doing to make sure that
reduced the value of the company. this kind of deception doesnt happen again
Ironically, had Fort used what he already and offer to release Armadillo from the con-
knew about Dale in a completely ethical, forth- tract and to refund any setup costs already
right way, he would have been nearly as ef- incurred. If the CEO is sincere in his apology,
fective at winning Armadillos business in the perhaps Armadillos business can be saved
short term and far more effective at not losing (although that should not be the objective of
it in the long term which may well happen. the meeting).
Theres nothing wrong with a salespersons SFS should pledge never again to initiate a
cultivating an interest in bulls or ranches or faux relationship but instead to forge genuine,
cattle shows in order to forge a bond with a trusting, collaborative relationships that ben-
prospect. Fort could have invited the Landrys et customers and SFS alike. | May 2009 | Harvard Business Review 41

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HBR Case Commentary Does the SFS Sales Team Deserve an Ethics Reprimand or a Clean Bill of Health?

LIKE HIM or not, you have to acknowledge a customer of Specialty Fleet Services was
the style of the man with the Midas touch. an especially good move, helping Fort turn
Although Forts methods may look shady, he Dale from quarry into pursuer. Forts failure
certainly achieved a positive outcome one to return Dales phone calls troubled me a bit,
that satised both parties. because it undercut the polite, thoughtful na-
At rst glance, some people might con- ture that he had taken the trouble to establish
clude that this was not an admirable display (and that was so prized by Carol Landry). But
of persuasive technique but rather the darker he redeemed himself by showing up at the
side of manipulation. Indeed, many people Landrys house with yet another present.
confuse persuasion with manipulation be- Fort pursued a strategy of reciprocity to
cause they have never considered the differ- good effect: I give you something; you may
ence between the two. Persuasion is all about give me something back. What did Fort want

Fort simply got Dales attention and

let his persuasive skills do the rest.
relationships and, therefore, the long term. If in return for the photo of Big Buddy? An audi-
the outcome is not pleasing to both parties, ence with Dale. Thats what he got. He didnt
the relationship eventually crumbles. Manipu- coerce Landry into considering the services of
lation aims to satisfy the needs and wishes of SFS. He simply got Dales attention and let his
only one party, with no regard for and often persuasive skills do the rest. There is a clear
James Borg is a business at the expense of the other. difference between persuasion and coercion,
psychologist and interper- The tactics that the brilliant Mr. Knox and Knox didnt cross that line.
sonal skills trainer based in employed are carried out, to varying degrees, Should Fort be hauled in front of an ethics
the United Kingdom. He is by sales reps and businesspeople on a daily board? I say let him off with a warning that
the author of Persuasion basis. Its just that we dont often hear about focuses on his having concealed from Dale
(Pearson/Financial Times them. Sales professionals are, by nature, par- the knowledge of Dales position at Armadillo.
Press, 2004) and Body ticularly creative in the pursuit of results. Bear But given that this sort of thing happens often
Language (Pearson/ Prentice in mind that they experience more callous re- enough in business and that the client was
Hall Life, 2008). jection in a fortnight than most of us do in a enticed to buy, as opposed to needing to be
very bad year. Keeping ones ego intact can be sold (an essential requirement for ego-driven
a challenge. In most companies, stars like Fort people like Dale), Im comforted by the fact
come with certain idiosyncrasies that are tol- that both parties ended up with something
erated when they accompany above-average valuable. Dale got an arguably superior prod-
success. Our man Knox used his special skills uct for his company, and SFS got a solid new
to strike up a rapport, in the rst instance, with customer.
Dales wife; then he ended up with the holy As for Jeremy, he should be hauled in front
grail a strong third-party referral by the time of the companys Idiocy Review Board for
he engineered the rst meeting with her hus- sending an ill-advised, potentially damaging
band. The salespersons dream! e-mail. Some best practices are better left to
Having established a relationship some- oral history.
thing his predecessor, Will Meyers, failed to
Reprint R0905B
do Fort then played on Dales ego-driven na-
Reprint Case only R0905X
ture through a combination of logic and emo-
Reprint Commentary only R0905Z
tion, eventually enticing him to take the bait.
To order, see page 131.
Challenging Armadillos suitability to become

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