A Strange Request
My checkered performance during l’Affaire de la Limousine had apparently put me in the Copperweld-Imetal doghouse, because I received no more assignments on that matter for a long time.
Previously in this series: “A Humbling Start: Baron Rothschild and Me, Part II”
I’d nearly forgotten about the takeover when I received a call from the secretary to the head of the litigation group again, asking me to come to Mr. M’s office.
Having been once burned, I kept my expectations very low. But when I entered the huge corner office, there was Mr. M, staring morosely out the window. He didn’t speak to me, but simply pulled his left hand out of his pocket and pointed to his sofa. Was I supposed to admire it or sit on it? I did both.
Mr. M continued to say nothing for so long that I began to wonder if I was being taken to the woodshed. I went over all the things I’d done wrong over the past few weeks, but couldn’t figure out how Mr. M could have found out about any of them.
Finally, he sighed deeply and said, “I’m afraid we’re in a bit of a pickle on this damned Imetal matter.”
He talked for a long time, but I’ll summarize here because it’s pretty amusing. For months, Reed Smith had fought the Imetal takeover like it was Iwo Jima. The case was fought in the law courts, of course, but also in the court of public opinion.
Up to that time, no foreign company had ever launched a hostile attempt to take over an American corporation, and hence Imetal’s actions had made international headlines. Organized labor was unanimously against the takeover, but the rest of the public seemed split.
Someone decided to embarrass Baron Rothschild by having Representative (later Senator) John Heinz issue an invitation to the Baron to come to Pittsburgh and explain in person why Copperweld would be better off under Imetal’s ownership.
Everyone knew Rothschild wouldn’t accept the invitation — he wouldn’t want to compromise the court case. But the meeting would go forward without him and an empty seat in the room would emphasize his unwillingness to make his case to the people of Pittsburgh.
As Reed Smith got further into the matter, though, the firm concluded Copperweld’s case wasn’t all that strong. Perhaps Copperweld should open discussions with Baron Rothschild in the hope of reaching a compromise.
Those discussions were going surprisingly well until everyone suddenly realized that the meeting at which the Baron was going to be publicly embarrassed was still going forward and was happening that Saturday evening in Glassport, Pennsylvania.
“We did our best to get the meeting canceled,” Mr. M told me, “but the unions are too riled up. So after a lot of calls between Pittsburgh and New York and Paris, we decided the best way out of this mess would be to prepare some remarks for the Baron and to have someone read those remarks at the meeting.
“It would be awkward,” he continued, “for a senior partner at Reed Smith to read those remarks — we’re supposed to be defending against the Baron. But what about a young fellow no one knows, a fellow no one even associates with Reed Smith?”
He stared hard at me. He raised his eyebrows. I pointed reluctantly to myself.
“I hope you don’t have any plans for Saturday evening,” he said.
At first I was seriously annoyed about all this. It seemed obvious I was being used as a sacrificial lamb. If anything went wrong I would be left twisting in the wind, just another young lawyer who screwed up.
But then my opinion began to change. After all, how many people get to step into the shoes of the great Baron Guy de Rothschild? Maybe, I thought, Rep. Heinz and the other dignitaries who would be at the meeting had never met the Baron and would think I was him! Maybe I should read the Baron’s remarks with a slight French accent!
The Baron’s remarks were a masterpiece of graciousness while saying absolutely nothing of substance about the takeover. He opened by referring to the long friendship between France and the United States, going way back to another titled Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette. (A “marquis,” by the way, is a much more exalted title than “baron.”)
The Baron reminded his listeners that France and the United States had fought two world wars on the same side. He mentioned he had lived in New York City at several points during his life and had come to love America and its people.
The only allusion to business was the Baron’s acknowledgement that while Imetal was a newly formed company, it was continuing the business of Société Le Nickel S.A., a company older than Copperweld, having been founded in 1880. The Baron was “certain” that a partnership between Imetal and Copperweld would flourish.
I found the remarks interesting enough that I went to the library and did some research on Rothschild, this being in the days before the founders of Google were born. I’d assumed Rothschild had been a spoiled rich kid who’d grown up into a spoiled rich adult.
Instead, I learned the Baron had fought in World War II and been awarded the Croix de Guerre for conspicuous bravery at Dunkirk. He then traveled to New York to raise money for De Gaulle’s Free French Forces, and on the return trip his ship was sunk by a German U-boat. The Baron spent fourteen hours in the water before being rescued.
Years later, after France’s Socialist President, François Mitterrand, had nationalized the Rothschild Bank (and subsequently run it into the ground), the Baron had, in disgust, moved to New York. He was quoted as saying it would take “two strong policemen” to make him walk down Rue Lafitte ever again — that being the address of the bank.
Well, I was a lawyer and Rothschild was my sworn opponent. But in some still-unsullied corner of my heart I found myself hoping he’d prevail.
Next in this series: “Whoops! Baron Rothschild and Me, Part IV”