Unclaimed Property And The Real James Brown
“Ah Feel Gooood!” – Finding The Real James Brown, And Reuniting Him With Almost A Half-Million Dollars In Unclaimed Property…A Nifty Story – And One That’s Still Contains A Valuable Takeaway On Abandoned Property
Back in 1986, around the time your editor became the business manager for the Stock Transfer Division of the old Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, almost no U.S. public company escheated so-called abandoned property, except, perhaps to their state of incorporation – fearing, they said, that doing so would subject them to all kinds of bothersome inquiries from state bureaucrats, potential audits, and maybe claims for tax payments and/or penalties by states where they felt they did not qualify as “doing business” therein. And, happily for our corporate clients, back in the ‘good old days’, no states bothered them one way or the other…although, sorry to say, all their fears have since come to pass.
But sadly for us – the mostly poor and mostly meek TA community – we had to account for all the returned and otherwise un-cashed checks, and all the returned stock-split and stock-dividend certificates too – in individual “ledgers” that were separate and apart from the basic shareholder records. The ledgers had to be hand-posted every quarter – since “computerization” was still in its infancy in the TA world – and, to add insult to injury, the people who actually came forward to claim such securities and funds were few and far between: So we were stuck with a shockingly tedious, constantly growing, ridiculously expensive and mostly fruitless job of work – which, in those intensely competitive days, TAs were doing as ‘part of the job’- free of any extra charges!
Worse yet, from your editor’s point of view – and as he has been saying and writing for over 40 years now – having files labeled “abandoned property” was equivalent to posting a big sign saying “WELCOME” to all sorts of scoundrels and thieves that were and still are lurking out there to claim it as their very own while no one was looking. As you can learn in more detail from the “Tales From The Crypt” – in the History section of our website – it was fairly easy for unscrupulous “finders” – including company insiders, and yes, a few rogue employees of transfer agents too – and the infamous California Con, who laid claim to abandoned property from his jail cell – to masquerade as the legal owners or their legal heirs and to help themselves to the cash and stock with reckless abandon. The liabilities to a TA that was “holding” all this property – and to their corporate clients too – were unconscionable, and totally unsustainable in our view.
So we decided to offer our clients an abandoned property search and reunification program; one that would be fee-based – unlike most “professional finders” programs back then, where the finders typically got the “found owners” to cough up 30% of the value – and one that would cover virtually all “lost shareholders” (ex those with truly miniscule holdings) – and not just the biggest ones, on whom the bounty hunters naturally spent all of their time and effort, leaving the poor TAs to maintain that ever-growing mountain of “ledgers” - mostly with balances that were individually negligible, but that represented a staggering pile of unclaimed money in the aggregate.
We recruited our first expert, Maureen Cassiday- Guillet, from the suddenly defunct Markham & Company (shut down by the FBI) and she quickly recruited two of her former co-workers (see more on Markham in our “Tales from the Crypt”). And we very quickly convinced our largest dividend- paying clients that finding their lost shareholders, and giving them their property back, was the right thing – and by far the smartest thing to do, as it still is, by the way.
Within weeks of launching our new service a huge hullaballoo arose in the new unit: The normally buttoned-down and neat as a pin Maureen Cassidy- Guillet came crashing into our office, looking somewhat disheveled, waving a sheaf of papers and literally screaming with excitement:“We’ve found the real James Brown! The godfather of soul! And he has almost a half-million dollars of unclaimed property coming to him!”
Our initial skepticism (James Brown, we opined, was probably the third or fourth most common name in the USA) was quickly put to rest: One of our three searchers, Jim Baker, lived near Brown’s one-time house in Queens – the ‘last-known address’ – “With a big J-B on the roof” he said. And team-mate Robert Boyle had quickly found and called Brown’s agent, who was able to quickly ID the source of the abandoned property as the stock in Lynn Broadcasting Company that Brown had gotten many years ago to do a promo for them, and that, sure enough, had grown many times over in value while James was mostly on the road, having forgotten about the stock completely…
James Brown - of course - wanted to come in person - asap – to personally pick up his check.
Our first step was to call the head of “Bank Security” - whom your editor knew very well from an earlier abandoned property embezzlement investigation (NOT conducted on his watch, thank God). But within minutes, news that we would be getting a personal visit from the Godfather of Soul spread like wildfire among the 1,000+ mostly clerical staffers we had at our West 33rd St. operations center.
Come the appointed day and time, 33rd Street was mobbed with employees who had timed their coffee break to his arrival time. After a brief but not unexpected wait, the real James Brown pulled up to the curb, standing up in a convertible limo with the top down – clad in a shiny black tux, a bright red silk shirt with black piped ruffles and red pocket hankie - and carrying two dozen red roses for Maureen.
“Ah feel gooood!” he shouted, jumping up and down in the limo, smiling and and waving his arms to the excited crowd as only James Brown could do. And who wouldn’t feel good? With an eye on the prize, he quickly made his way through the crowd - landing a few kisses, doing his little shuffle dance, then onto the elevator – and up to our smallish lobby, which was packed solid with excited staffers, and with more people trying their darndest to push in.
Our Security guys were horrified: “You’ve got to get him out of here as soon as possible” they demanded. “Hand him the check quick, and we can take him through here [the jam- packed corridor] and out the back way.”
“Sorry guys; don’t you know anything about James Brown? He won’t leave until he is good and ready, and you can be 100% sure he will not go out the back door.”
So first things first; Maureen, Jim and Bob formally presented his check…And you can guess what he shouted, at the top of his lungs, before handing over the roses with a big bow, followed by a few sung bars of his number-one hit, accompanied by more joyous shuffle-dancing…and a few quick kisses…Then, sure enough, with big check in hand, he was ready before we knew it to beat a fast but gracious retreat, down the same elevator he arrived in.
A totally unforgettable day! But sadly, within just a few months – and was anyone really surprised? – the newspapers were reporting that the Godfather of Soul was broke again.