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In the New York offices of Ramsey and Co., president Walter Ramsey orders his subordinates, led by head secretary Margaret Lanier, to prepare for the arrival of new executive Fred Staples. Over coffee, several secretaries discuss the rumor that Fred is meant to replace the ailing vice president, Bill Briggs, who is coming off a medical leave after suffering an ulcerous stomach. Fred, a production engineer and former head of a small tool and dye company in Ohio, drives in from his new suburban home with his wife Nancy, and is taken aback by his luxurious office. Bill welcomes Fred warmly, but the men's introductions are interrupted by Bill's secretary, Marge Fleming, who informs them of an unexpected meeting called by Ramsey. In Bill's office, Marge confides her dismay that Ramsey has just assigned her to be Fred's new secretary. Although stung that he was not consulted, Bill encourages Marge to accept the position and agrees to take on a less experienced secretary. In the meeting, Ramsey introduces Fred before turning to the acquisition of a bankrupt company in a small town. Bill argues vigorously that the measures in Ramsey's proposal will cost most of the company, and town, their jobs. To Fred's dismay, Ramsey comes down harshly on Bill, dismissing his concern as ineffectual sentiment that ignores the long-term economic aims of the plan. Ramsey asks Fred his opinion and when Fred states he knows nothing about the company or the purchase, Ramsey is pleased by his honesty. Later after the meeting, Bill overhears Ramsey tell Fred that he must assist Bill on numerous projects. That evening at home, Fred admits to Nancy his unease over the tensions and undercurrents at his new office, but Nancy suggests Ramsey's attention to him bodes well. Several days go by and Fred slips into the office routine, working well with the affable Bill. Marge congratulates Fred for adapting so quickly and he comments on her tacit resentment toward him. Marge admits her discomfort at leaving Bill after seven years and observes that Bill, as the last of the company's founding members, deserves more of Ramsey's respect. Instead, Marge fears that Ramsey is trying to force Bill out due to his poor health. A few nights later at a party given by the Staples, Nancy gives Ramsey a report prepared by Fred. Although unhappy with his wife's action, Fred meets Ramsey in his study and is pleased when Ramsey praises the report. When Fred reveals that Bill, who has been too ill to attend the party, contributed to the report in equal measure, Ramsey warns him not to be generous to unworthy associates. Angered, Fred stands up for Bill, but Ramsey insists that while Bill was once a good executive, he has refused to adapt his business strategies to the times. Fred insists that Bill would be hard to replace and is stunned when Ramsey heatedly replies that Fred should accept that he was hired to replace Bill. Ramsey states that he will never fire Bill, but knows he will retire soon. After the party, Fred scolds Nancy for showing Ramsey the report, but when he suggests he will not "step on" others to get ahead, Nancy presses him to admit his own ambitions and have the strength to go after them. A few nights later, Fred is surprised to find Bill at the office even though he promised to take his teenaged son Paul to a baseball game. Bill reveals he sent Paul on alone and acknowledges he has been drinking to quell a headache. After Bill praises Fred's report and says he feels reassured that Fred supports many of his own ideas, he goes on to criticize the cold harshness that has crept into the business. Fred suggests that in order to grow, businesses must change, but Bill laments the honorable, personal touch that Ramsey's father gave to the company thirty years before. When Fred asks Bill if he has considered resigning, Bill admits he has, but then furiously declares he will continue to withstand Ramsey's degrading treatment and never resign. Fred grows alarmed when Bill suddenly describes his deep hatred for Ramsey and, when Paul returns, calms Bill by offering to take his son home for him. The next day, in preparation for a meeting, Ramsey is angered to find Bill's name on the report and crosses it out before copies are made. During the meeting, both Fred and Bill are taken aback by the omission of Bill's name from the report, but when Fred attempts to make amends, Ramsey overrides him and condescendingly berates Bill for attempting to claim credit for Fred's presentation. The three men begin a heated argument, in which Ramsey stingingly accuses Bill of not having had an original idea in ten years. When Bill rises, Ramsey warns him that if he finds things intolerable he can resign and Bill mutely returns to his seat. After the meeting's recess, Bill goes into the hall and collapses and dies later that afternoon at the hospital. Later, Nancy finds Fred in a bar near the hospital, outraged over Ramsey's brutal behavior toward Bill. Nancy reminds Fred that he advised Bill to resign, but Fred insists he will give up his position immediately. Fred orders Nancy home to pack, but Nancy refuses, declaring she will accompany him to the office. Upon returning there, Fred is stunned when Ramsey calmly orders him to take Bill's place on a trip the next day. When Fred bitterly states he would never allow Ramsey to treat him like he treated Bill, Ramsey declares that difference is why Bill was ineffectual and why Fred will be effective as vice president. When Fred hesitates, Ramsey tells Fred that if he leaves, he will never realize his full potential and remain unhappy. Ramsey offers to double Fred's salary, provide stock options and give him an unlimited expense account if he accepts the vice presidency. Fred retorts that he will never give Ramsey a moment's peace as his second-in-command, then agrees to the terms. Surprised by his grim pleasure, Fred then goes downstairs to share the news of his promotion with Nancy.