Could any reality TV show rival the swift falls and ignominious exits of top executives in 2007?
Call it “MBAs Gone Wild” or “Survivor: Wall Street,” since the only thing missing were tribal councils of teammates talking about their deep disappointment. For instance:
- BP’s chief resigned after admitting he lied to a judge about how he met his boyfriend. (The truth: An escort service’s Web site.)
- HBO’s CEO was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot. He explained in a memo to employees, “Two years ago, I decided that I could handle drinking again. Clearly, I was wrong.”
- WellPoint Inc.’s 53-year-old chief financial officer was defenestrated after one of the many women who said she was engaged to him sued. Among his other attachments was a pair of sisters. If you’re wondering what this lothario looks like, sorry: He looks like a 53-year-old CFO.
- Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.’s CEO left in a hurry, amid reports he’d exchanged racy text messages with underlings. (He denies it.)
Here then are the year’s winners and losers, with prizes for their achievements, dubious and otherwise.
Loser: John Browne
During Browne’s 10 years as CEO of BP PLC, the company’s market cap increased fivefold. But Browne also ran BP while a refinery blast killed 15 and a corroded BP pipe in Alaska led to the disastrous 2006 Prudhoe Bay oil spill.
But that’s not what got him ousted. It was getting outed. Browne was done in by lying to a judge as he fought a British newspaper that was preparing to publish details of his life with his boyfriend.
Despite the black eyes BP suffered under him, it was this misstep that Chairman Peter Sutherland called “a tragedy that he should be compelled by his sense of honor to resign in these painful circumstances.”
Browne’s prize: Life coaching sessions with former New Jersey Gov. Jim “Gay American” McGreevey.
Winner: Al Gore
Al Gore, who hugs trees and does a slideshow on their behalf, cleaned up in 2007. He won an Oscar, a Nobel Peace Prize and — perhaps most lucratively — a partnership working on alternative energy companies at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
While Gore has said he’ll donate his salary to the Alliance for Climate Protection, he didn’t mention what he’d do with stock options he earns. Typically, a venture capitalist’s big windfall comes from cashing in options when companies the firm invests in go public.
His prize: A fun night out with Tipper.
Loser: John Mackey
So, you run a company. Why not go online and post your opinions using an anagram of your wife’s name?
Umm, because it might be really humiliating when people find out?
That apparently didn’t occur to John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market Inc., also known as Rahodeb, his online alias for eight years as he made detailed comments about his company and its competitors.
The Federal Trade Commission noticed Rahodeb’s postings as it reviewed Whole Foods’ proposed purchase of competitor Wild Oats, a company Rahodeb had slammed repeatedly and in detail.
The merger closed, but the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Mackey’s postings. And Whole Foods, very quietly, tightened its online posting policies in November.
To Rahodeb, who defended Mackey’s hairstyle, (exact quote: “I like Mackey’s haircut. I think he looks cute!”) we award a hairbrush made of organic hemp and a board with the backbone to whack him with it.
Winner: Sam Zell
Jeans-wearing, motorcycle-riding billionaire Zell takes to heart the dealmaker’s most basic maxim: Buy low, sell high.
He sold his Equity Office Properties Trust to Blackstone Group L.P. for $24 billion, netting him an estimated $1 billion. Then he made a deal to buy battered Tribune Co. for $8.2 billion in April, but his actual outlay will likely be a fraction of that, since Zell agreed to invest $315 million, while the bulk of the company’s debt is taken on by Tribune’s employee stock ownership plan.
His prize: The services of a top-flight labor lawyer.
Losers: Charles Prince, Stan O’Neal
Proving again that chief executives are the only ones with nothing at risk if their companies slump, the Merrill Lynch & Co. and Citigroup Inc. CEOs retired suddenly as declining mortgage holdings shrunk their banks’ assets by billions of dollars, but both men managed to leave rich.
O’Neal left Merrill Lynch & Co. with a $161.5 million package of stock and benefits despite a $2.24 billion quarterly loss on his way out — the largest ever at the bank.
Then Citigroup said CEO Charles Prince was retiring, effective immediately, following Citi’s announcement that it would take $8 to $11 billion in asset writedowns, which came on top of $6.5 billion it had already taken.
Prince parted with a total of $95 million. While far more modest than O’Neal’s package, both men bagged the loot despite failing at one a CEO’s most important tasks: Grooming successors. Both banks named interim heads while they scrambled to find new CEOs, with Merrill quickly bringing in an outsider.
Prize: Investment advice from Sam Zell.
Winner: Jamie Dimon
Dimon, who was pushed out of Citigroup in a power play, proved that an unwieldy banking conglomerate could be functional. Under his leadership, JPMorgan Chase & Co. avoided the subprime dunking competitors suffered.
Dimon was pushed out of Citigroup 1998 by his one-time mentor, former Citi CEO and Chairman Sandy Weil. When Weil left Citi’s board in 2006, employees held up a banner at the annual meeting that read, “Thank you, Sandy!”
His prize: Another “Thank you, Sandy!”, this one from JPMorgan shareholders.
Loser: James Cayne
If reputation were all that mattered on Wall Street, Bear Stearns Cos. CEO James Cayne, 73, would have much more time to play golf and bridge, because he would have been sacked.
As two Bear Stearns hedge funds melted down over the summer, Cayne managed to spend 10 of 21 workdays out of the office, the Wall Street Journal reported, coptering from Manhattan to New Jersey on Thursday afternoons for regular golf games and skipping work for bridge tournaments. At least once, the Journal reported, he smoked marijuana in the men’s room at a bridge tournament. (Cayne denies that happened.)
Bear Stearns stood by Cayne, despite its own $2 billion write-downs of mortgage assets.
His prize: Dude! He’s earned a bag of White Castle sliders and a boxed set of the complete works of Cheech and Chong.
Winner: Steve Jobs
Apple Inc. earned a record $3.5 billion for the fiscal year, as iPod sales grew steadily and techies slept outside Apple Stores for a chance to buy an iPhone. The company’s gadgets brought in new users for MacIntosh PCs, which, after years of stagnating at a 2 or 3 percent share of the PC market, grew to an 8 percent share by October, making the company the nation’s third-largest computer vendor.
Charges against two former officers in the options backdating scandal and grumbling about the lockup iPhone deal with AT&T Inc. didn’t ping the company. The stock more than doubled.
One of the few hints that Steve Jobs was a mere mortal came when “OPtion$: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs,” a parody by Forbes writer Daniel Lyons, didn’t sell like a new iPod. That prompted Lyons to post on fakesteve.blogspot.com, “My book is so much better than (Stephen) Colbert’s, I swear to God.”
Prize: Something white and gleaming with no buttons. Maybe a new pullover?
Loser: Conrad Black
Black, a media mogul and British Lord, was convicted in July of three counts of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice in what federal prosecutors described as a multimillion dollar fleecing of media company Hollinger International Inc. He was sentenced in December to 6 1/2 years in prison.
Black’s trial offered plenty of evidence that shareholders paid for his high life, with the company spotting for a $62,000 birthday party for his wife, a Park Avenue apartment and a trip to Bora Bora.
When shareholders grumbled about the cost of the Bora Bora trip, he wrote a memo saying: “I’m not prepared to re-enact the French revolutionary renunciation of the rights of the nobility.” His fellow prisoners will, doubtless, be very sympathetic to that point of view.
His prize: In recognition of his Marie Antoinette-like ways, he gets membership to the cake-of-the-month club.
Winner: Rupert Murdoch
Murdoch’s News Corp. made a deal to buy Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co. for $5 billion, then successfully launched The Fox Business Network, which promised to be more pro-business than competitor CNBC.
The moves cemented Murdoch’s reputation as an empire-builder. But his purchase of the Journal led many high-profile staffers to leave, worried that Murdoch, whose British tabloid features daily pictures of half-naked women, would dumb down the paper.
His prize: Murdoch, 76, has earned a vacation. Bora Bora is nice this time of year.
Loser: Angelo Mozilo
The CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp., may be one of the few shareholders who made money on the stock in 2007, as the company booked its first quarterly loss in 25 years and the stock lost three-quarters of its value.
During all of 2007, whenever Mozilo exercised an option, he sold every share he’d purchased the same day, unloading about $130 million worth of stock in the first half of the year alone. Mozilo said it was all part of trading plans he’d established in October and December 2006, but shareholders including the treasurer of North Carolina were skeptical. The Securities and Exchange Commission said it was conducting an informal inquiry of the sales.
Given that Countrywide could use cash, Mozilo’s prize is an investment opportunity: He can plow all the millions he wants in Countrywide’s 5.35 percent certificates of deposit — guaranteeing him a much better return than Countrywide’s shareholders are likely to see anytime soon.
Winner: Donald J. Tomnitz
Tomnitz wins the year’s “at least he’s honest” award. The CEO of homebuilder D.R. Horton told investors in March, “I don’t want to be too sophisticated here, but ’07 is going to suck, all 12 months of the calendar year.”
He was right.
Horton swung to a fourth-quarter loss, and its stock lost half its value over the year.
In July, he said, “It is now clear that the selling season did not materialize this year. It is unclear to us when the housing recovery will begin ... we don’t see one on the horizon.”
Tomnitz also had the good graces to exercise options on 254,000 shares in June and hold them, treating his company’s stock as — gasp!— a good investment.
Prize: An investor relations merit badge.