Tag Archive: Kenneth Lay


“Fear of criminal prosecution trumps any fear of public humiliation.” – Mark Palmer, former Enron managing director of Corporate Communications

“The longer you indulge in the practice of maintaining a cosmetic shell, the harder it is to recover when the shell eventually cracks.” — Len Brooks, University of Toronto

“Thanks to the Enron implosion and the subsequent rash of accounting and corporate-governance scandals, the credibility of any corporation is no longer assumed. It must be earned.” – Matthew Boyle, Fortune Magazine

palmer

Growing up, I repeatedly followed the mantra that winners never quit, and quitters never win.

But mumsy always said: “If you are in a bad situation get out of it.”

These two adages seem to be in direct conflict with each other, which brings me to the question that I posed to my students this week: If you were Mark Palmer, the former Enron managing director of Corporate Communications, what would you have done?

Would you quit?

Would you try to stop the sinning?

Would you become a whistle-blower?

Would you continue to drink your own bath water?

The answers to these questions and many more are not easy, considering that the staggering tales of criminal intent of the Smartest Guys in the Room story did not become clear until it was too late…way too late

Securing Palmer’s six-figure job as the head of PR for Fortune’s Magazine’s Most Innovative Company — the darling of Wall Street’s financiers, analysts and investors — would have been universally seen as a coup.

Chairman Kenneth Lay, President Jeffrey Skilling and CFO Andrew Fastow were regarded as business rock stars. The company could do no wrong as the stock price continued to rise even after the Internet bubble burst.

Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, Wall Street Journal and other influential business pubs couldn’t say enough good things about the Holy Trinity, and Enron. Life was presumably good for Palmer and his team…until the nightmare unfolded.

As we all know a decade later, it was all a lie. For the longest time, the Enron PR team didn’t know it was telling a lie.

In the documentary, The Smartest Guys in the Room (a.k.a. Lay, Skilling, Fastow), Enron Energy Services public relations director Mark Eberts recalled repeatedly hearing internal rumbles that the company was not doing well. And then…magically every quarter just like clockwork the company always exceeded its quarterly projections…and the stock continued to rise.

When something is too good to be true, isn’t that usually the case?

The first shot across the bow came in the form of a call from Fortune reporter Bethany McLean in 2001, who merely asked how the company made its money. Sounds like a softball question, but it wasn’t for Enron. Skilling told McLean that he wasn’t an accountant. Why does one need an advanced accounting degree to answer the most simple of business strategy questions?

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The subsequent story wondering whether Enron (NYSE: ENE) was overvalued started the downward pressure on the stock. That would not be enough to cause an experienced PR team to panic.

Enron

However, when Skilling suddenly resigned on August 14, 2001 for “personal reasons” the alarm bells started going off. Did he want to spend more time with his neglected family?

These warning signals intensified when the following evening the PR team was waiting unusually long, until 2 am for management to produce the income statement, the balance sheet and the cash-flow statement that normally accompanies a SEC-required quarterly earnings release.

Enron’s Karen Denne remembered the scene all-too-well: “I remember at the time there were sections in the press release that didn’t make sense, that I had questions about,” she said.

When she asked the executives to provide more information, she was told that everything was fine and there was nothing to worry about. Ultimately, though, the sections that concerned her were “the very quotes and phrases” that drew the attention of the reporters at the Wall Street Journal, she said.

It all came to an end on Dec. 2, 2001, when the nation’s seventh largest corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with $63.4 billion of assets on its balance sheet.

Lay was sentenced to 45 years in the slam (he died of a heart attack); Skilling, 24 years (currently serving his term in Colorado) and Fastow, 10 years (He served five years).

lay

For the public relations team, their shares in Enron were worthless. Thousands of Enron employees loaded up on the stock for their retirement, and for far too many ENE was their nest egg. The team members also carry the Enron imprimatur on their resumes.

For Palmer, he appears to be doing well according to LinkedIn as he is a Brunswick Group Partner in Dallas.  For Enron PR expert Karen Denne, she is the chief communications officer for the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles.

For each and every member of the Enron public relations team, Almost DailyBrett wishes them the best in their respective careers. One must wonder if they still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the Smartest Guys in the Room.

http://www.savvypr.com/iabcethicscolumn3.html

http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/stories/2003/06/30/newscolumn5.html?page=all

http://annenberg.usc.edu/News%20and%20Events/News/111110Enron.aspx

Ten years ago, a friend of mine was getting his knickers in a twist about a hugely successful, $101 billion energy-trading company from Houston, Texas that had just completed a takeover of his firm, a Pacific Northwest public utility.

He told me that these Texans were so friggin’ smart, in fact they were “The Smartest Guys in the Room” – I believe their names were Ken, Andrew, and Jeffrey – and that I needed to buy stock in their company pronto.

So I did some homework. And even more homework. And still some more homework…And I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out how this company made money. And the more I read, the more dazed and confused I became. Why would anyone pay gobs of money to this company to broker energy deals…sounds like a very expensive middle man?

Out of frustration because of my lack of business acumen, I didn’t invest a dime in this company. I think it was called…Enron (NYSE: ENE).

Which brings me to Somali Pirates and the question of whether there should be an IPO (Initial Public Offering) for their business?

somali

A cursory check on the CNBC website indicates that no NYSE-member company has the ticker symbol, PRT, or Pirate, and no NASDAQ-member has the ticker symbol, PIRS, for Pirates.

More importantly Somali Pirates has a “devastatingly effective business model,” according to the most recent edition of The Economist. The UN estimates that the annual cost of piracy lies somewhere between $5 billion and $7 billion (top line?). The Economist reported that Somali Pirate “earnings” (bottom line?) reached $238 million. To top it off, the pirates are now accepting ransom payments via electronic funds transfer.

“Great Investor” Peter Lynch has repeatedly stated that the difference between investing and gambling is that investors need to clearly understand a company’s business model and why they are buying shares. CNBC’s Jim “Mad Money” Cramer has repeatedly reminds his viewers that share prices are a leading indicator of the anticipated direction of a stock and that he is not interested in a stock’s past, only its future.

If you take both Lynch and Cramer at face value, and many other Wall Street talking heads, then you have to be excited about investing in Somali Pirates. We can all figure out how they make money (e.g. seize shipping, demand ransom, receive revenues either in cold, hard cash or via EFT). Got it. Wish that Enron was that clear…or maybe not.

Better yet, they are a minority-run-and-operated business. Do you think they would receive preferential treatment from the federal government?

What are the COGS (Cost of Goods Sold) on the financial statement for Somali Pirates? Mostly speed boats, AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and scaling ladders. They have reduced these costs somewhat by using “mother ships,” often captured deep-sea fishing vessels that they use as floating bases for their fast skiffs. Even though there are no hard-and-fast COGS numbers, there is every indication that the gross margin for Somali Pirates is expanding, not contracting (WallStreetease…).

What about personnel costs? Somali Pirates hail from the ultimate low-cost state (or more accurately, no state), Somalia. They don’t need to outsource to India. Let’s see that means that we can enter almost zero next to the line on the financial statement for SG&A (selling, general and administrative), unless you consider demanding ransoms to be “selling.”

How about R&D? The response by naval forces in the region about the size of Western Europe poses a risk to the business model of Somali Pirates, forcing them to operate further and further away from Somalia. Obviously some more work needs to go into supply over such long distances. And apparently they have not been successful catching up to ships making 18 knots or more…Sounds like they need to invest in competitive research focused on speed-boat technology.

Okay, so now we should have an operating income figure. Which brings us to taxes? What taxes? How about GAAP reporting? What’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to a bunch of pirates?

And finally, what about the threats to the business model of Somali Pirates? And will they prefer, similar to Facebook, to remain private…at least for the time being? There is a very real possibility that there will never be an IPO for Somali Pirates.

Maybe Goldman Sachs will just set up a hedge fund and invite wealthy investors to take their own stakes in privately held Somali Pirates. Besides who needs the headaches associated with quarterly earnings reports, pre-announcements, chairman’s letters, annual meetings of shareholders, SEC enforcement and the prospect of corporate raiders?

Think of it this way, if Wall Street-types could embrace Enron with irrational exuberance, then what’s to stop them from investing in a bunch of pirates?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enron:_The_Smartest_Guys_in_the_Room

http://www.investopedia.com/university/greatest/peterlynch.asp

http://www.cramers-mad-money.com/

http://www.economist.com/node/21015664

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