Titans of the Enron Economy : The Ten Habits of Highly Defective Corporations

Article excerpt

The pivotal lessons from the Enron debacle do not stem from any criminal wrongdoing. Most of the maneuvers leading to Enron's meltdown are not only legal, they are widely practiced. Many of the problems dramatically revealed by the Enron scandal are woven tightly into the fabric of American business. Outside the spotlight on Enron's rise and fall, government policies and accounting practices continue to reward and shelter many firms with harmful habits just like those of Enron. We've ranked the 100 worst companies for each habit and awarded "Ennys" for outstanding Enron-like performance. We've also given a Lifetime Achievement Award to the corporation with the highest combined score for Enron-like performance in all ten categories (a hint: Enron placed second).

HABIT 1: Tie employee retirement funds heavily to company stock and let misled employees take the fall when the stock tanks--while executives diversify their holdings and cash out before bad news goes public. Winner: Coca-Cola.

Once upon a time the upward slope of Coca-Cola's stock price was as smooth as a cold Coke on a warm afternoon. Over the past couple of years, however, the venerable soft drink maker's stock fizzled like New Coke. Employees saw their 401(k) retirement assets evaporate, with the stock down more than 31 percent in the three years ending November 2001. Eighty-one percent of Coke's 401(k) was invested in company stock. Not all employees fared poorly. Former CEO M. Douglas Ivester left Coke under a cloud of controversy but received a severance package valued at more than $17 million; it included maintenance of his home security system and payment of his country club dues.

HABIT 2: Excessively compensate executives. Winner: Citigroup.

CEO Sanford Weill took home more than $482 million between 1998 and 2000. In 2001 he made another $42 million. Weill's stock compensation plan was amazingly equipped with a "reload" feature: Each time Weill cashed in his options, he automatically received new options to replace them. Imagine if Citigroup customers had a reload ATM machine that automatically added replacement money to their accounts after withdrawals! While throwing money at its executives, Citigroup rips off low-income Americans with predatory lending practices. The Federal Trade Commission has brought suit against Citigroup, alleging abusive lending practices; if all charges are proven, Citigroup's liabilities could reach $500 million.

HABIT 3: Lay off employees to reduce costs and distract from management mistakes. Increase executive pay for implementing this cost-cutting strategy. Winner: Lucent Technologies.

Last year Lucent axed at least 42,000 jobs. While these layoffs occurred during the tech-industry tumble, Wall Street critics lay much of the responsibility for Lucent's misfortune at management's door. Lucent was the only company to end up on both the Fortune and Chief Executive 2001 "worst boards of directors" list. Though the board took action and fired CEO Richard McGinn in October 2000, it gave him a golden parachute of more than $12 million as a parting gift.

HABIT 4: Stack the board with insiders and friends who will support lavish compensation and not ask difficult questions about the business. Winner: EMC Corporation.

Only two years ago this leading producer of computer storage media could have held Thanksgiving dinner in its boardroom: The chairman, Richard Egan, his wife and son all sat on EMC's board. As a member of the board Junior got to help set Dad's allowance (and help determine his own inheritance). How many kids wouldn't love that? Of course, Dad might not have needed much help, since he also sat on EMC's compensation committee, which determined his and other executives' pay. Since winning this award, EMC has added an independent director to its board.

HABIT 5: Pay board members excessively for their part-time service; pay them heavily in stock so they have a disincentive to blow the whistle on bad business practices that keep the stock price up. …