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The New York TimesThe New York Times TechnologyJuly 1, 2002  

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NEW ECONOMY

Ashamed to Be an Executive

By TIM RACE

WHEN President Bush pledged last week to "hold people accountable" in the WorldCom bookkeeping scandal, he picked an apt phrase. Whatever the reasons Mr. Bush waited for WorldCom to blow up before finally voicing outrage, it's reasonable to demand accountability for the accounting crisis in corporate America.

The president isn't alone in his disgust. The stream of scandals WorldCom, Global Crossing, Enron, and on and on appalls some longtime corporate leaders, who recall an era before the Internet stock bubble brought its social pathology.

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"The same way the market sentiment shifted toward an unbridled exuberance, the values of a lot of people managing companies in this market environment drifted toward `me, me, me,' " said Andrew S. Grove, the 61-year-old chairman of the chip giant Intel. "I've been in business for 40 years," Mr. Grove said, but lately, "I find myself feeling embarrassed and ashamed" to be a businessman.

Intel is widely admired as the model of a well-managed company. But Mr. Grove was already worried enough about the corporate credibility crisis that at the company's annual meeting in May he took a half-hour to explain the structure of Intel's board and its committees. He described the audit committee, as "perhaps most crucial," a group with "awesome responsibility."

"I wanted to get ahead of the questions that were bound to come," Mr. Grove explained later. "I was talking to shareholders. If they don't ask such questions, they should."

Because the Internet was integral to the values-distorting financial force field of the late 1990's, seasoned technology and telecommunications executives now seem to regard the fallout with a special bemusement.

"The Internet created a culture, and the culture got excited in and of itself," said C. Michael Armstrong, the 63-year-old chairman and chief executive of AT&T, who started his career at I.B.M. four decades ago.

The Internet culture, he said, brought new ways of measuring business success that replaced traditional benchmarks like profit and loss with new-economy constructs like page hits and eyeballs. "This thing was rooted in false metrics," Mr. Armstrong said.

Many telecommunications start-ups, for example, turned their spreadsheets into a time-honored form of horse-trading in the telephone industry known as I.R.U.'s, or indefeasible rights of use. I.R.U.'s involved companies' swapping access to portions of one another's networks to fill gaps in their coverage. The old-fashioned way to account for such swaps was to book the costs and revenue over the life of the contracts.

"We did a couple of swaps with some of these companies that you're reading about today," Mr. Armstrong said. "But we booked that very appropriately. We did not take the revenue and cash upfront."

But the Securities and Exchange Commission suspects that a number of companies did book such revenue upfront. "Can you imagine how much that helps your reported results?" Mr. Armstrong said. "I had some of my own managers come in and complain, `Mike, you're not playing by the industry rules.' "

But Mr. Armstrong said he wouldn't play along. "I didn't think of it as fraud," he said. "Maybe it's not." To him, the bookkeeping techniques simply did not solve the underlying financial problems the industry was facing. "WorldCom and Qwest and Global Crossing," he said, "they all have one thing in common: they do not have a capital structure to fund their business plans."

He also recalls being approached by Enron, as it ventured beyond energy to try recasting itself as an e-commerce company by trading bandwidth or network capacity as commodity futures contracts.

"I had three proposals from Enron," Mr. Armstrong said. "I talked to Ken Lay personally on it. I don't think he was out to defraud me."

But after sending an AT&T team to Houston to study the bandwidth commodities idea, Mr. Armstrong said no. A network link from Seattle to Denver is not interchangeable with one from Chicago to New Orleans, so trading bandwidth as a commodity made no sense, he said.

Mr. Armstrong doesn't try to cast himself as more ethical or smarter than other executives who were trying either to ride the Internet wave or avoid being swamped by it. But rather than subscribe to the new economy's new math, he chose another route, deciding in 2000 that the best future for AT&T lay in breaking it up into wireless, telecommunications and cable television businesses a decision that led to Comcast's deal to acquire the cable business.

If AT&T is emerging from the era of false metrics as a shadow of its former self, so far, at least, it has avoided bankruptcy or indictment.

Another longtime technology executive who watched aghast is Sandra Kurtzig. She founded her own Silicon Valley software company in 1972, long before such things were trendy. In 1994, the company, the ASK Group, was acquired by Computer Associates for $310 million. "When I started ASK, it was a group of people out of Stanford who liked working together," said Ms. Kurtzig, now 55. "The fact that we all made some money at it was amazing to us. It was `Gee, people use our products and we can make some money.' '

But she said a different psychology reigned in the venture-capital-driven dot-com days. She saw it first hand, having agreed to be chairwoman at eBenefits, an Internet-based corporate benefits and human resources company founded by her son, Andrew, who is now trying to buy it back from the venture capitalists who financed it. She also served on the boards of a few other dot-coms companies she now declines to identify, out of apparent embarrassment for all concerned.

"I got off a couple of boards where I couldn't stomach what was going on," she said. "The capacity for illusion was limitless. You'd have a budget meeting, and you'd say `Where's the revenue page?' And the C.F.O. would say: `Oh, don't worry about revenues. We're just looking at expenses, so we know when we need to raise more money.' "

When she offered to share her business experiences, "people would say, `Mrs. Kurtzig, that's the way things used to be done,' and I'd say under my breath, `And that's the way things will be done again.' "

Ms. Kurtzig, Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Grove all said they expected the pendulum to swing back from the excesses, in part because the next generation of business leaders have witnessed what the worst capitalist instincts can produce. Mr. Grove said he hoped that ambitious young people coming up through the business ranks would now be intent on organization building, instead of following the "me-first" mentality.

He remembers an airline flight in the early 1970's. Next to him was a soldier who told Mr. Grove that he had just volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. When he asked why, the soldier replied, "Rank is where war is." Now, in the current war for the hearts and minds of corporate America, "There will be a lot of battlefield commissions to be won," Mr. Grove said. "The heroes are going to be defined not by the Forbes list, but by the people who save companies from bankruptcy."




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  Welcome, bob@santafe
NEW ECONOMY

Ashamed to Be an Executive

By TIM RACE

WHEN President Bush pledged last week to "hold people accountable" in the WorldCom bookkeeping scandal, he picked an apt phrase. Whatever the reasons Mr. Bush waited for WorldCom to blow up before finally voicing outrage, it's reasonable to demand accountability for the accounting crisis in corporate America.

The president isn't alone in his disgust. The stream of scandals WorldCom, Global Crossing, Enron, and on and on appalls some longtime corporate leaders, who recall an era before the Internet stock bubble brought its social pathology.

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"The same way the market sentiment shifted toward an unbridled exuberance, the values of a lot of people managing companies in this market environment drifted toward `me, me, me,' " said Andrew S. Grove, the 61-year-old chairman of the chip giant Intel. "I've been in business for 40 years," Mr. Grove said, but lately, "I find myself feeling embarrassed and ashamed" to be a businessman.

Intel is widely admired as the model of a well-managed company. But Mr. Grove was already worried enough about the corporate credibility crisis that at the company's annual meeting in May he took a half-hour to explain the structure of Intel's board and its committees. He described the audit committee, as "perhaps most crucial," a group with "awesome responsibility."

"I wanted to get ahead of the questions that were bound to come," Mr. Grove explained later. "I was talking to shareholders. If they don't ask such questions, they should."

Because the Internet was integral to the values-distorting financial force field of the late 1990's, seasoned technology and telecommunications executives now seem to regard the fallout with a special bemusement.

"The Internet created a culture, and the culture got excited in and of itself," said C. Michael Armstrong, the 63-year-old chairman and chief executive of AT&T, who started his career at I.B.M. four decades ago.

The Internet culture, he said, brought new ways of measuring business success that replaced traditional benchmarks like profit and loss with new-economy constructs like page hits and eyeballs. "This thing was rooted in false metrics," Mr. Armstrong said.

Many telecommunications start-ups, for example, turned their spreadsheets into a time-honored form of horse-trading in the telephone industry known as I.R.U.'s, or indefeasible rights of use. I.R.U.'s involved companies' swapping access to portions of one another's networks to fill gaps in their coverage. The old-fashioned way to account for such swaps was to book the costs and revenue over the life of the contracts.

"We did a couple of swaps with some of these companies that you're reading about today," Mr. Armstrong said. "But we booked that very appropriately. We did not take the revenue and cash upfront."

But the Securities and Exchange Commission suspects that a number of companies did book such revenue upfront. "Can you imagine how much that helps your reported results?" Mr. Armstrong said. "I had some of my own managers come in and complain, `Mike, you're not playing by the industry rules.' "

But Mr. Armstrong said he wouldn't play along. "I didn't think of it as fraud," he said. "Maybe it's not." To him, the bookkeeping techniques simply did not solve the underlying financial problems the industry was facing. "WorldCom and Qwest and Global Crossing," he said, "they all have one thing in common: they do not have a capital structure to fund their business plans."

He also recalls being approached by Enron, as it ventured beyond energy to try recasting itself as an e-commerce company by trading bandwidth or network capacity as commodity futures contracts.

"I had three proposals from Enron," Mr. Armstrong said. "I talked to Ken Lay personally on it. I don't think he was out to defraud me."

But after sending an AT&T team to Houston to study the bandwidth commodities idea, Mr. Armstrong said no. A network link from Seattle to Denver is not interchangeable with one from Chicago to New Orleans, so trading bandwidth as a commodity made no sense, he said.

Mr. Armstrong doesn't try to cast himself as more ethical or smarter than other executives who were trying either to ride the Internet wave or avoid being swamped by it. But rather than subscribe to the new economy's new math, he chose another route, deciding in 2000 that the best future for AT&T lay in breaking it up into wireless, telecommunications and cable television businesses a decision that led to Comcast's deal to acquire the cable business.

If AT&T is emerging from the era of false metrics as a shadow of its former self, so far, at least, it has avoided bankruptcy or indictment.

Another longtime technology executive who watched aghast is Sandra Kurtzig. She founded her own Silicon Valley software company in 1972, long before such things were trendy. In 1994, the company, the ASK Group, was acquired by Computer Associates for $310 million. "When I started ASK, it was a group of people out of Stanford who liked working together," said Ms. Kurtzig, now 55. "The fact that we all made some money at it was amazing to us. It was `Gee, people use our products and we can make some money.' '

But she said a different psychology reigned in the venture-capital-driven dot-com days. She saw it first hand, having agreed to be chairwoman at eBenefits, an Internet-based corporate benefits and human resources company founded by her son, Andrew, who is now trying to buy it back from the venture capitalists who financed it. She also served on the boards of a few other dot-coms companies she now declines to identify, out of apparent embarrassment for all concerned.

"I got off a couple of boards where I couldn't stomach what was going on," she said. "The capacity for illusion was limitless. You'd have a budget meeting, and you'd say `Where's the revenue page?' And the C.F.O. would say: `Oh, don't worry about revenues. We're just looking at expenses, so we know when we need to raise more money.' "

When she offered to share her business experiences, "people would say, `Mrs. Kurtzig, that's the way things used to be done,' and I'd say under my breath, `And that's the way things will be done again.' "

Ms. Kurtzig, Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Grove all said they expected the pendulum to swing back from the excesses, in part because the next generation of business leaders have witnessed what the worst capitalist instincts can produce. Mr. Grove said he hoped that ambitious young people coming up through the business ranks would now be intent on organization building, instead of following the "me-first" mentality.

He remembers an airline flight in the early 1970's. Next to him was a soldier who told Mr. Grove that he had just volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. When he asked why, the soldier replied, "Rank is where war is." Now, in the current war for the hearts and minds of corporate America, "There will be a lot of battlefield commissions to be won," Mr. Grove said. "The heroes are going to be defined not by the Forbes list, but by the people who save companies from bankruptcy."




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Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Sandra Kurtzig, founder of ASK Group.


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