How Enron Blew It

Less than a year ago, the Houston-based energy behemoth had everything: money, power, glitz, smarts, new ideas, and a CEO who wanted to make it the most important company in the world. Now its stock is down, wall street is bearish, and the CEO is gone. What went wrong?

The Enron skyscraper near the south end of Houston’s downtown feels like the international headquarters of the best and the brightest. The lobby in no way resembles the hushed, understated entryways of the old-fashioned oil companies, like Shell and Texaco nearby. Enron, in contrast, throbs with modernity. The people hustling in and out of the elevators are black, white, brown; Asian, Middle Eastern, European, African, as well as American-born. They are young, mostly under 35, and dressed in the aggressively casual uniform of the tech industry—the guys wear khakis, polo shirts, and Banana Republic button-downs. Almost preposterously fit, they move through the building intently, like winners. Enron is nothing if not energetic: A Big Brother-size TV screen frantically reports on the stock market near a bank of elevators, while another hefty black television relaying the same news greets people entering from the garage. A sculpture of the corporate symbol, an E tipped at a jaunty angle, radiates colors as it spins frenetically on its axis; a Starbucks concession on the ground floor keeps everyone properly caffeinated. Multicolored, inspirational flags hang from the ceiling, congratulating Enron on its diversity and its values; one more giant banner between elevator banks declares Enron's simple if grandiose goal: "From the World's Leading Energy Company to . . . The World's Leading Company!"

For a while, that future seemed guaranteed, as Enron transformed itself from a stodgy, troubled pipeline company in 1985 to a trading colossus in 2000. It was a Wall Street darling, with a stock price that increased 1,700 percent in that sixteen-year period, with revenues that increased from $40 billion to $100 billion. "The very mention of the company in energy circles throughout the world creates reactions ranging from paralyzing fear to envy," notes a 2001 report from Global Change Associates, a firm that provides market intelligence to the energy business.

This Enron was largely the creation of Jeff Skilling, a visionary determined to transform American business. Hired sixteen years ago as a consultant by then-CEO Ken Lay, Skilling helped build a company that disdained the old formula of finding energy in the ground, hauling it in pipelines, and then selling it to refineries and other customers. Instead, it evolved into a company that could trade and market energy in all its forms, from natural gas to electricity, from wind to water. If you had a risky drilling venture, Enron would fund it for a piece of the action. If you wanted your megacorporation's energy needs analyzed and streamlined, Enron could do the job. If you were a Third World country with a pitiful infrastructure and burgeoning power needs, Enron was there to build and build. Basically, if an idea was new and potentially—and fantastically—lucrative, Enron wanted the first crack. And with each success, Enron became ever more certain of its destiny. The company would be the bridge between the old economy and the high-tech world, and in February of this year, Skilling reaped his reward when he succeeded Lay as chief executive officer. Enron, says Skilling, "was a great marriage of the risk-taking mentality of the oil patch with the risk-taking mentality of the financial markets."

The Enron story reflects the culture that drove American business at the end of the twentieth century. Like the high-tech companies it emulated, Enron was going to reinvent the American business model and, in turn, the American economy. Maybe it was natural that this Brave New World also produced a culture that was based on absolutes: not just the old versus the new, but the best versus the mediocre, the risk takers versus the complacent—those who could see the future versus those who could not. The key was investing in the right kind of intellectual capital. With the best and the brightest, a company couldn't possibly go wrong.

Or could it? Today Enron's stock trades at around $35, down from a high of $80 in January. The press cast Enron as the archvillain of California's energy crisis last spring, and Skilling caught a blueberry pie in the face for his relentless defense of the free market. A long-troubled power plant project in India threatened the company's global ambitions. Telecommunications, in which Enron was heavily invested, imploded. Wall Street analysts who once touted the company questioned its accounting practices. Some of the change in Enron's fortunes can be attributed to the economic downturn in uncertain times that has afflicted all of American business. But the culture that the company created and lived by cannot escape blame.

ENRON, JEFF SKILLING SAYS, HAD "a totally different way of thinking about business—we got it." At Enron, in fact, you either "got it" or you were gone—it was as simple as black and white. It is not coincidental, then, that the color scheme of Skilling's River Oaks mansion mirrors the corporation he once headed. Here, the living room's white walls shimmer against the mahogany floors. Black leather trims the edge of snowy carpets. Billowy sofas set off the jet-black baby grand. In the entry, white orchids cascade from a black vase on a black pedestal table that in turn pools onto cold, white marble. There is only one off-color note: After almost twenty years, Jeff Skilling is no longer associated with Enron, having resigned abruptly after just six months as CEO. Once, Skilling was hailed as the next Jack Welch (General Electric's masterful CEO), as one of Worth magazine's best CEO's in America (anointed in 2001), and even as a daredevil who hosted the kind of unchained adventure junkets in which, a friend told BusinessWeek, "someone could actually get killed." Today, he sounds more like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. "I had no idea what I'd let go of," Skilling says of all the personal sacrifices he made while retooling Enron.

From a black chair in the white library, across from a huge black and white photograph of his daughter and two sons, Skilling clarifies. The demands of working 24-7 for Enron caused him to ignore his personal finances.

Tags: THE CULTURE

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