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