Week of March 22, 2004
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A Look Back
by JACK LYNE, Site Selection Executive Editor of Interactive Publishing
It was genuinely strange, the scenes playing out on our television screen: There was former WorldCom President and CEO Bernard Ebbers, handcuffed and striding stone-faced down a New York sidewalk to face arraignment for federal securities fraud.
The video certainly wasn't strange because it was a shock. We fully expected harsh federal charges (to which Ebbers pled innocent).
Instead, the sight was strange because the last (and only) time we saw Ebbers in person was during an interview when WorldCom was Site Selection's May 1999 cover story. The company was then on a monster roll - the kind of profit-gobbling monster for which even the most ethical CEOs salivate like Old Faithful. WorldCom's stock in 1999 hit its peak value of about $185 billion.
Today, though, the title of that cover story drips with whiplash irony. The feature was headlined, "MCI WorldCom: Can It Put All the Pieces Together?" Now, WorldCom's pieces have gone the way of Humpty Dumpty, and Ebbers is in very hot, deep water.
As Bob Dylan sang on the "Wonderboys" soundtrack, "I'm a worried man with a worried mind/No one in front of me and nothing behind/ . . . I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range/I used to care, but things have changed."
Clearly, things for Ebbers have changed in stunning fashion. His fall from rarefied grace is such an Icarus-like plunge that it prompted us to look back at that Site Selection cover story interview. How, we wondered, did what we saw back then square up with the onetime kingpin's current plight?
A Way of Making ThingsThe Ebbers interview unfolded inside the president and CEO's office at WorldCom's headquarters in Clinton, Miss. (just outside Jackson). It was clearly a nice office, but certainly nothing outrageously ostentatious. That seemed to be in character. As we wrote back in 1999, WorldCom's head honcho was "a Willie Nelson devotee who often ambles through headquarters gnawing a cigar and wearing faded jeans and cowboy boots."
Sound Easy . . . Maybe Too Easy
Ebbers, we clearly recall, had a distinctive way of saying things that immediately brought to mind a word like succinct. But other observers might've chosen much different words, ones like blunt and brash.
His summations of complex issues could seem savvy in their concision. Then again, they could also seem too good, too easy to be true. This wasn't a man, it seemed, who spent time shadow-boxing with doubt or nuance.
Consider this exchange. We asked Ebbers if WorldCom, which had just finished a four-year blitzkrieg of 60 acquisitions, needed anything else "to become the first global, one-stop communications shop [with] a seamless digital network [and] end-to-end connectivity."
His calm, flat-toned reply:
"No. Are there locations around the world that we are continuing to build out? Oh, yes. But is there any area in which we need more telecom assets in order to be a dominant world player? No."
Only now, in the wake of WorldCom's bankruptcy and the federal charges against its top officials, do we know how far WorldCom was from being a "one-stop shop." Its blizzard of rapid-fire acquisitions was very poorly integrated, according to a report by former U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh, appointed by U.S. Bankruptcy Court to study WorldCom's financial unraveling. At one point, for example, WorldCom was operating with 55 separate billing systems, prompting frequent errors, said Thornburgh's report.
What's more, WorldCom paid a steep premium for its buying binge. To make things worse, it financed those acquisitions with company stock. When that stock began to tank, the whole house of cards began to sway in the wind.
WorldCom's Simple Equation forBack in Clinton in 1999, Ebbers' matter-of-fact tone continued when we asked about his company's rationale in continually adding thousands of new employees. WorldCom's strategy stood in sharp contrast to many other telecoms, which were then frugally paring costs through layoffs and outsourcing.
Adding 8,000 New Employees a Year
"You have to keep labor a percent of sales. You take our total employees, divide that into revenue, and you get revenue per employee. We increase that efficiency every year, but we'll still be needing about 8,000 additional people a year."
A straightforward formula, it was. Simple. All you had to do was do the math.
As it turned out, though, math proved to be an inexact and very un-straightforward art at WorldCom.
The same held true in Ebbers' private dealings. His penchant for overpayment extended to his far-flung personal empire, which included huge ranching, farming and timber holdings; a yacht-building company; a trucking firm; nine hotels; and a minor-league hockey team.
Ebbers' buy of Douglas Lake Ranch in British Columbia typified his business style, according to Thornburgh. He paid $65 million in 1998 for the 500,000-acre (200,000-hectare) ranch, Canada's biggest. But the property was then worth only $48 million to $54 million, British Columbia real estate players estimate.
And Ebbers' big buys bled back into WorldCom's bottom line. The president and CEO used his huge chunk of WorldCom stock as collateral for his sprawling acquisitions. When that stock began its nosedive, lenders began calling in some of Ebbers' personal and business loans of $1 billion-plus.
Worried that Ebbers would sell off much his stock to satisfy lenders, WorldCom lent its leader $408 million. That, it turned out, was another loan that he couldn't pay off.
'The Mississippi Mouse That Roars'But wait a minute. There's something else here that's far too simple. And that would be us, for using 20-20 hindsight to interpret events that occurred five years ago.
Fair being fair, a retrospective question for us to wrestle with:
Were we impressed back in 1999 with Ebbers and the massive real estate portfolio that his company seemed to be so deftly integrating?
Yes. Very much so.
We called WorldCom "the onetime Mississippi mouse that roars," a reference to the company's humble beginnings during a 1983 brainstorming session inside a Days Inn coffee shop in Hattiesburg, Miss.
And there was something refreshing about the company's insistence on keeping its base in its southern Mississippi birthplace. Said Ebbers:
"Well, you have to understand where we came from. We are not here because we decided 10 years ago that we were going to be x-size company, and, oh, yeah, Jackson would be a good headquarters. We work here in Mississippi because we started here, and we are certainly happy here. Those of us working out of Jackson intend to continue working out of Jackson."
On the other hand, that hometown loyalty contributed to the financial collapse of Ebbers and, by extension, WorldCom.
One of the WorldCom leader's buys, for example, was a 50-percent ownership stake in a minor-league hockey team. He relocated the team to his Mississippi roots and gave it a new name: the Jackson Bandits. The Bandits lost money.
'Real Estate JugglingSimilarly, we admired how WorldCom was handling a portfolio continually growing by exponential leaps. The company at that point had amassed more than 29 million sq. ft. (2.6 million sq. m.) in 65 nations.
Elevated to High, Dangerous Art'
"What MCI WorldCom is doing," we wrote, "is real estate juggling elevated to high, dangerous art."
Little did we know how dangerous that art would turn out to be, particularly for many landlords. As part of its bankruptcy restructuring, the company (now known as MCI) is in the midst of a sharp real estate rationalization program.
MCI has filed motions to reject more than 300 leases and significantly alter many more. Some of the leases were small, but others were definitely not, like the deal for 800,000 sq. ft. (72,000 sq. m.) at Highwoods Preserve in Tampa, Fla.
Large chunks of WorldCom's owned portfolio are also being sold off. A joint venture made up of NAI, Hilco Real Estate and NodeCom Inc. is handling many of the sales. U.S. Bankruptcy Court is auctioning off other owned properties. Its biggest sale was WorldCom MCI's former headquarters in Arlington County, Va., bought last summer by Orlando-based REIT Commercial Net Lease Realty for $142.8 million.
Site Selection, though, wasn't alone in 1999 in its generally positive coverage. A small army of other magazines also gave WorldCom and Ebbers high marks for the company's startling rise. Business Week , for example, said that Ebbers "makes every other telecom executive look like a foot-dragger."
In retrospect, the upbeat reports make sense. Sort of. Back then, the company seemed to symbolize the zeitgeist's euphoria. The brave new world of telecom and the Internet seemed to offer rich, limitless possibilities. And WorldCom and Ebbers, it seemed, were seizing them in giant, scooping fistfuls.
Na´vetÚ in those days was doled out from a round-the-clock open bar. And many of us certainly bellied up to down our share.
Ebbers Claimed to 'ScrutinizeHow the company seized the era's possibilities has become the big courtroom question for Ebbers and WorldCom. Our Site Selection cover story, in fact, contained a pithy quote from Forrester Research analyst James Freeze that now seems prophetic.
Every WorldCom Budgetary Item'
"Despite their explosive growth," said Freeze, "without major changes, MCI WorldCom's going to begin having problems."
Major changes didn't come, judging from the U.S. government's heavyweight filings against Ebbers. His securities fraud charges stem from the $11-billion accounting scandal that sent the onetime telecom star plummeting into bankruptcy (from which MCI is expected to emerge at the end of April).
Ebbers' charges seem bitterly ironic in light of his claim in Site Selection that he "scrutinized every budgetary line item."
CFO Pled Guilty the DayThat may have been true. But even if Ebbers did pore over that mind-numbing mound, he didn't do it nearly well enough, the Justice Dept. says. The former WorldCom CEO is charged with conspiracy, fraud and making false statements.
Before Ebbers' Federal Charges
One WorldCom major domo has already pled guilty. The day before Ebbers was formally charged, former CFO Scott Sullivan admitted falsifying the company's accounts.
"As CFO at WorldCom," Sullivan said in the federal courtroom in Manhattan, "I participated with other members of WorldCom to conspire to paint a false and misleading picture of WorldCom's financial results."
The government filing against WorldCom charges that the company began trying to hide its crumbling finances from the public in September of 2000. That, the indictment alleges, was when Sullivan told Ebbers about WorldCom's financial freefall and urged the CEO to issue a public "earnings warning."
The warning never came. Now, Ebbers and Sullivan each face up to 25 years in prison and hefty fines. It's serious stuff.
A Long, Long Way from theAnd it all seems eons away from Ebbers' salad days, when his frequent quips drew appreciative laugher and made him a high-profile media presence.
Heady Days of Quotable Quips
We cited one telling quip back in 1999. It came at a 1998 press conference where Ebbers was fielding questions after announcing WorldCom's record $40-billion bid for MCI.
"My second choice," said Ebbers, "was AT&T, but they didn't know who we were."
So, does Ebbers now have even the faintest shot at a second chance at public life? Obviously, none of us really know. Nor do we know whether he even deserves it.
You can't imagine, though, that Ebbers will soon be appearing on many magazine covers. At least not for any reasons other than ones that he wishes would go away.
Ebbers, in fact, may now see 1999 as a good place to go back to.
At least if he had a choice.
He definitely doesn't.
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