Enroncology

I’m fascinated by the Enron collapse and trial.  The sheer brazenness and magnitude of the crimes is mind-boggling.  WorldCom ended up eclipsing Enron to take the title of biggest financial fraud, but Enron is a better story.  Everything at least seems bigger in Texas.  If Shakespeare were working today, he’d he hard pressed to find better fodder for a new tragedy (admittedly he’d have to rewrite the final act to get to an appropriately Shakespearean body count).  Whatever challenges you face in your day job, you can’t help but feel better when you look at what was going on at Enron.  Here was a company that was completely out of control, yet ranked amongst the largest, most successful and most well regarded companies at the time.  Some may find inspiration in that as well.

 

I can remember first hearing about them during the bubble when they announced something they called the “Broadband Operating System”.  Having some experience with what it takes to build and ship an operating system (insert your own Windows Vista joke here), I was surprised to hear of a new player with the wherewithal to do an operating system.  Surely it was BS I thought but what company would be shameless enough to pretend they were playing in this space?  Evidently I needed to lower my shamelessness bar. 

 

A whole Enron genre has emerged.  Several of the reporters who covered the company’s downfall have written books, of which I have read a couple.  They chronicle the Enron story but also give insights into the interplay with the media, both as the company unraveled and how the press is being used by the lawyers in the subsequent criminal trials.  If you are a practitioner of the black art of PR, it is fascinating inside baseball.

 

The New York Times reporter’s book is Conspiracy of Fools, which was the best general account of the story I’ve read.  A well-written narrative, it practically reads like a novel.  It is also fascinating because the book was published before the various cases went to trial and you can perhaps discern the hand of defense lawyers trying to tee up their defense, which basically amounts to “they were incompetent fools, but not criminals”, hence the title.  Enron’s head PR guy manages to burnish his reputation and do some personal PR to go down in history as a hardworking, responsive professional who was mislead by management.  Skilling and his lawyers must not have participated in this book as he remains an enigma, in particular why he resigned just months after getting the CEO job and just months before the company blew up.

 

The other book I read was by the two Wall Street Journal reporters who broke the story (which in turn broke the company).  Titled 24 Days, it is more of a day by day account of what they discovered and how the story developed, from the initial story to Enron’s bankruptcy.  They really had no idea what they were dealing with or a clear way to unravel it.  When all they had was the name of a financial entity they thought was related to Enron but nothing more, they buried the name in the middle of a story to see what it would precipitate.  Sure enough, anonymous callers would provide the next critical nugget of information.  The stories set in motion a liquidity crisis at Enron which in turn yielded further stories which created a (virtuous?) cycle that took the company to bankruptcy in less than a month.

 

The Fortune reporters also have a book The Smartest Guys in the Room (and there is a movie by the same title) that I have not read.

2 thoughts on “Enroncology”

  1. Thank you for the recommendation. Added to my reading list. Do you still have my Creative Destruction (Foster) book? Cheers, –Ali

  2. nice list of reading.i too find the whole story disturbingly fascinating, or fascinatingly disturbing.the truly amazing thing to me is that these guys are still so disconnected from reality, that they were willing to sit in front of a jury of normal humans and spew their arrogance.that was so obviously going to result in their conviction and yet they couldn’t see it.

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