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Jewish World Review July 2, 2002 / 22 Tamuz, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

The corporate meltdown - and the name game

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Here - based on current front-page headlines - is some investment advice for Americans nervous about what is going on in corporate boardrooms:

Don't put your money into any companies with names that tell you nothing about what they do for a living.

Obvious? You would think so.

But consider, for a moment, some of the companies making news that causes their investors and employees to feel kind of ill. Think about what they have in common:

  • Enron Corp. - spectacular collapse first alerted mainstream America to the teetering house of cards that mega-corporations seem to have become.

  • WorldCom - in the sewer because of an alleged $3.8 billion accounting scam.

  • Dynegy Inc. - being investigated on allegations its tax and cash flow figures were not what they should have been.

  • Global Crossing Ltd. - under investigation for allegedly inflating its income.

  • Tyco International - CEO under investigation for handling of taxes.

  • ImClone - in the news because of suspicious practices in unloading stock.

  • Qwest - being investigated by the federal government for allegedly inflating revenues.

Now . . . what is it that ties these companies together?

A couple of things, really. The first is that they are the kinds of companies that were the darlings of investors during the last decade - companies people giddily believed could be vehicles to rapid riches.

The second thing that ties them together is their names. Their names mean nothing - they are trick names. The names of these corporations sound really snazzy - until you sit back and realize the names give no idea of what the companies do.

A small matter? Perhaps. But in retrospect - now that the companies are spiraling down - a case can be made that the names of these corporations were con-game names. Everyday Americans - those who invested in these companies, and those who worked for them - willingly fell for the con. The names were so cutting-edge, so King of the Universe, so sleek and almost scary that the people who believed in them may have been shy about asking a pretty basic question:

What do you do inside those walls? How do you make your money?

Knock the old American way of doing business all you want - point out (accurately) the flaws and excesses of the old corporate culture. But at least you had some sense of what old Big Business did to make its money.

United States Steel. The Bell Telephone Co. Ford Motor Co. The First National Bank. The Pennsylvania Railroad. American Telephone & Telegraph. The Detroit Tigers. . . .

Say what you will: Investors and customers knew where they were putting their money. It might not have worked out - but the names meant something.

Qwest? Dynegy? ImClone?

You want to pour your money - your hopes - into those?

The answer, in a lot of cases, seemed to be yes. Why? Because companies with names that futuristic and off-kilter must know all the secrets to raking in the dough. Their executives must know the shortcuts the rest of us don't.

Now that those kinds of companies are in tatters, something becomes evident: Their signify-nothing names served the same purpose as those vague company names that, in real life and in novels, were always used as fronts for crime-syndicate operations, or for espionage offices. You know the kinds of names: Universal Import-Export. International Cartage Co. Worldwide Transfer Corp. (My sincere apologies to those companies if they really exist somewhere - they're just examples of mean-nothing names of an earlier era, mean-nothing names to fool the public.)

It doesn't help the current crop of what-does-the-name-mean companies that their headquarters look like something a villain in a James Bond movie would operate inside of. Have you seen the headquarters of Enron and WorldCom? Dr. No could be living in there, concocting his diabolical plans to conquer and destroy the world.

One of the reasons investors were drawn to companies like these was that the investors counted on the executives who could run the corporate shell games so smoothly to use that same smoothness to spread the wealth. They - investors, employees - wanted to be wowed. They envisioned the gold at the other end.

But, as we are all finding, when the boardroom masters unload their stock just before it tanks, it is not a victimless crime. For every share of phonily inflated stock an insider sells on the day before it plunges, that same share is purchased by a trusting sucker who doesn't know the score - and who may not even know what exactly the company does for a living.

Meanwhile, before we go today, here is something to think about that may be even more depressing than all this corporate news - something with real-life implications for those of us who yearn to extend sunshine and joy as far as it will stretch:

Take a look at your calendar.

There went June.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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