It's a Guy Thing
By Denny Hatch
Peggy and I took the train from Interlaken to Zurich after a week in the Swiss Alps town of Grindelwald. There, the hoteliers and shopkeepers did a superlative job of taking care of tourists and making for themselves a very comfortable living.
On the train ride, we struck up a conversation with a former executive of Swiss Air who recounted the gory details of how an overly ambitious young (mid-40s) CEO started buying up smaller airlines, ran out of money and put Swiss Air—one of the world's great carriers—into bankruptcy.
We got home to read that Conseco Insurance had filed for Chapter 11—"the third largest bankruptcy in U.S. history"—the result of aggressive overexpansion. This on the heels of Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Arthur Anderson and the catastrophic dive of AOL Time Warner shares.
When Peggy and I started our cranky little newsletter WHO'S MAILING WHAT! out of our basement in Stamford, CT, we gambled $10,000 of our own money on a dry test mailing and it worked. Like mom 'n' pop Swiss shopkeepers, we happily ran it for nine years, eventually selling it for a modest amount and moving to Philly to save this publication. Today the newsletter's successor is titled Inside Direct Mail and still is throwing off modest profits.
Why the mania for size, growth, obscene riches and personal power—the common denominators of all the recent corporate disasters? Target Marketing's 1998 Direct Marketer of the Year was Jay Walker, who started
priceline.com. Recently, I started looking into the brief, fluorescent history of that company and wound up consumed by it. I have just completed the manuscript of "PRICELINE.COM: A Layman's Guide to Manipulating the Media," and am shopping for a publisher. When priceline.com went public in March 1999, the IPO price for a share of stock was $16. The media and Wall Street went nuts. One month later it was at $165. On Dec. 31, 2000 it closed at $1.31. Although it lost more than $1 billion, a cadre of officers, directors and warrant holders, friends and family made off with between $3 billion and $4 billion in insider trades. Priceline.com's dismal business model was best expressed by Maryann Keller, one of three high-powered, influential women whose careers wound up in tatters as a result of their association with priceline.com. A bitter Keller said to an interviewer after the fact: