Maxed out 

It’s not personal, it’s just business

By G.D. Maxwell

This is a story about two businessmen, two world views, one resort municipality and a couple of tough choices.

Okay, if I haven’t lost most of you with that opening, stick with me; I’ll try to work in some humour or defame someone just to live up to your expectations.

As far as I know, the only link between Lawrence, Massachusetts and Houston, Texas is this: they are both towns I – and I’ll bet most of you – wouldn’t want to live in. Gritty is probably the single word most often used to describe Lawrence. It’s one of those New England mill towns that nearly died of neglect when the overarching goal of the business community became cheaper wages. Mills and manufacturers moved south or offshore and towns like Lawrence struggled to survive.

Houston, on the other hand, is veritably defined by the word glitz. Well, glitz and swamp. And humidity, and pretension, and conspicuous consumption, and livin’ large, Texas style. Probably the best thing that can be said about Houston is someday, possibly in geologic time, a tsunami of biblical proportions may rise out of the Gulf of Mexico and wash it from the face of the earth. We can only hope.

Aaron Feuerstein lives and works in Lawrence. Unless you follow business news or have a particularly good memory, you’ve probably never heard of him. Despite your ignorance, I’m willing to bet each and every one of you reading this would consider him a man who’s changed your life.

Kenneth Lay might still be lurking around Houston but more likely is holed up in one of his dozen or so other homes wishing the firestorm he created would blow over. Unless you don’t have a television and never pick up a newspaper, it’s pretty hard to have missed Kenny Boy’s name recently.

Kenneth Lay took a middlin’ sized, no-name, off the rack Houston energy company, blew smoke into it, and turned it into Enron, the largest corporate bankruptcy in the history of the United States of America. He did this out of a singleminded desire to make money, wield power, influence important people, and live life large. To accomplish these goals, he created a corporate culture where winning at any cost was rewarded. Where backstabbing was raised to a fine art. Where human kindness was considered a weakness. Where decency was derided and laughed at.

That Enron bought politicians to grease its way up the ladder is something only politicians who’ve been bought and paid for would deny. That those purchased straddled both political parties just means we’re likely to see less finger pointing and soul searching among the crooks who run the only superpower to survive into the 21 st century. Get out the whitewash, Mama and bring me a scapegoat.

The body count from Enron’s collapse is growing. Employees lost their inflated life savings when the company’s stock – upon which they’d gorged their 401K plans like geese being corned for foie gras – became worthless. It’s hard to screw up a lot of sympathy for them; they were part of the problem.

Arthur Anderson, a big five accounting firm full of less than scrupulous suits, will hopefully disappear from the business scene for its lack of oversight, conflict of interest, dishonesty, destruction of evidence and corporate well of sleaze so deep and so poisoned they could be their own banana republic.

North American – and world – financial markets may well suffer because investors generally like to feel they can trust things like audited financial statements when deciding where to park they’re hard-earned retirement nest egg. No one believes there isn’t more lyin’ and cheatin’ out there waiting to be discovered.

Aaron Feuerstein’s company is in bankruptcy too. Malden Mills filed for Chapter 11 protection last November. A combination of too much debt, soft retail markets and an uncompetitive product line brought Mr. Feuerstein’s family-owned company to bankruptcy court.

If you don’t know who Aaron Feuerstein is, look in your closet. Just over 20 years ago, Malden Mills was, again, working its way through Chapter 11. Its main line of business – fake fur – was running out of steam. Knowing there was no future in fake fur, Mr. Feuerstein asked his R&D department to get to work and created a better sheep: to make a fabric superior to wool, which, at the time, was the material of choice for those who wanted to stay warm and dry in the outdoors.

They came up with Polartec. Fleece. The mainstay of Whistler’s wardrobe. The fabric that changed the way we dress to play. Most of us would be naked without it. Or we’d all look like those oldtimey pictures of everyone dressed in big sweaters and woolen knickers.

So why is Malden Mills back in Chapter 11? Just before Christmas, 1995, a fire destroyed three of the company’s factories. Production of Polartec went up in smoke. By the light of the still burning buildings, Mr. Feuerstein promised his employees three things. He’d keep paying them; he’d maintain their benefits; he’d rebuild the factories.

The popular press treated him like a saint. The business press, pundits, B-school hacks and suits in general thought he was crackers. What kind of idiot would rebuild a textile plant in Massachusetts? What 70 year old in his right mind wouldn’t take the insurance money and run quickly toward the nearest Florida retirement condo? What irresponsible businessman would pay employees when they couldn’t work? Call the looney bin; get help, Lassie.

Today, just about every ex-employee of Enron would like five minutes alone with Kenny Boy in a dark alley. By comparison, the UNIONIZED employees of Malden Mills voluntarily agreed to give up paid personal days that will save the company half a million bucks. They also threw in a three year pay freeze.

Politicians are sending back contributions from Enron. They’re lining up to congratulate Mr. Feuerstein.

The American people are demanding Kenny Boy and his accountants and lawyers be brought to account for their actions. They’re sending Mr. Feuerstein letters with cheques in them.

Enron is dead. Malden Mills will survive.

So what’s this got to do with Whistler? Well, the Big Kahughna and Suzanne Denbak are in New York courting, and being courted by, the suits behind the World Economic Forum. The WEF wants to hold their annual meeting in Whistler every other year or so. They used to hold them every year in Davos, Switzerland, but Davos isn’t so keen on having them – and their security contingent and the protesters who follow them – disrupting their ski town every year.

I’d bet a lot that the movers and shakers at the WEF thought Ken Lay was a brilliant businessman and Aaron Feuerstein was a quack.

So where does that leave us? We court the oily slimeballs of the IOC and the suits of WEF. Is this the kind of town you thought you were living in? If I were you, I’d start writing letters. Quick!

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