Magazine

Talk Show


"By today's standards, Gordon Gekko seems like a Boy Scout." -- Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), referring to the character in the 1987 film Wall Street and the sky-high compensation of CEOs It may just be intriguing coincidence. But a retention agreement that then-Tyco International (TYC) General Counsel Mark Belnick inked on Feb. 28 is raising the suspicions of compensation experts.

That's because it included a provision that Belnick would be paid a hefty termination payment--up to $10.6 million--even if he were to be convicted of a felony. "I've never seen that before," says Judith Fischer, managing director of Executive Compensation Advisory Services, who has reviewed thousands of such agreements. She suspects there "might have been something looming" that would have led Belnick to want the unusual clause. By Feb. 28, Tyco's stock had begun a free fall that has cut the company's market value by nearly $100 billion this year.

All this only deepens the corporate governance crisis surrounding Tyco. "You wonder how the board could ever agree to such a thing," marvels Richard Koppes, former general counsel for CalPERS.

Belnick's attorney, Stanley Arkin, dismisses the criticism, arguing the clause "was not unusual" and merely entitled Belnick to benefits he had already earned at Tyco. He insists Belnick did no wrong. Belnick was fired on June 10. Tyco says he refused to cooperate with its investigation into possible misuse of corporate funds. Arkin says the real reason is that "he was pushed out [in] a legal turf war."

Corrections and Clarifications

"Covering your behind at Tyco" (Up Front, June 24) should have clarified that although Tyco International Ltd. General Counsel Mark Belnick's employment contract entitles him to a termination payment of up to $10.6 million for being terminated with cause, he is entitled to only one-third of that amount if terminated before October 1, 2002.

Prepare ye for Elvismania--again. A new marketing tidal wave tied to the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, on Aug. 16, is already starting. For weeks, World Cup fans have seen a Nike ad featuring Elvis' A Little Less Conversation, soon to be a CD single. On June 21, Walt Disney will release an animated flick, Lilo & Stitch, about the adventures of a Hawaiian girl (and her dog) who is nuts about Elvis, with six Elvis songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Burning Love. In July, Bertelsmann's BMG Entertainment will release a boxed set of concert recordings, followed in September by ELV1S 30 #1 Hits.

That's not all. There's a new Elvis Visa card from MBNA America Bank and a line of kitschy Elvis furniture by a Virginia manufacturer (including a heart-shaped mirror). And of course, there are books and TV shows. Random House will publish three Elvis titles this summer, including The Girls' Guide to Elvis. Details about a fall TV network special are still under wraps.

Fans confess to being a bit skeptical. Says Peter Nazareth, a University of Iowa professor who teaches Elvis as Anthology, a literature course: "I have mixed feelings about all this commercialization, but without it, many of us would never have discovered his music." Remember those long, annoying privacy notices in your mailbox last year? Sent out by the millions by banks, brokers, insurers, and other financial-services providers, they were all but incomprehensible.

Now, a group of 14 companies, including Citigroup (C), J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM), Fidelity Investments, IBM (IBM), and Procter & Gamble (PG), wants to simplify them. The coalition is backing a proposal to supplement the notices with a one-page summary in plain English. Inspired in part by food warnings, the form uses a template to let people know what information companies collect and how it can be used. "It will make it a lot easier for consumers to compare across institutions," says Leigh Williams, Fidelity's chief privacy officer.

The coalition of companies is trying to win support for the proposed "layered" notice--created with the help of focus groups at P&G's famous product-testing labs-- from key government and industry players such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Direct Marketing Assn. That shouldn't be hard. The old forms couldn't have been much worse. Instant messaging isn't just for the under-20 set. It's now booming among an older group: office employees. The number of folks instant messaging at work grew 26% from October to April, to 16.9 million, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. They're spending more time doing it, too: 7.2 billion minutes in April, up 74% from November.

Problem is, the finger-snap-fast communication among employees often doesn't propel productivity. True, some auto makers negotiate with suppliers using chat windows. And about 80% of real-time customer service by Lands' End, for instance, occurs via online chat. But employers fear that most cyber-yakking has nothing to do with work. Technicians at port management firm Virginia International Terminals in Norfolk, for example, had to install snooping software to block certain employees from gossiping up to two hours a day. Technical Div. manager Lung Cheng says 99% of employee IM use was personal and was "beginning to impact productivity."

Security is another concern. Instant messages are easily broken into, letting hackers delve into corporate systems. Doug Fowler, chief executive of cyber monitor SpectorSoft, calls IM "a security disaster waiting to happen." From 1913 to 1949, China issued millions of dollars' worth of bonds. When the Communists came to power, they claimed the debt was the obligation of a capitalist government that no longer existed. They never paid.

But with China's economy now booming, a group of 345 families holding old Chinese debt are trying to get their money back. They've persuaded 40 members of Congress to sign a letter to President Bush asking him to take up their cause with Beijing. An additional 15 are considering signing, according to the group, the American Bondholders Foundation. (A Chinese Embassy spokesman declined to comment.) The bonds have a face value of $731,000, says the bondholders' attorney, Riney Green. ABF claims that, with 50 to 85 years of interest, they're worth $89 billion.

Fat chance, you say? Political pressure has worked before. China paid British bondholders $23 million in 1987 after Britain refused to allow China to issue new debt in London. That was about 62% of face value--so the Americans can't count on getting much.

Getting anything, says Geert Rouwenhorst, an expert on Chinese debt at the Yale School of Management, "depends on the willingness of the politicians to make a big deal of this." Picture this: The American Goddess of Gracious Living in the land of tatami mats and sushi. Martha Stewart, six months after opening her first boutique in a Tokyo department store, is rapidly expanding in Japan. Pairing with local retailer Seiyu, she has opened more than 200 outlets. Plans call for even more, as well as heavily promoting Japanese versions of her magazine and TV show. Says Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia CEO Sharon Patrick: "Business [in Japan] is brisk."

So brisk, in fact, that Seiyu says it's on track to sell $120 million worth of Martha products this year to women who want to bring a piece of New England home to their crowded apartments. Items cater to Japanese tastes. American towels in reds and browns, for example, were deemed too "muddy." Instead there are chopsticks in pastels, square frying pans for traditional cube-shaped omelets, and cute bedroom slippers--a must in every Japanese home.

If this initial overseas foray succeeds, Martha plans to expand to other parts of Asia and Europe. That's all the more important with the bankruptcy of U.S. retail partner Kmart and other woes, including scrutiny of her stock trades.


American Apparel's Future
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW

(enter your email)
(enter up to 5 email addresses, separated by commas)

Max 250 characters

 
blog comments powered by Disqus