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Closing Bell: Harley-Davidson


Can the man who taught Elmo to hokey pokey help Barbie get her groove back? In a pre-Christmas shakeup, Mattel (MAT) promoted Neil Friedman, the 58-year-old chief of its Fisher-Price preschool unit, to head of all its major brands, including the company's struggling Barbie business. Friedman, a toy industry veteran, has won high marks from analysts and industry insiders for bringing out new electronic learning products and a string of furry Elmo dolls that sang and danced to popular songs.

This is the second major reorganization in two years by Mattel Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Eckert. A Kraft Foods (KFT) veteran, Eckert has proven more adept at cutting costs at Mattel than at thwarting competition from Barbie's edgier rivals, the Bratz dolls. Barbie's worldwide sales have fallen for seven consecutive quarters. Expect Friedman to spend even more time with the toy elves coming up with clever ideas for next Christmas.

Phillip Bennett, ousted CEO of the global futures titan Refco (RFC), is facing securities fraud charges and his former firm is wrestling with a crisis in investor confidence. Bennett, forced out on Oct. 10, was charged two days later with hiding a debt that ranged as high as $545 million. Investigators from the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York and other agencies suspect he and others inside and outside the firm repeatedly moved the debt among Refco units, a firm he controlled, and a New Jersey hedge fund to hide it for years. The alleged maneuver came to light just two months after Refco went public at $22 a share. Refco said Bennett recently paid off the debt. Neither Bennett nor his lawyer returned repeated calls for comment. Refco's shares fell 62%, to $10.85, on Oct. 12, in the wake of the scandal.

What airline crisis? JetBlue Airways (JBLU) announced a major expansion of service on Oct. 11, including flights from Boston to five new cities and expanded service out of its New York base at John F. Kennedy International Airport. To cap it off, the low-cost carrier is offering $25 one-way flights between New York and Boston until Dec. 14 -- although the tickets must be bought by Oct. 20. After that, prices on the New York-Boston route will range from $40 to $120. The goal: get a bigger chunk of the market from major carriers like US Airways (LCC) and Delta Air Lines (DAL). New York-based JetBlue is now the nation's fastest-growing airline.

Comcast (CMCSA) is joining the list of suitors for the once-denigrated America Online unit of Time Warner (TWX). The nation's largest cable operator and broadband provider has agreed to team with search powerhouse Google (GOOG) in a possible bid for a minority stake in the Dulles (Va.) outfit, sources say. Attracted by the opportunity to use content from both AOL and Google, and the chance to apply Google's search technology to its TV and broadband programming, Comcast didn't take long to respond to Google's invite during the first week of October to talk with AOL, say sources. AOL has also been talking to Microsoft (MSFT) about merging some of its operations with MSN. This is tricky because the software giant owns about a 5% stake in Comcast.

Pfizer (PFE) dodged a bullet. On Oct. 12, a British court rejected drugmaker Ranbaxy Laboratories' effort to launch a generic version of Pfizer's $12.5 billion blockbuster drug, Lipitor. Although Pfizer lost on a second patent, that loss will not cut the protected life of the cholesterol-lowering drug in Britain. As a result, the drug will be free of generic competition in Britain through November, 2011. Pfizer is awaiting a ruling on a similar case in the U.S., which accounts for 60% of Lipitor's sales.

-- Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) will team with KB Home (KBH) to offer designer housing.

-- Microsoft (GPS) will pay RealNetworks $761 million to drop claims that the giant tried to thwart its business.

-- Bridgestone/Firestone (BRDCY) will pay Ford Motor (F) $240 million to settle claims related to the 2000 recall of defective tires.

Shares of Harley-Davidson (HDI) moved ahead 4%, to $46.15, in the two trading days ended on Oct. 12, driven by strong third-quarter profit growth. Net income rose 16% on a 10% sales gain. Still, Harley cut its 2006 earnings outlook, citing economic uncertainty.


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