As a child, I loved fairy tales. Cinderella and the glass slipper. Snow White and the handsome Prince. I loved the line “and they all lived happily ever after.” Stories of the downtrodden ending up on top of the world give us hope that we, too, can live happily ever after. They are larger than life, and the details become blurred as we focus on the happily ever after.
I also loved Aesop’s Fables. These were no fairy tales. They were stories that taught great moral lessons. In them, justice prevailed. Doing right was rewarded. The heroes in the stories were not beautiful maidens or handsome princes.
My conflict comes when I try to meld the fairy tale with the moral fable. Bernie Ebbers was our Cinderella. We all knew his story of humble beginnings. The basketball player who came from Canada to play for small Mississippi College. He absorbed the Southern culture and took on the Baptist faith with fervor.
After graduation, he began a career as a coach. Coaches don’t actually play the game themselves. They assemble a team of players. They set the tone for the team. They teach strategy and instill competitiveness. And they like to win.
Later, Ebbers began to dabble in other enterprises. He put together several deals, gathering investors for one scheme after another. As the story goes, he lost a lot of money for a lot of people. And, then, at middle age, Cinderella stumbled on a group of people who were forming a long distance company. The Coach had found a new team.
It was a winning combination. Ebbers’ ability as a strategist and motivator combined with the technical know how in this group, and a fairy tale was born. LDDS grew as it conquered one foe after another. The minnow eventually swallowed the mighty whale of MCI, and WorldCom became a Fortune 500 company with unlimited potential.
As Mississippians, we loved this fairy tale! A high-tech company was birthed in the land of cotton and the blues. The world was coming to our door, now. And Ebbers presided over this empire with unquestioned sovereignty. He poured out lavish gifts on his loyal subjects, while he entered the world of the incredibly rich. We knew about his ranch, his yacht, his timber holdings, even his stint in the double wide trailer. This was the stuff of legends!
And they lived happily ever after… well, not quite.
This larger-than-life fairy tale turned into one of Aesop’s fables. And we are left to wonder what happened. Did the Coach have a few rotten apples on the team? Did the Coach encourage the apples to be rotten? Or did the Coach become so enamored with winning that he forgot about playing by the rules? Only Ebbers knows.
For Mississippians, this was a crushing blow. Media descended on the small town of Clinton like larvae on a carcass. Four satellite trucks sat in the Pizza Hut parking lot, and reporters threw themselves in front of employee vehicles as they tried to go to work. Cameras were thrust into the faces of ordinary citizens, and our phones rang off the hook with people looking for that “juicy” story. They wanted dirt, and all we could do was shuffle our toes in the sand, feeling sad and embarrassed.
I asked an NBC crew out of Atlanta if this was their first trip to Mississippi. Their reply? No, they had come before for tornado stories. Ahh, Mississippi, the home of the killer tornado and massive stock fraud.
As for the fable of WorldCom, justice will prevail. Fortunes will disappear, if they haven’t already. People will go to jail. And we’ll all hang our heads in disgrace. This fairy tale does not have a happy ending, but maybe we can benefit from its moral lesson.
Pride really does come before the fall. Pride caused us to worship at the feet of this company and its larger than life leader. Pride caused us to soak up the hype about the potential of WorldCom. Pride led us to ignore the signs of a faltering industry. And pride resulted in our inability to see beyond the glass slipper.
What of Bernie Ebber’s pride? Or Scott Sullivan? Or David Myers? Only they know what the truth is, but, for now, the Princes have turned back into toads. Maybe, as lowly toads, they will find out how to be true heroes.
Nancy Lottridge Anderson, CFA, is president of New Perspectives Inc. in Clinton. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and she’s online at www.newper.com. Her column appears monthly in the Mississippi Business Journal.