Famous industrialist Gordon Gekko once told an audience of peers, “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”
Gekko, of course, was only a fictional character played by Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street. But his credo was followed (directly to jail) by a list of real-life characters, from Michael Milken to Ivan Boesky, in that Reagan-era decade of the 1980s.
Now, the greed disease has spread. It started with Kenneth Lay at Enron, now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and has moved to Dennis Koslowski, former chief executive officer of conglomerate Tyco International Ltd.
In terms of ethical blight, what is happening with Koslowski almost makes Gekko's movie deeds look like a Salvation Army minstrel show. Koslowski is accused of evading taxes in New York by falsely transferring about $13 million of artwork across state lines.
There is talk of the king's ransom in salary and bonuses he took from Tyco, an amount forcing the company to deduct his remuneration as a separate line item. And there are whispers of the plundering from his children's trust funds and from Tyco accounts for personal luxuries.
While Koslowski is pleading innocent, Tyco already is shaken by the charges. Last week the company that once was accused of operating in an ivory tower fired its general counsel because he was linked to Koslowski.
The tremors out of Tyco are the latest chapter in this year's ongoing “As Tyco Turns” soap opera. The flexible packaging industry has tuned in to watch the stunning events. Tyco, one of the world's largest makers of custom and stretch film, first said in January that it would sell off that business and other parts of its more than $2 billion plastics operation. Then, with revelations starting to surface about questionable accounting practices, the company changed its mind and decided to keep the plastics business.
But first, embattled CEO Koslowski faced the fire in conference calls with analysts after the accounting stories came out in the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He called the news reports ridiculous in shambling, half-hour rants to analysts.
He doth protest too much, said one analyst about Koslowski's lectures, paraphrasing Shakespeare. Now, flexible packaging competitors wonder about the fallout from Koslowski's Shakespearean tragedy. If the company falls on its sword, what will happen to its swollen assemblage of companies? A piecemeal sale could take years to complete.
Already, according to one competitor, as many as 20 midlevel executives from Tyco have forwarded their resumes. Some are concerned about this year's bonuses, a huge source of income for some Tyco employees.
Even more concerning is the loss of face for Tyco. This mess could taint the perception of other large companies, especially those growing by acquisition.
“Our customers don't know what to think,” said one competitor. “We don't know where anybody will stand when this is over.”
Neither does Tyco. But one truth is that companies cannot afford to let greed get in the way of good business sense. It is a lesson that seemingly must be learned by each generation.