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Until the spring of 2001, the Houston energy giant Enron epitomized the triumph of the new economy. Feared by rivals, worshiped by investors, Enron seemingly could do no wrong. Its profits rose every quarter; its stock price surged ever upward; its leaders were hailed as visionaries.
Then a young Fortune
writer named Bethany McLean wrote an article posing a simple question - How, exactly, does Enron make its money? - and the company's house of cards began to collapse. Though other business scandals would follow, none has had the shattering effect of Enron's bankruptcy, which caused Americans to lose faith in a system that rewarded top insiders with millions of dollars while small investors, including many Enron employees, lost everything.
Despite enormous media coverage of Enron, the definitive story of its astonishing rise and fall comes alive for the first time in this gripping narrative, by McLean and her Fortune colleague Peter Elkind. Drawing on a wide range of private documents and well-placed sources, many of them exclusive, McLean and Elkind lead you behind closed doors and deep into Enron's past, to pierce the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the company's inner workings and corrupt culture.
The Smartest Guys in the Room
is fundamentally a human drama -- of people drunk on their own success, people so ambitious, so certain of their own brilliance, so fueled by greed and hubris that they believed they could fool the world. The book explores the motives, thoughts, and secret fears of a fascinating array of characters, including:
* Ken Lay, the genial but clueless CEO who reveled in the trappings of his office but ducked the responsibilities. From the earliest days of Enron, his weakness allowed greedy lieutenants to run amok.
* Jeff Skilling, the brooding, mercurial genius who was the architect of Enron's greatest triumphs-and its ultimate disgrace. "I am
Enron," he once boasted. As the company unraveled, so did Skilling.
* Rebecca Mark, the glamorous "It" girl of Enron International who raced around the globe in high style and battled Skilling for control of the company.
* Andy Fastow, the brutally ambitious, deeply insecure whiz kid. Inside Enron his colleagues marveled at how his complex schemes allowed the company to scam Wall Street-not realizing that he was secretly scamming Enron.
* Ken Rice, the Midwestern farm boy who was seduced by Enron's fast-money culture and who cashed in while hyping a high-tech business that didn't exist.
* Cliff Baxter, the manic deal maker and Skilling confidant who resented Fastow's murky self-dealing. "He's a goddamn master criminal," Baxter would rail.
Just as Watergate was the defining political story of our time, so Enron is the biggest business story of our time. And just as All the President's Men
was the one Watergate book that gave readers the full story, with all the drama and nuance, The Smartest Guys in the Room
is the one book you have to read to understand this amazing business saga.Like its subject, The Smartest Guys in the Room
is ambitious, grand in scope, and ruthless in its dealings. Unlike Enron, the Texas-based energy giant that has come to represent the post-millennium collapse of 1990s go-go corporate culture, it's also ultimately successful. Penned by Fortune
scribes Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the 400-page-plus chronicle of the scandal digs deep inside the numbers while, wisely, maintaining focus on the "smart guys" deep-frying the books. The likes of paternal but disengaged CEO Ken Lay (dubbed "Kenny Boy" by George W. Bush, one of many prominent public figures with whom he rubbed shoulders), cutthroat man-behind-the-curtain Jeff Skilling, and ethically blind numbers whiz Andy Fastow vividly come to life as they make a mockery of conventional accounting practices and grow increasingly arrogant and bind to their collective hubris. They're not a likable lot, and the writers find it difficult to suppress their astonishment and revulsion with the crew who rapidly went from golden boys and girls of the financial world to pariahs when the bill finally came due. The authors' unrepressed sarcasms are more than often unnecessarily given the scope of the outrage. Enron's leading lights were or a time celebrated for their ability to concoct nearly unfathomable business schemes to hide mounting shortfalls and keeping track on their machinations can be a chore, but, by sticking hard to the story behind the fall, McLean and Elkind have reported and written the definitive account of the Enron debacle. --Steven Stolder
Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron
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