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December 8, 2005

The CEO President


by Ann Berg

As someone who promised to bring CEO know-how to the presidency, George Bush has topped all expectations.

No dabbler, immediately after 9/11, he targeted two candidates for hostile takeovers. One, a backwater competitor that struck a blow to the enterprise, drew a swift neutralizing response. The other, an underperforming asset with extensive management deficiencies beckoned acquisition. The synergies of a Mesopotamia/U.S. consolidation solved a growing dislocation problem, and the investment angle was all too compelling: the entire concession could be had for a fraction of book value and would quickly generate positive cash flows. Moreover, the venture held forth a tantalizing balance sheet asset of "goodwill." Folded into the portfolio of the world's largest holding company, the subsidiary would produce a benefit stream lasting in perpetuity.

Threatening to delay product introduction, lackluster demand required immediate boosting. With a pick of reality shapers at its fingertips, Bush Inc. hired the most proven team on the planet and swung a promotional campaign into high gear. Months of public-awareness communications transformed apathy into desire. The cultivation of advocacy groups reinforced the message of urgency, and the manipulation of thermal color imagery produced apprehension at critical intervals. In order to nullify competing pronouncements and their proponents, a special in-house department the Office of Strategic Influence cranked into motion.

At product launch, an eerie tableau of nihilism and ascendancy fulfilled consumer longing for epic thriller and parable. In a master stroke worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, brand desecration found its perfect expression in a marginal city square, featuring chains, pillars, and assorted male walk-ons. No unfortunate detour escaped the opportune wand of product enhancement as it transmuted ruin into glory. In a final act of perception engineering, the CEO descended from above proclaiming the takeover complete. Dividends were declared for all (but not denominated). Those busy orchestrating the project would receive more tangible spoils corporate stock and deferred options fashioned from an endless flow of dollar bills.

The first sign of trouble appeared in the form of corporate guidance, warning the venture would require $87 billion of emergency monies. A quick calculation revealed future liabilities of at least $5 billion monthly. With the aid of a popular CEO accounting practice, funding requirements vanished from the balance sheet, only to appear in a more illusory form i.e., "off the books."

Product definition proved another challenge. Shareholders/consumers (one and the same under Bush Inc.) were sold the venture as a mass tension reliever. Understandably, they became flummoxed when they learned that the root of this tension did not exist. The product at that point underwent revision. But Product Two, more complicated and abstract than the first, met with diminished enthusiasm. Shareholders learned that they should forget demanding tension relief and instead opt for embracing an ideal. Only, the ideal was not for them they already had it. They were to embrace it for the subsidiary.

Product rejection was swift by the subsidiary where the strength of competing ideational wares caught the executive team flatfooted. The team, however, quickly assured skeptical shareholders that rejection was clear evidence of success and to expect, indeed, welcome more of the same. When the junior sales force untrained in marketing and presentational skills reverted to negative campaigning, confusion mounted. Once product dissonance a visible deviation between practice and theory came to light, the momentum for support stalled abruptly.

The promised tension reliever was in truth a nightmare pharmaceutical producing fear, paranoia, and a host of physical disorders. Frightful images rippling outside the boundaries of the subsidiary's home base were another side effect not disclosed in product literature. One consumer, a plainspoken mother permanently damaged by the toxic effects of the purported analgesic, demanded the CEO to come forward and tell the truth. And then, calamity and crime conspired to expose organizational disarray and corruption at every level of the enterprise. The nationwide control group was left with the conclusion that it had been snookered from the start.

Meanwhile, back at corporate headquarters, the administrative model of the subsidiary, repeatedly denounced by Bush Inc., was enjoying a glorious renaissance. So enthusiastic was senior management for some aspects of this model, it copied them to spawn its own franchise. Planting offshoots in remote locations unfettered by needless regulatory prohibitions, it could experiment with innovative managerial practices freely.

Product recall began in earnest. Veteran observers stated that promotional campaigns were backfiring and transforming the halo around the trademark into a demonic cloud. Bush Inc., however, held fast, inventing yet another business rationale for maintaining product promotion at full tilt: Corporate raiders were targeting the subsidiary in a plot to leverage the acquisition into a sprawling, unassailable conglomerate.

While Bush Inc. clings to the theory that failure repeated daily is a recipe for success, the real world seizes advantage. The enterprise's largest competitor, steered by Peking CEO Hu Jintao, is busy ensuring smooth supply lines to his expansive venture for decades to come. Shareholders/consumers, preoccupied with the mundane matters of gas and heating prices, hospital bills, and credit card debt, would rather forget about the ailing acquisition or any looming derivative transactions. Adding to their unease is the gradual realization that income supplements counted on for future upkeep have been squandered by the hallucinations of a monomaniacal executive team. The CEO, however, like many before him, is unperturbed. He's going for broke and with three more years to go, he might just get there.

 

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Ann Berg has spent a 30-year career in commodities and capital markets as a trader, consultant, and writer. While a commodity futures trader and Director of the Chicago Board of Trade, she advised foreign governments, NGOs (the United Nations, World Bank), think tanks (Catalyst Institute), and multinational and foreign corporations on a variety market-related issues. She was also a frequent conference speaker at international derivatives markets forums. In recent years, she has contributed articles to several commodities/capital markets publications, including Futures Magazine, Traders Source, Financial Exchange, and the Financial Times editorial page. Berg is also an artist. She is currently working on a body of work entitled The Unknown Unknowns – The Things You Don’t Know You Don’t Know, which explores U.S. national security policy.

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