March 8, 2005

News & Opinion: CEO-lebrity CEO-riminals

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 6:08 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Last week marked two noteworthy releases. Weve all heard too much about Martha Stewarts release from the big house. Far fewer heard about the release of Ponzis Scheme: The True Story of A Financial Legend by former Boston Globe reporter Mitchell Zuckoff.
Last summer we touted a feisty reprint of the Ponzi tale, including an interview with author Donald Dunn on the relevance of his story to current headlines. The prevailing hubbub reminds us that as long as the public imagination longs for stories of easy wealth and inexpensive luxury, shrewd and self-created characters can capitalize on the currency they create around this hunger. Zuckoff portrays Ponzi quite sympathetically, as an ambitious Italian immigrant who believed almost as eagerly as his investors that he could produce 50 percent returns in 45 days. His new book carefully lays out the basis for Ponzis offering to investors, and shows how the charlatan envisioned progressively ludicrous schemes to deliver what he promised to thousands of eager believers.
I just reviewed Zuckoffs book, and my one quibble has to do with his measured take on this amazing storyits a broadsheet account of what was a very tabloid crime, and while its an excellent read, I recommend Dunns cheesier and more gleeful book as a counterpoint.
And speaking of tabloids, there is a fundamental difference between Martha Stewart and Charles Ponzi (not including the fact that Ponzis crime was so notorious that he has become a brand unto himself who could have made his fortune today by trademarking his name so as to cash in on any reference to a pyramid scam as a Ponzi scam.) Ponzi was a beloved public figure who generated admiration and support from his followers, including those whose life savings he took. He fleeced individuals, yet remained an object of admiration. Martha Stewart, on the other hand, seems an odd symbol of public ambivalence. I dont condone insider trading, but a careful look at her actions suggest to me that her sentence far outweighed her transgression. She seemed to be punished more for who she was and what she represents than her crimes.
Which, ultimately is unfortunate. Self-created entrepreneurs who make their riches by cashing in on public buzz are reflections, embodiments, of current values. They draw from and capitalize on the currency they reflect. They are us.