Foolish Flashback: Enron's Ken Lay

As Ken Lay's fraud and conspiracy trial begins today in Houston with the selection of jurors, we take a look back at what he was saying about his business in January 2000. Lay, who was then chairman and CEO of Enron, spoke to Tom and David Gardner on The Motley Fool Radio Show about his company, his employees, and Enron's future.

Given the developments that followed this interview, we considered adding our own snide remarks (particularly to the parts where he talks about Enron's employees' great treatment) throughout it before publishing, but on further reflection, there's just no need. Ken Lay really says it all himself. Enjoy, Fools, and come back throughout the week for more Enron-related coverage.

David Gardner: Ken, the first question that we have for you is that your company recently announced plans to enter the market for trading bandwidth. We need this explained for us. We want to figure this out.

Ken Lay: That is true, David. We are. We have already moved into that market. We have already created a market to exchange bandwidth. Basically, we are creating a market there very much like the markets we created in natural gas back in the late '80s and, of course, in electricity during this decade.

We are buyers and sellers and can very readily exchange bandwidth in an open market in a very flexible way, a very efficient way, without kind of having to go through all the negotiations and kind of the one-off transactions they have to do today.

David Gardner: OK, so who exactly is buying and who is selling?

Ken Lay: Well, from the standpoint of the sellers, it can be some of the major carriers. I mean, such as Level Three (Nasdaq: LVLT  ) or AT&T (NYSE: T  ) or, of course, Global Crossing. We did a deal with them just before Christmas.

But it also can be people that have already contracted for bandwidth with a major carrier, but now their needs have changed and they don't need all of it, so they want to put some of this on the market -- so they in fact can get something back for the excess capacity they have.

Tom Gardner: Now, Ken, as I put the different lines of business together that you are involved in as a company -- Enron, again, with $40 billion in sales -- is there a common thread to the different aspects and elements of your business model? Is there a mission statement that overlays all of those components?

Ken Lay: There is, Tom. I think the common elements first are that, basically, we are entering markets or in markets that are deregulating or have recently deregulated, and so they have become competitive, moving from monopoly franchise-type businesses to competitive, market-oriented businesses.

Then, of course, moving into those markets and applying a set of skills that we have developed over the last 15 years, and the people and, obviously, the controls and the technology and so forth, to make those markets operate more efficiently, more effectively, more efficiently driving down costs. This makes it easier for consumers and for sellers to transact business. We are also providing a lot of other related services, whether it be risk-management tools, whether it be financing tools or other types of services.

Tom Gardner: Ken, Dave was mentioning that Enron was noted by Forbes as one of the "Best 100 Companies to Work For." Why is that? What is it that stands out that an Enron employee would say that an employee at one of your lead competitors wouldn't be able to?

Ken Lay: Well, and, obviously, first of all, you have got to start off with being very competitive, with wages and salaries and benefit packages and all the rest of that, which many other companies are, too. But I think at Enron, primarily, we have created a whole different kind of culture -- a culture where, in fact, it does encourage people to go out and try new things, to look at existing business models and ask why that can't be improved, why that can't be changed. We encourage a lot of experimentation, a lot of innovation.

Of course, Fortune has also listed us or ranked us as the most innovative company in America the last four consecutive years. But I think that is just because we have a lot of really bright, creative people that, in fact, believe if they come up with a better idea, we will pursue it.

David Gardner: Ken, as I think about the changing world of technology and how you all are being affiliated with it, what is Enron's Internet strategy defined? Is there a component of it that ties in with the bandwidth, which is something that somebody might not expect when they think, "Enron, energy company"?

Ken Lay: Uh, yes. Let me say again, first of all, as we have gotten into the bandwidth industry, we think there are a lot of analogies with our natural gas business model. I won't take that too far right now, because we don't have time, but we really have two pieces to our strategy in bandwidth.

One is the bandwidth trade. Of course, we are the largest marketer -- buyer and seller -- of electricity and natural gas in the world and, of course, increasingly coal and many other commodities, too. So we have had a lot of experience with these big commodity markets. We expect to be the largest buyer and seller of bandwidth in the world. Of course, this is even a bigger industry and a much faster-growing industry than the other two I mentioned.

But on the other side, we also have some technology that basically allows us to do a better job of managing networks of networks that transmit data. In the process, we, in fact, can guarantee a much higher quality of data transmission than anybody else can now, basically using, of course, our fiber and other people's fiber, but also servers and pooling points. We're really creating a lot of markets where, in fact, we can control the flow of the data in such a way that we can get high-quality video streamed through the Internet.

Of course, that is where everybody is headed, both for video streaming and also e-commerce. That technology has now been confirmed by a lot of the participants, but, of course, Thursday of this week, we also announced a very important strategic alliance with Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW  ) . We already have one with Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) , with Lucent (NYSE: LU  ) , and many other technology companies. We are going to be rolling that out over the next 18 months to two years.

David Gardner: So, Ken, looking over these businesses then, these marketplaces, you are saying that the broadband looks like the biggest marketplace that you are involved in. Is it also the highest-margin?

Ken Lay: Well, again, it is very early, so I don't think I can say that yet. We think it could be because, if anything, it is even less efficient today, on a relative basis, than what we found in the electricity and natural gas businesses around the world. It obviously is very much a global business. It is an enormous business. I referred to it a couple of days ago as kind of taking our demonstrated capabilities and now applying that to the mother lode.

This is an enormous, big industry. We do intend to become, in addition to the largest buyer and seller of bandwidth, the preferred platform for e-commerce worldwide. With our technology and our partners, we think we can get there.

Tom Gardner: Now, Ken, you have been the CEO of Enron for almost 15 years now, from 1986 to today. There are a lot of people out there in America who would say one of the things that I would never want to do is to be CEO of a company, particularly CEO of a company as large as Enron is. How do you survive, thrive, and enjoy playing the role of the leader of this enormous and very innovative business?

Ken Lay: Well, I think, first off, working with and around what I think are some of the brightest, most innovative people in the world. Obviously, coming to work every day in that environment, where you are going to have all kinds of new challenges and all kinds of new ideas, but I think, beyond that -- I think from my standpoint -- I stay enthusiastic about it, excited about it, because the company keeps changing so rapidly. Ten years ago, 80% of our net income came out of the regulated natural gas pipeline business. This year, 20% will come out of that business, and 80% will come out of businesses we weren't in 10 years ago.

Now we have got these whole new businesses, of course, in addition to the bandwidth business. We started moving all of our electricity, natural gas, and other energy commodities online in early December. We are very quickly becoming the largest ecommerce company in the world.

David Gardner: OK, Ken. As we close here, we want to take the subject briefly to baseball. Now, Enron Field will be the new home of the Houston Astros in a couple of months. We like the name Enron, but we are figuring that people like a nickname. They like to be able to say "The Ball Yard" or something like that. A way of referring to Enron Field. We came up with a couple. We just want to run them by you and get any reactions that you might have, so we wanted to start off with the Gas House. What do you think of the Gas House?

Ken Lay: I think I will reject that one, David.

David Gardner: OK. We can understand that.

Tom Gardner: We have got two more, though. How about "The Home of Energy"?

Ken Lay: Well, that is better. I like that better.

Tom Gardner: OK, I think you are going to love the third one, Ken. How about "The House That Ken Lay Built?"

Ken Lay:(Laughs.) Well, as long as nobody goes around it kind of huffing and puffing, that would be all right.

David Gardner: OK, good. Is there going to be a statue of you out front, Ken?

KenLay: I don't think so, I don't think so.

David Gardner: Thank you very much for joining us on The Motley Fool Radio Show.

Ken Lay: Thank you. Enjoyed it very much.

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