John Dix: Industry View

Qwest Communications International Inc. CEO Joseph Nacchio rode off into the sunset last month to join fellow telecom cowboys Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom Inc. and C. Michael Armstrong from AT&T Corp. (Armstrong isn’t officially gone yet but has made his intentions clear).

All three men are stepping out at a time of unprecedented industry turmoil, leaving behind troubled companies, some of them on the edge of collapse. Their legacies, in a nutshell:

— Nacchio went from champ to chump, climbed his way back up to champ, then slid back down and out. He was lured from AT&T to run the fibre upstart and made Qwest into an industry and Wall Street darling. Then he was widely maligned for marrying the company to stodgy old US West. A year later that deal looked brilliant because it brought in a steady stream of cash and gave him a large customer base. Now the company he leaves is saddled with $26 billion in debt and is looking to sell off profitable businesses to lessen the load.

— Ebbers built an empire through acquisition. He was an early investor in discount long-hauler LDDS, became CEO in 1985, and in the early 1990s started building what would become WorldCom by buying other companies. His legacy is a mountain of debt – some $30 billion – and the fact that he was more interested in the deal than the results of the deal; he never properly integrated the assets he acquired.

— Armstrong will be best remembered for his failed $100 billion bet on cable TV, the resultant splintering of the company into four chunks, and the sale of the company’s grand headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J.

Of course these men and their companies aren’t the only ones that have had a rough go in telecom. But Nacchio, Ebbers and Armstrong stand out as cowboys because, one, they headed the biggest companies, and two, they made the boldest moves.

Dix is editor in chief for Network World (U.S.). He can be reached at [email protected].

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