In the late 1990s, investors deified corporate chief executives. In the first few years of the 2000s, CEOs were vilified. And now they seem largely ignored, seldom appearing in the financial media unless they're in handcuffs. They are the forgotten souls of Wall Street's remodeled machine.
But that doesn't mean that the overpaid and underachieving heads of many public companies aren't just as lame as ever. It simply means that we've become complacent about the hardships they cause shareholders when they pursue bad strategies, bad communications, bad hiring, bad products and bad marketing -- and then blame their problems on the weather, world politics or traders.
Who are the worst chief executives out there at the moment? You could probably name the CEO of every company you've lost money on. But a handful should be at the top of every capitalist cynic's list.
Let's start with David W. Dorman of AT&T (T - Get Report). This one is almost too pathetic to make fun of. True, he inherited a junkyard dog of a company from predecessor C. Michael Armstrong, but he hasn't done anything to improve Ma Bell in the past two years. With such an immensely renowned brand name and a legendary research-and-development team, you would think that Dorman could make his company synonymous with the global growth of networking as a way of life.Yet he appears to be pushing the company ever deeper into the background, outsourcing its wireless business in an expensive deal with Sprint, losing the price wars on bundling home wire line and broadband services to the more aggressive Baby Bells and the formerly bankrupt MCI, making its long-distance plans more ridiculously complex than ever, experimenting with a high-quality-but-high-cost enterprise strategy, pursuing Internet-based telephony too slowly and timidly -- and now, through no fault of its own, losing its local phone service connection in the recent court battle over FCC unbundling rules.