Workers Give Up Get-Rich Dreams, Still Value Stock Options

Jeff Solof's fantasy was never extravagant. The Sun Microsystems (SUNW) employee planned to cash in $370,000 worth of stock options and put his kids through college.

That was back in 2000, the heyday for tech stocks. Today, at age 44, the ordained minister only hopes his options -- most of them worthless at the moment -- will recover enough to let him retire a couple of years early and pursue his avocation.

Solof's downsized expectations are typical in Silicon Valley, where tech stocks soared in the 1990s, crashed in 2001 and bounced back from oblivion in 2003. Today, as lawmakers finalize plans that will likely limit the number of stock options available for workers, many employees now see them as a nice incentive, but probably not the road to riches. (For a view of current trends in options expensing, click here.)

In many ways, employees have come full circle in their expectations about stock options. "If you go back to the early '90s, when people didn't bank on them or make their plans based on them, we're probably more like that now," said Karen Goodfriend of Allied Consulting Group, a financial advisory firm in Los Altos, Calif. "Options are viewed much more realistically."

Unrealistic dreaming about stock options was fueled in part by stories of more fortunate option holders such as Mike Tompkins. A sales manager who joined Microsoft in 1990, Tompkins didn't pay much attention to the grants he got early in his tenure, when stock options were still a novelty to most workers.

"Options were kind of a cute thing, because they matured over many, many years. My style was to forget about them," Tompkins recalls.

Because most options expire within a decade, Tompkins was among the lucky group that began cashing in their options in the mid-'90s. They reaped fat profits as tech stocks approached their historic peak. In the decade between January 1990 and December 1999, Microsoft shares surged more than 90-fold, from 64 cents to $58.38 on a split-adjusted basis.

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