As what's left of the once-titanic AT&T Corp. limps off into the acquiring arms of Baby Bell SBC Corp., a cottage industry seems certain to develop for ''Who killed Ma Bell?" books.
On the heels of ''Tough Calls," a nuanced and honest insider's take on the AT&T collapse by longtime company public relations guru Dick Martin, business journalist Leslie Cauley is out with her own equally dishy and readable account. Cauley has covered the telecommunications business for USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.
By now, most readers with an interest in US business history know the broad outlines: Company once synonymous with an entire industry grows too big and gets busted up by the courts. Company lurches through acquisitions and chief executives. Charismatic outsider CEO makes a $100 billion gamble on a whole new direction -- cable television -- and loses big, just as the stock market collapses. Company breaks up for good, and appears destined for the graveyard of legendary brands alongside Woolworth, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Pan Am.
Where AT&T obituarists have ample grounds to disagree for years to come is in just how much blame to lay on the bet-the-company CEO, C. Michael Armstrong. Armstrong swept into AT&T in late 1997 from stints at Hughes Electronics and IBM. Correctly foreseeing that wireless and the Internet would lay waste to the traditional long-distance business, Armstrong made a bold push into buying cable TV companies in hopes of extending AT&T's powerful consumer marketing engine into 21st-century telecommunications systems.
Martin and others writing about AT&T have sympathized with Armstrong's argument that he had a good plan that simply couldn't be carried out while his main competitor, WorldCom, was padding its books with $11 billion in bogus sales, effectively stealing from AT&T's bottom line.
But while Cauley does a great job of capturing Armstrong's likability, she holds him centrally responsible for AT&T's demise. ''Mike Armstrong failed to execute. Period," Cauley declares. ''And he didn't just fail by a little. He failed by a lot."
Cauley is especially aggressive in detailing Armstrong's failure to manage a strong-willed cast of back-biting lieutenants like John Zeglis, Chuck Noski, Dan Somers, and especially cable chief Leo Hindery.
Many of the best passages are Cauley's colorful biographical sections on Armstrong, a Harley-riding dynamo who grew up in Detroit loved by a mom who assured him over and over again, ''If you work hard and give it your all, there's nothing you can't accomplish."
Anyone who's ever married into a difficult family can empathize with Armstrong, whose future father-in-law warned him as a high school senior pursuing his daughter: ''As far as I can see, you're going to end up selling popcorn at Tiger Stadium," Cauley recounts.
Just a few years later, Armstrong got the girl, made her his wife, and wound up rising to one of the most prominent and important leadership positions in corporate America. Revenge tastes even sweeter than Cracker Jack.
Peter J. Howe can be reached at email@example.com.
People interested in this book are also interested in:
TOUGH CALLS AT&T and the Hard Lessons Learned from the Telecom Wars, by Dick Martin (American Management Association, $24.95)
FREAKONOMICS A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (William Morrow, $25.95)
1776 by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, $32)
Employees of AT&T are reading:
SOFTSWITCH Architecture for VoIP, by Frank Ohrtman (McGraw-Hill Professional, $49.95)
IMITATION IN DEATH by J.D. Robb (Berkeley Publishing Group, $7.99)
THE LAST JUROR by John Grisham (Doubleday, $27.95)
TAKING CHARGE OF YOUR FERTILITY The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health, by Toni Weschler (Collins, $23.95)
THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene (Vintage, $15.95)