Yesterday Uber’s investors declared they had had enough of CEO Travis Kalanick, forcing the embattled entrepreneur to step down as the ride-share giant’s leader. Kalanick had been mired in accusations of sexist behavior, bro culture and employee mistreatment for years leading up to his departure, highlighting deep issues in the tech industry that are far from having been solved.
But Kalanick is far from tech’s only scandalous CEO tenure. On the contrary, there has been no shortage of boardroom drama and demagoguery since Silicon Valley emerged as one of the world’s great economic powerhouses. Here are five more executive blunderers, from whom to extract some C-suite schadenfreude.
5. Eckhard Pfeiffer, Compaq
German-born Pfeiffer rose to Compaq’s top spot with a glowing reputation, having successfully built the company’s business in Europe. 1982-founded Compaq had cornered the personal computer market, too, beating off competition to become the largest supplier of PC systems.
And there it may have stayed, had Pfeiffer not seen a potential windfall in expanding the business’ portfolio with some risky acquisitions–just as the dot com bubble was about to burst. The purchase of Tandem in 1997, and DEC soon after, were to prove fatal mistakes by Pfeiffer and his team. The server market was changing and Compaq’s expensive buys couldn’t compete on price with Dell and Gateway.
When complaints that Pfeiffer was cordoning himself off among a small clique of company elites in 1998, the writing was on the wall. A year later, Pfeiffer was ousted in a boardroom coup led by chairman Ben Rosen–in exactly the same fashion as how he’d ascended the firm’s executive years previous. Compaq was swallowed up by HP in 2002, and its name ceased trading in 2013. Pfeiffer’s fate is to be a warning for tech companies to focus on what they do best, or suffer a humiliating fall from grace.
4. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft
With a net worth of around $28 billion, it’s unlikely Steve Ballmer cares much what people think of his business acumen. But the former Microsoft chief is a smiling, riling poster boy of how to miss every curve in tech. When Ballmer took charge, in 2000, Microsoft was an economic juggernaut like no other in America: it had a market capitalization of about $500bn and seemed untouchable.
Then Ballmer missed social media. He missed mobile and OS superiority, search engines and just about every trend you’ll see plastered on (admittedly) PowerPoint presentation today. And then there was Vista. In 2012 Forbes named Ballmer “the worst CEO of a publicly traded American company today.” Microsoft’s share price had halved.
To add, Ballmer’s public persona was that of a maniacal despot. Stage performances pitched him, sweating heavily, somewhere between a Alabaman televangelist and Peter Finch’s crazed TV anchor from Sidney Lumet’s seminal 1976 movie Network. Employees complained of his frequent ire and egomania: at one point he snatched a coworker’s iPhone and pretended to stamp on it, before smack-talking them.
3. Carly Fiorina
As Carly Fiorina squared up against her fellow Republican presidential nominees in 2015, the tech world began rumbling with concern about the Austin-native’s alleged business acumen. Fiorina’s stint as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, between 1999 and 2005, is generally considered to be one of the most disastrous in tech history.
2002’s buyout of Compaq, while making HP the world’s biggest seller of personal computers, did little to assuage a plummeting share price, that would drop 52% during Fiorina’s tenure. It was the worst fall of tech stocks in history. Fiorina’s courtship of Compaq was slated as a massive, costly step backwards, investing in old-world hardware when HP should have been making moves towards the cloud and services, like many of its rivals.
The merger was highly contentious and approved by a 51.4% majority–a wafer-thin mandate that crumbled almost immediately. Portfolio magazine wrote a withering review of Fiorina in 2009, describing her as a “consummate self-promoter”. She was also attacked for pocketing a fortune while 30,000 HP jobs were lost. In 2015 she couldn’t even stack up against Donald Trump’s business history. That says a lot.
2. John Rigas
Second World War II veteran, and son of Greek immigrant parents John Rigas, appeared to embody the American Dream when the cable company he helped found, Adelphia Communications Corporation, became the country’s largest cable provider. Rigas, who had bused tables and worked in his parents’ movie theater in upstate New York, was a revelation.
But like so many stories of sudden wealth, Rigas’ is one that had a sour endnote. Adelphia was still the US’ fifth-biggest cable company in 2002, when Rigas was indicted for securities, wire and bank fraud. That forced his retirement from the company.
Three years later Rigas was sentenced to 15 years behind bars for his part in a $3.1m fraud, alongside his two sons, that led to Adelphia’s filing for bankruptcy. It was one of the trials of the year, and cemented Rigas’ place in corporate infamy and folklore. Last February the former magnate was released on compassionate grounds aged 91. However his ill health did not stop him throwing the first pitch at a college baseball match last June.
1. Dennis Kozlowski
If it is the job of this list to deliver, as previously stated, some degree of schadenfreude, then sit back and enjoy the cautionary tale of former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski. In 1992, when Kozlowski became chief of the Ireland-headquartered security firm, Tyco was a formidable, multi-billion dollar company, buying up business real estate all over the world.
By 2002, however, the company’s ivory tower was crumbling: stocks were down and Tyco’s multifarious empire was wearing thin at the seams. To boot, Kozlowski’s life of unashamed opulence was beginning to look a lot like fraud. His $30m New York apartment was allegedly paid for by Tyco. And in 2002, Kozlowski threw a lavish, $2m party for his second wife on the Italian island of Sardinia, complete with vodka-urinating Statue of David, that become known as the ‘Tyco Roman Orgy’. A million bucks of the cost was siphoned from company funds.
“Two gladiators are standing next to the door, one opens the door, the other helps the guests. We have a lion or horse with a chariot for the shock value,” read a hotel memo for the party. In 2005 Kozlowski, who had told reporters that “nothing was hidden”, was sentenced to 25 years in jail for stealing funds worth almost $600m. He was free by 2014. Tyco was merged into Johnson Controls last year.