Friday, September 13, 2013

Dick Fuld and The Agony of Defeat

Where is Dick Fuld?  This is the title of the well-read, extended Bloomberg/BusinessWeek piece yesterday, that reminded me of Vinko Bogataj.  Who pray-tell is Vinko Bogataj?  He is the former Slovenian ski jumper, who, for more than a decade represented one of the most famous (or rather infamous) and iconic images on American television. His notoriety resulted from a truly spectacular wipe-out off of a ski-jump platform - a fall that was prominently featured on the Intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports. Bogataj was representing what was the former Yugoslavia at the World Championships in the Bavarian resort of Oberstdorf in the spring of 1970. It was his third jump of the day. Visibly heavy Snow was falling and the ramp was fast. Midway down, Bogataj attempted to abort his jump, but unfortunately lost his balance and careened out of control, off the end of the ramp, tumbling and cartwheeling wildly, then crashing through a retaining fence near stunned spectators before coming to a painful halt. Fortunately - and surprisingly given the ferocity of the crash - Bogataj suffered only a mild concussion. Though he returned to jumping the next year, he never duplicated his prior successes and retired from competition, after which he became a ski instructor, supplementing his income by operating a forklift at a factory in his native Slovenia. Ask any American over the age of 40 about this swatch of video history, and they will confirm that Bogataj was, and forever will be, known as the vivid image of the "Agony of Defeat".

Fast-forward to 2008. A venerable investment bank that suffered from neglect by Amex only to rise phoenix-like again under the leadership of Dick Fuld to reclaim a seat at Wall St.'s table, spectacularly crashes and burns. To the astonishment of bystanders, Fuld, like Bogataj, miraculously is unscathed, walks away, but never recovers his old form. He becomes a pariah. People shun him, and his new life is a shadow of the old. He is being sued. He has to sell assets. He retains only a few close friends. He terminates his pilots' training. It also pointed out, to his credit that he drank his own Kool-Aid, and unlike many other famous extractors, financially went down with his ship (more than they), and has in a gentlemanly manner refrained from filing claims against the Lehman estate comp due and deferred comp. Should we feel sorry for him? Should we even care?  This is story in Bloomberg Business Week. It had many gawkers so people are interested...or at least like a bit of schaudenfreude.   

For me, the story is classic personification of hubris, rather than evil criminality. Hubris in business. Hubris in a fantasy-land lifestyle-of-the-rich-and-famous caricature. But, as Fuld is in the process of discovering, it is often ephemeral, and the fall both humbling and painful (not that it will, or should, garner any sympathy).  Strangely, I do feel some some sympathy for him. The pain of adjustment and change must be excruciating, as the ego is weaned from gluttony to near-starvation.  And it must do so in the likely absence of transformational tools to deal with it, whilst still-clinging to a charmed life that is no more. But before you buy that box of Kleenex, no one should feel too sorry for a guy with a $25mm Park Ave pad, and a pair of $20mm homes on the beach and in SunValley...  

For years Bogataj had little clue regarding his notoriety as ABC's image of the Agony of Defeat until he was tracked down by a Pulitzer-winning American sports-writer with keen sense of human interest. And his story, while momentarily tragic, played out happily.  Fuld, will likely not be as fortunate in his Agony of Defeat.

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