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YEAR IN REVIEW The big picture ruled in 2004



Published: Sat, January 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Associated Press weighs in on winners and losers of the business world last year.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Business-page headlines weren't dominated by individuals this year, but rather big-picture developments. There were the roller-coaster ride for oil prices, the nosedive of the greenback, and the trade and budget deficits -- the second-most famous Beltway twins after the Bush daughters.

Still, some individuals managed to stand out above the macroeconomic mayhem to make their marks, whether those were gold stars or fingerprints filed away in federal courthouses.

So we resisted the temptation to declare George Washington a loser because of the slumping dollar, or Mr. T a winner because of the rising price of gold. Instead, here is a subjective list of the winners and losers of 2004:

WINNERS:

LARRY AND SERGEY

Just as the letter "o" in Google's logo multiplies when the search engine returns bountiful results, so have the number of zeros grown next to the dollar sign in the fortunes of the dot-com darling's founders since they took Google Inc. public in August. Long known as iconoclasts of the Internet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both 31 years old, set out to break the mold of the traditional IPO as well, forcing investors everywhere to "Google" the term "Dutch auction" to figure out just what the heck they were up to. When all was said and done, the Google guys were set to ring in the New Year with a paper net worth of about $6.5 billion each. Certainly, these old acquaintances will not be forgot.

DONALD TRUMP

Only The Donald could make bankruptcy sound like a big win. Trump had to take his casino business on a return trip to Chapter 11 this year to refinance an oppressive $1.8 billion debt. "I don't think it's a failure; it's a success," Trump said in reference to what he called the "b-word." It's hard to argue he's wrong. Trump will have to ante up $72 million of his own money and his stake in Trump Hotels & amp; Casino Resorts Inc. will be slashed to 27 percent from 47 percent. But the refi will save the company $100 million a year in interest, and Trump will stay on as chairman and CEO. That means he won't have to hear those dreaded words "You're fired" from his bondholders, who will control about two-third of the company. If all else fails, he can always fall back on his TV career. After all, NBC's "The Apprentice" did a respectable job of replacing "Friends," a feat many thought impossible. Trump has even milked the show to get a free wedding ring worth $1.5 million for his wife-to-be in exchange for a plug for its supplier on his show, according to the New York Post. Now that's class.

STEVE JOBS

His companies are responsible for one of the hottest gifts of the holiday season, some of the best animated movies in recent years, and computers that are free of viruses. If that doesn't make the CEO of Apple Computer Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios one of the hippest executives around, consider this: His iPod pitchmen include U2's Bono and The Edge, two of the most corporate-shy rock stars alive. Jobs might not be able to beat rivals Bill Gates and Michael Dell for control of the world's personal computer market, but he was able to beat back pancreatic cancer this year. He even got in a post-op plug for Apple products in an e-mail to employees from his sickbed: "PS: I'm sending this from my hospital bed using my 17-inch PowerBook and an Airport Express." Rock on.

WHITEHOUSE STATION PARACHUTE CLUB

Investors holding Merck & amp; Co. shares could have used a good painkiller after the pharmaceutical giant pulled its blockbuster drug Vioxx from the market due to heightened risks of heart attacks and strokes. Though the company's stock price has lost more than a third of its value, and there is much speculation over what will be left of Merck once plaintiffs' lawyers are through with it, fear not for the Whitehouse, N.J., company's top managers. Not long after the Vioxx withdrawal, the company got busy weaving 230 "golden parachute" severance packages that will pay them up to three times their base salaries and bonuses should they face the ax if Merck is bought or merged with another pill pusher. Geronimoooooo!

ALAN LACY

Though his company is merging with the home of the "Blue Light Special," don't expect the chairman and CEO of Sears, Roebuck & amp; Co. to see a markdown in his salary. In fact, he'll get a 50 percent raise once Edward Lampert's Kmart Holding Corp. takes control of Sears. Lacy's new deal calls for a salary of $1.5 million and a bonus of up to $2.25 million, not to mention 75,000 shares of restricted stock and 200,000 options. That's some serious roebucks.

LOSERS:

MARTHA STEWART

She sure lived up to her "Omnimedia" billing this year. Images of Martha leaving a Manhattan courtroom after her felony conviction, wearing a fur stole and a furrowed brow, were perhaps the year's most widely published pictures not taken at Abu Ghraib. Stewart is doing her homemaking at a hoosegow in West Virginia these days, but don't waste any time crying into your crepes for her. The stock chart for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. looks like a crooked smile since the scandal hit. It dipped sharply at first, stayed down awhile, then shot back to a three-year high recently as closure came to the scandal and news broke that Sears was being acquired by Kmart, the biggest hawker of her goods. And don't be surprised if she makes a triumphant return to the winners list in 2005 if her new television show is a hit. No, not on HBO's "Oz," but on her own cooking and homemaking show to be syndicated by Mark Burnett Productions and NBC Universal Domestic Television.

KENNETH LAY

Since his indictment in July, the Enron Corp. founder's energies have been spent denying culpability for the company's collapse to just about anyone who will listen -- newspapers, Larry King, even his high school classmates. Three years after the scandal broke, causing more than 5,000 at Enron to lose their jobs and many to lose most of their retirement nesteggs, prosecutors this year indicted Lay for allegedly participating in a conspiracy to conceal the energy trader's tailspin. According to prosecutors, Lay knew of Enron's problems in 2001 -- including a massive upcoming quarterly loss and $1.2 billion write-down in shareholder equity -- but continued to tout the company to the public. He even encouraged employees to buy more Enron stock.

MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY

He was once riding high as Russia's richest man, with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $15 billion. But the young, dapper oil tycoon was brought down by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who jailed the 41-year-old Khodorkovsky and put his Yukos petroleum empire under a microscope this year for alleged tax evasion. But his supporters say it's all politics, comrade -- Khodorkovsky was a big supporter of parties opposing Putin's in the 2003 parliamentary elections.

JEFFREY W. GREENBERG

Do you think he had scandal insurance? The chairman and CEO of Marsh & amp; McLennan Cos., the nation's largest insurance broker, was bounced from his job after New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer launched a probe of bid rigging between insurance firms and brokers. Marsh is typing up 3,000 pink slips as it deals with the scandal. Jeffrey's father Hank and his brother Evan, both of whom also head insurance companies, have so-far managed to weather the scandal with their jobs intact, though dad's company, American International Group Inc., has to pay $126 million to the SEC as settlement for a separate charge of aiding other companies in accounting fraud. It's a safe bet that there have been happier holidays for the Greenberg family.

BERNIE EBBERS

Federal prosecutors this March charged Ebbers as the leader of an $11 billion accounting fraud case at WorldCom, which collapsed in the largest corporate bankruptcy case ever in 2002. The feds say he and former WorldCom chief financial officer Scott Sullivan led an effort to inflate profits and hide expenses in order for the long-distance provider to meet earnings targets. Ebbers is free on bail while he awaits trial, but the judge has confined him to only the states of New York, Mississippi, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. Anywhere else, he can call long distance.




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