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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 13:47 GMT
Kenneth Lay: A fallen hero
Kenneth Lay and Enron logo
By BBC News Online's Briony Hale

In the space of a few months, Kenneth L Lay has turned from being a Wall Street hero into public enemy number one.

He is the man who turned an unspectacular natural gas pipeline company into a financial powerhouse, winning himself a place in the Texas business Hall of Fame and several surveys of the world's top management.


Ironically, Mr Lay also lectured on government-business relations

As his company crashed to the ground amid growing scandal, he quickly became the centre of bitter feelings from thousands of employees who lost their jobs and savings.

But the Enron crisis is much deeper than money - it has blown into the political arena because of Mr Lay's close relationships with the government, and with President George W Bush in particular.

Economic grounding

Although he served a brief stint as an officer in the US navy, Mr Lay is essentially an economist.

He has an economics degree and PhD, beginning his career as a corporate economist with Exxon and later taught both micro and macroeconomic theory as an assistant university professor.


Mr Lay and Enron poured substantial sums into Mr Bush's various campaigns in what appeared to be a relentless quest for political influence.

It was while lecturing in Washington that Mr Lay developed his beliefs about how energy markets should change - the ideas behind the rise of Enron.

Working for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Mr Lay became a keen advocate of the liberalisation of gas and electricity monopolies.

Practising his teachings

Ironically, Mr Lay also lectured on government-business relations at George Washington University.


We like to think of ourselves as the Microsoft of the energy world

Kenneth Lay

He obviously took his own teaching seriously.

Nicknamed "Kenny Boy" by the president himself, Mr Lay and other Enron executives advised on US energy policies.

Mr Lay and Enron poured substantial sums into Mr Bush's various campaigns in what appeared to be a relentless quest for political influence.

Employing what was described as an army of lobbyists, Enron gave money - thought to have totalled $6m during the 1990s - to both Republicans and Democrats.

'Messiah'

Back in Houston, Mr Lay appeared to settle into a more humdrum job as the president of a local gas company.

But this led to him taking the reins at Enron after its birth in February 1986 following the merger of two local pipeline firms.

From small beginnings, Enron multiplied its market capitalisation more than nine fold in a decade, became the US' seventh biggest company and the world's largest energy trading firm.

Enron's belief and persuading power in the need to prise open markets and trade energy futures just like other commodities caused The Economist to describe Enron as an "evangelical cult" with Mr Lay as the "messiah".

Hosting Margaret Thatcher

"We like to think of ourselves as the Microsoft of the energy world," Mr Lay has been quoted as boasting.

His success at Enron, earned him a smattering of directorships elsewhere, and he has a place on a selection of boards including Compaq, the PC and computer services firm.

In business circles, he had undoubtedly made it, underlined by the fact that he rose to the very top of the golf circle, teeing off regularly with President Clinton during the 1990s.

He was also a popular figure around Houston, and a supporter of a large number of charities and a trustee of the First United Methodist Church.

And his high-profile career saw him serving on a host of impressive sounding committees, including the 1990 Houston Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations during which he played host to former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Survival plans

Now, the numerous investigations surrounding the collapse of Enron - including one by the FBI - have caused Mr Lay to stand down.

As he bowed out, Mr Lay explained that he couldn't reorganise the company while dealing with all the investigations.

"I want to see Enron survive," he said.

With his reputation in tatters, he can have scant such hope for his own career.


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