The Few Jerks That Make Everybody Suffer

Matt Towery

1/11/2007 12:01:00 AM - Matt Towery

ATLANTA -- To many Americans, The Home Depot epitomizes the American entrepreneurial dream. Co-founders Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus added to the luster surrounding their names by eventually becoming legendary local philanthropists. Blank owns the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, and Marcus donated the money to create the world's largest aquarium, also in this town.

They made the company successful with sound business sense, including searing into the heads of every employee the old adage that the customer is always right.

By nothing more than happy coincidence -- happy for me -- the highway overpass bridge leading to The Home Depot's world headquarters is named after yours truly. I mention that out of pride, sure, but also to point out that it's only natural for me to want to keep my ear to the ground on developments surrounding the company so near the bridge.

Thickening the plot and the irony is the fact that I live a stone's throw from a man I'm about to characterize in less than the most flattering terms. It probably doesn't matter. I'm sure his gated estate will soon be up for sale anyway.

Last week it became public that Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli would be leaving the company. First, let me point out fairly that Nardelli shepherded The Home Depot to increased earnings. Too few other CEOs have done that in recent years. In fact, Nardelli was among the handful of the Dow 30 CEOs to deliver 20-percent-earnings-per-share growth for four years running.

That was the good side of Nardelli. Everything else was a disaster. Start with his management style, or lack of it. Aloof and arrogant are the words most folks in town use to describe him.

The Home Depot once brimmed with enthusiastic "mini-entrepreneurs" who reflected the people-friendly mindset of the company's founders. Now these loyal legions have grown scared of their own shadows. Friends and business acquaintances of mine who had any dealings with the company's home office described the place as paralyzed by fear and bureaucracy.

What really nettles everyone from Main Street here to Wall Street is that while The Home Depot's price per share had languished for too long, Nardelli was reaping almost incomprehensible compensation -- $156 million in pay from 2000 to 2005, plus stock options pegged to the benchmarks he met.

To add insult to injury, The Home Depot's board, in deciding last week to part ways with Nardelli, awarded the former General Electric whiz an additional $210 million in cash and options!

An InsiderAdvantage poll conducted this past week in The Home Depot's home state of Georgia found that nearly 80 percent of respondents considered Nardelli's compensation excessive. Most of the others didn't know who he was.

Now for the part that really hurts most Americans, and most annoys political conservatives: Every time a Nardelli-type in effect pillages a publicly held company, it provides more fodder for Democrats and liberals who perpetually seek to "tax the rich."

In "rich," of course, they usually include families with three kids and parents who are not multimillionaires, but who might make a combined $250,000 yearly. In fact, the new Democratic Congress may shove into higher tax brackets families earning far less than that.

Isn't it time for us to differentiate between the huge sums "earned" by the likes of Bob Nardelli, Oprah Winfrey and star professional athletes, and the far more numerous Americans who have worked their rear ends off earning professional degrees or otherwise training for jobs that allow them to attain their own American dream, but don't entitle them to fantasy wages?

The Home Depot's new leader is also a former GE man. He insists that he wants to hear from the public and his employees for advice on how to set things right at the home improvement giant.

Here's a thought: Start talking to flesh-and-blood human beings in the community that the company serves.

As I often note, public opinion really matters, in business as well as politics. But Nardelli left the impression that he could have cared less what anybody thought.

Oh, and by the way, here's a small request for the new Home Depot CEO. Could you leave a dollar on "my bridge" each time you cross it? I could use the cash.