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I Heard It through the Grapevine

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Dear Monte:

So let me recap. You’re staying at the Del Coronado in San Diego. It’s mid-afternoon. You’ve finished listening to a particularly grim sales forecast from one of your EVPs at the AmSmelt annual retreat. So you go back to your suite, kick off your shoes, fire off some e-mails, and begin to channel surf. You’re in a terrible mood. And then you hear it:

“Boo-Yah! It’s Tom from Totowa!”

“Boo-Yah! What’s the question?”

“AmSmelt. Buy, sell, or short?”

Yes, it’s Jim Cramer, on CNBC’s Mad Money. He’s manic, he’s sweating, he’s taking phone calls faster than a Bangalore call center on the first day of a new software release...

...And he proceeds to trash AmSmelt, ridiculing the founder’s family’s preferred stock, the founder’s twin sons (AmSmelt directors Otto and Carl), and the failed acquisition of AmSmelt by a Chinese smelting conglomerate. “If I owned it, I’d sell it,” Cramer barks, adding, “They’re not smelting gold. They’re not smelting silver. They’re smelting tin! Rin Tin Tin! It’s a dog!”

Now ordinarily, the story should have ended here. But instead of doing the sensible thing (like interrupting my vacation in Tuscany, or hitting the minibar), you pick up the phone, and proceed to dial NBC’s Jeff Zucker, then Bob Wright, then GE’s Jeff Immelt — followed by John Reed at the NYSE, Eliot Spitzer in the NY Attorney General’s office, and finally, Jack Welch. You want vengeance. You want action. You want Cramer off the air. And since none of these guys are available, you settle for the next best thing: You walk down the hall to AmSmelt’s marketing director and order her to pull the new corporate advertising campaign off NBC.

And now, you’re feeling pretty good about this — at least until two days later, when you show up in a story about corporate bigfooting, along with Google’s Eric Schmidt for refusing to talk to CNET, Lou Gerstner for yanking IBM’s advertising from Fortune, and Steve Jobs for pulling books published by John Wiley & Sons off the shelves at Apple stores after they put out an unflattering biography of “His Highness.”

Monte, Monte, Monte: This is fixable, but it still ain’t great. So I’ll repeat what I’ve said a dozen times: In the post-Enron, post-Imperial CEO era, the business of business itself has become entertainment: Ovitz. Eisner. Scrushy. Martha, Conrad Black, Dennis Kozlowski. Everything from the weekend box office in movies, to the trials and tribulations of Bronfman and Ford — to sports contracts getting as much ink these days as the games themselves.

Translation: Act accordingly. If you can picture the negative headline beforehand, don’t pick up the phone.

Still, there is one silver lining here: Cramer’s comments represent almost exactly what you’ve been telling the board, privately. And the way I see it, your public reaction was that of a proud, and loyal, CEO. Impetuous, perhaps. But certainly not actionable: Last time I checked, there was still no constitutional amendment requiring you to advertise.

So, with this in mind, I’ve sent the article, and the tape, to your fellow board members — just in time to begin your new contract negotiations. As Cramer himself might say: Boo-Yah!

I’ll be in touch —

The Biffster.

P.S. As I finished writing this, I received a call back from my guy over at CNN. Lou Dobbs loves the stock and wants to put you on the air. I’m thinking we schedule it just before the next board meeting. Your thoughts, pls.

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