For many businesses, the attack on America presented an unusual opportunity: They could blame their own poor earnings and sales on an exogenous event that required no explanation. Of course business got hurt, you found yourself thinking, as executive after executive from every industry – beer to toilet paper to Internet devices – cited 9/11 as an alibi for sluggish numbers. What could be more excusable than to say that one of the worst one-day massacres in American history impacted the bottom line?
Which is why I felt like jumping for joy as I listened to those few executives who not only didn’t cite the cataclysm for their own shortcomings, but actually went ahead and said they made their numbers despite the calamitous event. While everyone recognizes Rudy Giuliani for the hero he most definitely is, in my world we’ve got our own set of heroes to crow about, with our only regrets being that not enough attention and praise is being showered on them.
It didn’t take long for some corporate heroes to emerge. That Sunday night, after the stock market had been closed for four days – the longest hiatus since World War I – television stations were all scrambling to have calming executives come on to tell it like it is. Most shied away.
But not Robert Benmosche, the chief executive officer of MetLife. I didn’t know I was even sitting next to the most powerful executive in the life-insurance business when he sat down next to me as we waited for our turns in front of the red light. He was talking to one of his lieutenants about how MetLife had insured many of the deceased. I mentioned that it must put the company in a tough spot. Nope, he said. Not at all. The company had a job to do, to make sure that beneficiaries were paid as soon as possible, and that’s why he was there, to assure the public that it would happen. Another guest asked him about force majeure, meaning, would he try to avoid paying claims because it was an act of war? Benmosche looked him right in the eye and said clearly that MetLife had deep pockets, maybe deeper than any other, and would never look for a way not to pay. That was just plain out of the question. He then proceeded to go on television, not to ask for a handout, not to demand government help, but to say simply that Met would work fast and efficiently to pay all claims. His confidence was infectious; if I weren’t insured up the wazoo, I would take down more with MetLife just because of his strength of character. He had the courage to come right out and tell it like it is when so many others wanted to hide from the camera.
Or how about Jeffrey Immelt, the brand-spanking-new CEO of General Electric? After a week of hell, when stocks fell more than they had in any five-day period except the Great Depression, when GE lost almost $80 billion in market cap – 20 percent of its value – Immelt told Wall Street he was trying to buy every share of his company’s stock that was for sale. This despite the facts that GE manufactured the engines on the hijacked planes, insured the World Trade Centers, and gave up hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial time on NBC, CNBC, and MSNBC to cover the most expensive story ever told. If anyone should have balked and used the excuse of 9/11, it was Immelt. Instead, he chose to emphasize his confidence in his firm’s 300,000 workers and in the enterprise itself. After that presentation, Immelt means confidence to Wall Street. He defined it.
Or how about George David, the tough-as-nails chief executive officer of United Technologies? Everyone expected David to lament how much engine business UTX would lose. Instead, he made you feel that he had seen all of this before in other downturns and that he wasn’t worried. He even used the occasion to beat himself up for not getting Carrier, the air-conditioner division, in better shape. His no-excuses philosophy rang like a bell throughout the quarterly conference call. And when someone questioned his level of confidence in the Otis elevator division, given the potential for a slowdown in commercial real estate after 9/11, he wouldn’t hear of it. What would shake your conviction that Otis will do well, one skeptical analyst asked him? “It would take the end of the world,” David shot back, ending the challenge.
When other titans of Wall Street talked about retrenchment or confusion – or loss of time and money and, of course, lives – Sandy Weill talked about how Citigroup gained share and dominance over the quarter. Others were talking about getting smaller, but Weill said that Citi’s strength was enhanced by what he had seen in the last month. Without being boastful, he made me think that Citigroup had become, in one fell swoop, the premier investment firm in the world, leaving everyone else in a cloud of smallness. This wasn’t braggadocio; just simple dominance.
And finally there was Lou Gerstner from IBM, the man who used his conference call as a sort of victory lap over the competition, acknowledging that in times of turmoil like this, his company is the one turnkey tech outfit left out there that can put your whole house in order. After hearing from company after company that it had “no visibility,” what a pleasure it was to hear from Gerstner that IBM’s next quarter looks good. Afterward, there was some snickering from hedge-fund managers who thought Gerstner played a good hand too hard, that he had sandbagged the Street by whispering beforehand that business wasn’t strong, and that’s why his stock jumped. But I’m not buying it. IBM was one of the few tech stocks to rally after its report, for one simple reason: Gerstner’s heroic no-excuses performance post-9/11.
There’s more to a stock than the man at the helm. These are big organizations with lots of reasons why their stocks might leap to new highs or barrel down to new lows. But in each case, these men distinguished themselves and their companies at a time when many of the mightiest businesses are wobbly and uncertain.
We can’t elect them to run the FBI, or the CIA, or the Office of Homeland Security. But we can buy shares in their companies to show our support. Somehow, I think that by doing so, you can mix patriotism with commerce and come out ahead on both.
Check out TheStreet.com’s “10 Questions” feature this week. John Calamos, manager of Calamos Growth Fund, is on the hot seat. Available free of charge at www.thestreet.com.
James J. Cramer is co-founder of TheStreet.com. At the time of publication, he owned stock in General Electric, United Technologies, Citigroup, and IBM. He often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns and articles, both before and after they are published, and the positions that he takes may change at any time.