From the outside, Enron was a wonder. The sleepy pipeline company created by a merger in 1985 became, by the mid-1990s, a massive energy-trading enterprise, the seventh-largest corporation in the U.S., headquartered in a pair of gleaming skyscrapers in downtown Houston and celebrated as one of the country’s most innovative ventures.
Enron’s success turned its founder, chairman, and CEO, Ken Lay, into the city’s unofficial ambassador. He was the one who stepped up when the Astros threatened to leave town unless they got a new stadium, helping to construct Enron Field, which not only kept the team here but helped revitalize downtown. That was the sort of thing people had come to expect from Lay, and from Enron.
However, behind the scenes, the company wasn’t quite as successful as Lay and his cadre of executives claimed. In fact, Enron was hiding billions in losses and toxic assets while disguising the financial reality by cooking the books.
It all began to come apart when analysts started asking questions in early 2001. By the end of the year, the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating Enron, the stock had gone from $90 to 26 cents a share, and the company had filed for bankruptcy and laid off 4,000 people. The images of crying employees leaving the Houston headquarters, many of whom had also seen their retirement savings wiped out by the company’s collapse, seared itself into the public consciousness. Enron’s name became synonymous with corruption, with Lay as the poster boy for scandal.
Houstonians’ anger was so intense, evidence of the company’s existence was wiped away as quickly as possible. The tilted E logo was taken off the downtown headquarters, and Enron Field became Minute Maid Park, while politicians, charities, and civic organizations that had once cultivated ties with Lay treated him as a pariah.
Lay himself never seemed to grasp his own role in the fraud and the insider trading that had allowed Enron to hide the fact that it was rotting from the inside. Ultimately, 16 former execs were sentenced to prison for their crimes, but Lay never saw the inside of a prison. He died of a heart attack before he was sentenced, maintaining he was as much a victim as anyone, right until the end.