2004 winners and losers

NEW YORK – Business-page headlines weren’t dominated by individuals this year, but rather big-picture developments. There were the roller-coaster ride for oil prices, the nosedive of the greenback and the trade and budget deficits.

Still, some individuals managed to stand out above the macroeconomic mayhem to make their marks, whether those were gold stars or fingerprints filed away in federal courthouses.

So we resisted the temptation to declare George Washington a loser because of the slumping dollar, or Mr. T a winner because of the rising price of gold. Instead, here is a subjective list of the winners and losers of 2004:

Winners

Larry and Sergey: Just as the letter “o” in Google’s logo multiplies when the search engine returns bountiful results, so have the number of zeros grown next to the dollar sign in the fortunes of the dot-com darling’s founders since they took Google Inc. public in August. Long known as iconoclasts of the Internet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both 31 years old, set out to break the mold of the traditional IPO as well, forcing investors everywhere to “Google” the term “Dutch auction” to figure out just what the heck they were up to. When all was said and done, the Google guys were set to ring in the New Year with a paper net worth of about $6.5 billion each.

Donald Trump: Only The Donald could make bankruptcy sound like a big win. Trump had to take his casino business on a return trip to Chapter 11 this year to refinance an oppressive $1.8 billion debt. “I don’t think it’s a failure; it’s a success,” Trump said in reference to what he called the “b-word.” It’s hard to argue he’s wrong. Trump will have to ante up $72 million of his own money and his stake in Trump Hotels &Casino Resorts Inc. will be slashed to 27 percent from 47 percent. But the refinancing will save the company $100 million a year in interest, and Trump will stay on as chairman and CEO.

Steve Jobs: His companies are responsible for one of the hottest gifts of the holiday season, some of the best animated movies in recent years, and computers that are free of viruses. If that doesn’t make the CEO of Apple Computer Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios one of the hippest executives around, consider this: His iPod pitchmen include U2’s Bono and The Edge, two of the most corporate-shy rock stars alive.

Alan Lacy: Though his company is merging with the home of the “Blue Light Special,” don’t expect the chairman and CEO of Sears, Roebuck &Co. to see a markdown in his salary. In fact, he’ll get a 50 percent raise once Edward Lampert’s Kmart Holding Corp. takes control of Sears. Lacy’s new deal calls for a salary of $1.5 million and a bonus of up to $2.25 million.

Losers

Martha Stewart: She sure lived up to her “Omnimedia” billing this year. Images of Martha leaving a Manhattan courtroom after her felony conviction, wearing a fur stole and a furrowed brow, were perhaps the year’s most widely published pictures not taken at Abu Ghraib. Stewart is doing her homemaking at a hoosegow in West Virginia these days, but don’t waste any time crying into your crepes for her. The stock chart for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. looks like a crooked smile since the scandal hit. It dipped sharply at first, stayed down awhile, then shot back to a three-year high recently.

Kenneth Lay: Since his indictment in July, the Enron Corp. founder’s energies have been spent denying culpability for the company’s collapse to just about anyone who will listen. Three years after the scandal broke, causing more than 5,000 at Enron to lose their jobs and many to lose most of their retirement nesteggs, prosecutors this year indicted Lay for allegedly participating in a conspiracy to conceal the energy trader’s tailspin.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: He was once riding high as Russia’s richest man, with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $15 billion. But the young, dapper oil tycoon was brought down by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who jailed the 41-year-old Khodorkovsky and put his Yukos petroleum empire under a microscope this year for alleged tax evasion.

Jeffrey Greenberg: Do you think he had scandal insurance? The chairman and CEO of Marsh &McLennan Cos., the nation’s largest insurance broker, was bounced from his job after New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer launched a probe of bid rigging between insurance firms and brokers. Marsh is typing up 3,000 pink slips as it deals with the scandal.

Bernie Ebbers: Federal prosecutors this March charged Ebbers as the leader of an $11 billion accounting fraud case at WorldCom, which collapsed in the largest corporate bankruptcy case ever in 2002. The feds say he and former WorldCom chief financial officer Scott Sullivan led an effort to inflate profits and hide expenses to meet earnings targets.

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