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September 16, 2005

AT&T: Lesson from the Crypt #4: The Downsizing of Golden Boy

Goldenboy_1  The true reason for the irreversible and continuing decline of AT&T is the emasculation of Golden Boy.

The story begins in 1914 when the Western Electric Division (now Lucent) hired Evelyn Beatrice Longman to build them a statue called the Genius of Electricity.  He is twenty-four feet high, weighs forty tons, and is cast in bronze and covered with 40,000 pieces of gold leaf.  One hand holds lightening bolts; the other a coil of wire.

He was delivered in 1916 and placed on top of AT&T’s then corporate headquarters on Broadway in New York City.  465 feet above street level, he was a well-known landmark - but rarely seen up close.

In the ‘30s Golden Boy was repositioned as the Spirit of Communication and many thought him to be a statue of the messenger god Hermes.  For the next two decades he appeared on every phone book – always very small, though.

In the late 1970s AT&T built a fancy new headquarters on Madison Avenue which is known as the Chippendale building for its fancy roofline. Since Golden Boy couldn’t stand on this roof, a seven story lobby was built specially for him. When he was lowered to street level, his problems (and AT&T’s problems) began.

Golden Boy was massively anatomically correct – massively (unfortunately I can’t find a picture to illustrate this). The way I heard the story, concern began in marketing, spread rapidly through-out the headquarters staff, and finally John de Butts made an executive decision.  The scaffolding was up around Golden Boy for a almost a year. When he was unveiled, he was much more modest in his proportions.

Without its cajones, AT&T’s fate was sealed. In 1984 the deballed monopoly was also demonopolized and its offspring RBOCs were set free. It’s all been downhill from there.  Golden Boy was lugged to Basking Ridge, New Jersey when AT&T retreated to the suburbs to lick its wounds. There he guarded the entrance to executive parking.  Some say he put a curse on all who drove past.

Following trivestiture in the ‘90s, he was decapitated, trucked to the edge of the parking lot at the new headquarters in Bedminster, and reassembled at the edge of a parking lot.  AT&T continued to shrink.

Students of Greek mythology know that Chronus rebelled against his father Uranus (who thought he had prudently eaten all his children) and castrated him on his way to becoming supreme ruler.  So it is no surprise that offspring SBC is swallowing progenitor AT&T.  But Chronus, in turn, was overthrown by Zeus.  Don’t know who will be Zeus in this story.  Google?  eBay?  Microsoft?  My bet is a bunch of little guys.

Anyway, the moral for CEOs is don’t emasculate your icon.

Many of the facts for this post came from an excellent article by Denise Pappalardo in NetworkWorld here.

I blogged about some less important reasons for AT&T’s demise here, here, and here.

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