Lucent Technologies

Carly Fiorina's troubling telecom past

October 15, 2010: 4:00 AM ET

Before she became the controversial CEO of HP, Senate candidate Carly Fiorina was a star at Lucent. What does her time at the telecom disaster say about her?

Carly Fiorina while at Lucent

In the spring of 1999, Lucent Technology's star executive Carly Fiorina pulled off yet another coup—or so it appeared.  A tiny start-up called PathNet agreed to buy huge amounts of fiber-optic gear from Lucent, a deal worth at least $440 million and potentially as much as $2.1 billion. The agreement Fiorina negotiated "potentially represents the single largest fiber supply agreement to a network operator in the U.S," according to a triumphant press release.

While it was unclear how a tiny company like PathNet, with barely 100 employees and all of $1.6 million in annual revenue, could swing such as massive purchase, Wall Street didn't seem to care about such details.  The day following the announcement Lucent's stock jumped 3%.

As she tells it on the campaign trail, Fiorina's life story is an inspiring tale full of such achievements.  From an unlikely start as a secretary she raced up the corporate ladder to record heights, becoming the first female to run a Fortune 20 company, Hewlett Packard (HPQ). Now, after battling cancer, she's running to oust Barbara Boxer (D., Calif) from the U.S. Senate.

Yet Fiorina's campaign biography quickly skates over the stint that made her a star: her three-year run as a top executive at Lucent Technologies.  That seems puzzling, since unlike her decidedly mixed record at HP, Fiorina's tenure at Lucent has all the outward trappings of success.

Lucent reported a stream of great results beginning in 1996, after Fiorina, who had been a vice-president at AT&T (T), helped oversee the company's spin-off from Ma Bell. By the time she left to run HP in 1999  revenues were up 58%, to $38 billion. Net income went from a small loss to $4.8 billion profit. Giddy investors bid up Lucent's stock 10-fold.  And unlike HP, where Fiorina instituted large layoffs—a fact Senator Boxer loves to mention whenever possible—Lucent added 22,000 jobs during Fiorina's tenure.

Dig under the surface, however, and the story grows more complicated and less flattering.  The Lucent that Fiorina walked away from, taking with her $65 million in performance-linked pay, was not at all what it appeared.  Nor were several of her division's biggest sales, including the giant PathNet deal. More

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