"I took these actions knowing they were wrong, in an attempt to preserve the company." -- Scott Sullivan, ex-WorldCom CFO, admitting in court that he falsified company books Patrick M. Byrne, chairman of Overstock.com, promotes his company as the place to shop online for prices up to 80% below list. But, Overstock may be overstating some discounts.
Spot checks by BusinessWeek found close to 100 instances where Overstock misstated the manufacturer's suggested list price on items like digital cameras, clothes, and TVs. The $240 million e-tailer carries about 12,000 items, outside of its huge book and music store. For a few, it undershot the list price. But most errors made discounts seem larger. "If they've falsely claimed what the manufac-turer's list price is, that's not lawful," says Andrea Levine, a director of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Byrne says there was no intentional deception. He blames most slips on manu-facturers' changing list prices. "We bend over backwards to get this right," he says.
BusinessWeek's checks are in line with the findings of a hedge fund (which declined to be identified) that has shorted Overstock. BusinessWeek found the most incorrect prices in consumer electronics: Of the 92 Toshiba and Panasonic products available Mar. 2, 40 had list prices higher than the manufacturers' list. Five were too low.
In watches and books, list prices were more reliable. But will a company promising big bargains look as attractive if some discounts are less than they seem? Alberto-Culver (ACV) is best known for its dowdy Alberto VO5 shampoo. But the company's strength is its ties to the profit-able U.S. hair-salon market -- which also is crucial to L'Or?al (LORLY) and Procter & Gamble (PG). A person close to L'Or?al says it has made acquisition overtures to Culver. Analysts suspect P&G is interested, too, and say Culver could fetch up to $5 billion.
Culver is the largest distributor of hair-care products to U.S. salons, accounting for two-thirds of its $2.9 billion sales. Even L'Or?al and P&G sell most of their U.S. salon products through Culver. By owning Culver, L'Or?al would tighten its lead in the U.S. salon market and ward off P&G's attempts to expand into it. P&G has spent $11 billion acquiring Clairol and Wella, in part to get into more salons. "It would certainly put a fly in the ointment of Procter's strategy," says Banc of America Securities (BAC) analyst William Steele.
In November, several months after talks with L'Or?al began, Culver smoothed the way to an acquisition by eliminating a supervoting class of stock held by the controlling family. Although none of the companies will comment, L'Or?al's overtures must have P&G in a lather. Here's something you don't often see: a lawyer admitting to a mistake. Stanford Law School's Lawrence Lessig, one of the world's most widely admired intellectual-property theorists, is flagellating himself for blowing the oral argument in Eldred v. Ashcroft -- the U.S. Supreme Court's most important copyright decision in decades.
The Court was asked to decide whether copyright terms could be lengthened to the life of the author plus 70 years. A fortune was at stake for outfits such as Walt Disney (DIS), which was in danger of losing Mickey Mouse to the public domain in 2003.
Representing a broad coalition of interest groups worried that the act would retard innovation, Lessig argued that the law was inconsistent with other High Court precedents. In a landmark 7-2 decision in Jan., 2003, the Justices disagreed. In the upcoming issue of Legal Affairs, Lessig writes: "This case could have been won... my own mistake lost it."
Lessig blames himself for raising theoretical arguments rather than discussing the practical consequences of the case -- as others on his legal team had suggested. One of his advisers, Washington (D.C.) Supreme Court specialist Daniel Bromberg, says Lessig is overdoing it. "Could he have swung three votes if he had taken a different approach? I don't think so," he says. But Lessig disagrees: "I know the facts of this case better than anybody. He's wrong." As, says Lessig, was he. The idea of hawking Korean cars in Europe once seemed laughable. Kia Motors and parent Hyundai are making inroads in the U.S., but Europeans are much more finicky about design. No one's laughing now. Kia sales in Europe grew 41% last year, giving it nearly a point of market share. A year and a half after the Kia Sorento's debut, there's a 10-month wait for the curvy sport-utility vehicle. While Fiat (FIA) and Opel (GM) struggled to update aging lines, Kia rolled out stylish SUVs and minivans with fuel-efficient diesel engines. Next up for Kia: the Picanto Supermini and the new Cerato sedan. And maybe some new respect, too. The U.S. Mint is having money problems. The economic downturn eroded demand for coins while surging prices for copper and zinc raised costs. The upshot: The Mint's profits shrunk to $600 million in 2003 from $1 billion in 2002.
That makes goosing sales and cutting costs priorities for Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore. She's courting collectors, who spent $500 million last year on specialty coins. A nickel celebrating the Louisiana Purchase, which debuted on Mar. 1, should bring in $30 million this year. And Fore plans to augment 100-year-old coin-making casts with laser-cutters.
It can't happen fast enough for the former presi-dent of steelmaker Stockton Products. "Washington has its own pace, [while] as a CEO you can set the pace," says Fore. Perhaps pacesetting's in her blood: Her grandfather Henry Holsman invented the Holsman automobile and a helpful gear called reverse. Senators John Kerry and John Edwards are looking for friends. And the standoffish Kerry has had more success. Both recently joined Web site Friendster, where users create profiles and connect with a virtual community, in an effort to tap its 5.5 million members with an average age of 27. By Super Tuesday, Kerry had reached the limit of 500 networked friends, while Edwards, who bowed out of the race Mar. 3, only had 484.
The candidates' profiles are revealing. Kerry, 60, casts himself as a fun-loving boomer. He posts a picture of himself windsurfing and lists hunting and motorcycles as "other interests." His favorite movies include Animal House and Old School. Kerry writes: "I love Hostess chocolate cupcakes, although [my wife] Teresa tries to limit them."
By contrast, Edwards' formal portrait and occupation of "Senior Senator" seem an attempt to defray criticism that he's inexperienced and lacks gravitas. The favorite books and movies categories are left blank. "About Me" dishes out his populist spiel: "I was born 50 years ago and grew up in a tiny mill village....."
Testimonials posted to the senators' profiles are effusive. Of Kerry, "Benjamin" says: "John's the type of dude where you're like, 'that guy can be our President."' About Edwards, "Paul" offers, "This guy is a ray of sunshine."
Still, Friendster's appeal only goes so far. President George Bush declined an invite to join. A campaign spokeswoman says Friendster doesn't fit his Net strategy. Apparently, Bush is willing to cede this slice of the young hipster vote. Rabble-rousing shareholder activists may need to start practicing more self-restraint. A recent lawsuit has investors worrying that shareholders will be afraid to speak out at annual meetings.
On Jan. 29, uniform maker Cintas (CTAS) filed a defamation lawsuit against Timothy Smith, a senior vice-president at Walden Asset Management, which owns nearly 16,000 Cintas shares. At Cintas' annual meeting in October, Smith accused the company of using sweatshop labor in Haiti. "The things he said are completely false," says Wade Gates, a Cintas spokesman. Smith declined to comment.
The case has alarmed lawyers and pension-fund managers. "It is outrageous," says attorney Victor Kovner of Davis Wright Tremaine. He says Cintas is unlikely to prevail. "They'd have to show actual malice." But Cintas may not have to win in court. "It does have a chilling effect," says Sarah Teslik, executive director of the Council of Institutional Investors. Will dissenters have to start keeping a lawyer on call?