Who Says CEOs Are Grinches?

Jeff Comment brings holiday cheer to thousands of kids

Of all the years for a CEO to play Santa, this has to be the one that truly strains credulity. After all, what self-respecting child would believe in a St. Nick with stock options, a corporate jet instead of a sleigh, and a crony-filled board willing to overlook the accounting magic tricks on Santa's wish list?

Well, there is one Santa who has proved that a CEO title need not be synonymous with self-indulgence and greed. As he has done every December since 1995, Helzberg Diamonds CEO Jeffrey W. Comment abandoned his pinstripes to dress up as Santa Claus for his annual pilgrimage, bringing good cheer to children's hospitals from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.

For Comment, 58, this is serious business. He hits the road with four red suits, six sets of hair, and a pair of black riding boots, typically greeting 2,500 children a year. The ritual began when the jewelry retailer hosted a Christmas party for a charity in Kansas City, Mo., where Helzberg--one of investor Warren E. Buffett's portfolio companies--is headquartered. Comment's job was to greet disadvantaged children as Santa. Their wishes, he found, went far beyond the latest video game: They asked Comment to reunite parents, bring home a sibling, or make a mother or father stop drinking. "I realized that Santa is much more than a mythical character who slides down chimneys," says Comment.

Comment was so taken by the reaction that he began organizing an annual tour, taking to the road for up to two weeks at the busiest time of the year. When Buffett acquired Helzberg in 1995 and heard about the annual Santa trek, he balked at first. The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A ) asked how Comment could afford to be away at a time when the business rakes in 40% of the year's profits. "By this time, everything is on autopilot," Comment says. "And the company loves it because I'm not out harassing anyone." Buffett is now one of Comment's biggest fans.

Comment doesn't shy away from unpleasantness. On a typical visit, he ventures into intensive care, burn units, and cancer-treatment wards. At the end of each stay, he'll usually leave the child with a teddy bear and a snapshot. All told, Comment has visited more than 17,000 children and formed many an indelible impression, the best of which are described in his book, Santa's Gift.

What does Santa think of the year's corporate misdeeds? "We lost our character," he says. "Call it greed or ego, whatever you want. A lot of people in business just forgot what they were responsible for." And Santa's wish for the New Year? A better economy, of course, but also a new beginning for business. "All these scandals are going to help clean us up," says Comment. "I hope we don't forget them too quickly." That's a wish investors can relate to.

By John A. Byrne in New York

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