It's payback time on Wall Street. Executives and shareholders shunted to the sidelines are returning as dissidents trying to drive out CEOs, seeking to slash their executive pay and launching a growing number of proxy fights and shareholder proposals.
Last week, eight former Morgan Stanley executives trying to drive out CEO Philip Purcell publicly called for the breakup of the venerable investment firm. Their sweeping proposal would essentially undo the 1997 merger between New York-based Morgan Stanley and Chicago-based Dean Witter Discover & Co. The group called for the "immediate replacement of the current leadership team" in their open letter to shareholders Wednesday.
Corporate raider Carl Icahn has reinvented himself as a shareholder activist in his power struggle with Blockbuster CEO John Antioco. Disney has been far from the happiest place on Earth the last year, with dissident former directors Roy Disney and Stanley Gold trying to drive out CEO Michael Eisner. Previously, America's most powerful female business leader, Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, lost her job after a tug of war with Walter Hewlett, son of company founder Bill Hewlett.
A few years ago, retired executives and investors would have likely taken their corporate parachutes and retired. But in a post-Enron world, they're using full-page ads, the Web and their own deep pockets to make things hot forCEOs on their enemies list.
"People are seeking revenge. There're vendettas going on," says professor Anthony Sabino of St. John's University.
The deft use of attack advertising and Web sites to incite shareholders against sitting CEOs shows "a higher degree of sophistication in activism than ever before," notes Paul Hodgson, a research associate for The Corporate Library.