The View From the Bottom

Page 5 of 8

It wasn't enough that he held undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering, music and German, or that he had received a master's of telecommunications from Michigan State University in 1996. To get to the top of the telecom food chain, he figured he needed an MBA. Times were good when Plano-based DSC Communications, a telecom equipment provider, offered him financial assistance to attend grad school, a perk and one of the reasons he decided to work for the company in the first place.

The job market was hot; he had his choice of offers, but DSC was competing fiercely for European carriers, and Bennett's fluency in German and desire to travel clinched his decision. He became a project manager, eventually pushing DSC's wireless infrastructure in both Germany and France. "I was in my element," he says. "The telecom industry was exploding and DSC was hiring 80 to 100 new employees a week."

To become a dominant player in their market, telecom companies set upon a feeding frenzy of mergers and acquisitions. Aggressive WorldCom gobbled up 50 or so smaller long-distance companies and merged with MCI, acting on the questionable assumption that two companies together could operate more efficiently than they could separately. "Everyone was buying up everyone, paying way too much and taking on far too much debt," Kroder explains. "We were blinded by our 'irrational exuberance.' Many of the executives running these companies had never even seen a downturn." Wall Street rewarded these mergers by inflating stock prices, but these valuations didn't reflect how hard it was to merge two corporate cultures with differing styles and infrastructures.

In 1998, Paris-based Alcatel, enhancing its presence in the Telecom Corridor as well as eliminating a tough competitor, bought out DSC Communications. Alcatel soon began consolidating operations, combining departments and ridding itself of product lines, all of which heightened a sense of insecurity among its employees and made John Bennett's decision that much easier. He quit his job, devoting his energies to getting his MBA. He did it to save his marriage, his family and himself.

SMU would be expensive, but he and his wife were never big spenders, and in the end he would be more marketable to the telecom sector with master's degrees in both telecommunications and business. Because his Plano home had a manageable mortgage and he had no outstanding debt, he didn't panic. He still had two small revenue streams: his side Internet business and the occasional church performance where he would sing and sell his Christian contemporary CDs.

A deeply religious man, he was convinced God would provide. So would the career placement center at SMU, he hoped.

Five years at Fujitsu, a company Woods loved, and comes the beginning of the telecom implosion, and he is out of a job. Maybe he should have dealt with it better, not pushed his feelings down so deeply, but he was too preoccupied with finding another job, particularly with the added responsibility of being a new father. Being in the first round of cutbacks in 2000 turned out to be a good thing; within days, he was employed at MCI-WorldCom as a "long-distance engineer," but he says he could tell from the start that the second-largest phone carrier in the nation was being dangerously mismanaged.

"It wasn't a very structured merger [MCI and WorldCom]," Woods says. "Their systems didn't talk to each other and neither did their engineers." It was his job, he says, to find out what infrastructure existed in the field. What he found was millions of wasted dollars being spent on new optical fiber networks, which were being laid next to dark fiber--piping placed in the ground but never connected. "There was so much turnover during the heyday of the telecom boom, engineers left projects before completing them," he says. "And [the projects] were hard to find because the tracking system was so chaotic."

It didn't surprise him when WorldCom filed for bankruptcy protection in July after racking up $46 billion in debt and allegedly concealing $7.2 billion in expenses. It also didn't concern him. Six months after he arrived at the service provider, its stock price plummeted and he was laid off again. This time he had no 401(k) savings, no stock options and nothing to break his fall. In June 2001, he found work as an engineer with Costa Southwest, a small Dallas-based telecom equipment distributor, but the bust had settled in and orders were drying up. The industry had overbuilt in anticipation of massive traffic that never arrived.

"How much excess bandwidth do we have?" repeats telecom business analyst Melanie Swann. "Let's just say enough to transmit billions of libraries of Congress all around the world every second."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald

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