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Business Winners And Losers Of 2006

Before 2006, if someone in the business world mentioned "backdated options," you'd be forgiven for thinking they were making a joke about Steve Jobs' necktie collection.

But in 2006, the big losers were defined by the scandal that erupted over executives who received big paydays due to stock options backdated to low points in a company's stock price. In the winners' column, there were the obligatory Internet whiz kids who made a billion, and some big surprises, including a disgraced banker who found redemption.

The stories of 2006 unfolded with more twists than a Hollywood thriller, giving plenty of fodder for "based on a true story" scripts.

WINNER: Warren Buffett

This tale was meant to be a buddy flick: The world's second-richest man hands most of his fortune over to the world's richest man and his charity. In the case of Buffett, who turned Bill Gates on to bridge and plays the game with the Microsoft Corp. chairman regularly, the movie's climax naturally would occur at a card table.

A silver-haired Buffett, played by Steve Martin, vows that the young whippersnapper will never beat the old master. Buffett's bridge partner persuades him to lay down a bet of 10 million Class B shares of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., worth $31 billion.

Cut to a close-up of Gates, smiling fiendishly as he hands out Xboxes to a line of orphans some 100 million deep.

OK, that's just the Hollywood version. However it really happened, Buffett's generosity proved there's nothing Class B about this guy.

Suggested movie title: "Bill and Warren's Excellent Adventure."

LOSER: Jacob "Kobi" Alexander

Of all the executives bounced from their jobs due to the options scandal, Alexander stands out for his boldness. When the stuff hit the fan, Alexander, ex-CEO of software company Comverse Technology Inc., decided to hightail it out of the country.

He finally was found in the southern African nation of Namibia, where he spread $1.5 million around to local businesses.

The locals are in no hurry to send him back to the U.S. Alexander was arrested Sept. 26 by Namibian authorities at the request of the FBI. But he was freed on bail and the magistrate said they'd wait until the end of April or so to decide on whether to ship him back to the States.

The feds could probably get Alexander out faster if they sent Madonna over there to adopt him.

Suggested movie title: "Backdated Earnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Namibia."

WINNER: The YouTube dudes

Fuzzy videos of people spewing Diet Coke and Mentos from their mouths like some sort of dork volcano. A Korean teenager with a webcam performs a classical music masterpiece on his electric guitar and is hailed as the messiah of heavy metal. And a home is given to every blooper, blunder and drunken Danny DeVito interview ever to air on network TV.

YouTube is like a "combination of 'America's Funniest Home Videos' and 'Entertainment Tonight,' " is how Chad Hurley described the site he and Steve Chen created.

In the type of dotcom-riches tale that had become rarer in the Bay Area than an NFL playoff game, Chen and Hurley sold the site to Sergey Brin and Larry Page's Google Inc. this fall for stock valued then at $1.65 billion.

They and the site's other investors may not see every dime, however. Apparently worried about copyright liabilities, Google set aside more than $200 million of the payment in case the Mentos lawyers come looking for a cut.

Suggested title: "When Larry Met Hurley."

LOSER: Nicholas Maounis

Next time you are hurting after a bad day on the stock market or an all-nighter with Danny DeVito, consider the year Maounis had. His hedge fund, Amaranth Advisors, lost more than $6 billion in a matter of days due to bad natural gas trades.

"We feel bad about losing our own money," Maounis told investors on a conference call, according to Dow Jones Newswires. "We feel much worse about losing your money."

Suggested title: "Honey, I Shrunk the Portfolio."

WINNER: Lee Raymond

Most of us get a gold watch when we retire and start cashing in on that senior matinee discount. But as retiring chairman of ExxonMobil Corp., Raymond did a wee bit better: a $400 million package when all the perks are tallied up.

The figure was so eye-popping that a congressional committee labeled it an "exorbitant payout" and asked the company for detailed information about the package.

Suggested movie title: "Ungrumpy Old Men."

LOSER: Patricia Dunn

The Ponemon Institute "think tank" recognized Hewlett-Packard Co. in 2006 with a second-place Most Trusted Company for Privacy Award. What was that think tank thinking? Of course the award came in March, before a spy scandal knocked Dunn out of the chairwoman's seat at HP.

Dunn was hit with felony charges of identity theft and fraud over a leak probe in which reporters had their phone records fraudulently obtained, spyware installed on their computers, and gumshoes checking out their trash.

Of course, the charges are probably not at the top of Dunn's list of worries these days. She was told in October she would need chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

Suggested title: "Steel Magnolias, Steal Identities."

WINNER: Lakshmi Mittal

The battle this steel mogul waged to buy rival Arcelor SA was too long and complicated to fit into one film, so a TV series is in order.

Some European governments that owned stakes in Arcelor feared the deal would lead to lost jobs. And Arcelor's CEO turned his nose up at the bid — literally by describing Mittal's steel as cheap "eau de Cologne" compared with Arcelor's fine perfume. Others, especially in India, suspected racism played a role.

But when Mittal raised his bid to $33 billion, Arcelor's board finally approved the deal. It seems "eau de euro" smells even sweeter than the finest French perfume.

Suggested TV show title: "Mittal in the Family."

LOSER: William McGuire

Back in April, when the mob of options avengers was still lighting its torches, UnitedHealth Group Inc.'s CEO said mounting criticism over stock options was "overheated."

It was about to get a lot hotter.

McGuire, whose options were worth $1.6 billion at the end of 2005, stepped down as CEO in November. Things did cool off a bit, but probably not in the way McGuire had hoped: A judge froze millions worth of his unexercised options and retirement benefits until the company could complete a review of shareholder lawsuits.

Suggested title: "Some Don't Like It Hot."

WINNER: Frank Quattrone

The former Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. banker was known for his perma-grin during his trial on obstruction of justice charges for instructing his minions to "clean up" their files amid several probes of how his bank dished out IPO shares. But he had good reason to smile this year when his conviction was tossed out after a court ruled the jury was given bad instructions. His case will be dropped if he stays out of trouble for a year.

"Give us that winning smile," a photographer shouted when the mustachioed Quattrone left the court afterward.

"You betcha!" Quattrone said.

Suggested title: "The Year of Living Cautiously."

LOSER: Jeffrey Skilling

Ken Lay escaped punishment for his role in the Enron scandal the hard way — he died.

No such luck for Skilling. The former Enron CEO was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his role in the scandal that wiped out $2 billion in pension funds and $60 billion in stock.

Skilling apparently made the most of his final months of freedom by trying to have a good time — Danny DeVito style — including an arrest for public drunkenness.

After his conviction, Skilling said he felt just terrible about the whole Enron thing, but claimed he didn't do anything wrong and vowed to appeal.

"I'll be vindicated," he said.

Suggested movie title: "Monsters, Inc."

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