The wizard of shareholder valueSeptember 19, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
Long term be damned. Give us layoffs, cut expenses, and don't forget all the cash you can fit into a sailor's trunk.
FORTUNE -- I went to see my friend Vronsky, who is trying to keep his corporation on a positive growth curve in spite of, you know, everything. These days that takes faith as well as strategy. So I knew where to find him.
There he was, precisely where I thought he would be: on his knees, praying at the shrine of shareholder value, muttering incantations, burning old strategic plans and sifting through the ashes, seeking wisdom from this unyielding and selfish god.
This weird cult, as I am sure we all know, was founded in the mid-1980s by the original priests of the order, men whose names are now mostly shrouded in mystery. Once viewed as simple raiders, wielders of debt and destruction, and levelers of hundreds of thousands of jobs in corporate villages around the globe, these original Icahnic monks are legend now, but their descendants and acolytes live on, issuing edicts and decrees under the totem of shareholder activism and receiving alms and accolades from their drooling sycophants in the investment community and financial media. It was to an oracle of this cruel and impatient deity that Vronsky was appealing for guidance now.
"O Great One!" Vronsky intoned. His eyes had rolled back in his head, and his face was an unpleasant shade of chartreuse. "It would seem that the best thing we could do at this time is to acquire a smaller firm and consolidate its operations with our own. May we do so?"
The air around the shrine shimmered with an angry red light, and a deep, phlegmy voice belched forth. "What are you talking about?" it boomed. "The Street hates acquisitions! They dilute EPS! Buy back more stock!"
"We are!" said Vronsky. "But at the same time we would like to explore new branding opportunities."
"Branding, schmanding!" yelled the voice in obvious disgust. "When was the last time you raised your dividend!?"
"How about an investment in new talent?" piped Vronsky with pathetic timidity. "We may need to hire lower-level younger people who actually understand social media."
"Fire more people!" the voice rumbled. "Wall Street loves layoffs! Cut expenses! Expand margins! And give us your cash flow!"
"How much of it? Don't we need some of it?" Vronsky was almost weeping now.
"All of it! All! All!" An enormous boom shook the foundations of the temple. A little plaster fell on our heads.
"But All-Seeing and Infinitely Entitled One," he puled, "if you take a longer view, it's clear that what I'm proposing is best for the business in the long term."
"Long term!" the entity fairly shrieked. "Quarter to quarter! Double-digit growth in all measures! Or you will be punished! Bad press! Bad write-ups from my high priests of security analysis! Cash to investors! Cash to me! Me! Hahahahahahaha!"
Vronsky began to sob uncontrollably, melting into a small pool of trembling cartilage on the floor. I'd had about enough of this. I strode to the veiled, shadowy space behind the altar and tore away the curtain that concealed the source of the voice. To my surprise, I found a small, bald man in a cheap button-down short-sleeved shirt and pants whose belted waistband reached up to his armpits. He was munching on stale cookies he had pilfered from a recent annual meeting while frenetically manipulating a huge machine whose obvious purpose was to amplify his voice and issue forth the terrifying lights, smoke, and sound effects.
"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," he said with a sheepish grin.
"No problem," I said. Then I took my friend out for a nice, tall drink. Tomorrow we start his deprogramming. It won't be easy. The complexities of reality are a poor replacement for the simplicity of faith sometimes.
This story is from the September 24, 2012 issue of Fortune.
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