Last night on ABC Nightline, there was a story about a court battle between the two leading lights in the satellite TV industry. NewsCorp's Rupert Murdoch, owner of DirecTV, and EchoStar Corporation's Charlie Ergen, owner of Dish Network, have been going at each other for years, but now it's really getting good. The current flap concerns Charlie's accusation that Rupie (or one of his subsidiary companies) hired hackers to steal code from EchoStar. Speculation is that neither side in this battle is going to come out smelling like a rose.
Charlie's an interesting guy whose amazing success story is pretty well known in business circles. The page I link to above summarizes the shaky beginnings of his empire:
In 1980 Ergen and Jim DeFranco, a gambling buddy, tried their luck at the blackjack and poker tables in Las Vegas, Nevada—they were both considered professional gamblers at the time. Both men were ejected from the town after being accused of counting cards at blackjack; while looking for something else to do, they saw a truck carrying a huge satellite-television dish. Like shrewd card players attracted to games of risk, they impulsively decided to jump into the new business of satellite television.
The new business took. The gamble paid off big. And now Charlie Ergen is one of the richest men in America.
He's been feuding with media mogul Rupert Murdoch for over ten years. I've been following these matters with interest and have been rooting for Charlie, because long ago and far away, I used to work for him. (You knew I would find a way to make this about me, didn't you?)
To be more specific, I began working for Charlie Ergen when he bought out the company I was with, Houston Tracker Systems (HTS). HTS was a manufacturer of home satellite equipment back in the big-dish days, and I worked in their propaganda department...er...advertising and marketing department. I was a copywriter, newsletter editor, corporate communications specialist...you name it, if it needed to get written, I wrote it.
I got tons of great experience there and had the privilege of working with the head of the ad department, an amazingly talented and creative guy named Arnold Gonzalez, who now has his own ad agency. To Arnold goes much of the credit (or blame, as the case may be) for my getting into graphic design.
Within about a year of Charlie's purchase of the company, we – the company and much of the work force – up and moved from Houston to Colorado. That was just fine with me, because I'd lived in Colorado as a child and it felt like I was going back home.
Unfortunately, I wasn't really "at home" in the corporate environment, which, of course, was as much a reflection on me as it was on that particular environment. In the end, as much as I hated to say goodbye to Arnold (we've recently reconnected, though), I tendered my resignation.
But I did not go quietly. I felt duty-bound to tell Charlie and company exactly what I thought about the way they were running the show. Ultimately my nine-page resignation letter (complete with sub-heads and footnotes) grew to nineteen pages, including addenda and attachments and exhibits. It was a pre-Dilbert-days treatise on corporate politics and hypocrisy, with a splash of humor and even a couple of puns thrown in. (I just pulled it out the other day and looked at it, and y'know, it isn't half bad.)
In retrospect I realize that this was a very geeky and unprofessional thing for me to do, but it did provide a jump-start for a new phase in my career. It certainly provided more than a hint of my qualifications to write books. Somehow, the resignation letter accidentally got leaked – goodness knows how that could have happened – and numerous copies were made and distributed to the legions of discontented "downstairs" workers (I was one of the "upstairs" workers). Soon it was all over the place. I was kind of a hero.
My immediate supervisors and the president of the company talked to me about my letter and my decision to resign, and then Charlie called me into his office to discuss the matter. The gist of all of those conversations seemed to be to address the concerns I had expressed in my lengthy missive, and to ask me to reconsider my decision. Further, Charlie and the company president both insisted that to their knowledge, most of my observations in my letter were inaccurate. "If we really were the kind of company you portrayed," I was told, "we really would have a problem. But we're not that kind of company." They were very calm and rational about it, and seemingly not at all ruffled. Charlie even told me, "Dissent is healthy, and we welcome it around here!"
I guess I was a little disappointed.
Regarding their assessment of the company, not to mention Charlie's endorsement of dissent, I wasn't at all convinced, any more than I was convinced that they truly wanted me to stay on. Roger, my fiancé at the time, was one of their most valuable engineers; he was doing a lot of hardware and software for their newest product lines. Since he was very supportive of me, and had his own gripes about the company, I sensed that they were more afraid of losing him than they were of losing me. I figured they thought that if they could keep me on, despite the fact that I had proven to be a royal p.i.t.a., then maybe they'd be more likely to retain their genius engineer. That was my reasoning, anyway.
In any case the point was moot, because my decision was firm. I tied up loose ends, prepared my office for my successor(s), whoever they might be, and sailed off into the wild blue freedom of free-lancery. Roger stayed on with the company a few months longer.
Shortly after I left there was a company picnic, and since Roger was still an employee, we went. The people who had been my friends and allies at the company immediately came up and talked to me and said they were glad to see me, and they seemed to mean it.
Charlie's minions, on the other hand, stayed far away, barely acknowledging my presence. That is, they stayed away until the Big Man himself came striding up to me as if I were a long-lost friend. He clapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hiya, Connie, how ya' doin'? Good to see you here!"... just as if nothing had ever been amiss.
Immediately following his jovial welcome, the brown-nosed army that had previously shunned me made their way one by one over to my table and said their requisite hellos. They still seemed a little uncomfortable about the whole thing, though. Or maybe I was just projecting.
Not long after that, Roger quit the company, and towards the end of the year he got a job offer in Houston from the young entrepreneur who had sold HTS to Charlie. So we packed up and went back down south, leaving Colorado during one of the most gloriously bloody sunsets I'd seen in a while. I could barely see it through the tears. Leaving Colorado hurts, I've learned.
But I love Texas too, and eventually I settled back into the land of no real seasons. Years went by. I got divorced but remained friends with Roger. I met Ron. We got into the book writing business. I got into blogging. And so on.
And here I am today, following the latest installment in the ongoing saga of Wicked Rupie versus Scrappy Charlie. So I say... go get 'em, Charlie. And by the way, Charlie, if you're reading this, Ron and I would very much like to help you write your autobiography. We're right here.