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Top tech chiefs see net assets plunge

The ups and downs of the tech market have taken their toll on the big earners of the industry
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor
Oracle's Larry Ellison and Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy were among the tech chief executives whose net worth took the steepest declines during last year's bear market. Ellison's net worth sank more than $21bn, or 52 percent, to $19bn in 2001, and McNealy's fell to $685m, or 55.9 percent, according to CNET's CEO Wealth Meter, which ranks tech chieftains daily based only on their cash and options compensation. Given those losses, it's no surprise that Ellison and McNealy can't keep themselves from taking jabs at nemesis Microsoft, which saw its shares jump 53 percent in 2001. Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer had a good year as the software giant emerged from ongoing antitrust problems in good shape, and launched its Xbox video game console and Windows XP operating system. Ballmer's net worth climbed to $15.87bn for the year. While Ellison and McNealy may have to refrain from thumping their chests over their net worth, they won't be heading to the soup kitchen anytime soon, either. Both have more zeros in their net worth than most folks can comprehend. Ellison lost $21bn in 2001 and was still worth $19bn on New Year's Eve. McNealy was worth $685m at the end of the year, down from $1.5bn at the end of 2000. Last year's tech stock turbulence put Ellison well behind in a race to be the sector's richest man. In March of 2000, Ellison closed in on the net worth of Forbes 400 king and former Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates. Indeed, Ellison's $53bn briefly overtook Gates' $51.75bn in April 2000. Since then, the companies' shares have taken divergent paths. Because Gates also has passed the chief executive title to Ballmer, he is no longer included in the Wealth Meter rankings. Should the tech sector shed a tear for the likes of Ellison? "Absolutely not," said David Hilal, an analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey. "I can only imagine, but I'd bet there isn't much difference between $20bn and $40bn. "Besides, Ellison is bullish on the company so he has to view this as a temporary thing," Hilal said. Indeed, chief executive net worth generally closely mirrors tech stock prices, which are prone to severe swings. And given that the intersection between the tech sector and Wall Street was littered with train wrecks in 2001, it's not surprising that chief executives lost a few zeros. The winners
However, there were winners -- even if some of them were just bouncing back from serious falls in 2000. In absolute dollar terms, Ballmer, Dell Computer chief executive Michael Dell and eBay chief executive Meg Whitman had the best years. Michael Dell's holdings were worth $8.4bn on 31 December, up $3bn for the year. Whitman, who has been selling shares of late, ended the year with holdings valued at $433m. In percentage terms, Acclaim Entertainment chief executive Gregory Fischbach came out on top. He saw his net worth jump 1,442 percent to $38m as the company's shares surged from 34 cents at the end of 2000 to $5.30 by 31 December. Digital River chief executive Joel Ronning's net worth gained 570 percent in 2001 to end the year at $20m. Network Associates chief executive George Samenuk also didn't have a bad year, up 517 percent. Among the percentage winners, chief executives from companies related to video games fared well. Richard Braddock, chief executive of online travel company Priceline.com, saw his net worth jump 343 percent to $47.6m as the company's shares recovered from $1.31 to $5.82 in 2001. Braddock helped turn Priceline around by focusing it on the travel market, a move that helped the company turn a net profit. It's conceivable that the winners in 2001 could continue to see their net worth gain in 2002. Digital River's Ronning said the company remains on the acquisition path, snapping up the customers of FreeMerchant.com on Friday. If Digital River can boost its earnings throughout 2002, Ronning may continue to benefit. "As the company goes, so does the management," he said. And analysts expect that security -- Network Associates' home turf -- will remain hot. Network Associates is seeing a payoff from focusing on corporate companies while its dot-com effort, McAfee.com, targets consumers and small businesses. The losers
Aside from Ellison and McNealy, there were a few other familiar names on the CEO Wealth Meter loser list. Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos saw his net worth fall more than 30 percent as the e-tailing giant withstood a turbulent year as Wall Street questioned the company's profit prospects and "short" investors, who bet a stock will fall, targeted shares. Despite the decline in his net worth, Bezos ended 2001 with holdings worth $1.2bn. It was also a tough year for telecommunications executives. Sycamore Networks chief executive Daniel Smith started 2002 worth $113.4m, down from $788.3m a year ago. Gateway chief executive Ted Waitt saw his net worth fall $364.4m, or about 55 percent, to $294.5m in 2001 as the company cut roughly 25 percent of its workers, shed its international operations, and shuttered 10 percent of its Country stores. The company tried to keep pace with rivals like Dell and find its niche in an increasingly competitive PC market. "This past year has been tumultuous for Gateway," said Gerard Klauer Mattison analyst David Bailey. "Unless Gateway can reinvigorate its small business initiative, continued pricing pressure (primarily from Dell) and tepid consumer demand will limit the company's revenue and earnings at least through the middle of 2002." See techTrader for the latest financial news in the high-tech sector. Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Click on the TalkBack button and go to the techTrader forum Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom. And read other letters.
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