04 September 2007

Condé Nast: Portfolio

Yesterday I purchased the second issue of the new Condé Nast business periodical, Portfolio.

I used the term "periodical" in the preceding sentence, although I'm not sure what "period" is supposed to be involved. According to the hype surrounding its lauch this spring, it was supposed to be a monthly. I reported my own (negative) impressions of that first issue in my April 21 entry in this very blog. Yet I am, in early September, reading only the second issue of this "monthly".

Is something wrong there or is it just me?

Well, they still have to work some kinks out of the mechanics of production, I suppose.

Staying within the "four corners" of the text of the new issue, though: I have to say that this one is an improvement over the last. There is nothing so show-offish as the Tom Wolfe star turn that last time out. And there is a wonderful piece by Kurt Eichenwald about a cemetery trust-fund scam.

Funeral homes sell pre-needs contracts. You might pay now for your burial costs in the expectation that this will remove a financial burden from your spouse or kin when you die. It might include not just the immediate costs but the maintenance of the grave sites in perpetuity. Obviosuly, the only prudent way for an ongoing business to spend the money received from customers on a pre-needs contract is to put it into a conservatively managed trust fund, designed to earn enough money to take care of those contracted-for liability.

Human nature is a nasty business, though, and some people aren't above looting those trust funds.

Eichenwald gives the corporate board-room intrigue as well as the ordinary-folk consequence. On July 1, 2006, a 99 year old woman in Memphis named Vesta Foshee died. Her son Donald called the local cemetery that day. He was grieving, but confident at least that his mother's funeral was paid for.

Sorry, the funeral home told him. The trust fund doesn't have enough money in it to pay. The family Foshee family had to pony up an additional $3,100 to bury Vesta. Donald called the local TV news, which ran a story that evening.

Ghastly stuff. And the Foshee family heartbreak wasn't just an isolated case, as Eichewald shows. Tens of thousands of people -- the sort of frail, elderly folk who make arrangements for their own death -- were cheated, collectively, out of $80 million.

This issue of Portfolio also includes a story on Mark Swartz' new life in prison, as inmate 05A04823 in New York State's penal system. Mark Swartz is the former chief financial officer of Tyco and by all creditable accounts (including those the jurors heard and believed) he illegally pocketed $50 million of Tyco's funds, while helping the CEO of the company do even better.

Swartz is in protective custody in Oneida. Portfolio's reporter, Katrina Brooker, extends him some sympathy, but not a lot. I believe she gets the balance about right.

So the Eichenwald and the Brooker stories share a common theme, white-collar crime. This is not to say that the whole issue shares that theme, but I do hope Portfolio moves further in that direction. If it wants to find a niche -- a type of story whence Forbes and Fortune shy -- this may be it.


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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.