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Musk, FTX founder Bankman-Fried lead 2022 flock of business turkeys

The new boss of Twitter and the former boss of FTX stand out as examples of what not to do as corporate leaders

Sam Bankman-Fried, left, and Elon Musk were the biggest losers of the year in the business world. (Bloomberg News (left) and Reuters (right))

I love Thanksgiving. It’s not only the quintessential American holiday, but it also reminds my wife and me how thankful we are that the United States took in all eight of our grandparents, who left Europe to seek a better life in the U.S.

As a bonus, Thanksgiving lets me have some journalistic fun by writing about turkeys. As in, “Boy, was that deal a turkey!”

Because I’m a business writer, I leave the political turkeys to other people. I deal only with business world fowl-ups.

There’s no shortage of those this year, with the 2022 Turkey of the Year Award being shared by Elon Musk, CEO of Twitter, SpaceX and Tesla, and Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of FTX and related companies.

In addition, I’ll show you a flock of other corporate turkeys after we finish with these co-winners. Or co-losers.

Let’s start with Musk, who became the 2018 turkey of the year for announcing when Tesla was trading at $356 a share that he’d secured money to take the company private at $420 a share. That wasn’t true, which annoyed the Securities & Exchange Commission. Then he refused to accept the settlement his lawyers negotiated with the SEC. In the end, Musk ended up having to pay a $20 million fine and had to step down as Tesla’s chief executive. These days, of course, he badmouths — or badtweets — the SEC quite a bit.

Musk seems to love numbers that end in 420, which even a non-cannabis user like me knows is associated with marijuana. That doubtless influenced his bogus $420 Tesla offer and is probably why he offered $54.20 a share to buy Twitter. He made that offer without having any background checks done, then tried to weasel out of the deal, and finally ended up forking over about $44 billion to gobble up Twitter’s 800 million shares and also incurred about $2.5 billion of other costs.

After the deal closed last month, he swept out about 3,700 people, and more Twitter employees chose to leave rather than put up with his threats and bullying.

Advice: Elon Musk just showed us how not to fire people

It would be one thing if Musk had owned the company for years and had to fire people to keep it afloat. That wouldn’t be nice, but it would be understandable.

In this case, though, he bought Twitter, loaded it with debt that it will have trouble paying, then fired people to save money. Totally classless.

What especially strikes me about Musk’s ratty behavior is that he talks about wanting speech to be unfettered — but earlier this year fired people at SpaceX for criticizing him. At least, that’s what they claim in their lawsuits.

However, Musk believes in unfettered speech for Donald Trump, whom he’s welcomed back onto Twitter, which kicked out Trump last year for his role in instigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

I suspect Musk’s lenders and his co-investors in Twitter are going to get seriously roasted for enabling him. Good luck to them. They’ll need it.

Then there’s Bankman-Fried, whose FTX and other companies have lost billions of dollars they’ve gotten from venture capitalists, lenders and regular people who thought that cryptocurrency — which I call craptocurrency — was the way to go.

Bankman-Fried showered tens of millions of dollars on Democrats, many of whom are doing the sensible thing and returning the money before angry creditors show up demanding it. Clearly, it was the right move for both public relations and legal reasons.

The do-gooder movement that shielded Sam Bankman-Fried from scrutiny

He also made liberal donations to various organizations. One of them is ProPublica, which got a $5 million donation spread over three years. ProPublica — which I’m singling out because I’ve got friends there and write occasional articles for which ProPublica pays me — didn’t want to say what it will do about the $1.67 million that it’s already gotten and has committed to various projects. Some charities have said they’ll give back Bankman-Fried’s money, some politicians say they’re giving their Bankman-Fried bucks to charity. Who knows? Maybe some of that will make its way to ProPublica.

Now, for the group of lesser turkeys, which consists of top executives who publicly accept the blame for messing up their companies and having to fire lots of people — but who aren’t dipping into their own pockets to help the employees they’ve fired. They’re examples of how talk is cheap.

Some examples:

  • Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook parent Meta Platforms: “I got this wrong, and I take responsibility for that.”
  • Tobias Lütke of Shopify: “I got this wrong.”
  • Jack Dorsey, former CEO of Twitter: “I own the responsibility for why everyone [at Twitter] is in this situation. I grew the company size too quickly. I apologize for that.”
  • Vlad Tenev of Robinhood: “This is on me.”
  • Brian Armstrong of Coinbase: “I am the CEO, and the buck stops with me.”

If you’re interested in a longer list, Business Insider has a compilation.

I contacted several of these companies to ask whether the people apologizing for the mistakes would be sharing the sacrifice of the employees who’ve lost their jobs. Some of the companies responded to me, but none would answer my question.

Nor did Amazon, which is firing a reported 10,000 people. Amazon courteously sent me CEO Andy Jassy’s internal note announcing job cuts, which he called “role eliminations.” But Amazon wouldn’t say whether its founder and executive chairman, Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, was involved in the firings or would dip into his own ample pocket to help the Amazonians losing their jobs.

I’d thought about writing a separate column about these turkeys, but I just couldn’t stomach the idea of writing the same thing over and over about different companies.

Speaking of stomachs, I wish you and yours happy Thanksgiving meals and happy winter festivals of your choice. Be well, stay safe, and try not to act like turkeys.

— Alice Crites contributed reporting to this column.