US: Hard Times Haunt Enron's Ex-Workers

For Angelique Chappell, a former administrative assistant at Enron, it all now seems like a mirage.

There were the trips organized just for assistants, including one to California to visit a new chain of hotels where they would be booking reservations for their bosses. There was the time she won a company drawing for seats behind the dugout at a Houston Astros baseball game in a stadium then known as Enron Field. And, she recalls, there were the American Express gift cards that were handed out frequently to those who answered a trivia question.

"We may have been a little overcompensated, but we worked our tails off every single day," said Ms. Chappell, 33, an Army veteran who goes by Angie. "There was so much fun, so much camaraderie among us. At that time in my life I felt like I could do almost anything." But life took a jarring turn for Ms. Chappell, as it did for thousands of others among Enron's rank and file after the company's chaotic collapse into bankruptcy at the end of 2001. Four years of bouncing from job to job followed. Today, Ms. Chappell has finally found a secretarial job that might, sometime soon, even provide health and retirement benefits.

Her experience resembles that of most former Enron employees who had nothing to do with the fraud at the company, in contrast to the success enjoyed by those at the top who cashed out early and a comparative handful of high-ranking professionals who were able to parlay their status and skills into lucrative jobs at other energy companies. Few like Ms. Chappell have been able to restore the glitter of their jobs at Enron, a factor that still overlays the mood in Houston as the trial of Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling, the company's former chief executives, is set to get under way next week.

Some of the Enron diaspora have had to start their careers all over again. Karl Klicker, who lost a comfortable employee-training position at Enron with a six-figure salary, recently rejoined the Marine Corps at age 50, and is studying Arabic in hopes of going to Iraq.

Like Ms. Chappell, Mr. Klicker had been in the military, a not uncommon background for many of the people Enron hired. A self-described "base brat," he followed his father and grandfather into the Marines shortly after high school, eventually earning a doctorate in adult education while also serving as a Marine intelligence officer.

"I went from the top to the bottom to the top again," Mr. Klicker said.

In the months after Enron's collapse, Mr. Klicker said, he sent out about 400 job applications and had offers for only two interviews. A marathon runner, he said he had plenty of time - perhaps too much time - to think about Enron during the 100 to 200 miles he ran each month.

Of course, other companies have laid off large numbers of workers - Ford just announced on Monday that it would be eliminating 30,000 jobs over the next six years. But Enron's collapse not only unfolded swiftly, it also destroyed the livelihood and retirement savings of many employees who had believed the company symbolized the future course of the global economy.

"Enron was such an aggressive, complex entity at the avant-garde of many developments," said Richard I. Evans, director of the social psychology program at the University of Houston. "It was not just losing a job. It was losing an identity associated with power and innovation, producing trauma and sometimes grief."

For Ms. Chappell, the former Enron secretary, there have been plenty of tears. It took five months for her to find a job after Enron collapsed. By that time, she had adjusted her salary expectations downward after earning nearly $50,000 a year. About the time her unemployment benefits were about to run out in 2002, she found a part-time position in the Houston office of CMS Energy.

A contact at CMS suggested to Ms. Chappell that she should avoid discussing her time at Enron, given the general unease associated with the company's demise, particularly in Houston's energy circles. But Ms. Chappell, a talkative native of Southern California, did exactly the opposite.

"What was I going to do, ignore that time in my life?" Ms. Chappell said. She joked in her job interview, she said, about how fast she had gone from working for a respected company to one that had turned into a pauper - kind of a Cinderella tale in reverse.

But soon after she landed the job at CMS, company executives were implicated in a scandal involving trades, similar to some of the manipulations at Enron and other energy and telecommunications companies that exaggerated their revenue. Ms. Chappell helped downsize CMS's office in Houston, moving with a skeleton crew of two other employees to a less expensive location in suburban Sugarland, Tex., before eventually losing the job at the end of 2003.

Meanwhile, Ms. Chappell's husband, a native of Houston she had met while they were both in the Army in their 20's, found a new job as a firefighter earning less than $30,000 a year. That helped keep food on the table.

They have managed to keep the modest tract home they bought in Katy, Tex., a fast-growing distant suburb of Houston, where they live with their two sons, ages 12 and 9. Finances, though, remain extremely tight.

"I still have creditors calling me to pay certain bills," said Ms. Chappell. "I was mad at God for a while, but I got over it."

Ms. Chappell found temporary administrative work again in the spring of 2004 with a company that charters vessels for the oil and gas industry, but left that job for another temporary position at a mortgage company last October, cutting her commute to an hour from an hour and a half. It is a solid job, she says, with a salary approaching what she made at Enron - she declined to give the exact amount - and the possibility of benefits sometime soon.

As for Mr. Klicker, with no job in sight, he began painting murals, babysitting and writing about his thoughts on leadership strategies. He said he ate Ramen noodles regularly to cut down on expenses. He founded his own company to advise clients on management training and organizational psychology, but had trouble getting it off the ground.

Finally, last August, he decided to rejoin the Marines in a recall aimed at retired officers. The motivation, Mr. Klicker said, had less to do with his financial situation and more to do with a yearning to combat terror threats. He said he lost a friend in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, and still keeps his business card as a bookmark.

"A lot of Enron went through my mind when I was unemployed," said Mr. Klicker, now a captain in the Marine Corps. "But I find now, back in uniform, there are many things I learned at Enron about leadership - like how not to lead."

"Take away the corporate setting and the $2,000 wool blend suit and you see the real Ken Lay," Mr. Klicker said in a telephone interview from Virginia Beach, where he is now stationed.

These days, Mr. Klicker said he was happy training soldiers in leadership procedures and living in an oceanfront rental home during the winter months - "unaffordable in the summer," he said - where his 9-year-old daughter can visit him during school breaks. And despite being almost twice the age of some other Marine captains, Mr. Klicker hopes he has the chance for a tour of duty in Iraq.

"I keep my ear to the tracks for an opportunity," Mr. Klicker said. "Of course, I want to go. You never have to explain why as a marine."

Meanwhile, Ms. Chappell has little set aside for the future. She lost her $12,000 in retirement savings at Enron and has no 401(k). She had to scrimp recently to buy winter jackets for her sons and to take them to a movie.

But rather than relishing the opportunity to see Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling put on trial, Ms. Chappell said, she was hoping to avoid thinking about the past.

"I don't want to turn on the TV and see their faces," she said, her voice quivering with anger, as it sometimes does when she is reliving Enron's demise. "I mean, when is it going to be over? We live paycheck to paycheck and they're spending millions of dollars on their lawyers.

"Ken Lay should have known every nook and cranny of that company. I just cringe when I see his image."

In the weeks leading up to the company's bankruptcy filing, she was training for a different assignment, feeling somewhat in limbo in redeployment, as that status was called within Enron. So she did not hesitate to accept the suggestion of an Enron human resources employee that she accept a "temporary" layoff with a severance package.

Within days of leaving Enron in late November 2001, however, the company was essentially out of business, ending her hope of getting any severance pay. The whole experience, she says, will shape her outlook on life forever.

"I learned not to be loyal to anyone but my family," Ms. Chappell said. She said she still dreamed of advancing as she did at Enron, but that her aspirations were now more modest. She would like to finish her undergraduate degree, though she was not sure what her major would be; entering a new career path in her 30's, she said, would not be easy.

Ms. Chappell said she had thought of leaving Houston, moving to the Pacific Northwest, where she was stationed in the Army, or going to Iraq, where she hears contractors pay overtime-laden salaries into six figures. But the risks are great and doing so would take her away from her children. She has shelved that option.

Now she looks forward to a better life for her sons, hoping they will be able to attend a nearby university like Texas A&M, where she believes they will have the opportunity for an education that may allow them to view something like the Enron story from a higher perch than hers.

"I just don't want my sons to have to experience what I went through."

AMP Section Name:Corruption
  • 107 Energy
  • 186 Financial Services, Insurance and Banking
  • 208 Regulation

Stay Informed