Houston Moves Forward After Enron's Collapse

fromKUHF

Dec. 2 marks the 10-year anniversary of when energy giant Enron filed for bankruptcy. The next day, thousands of workers in the company's Houston headquarters lost their jobs. How has the city coped with company's demise?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And this week marks 10 years since Enron declared bankruptcy. At the time, 4,000 employees at the company's headquarters in Houston were given 30 minutes to clean out their desks and leave the building.

Andrew Schneider, of member station KUHF, sent us this report on how Enron employees and the city have coped with the company's demise.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: In Houston, many of the physical signs of Enron's presence remain, even if the name and tilted E logo are long gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

SCHNEIDER: Here in downtown, cars drive along Smith Street, right by a gleaming skyscraper that once served as Enron's headquarters. It's now owned by Chevron, one of the big oil companies that a top Enron executive once derided as dinosaurs. And this is one of many changes. CEO Ken Lay helped build Enron Field to keep the Astros from leaving Houston and to revitalize the city's downtown. He succeeded in both, though the stadium is now called Minute Maid Park.

Less obvious, but more significant for the city, is what became of Enron's workforce. The company hired the brightest workers it could find. Those who came up with new ideas, and were willing to take risks, were rewarded. Those who failed to measure up soon found themselves on the street. It could be brutal, but it proved an ideal training ground for entrepreneurs.

Adil Jafry joined with several of his Enron colleagues to start a retail electricity provider.

ADIL JAFRY: I believe that the value created by Enroners, and former Enroners, after they left Enron is a lot greater than what was embedded within that one company alone.

SCHNEIDER: Phyllis Anzalone was a pioneer of Enron's retail electricity business. Like Jafry, Anzalone founded her own company. She looks back on her time with Enron as a positive experience.

PHYLLIS ANZALONE: My career at Enron was just the most exciting thing I've ever done in my career. And I would go back; I'd do it all over again. I'd be first in line, even if I had to lose the money that I did. It was a very exciting place to work. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

SCHNEIDER: Anzalone says just about anywhere you look in the energy industry now, you find Enron veterans. But she also recognizes not everyone came out of Enron's collapse unscathed.

ANZALONE: The people who were the closest to retirement, and the retirees, are the ones that you really had to feel sorry for because they were affected the most. They didn't have the time to get their earning power back, whereas many of us were much younger, and we could go and rebuild from there.

SCHNEIDER: Houston was already in a recession in December 2001. Enron's bankruptcy made it worse. For workers young enough to go back into the job market, having Enron on their resumes was no help. It took Max Eberts a year to find another full-time job.

MAX EBERTS: It seems like I was called in for interviews because people were curious, more than anything. They all wanted to know what happened, what it was like. And there was even some questions if, you know, did I know, in my position. And of course, the answer was no.

SCHNEIDER: Employees not only felt let down by Enron, but ripped off. And they fought back, forming the Enron Employee Committee. Through lawsuits and out-of-court settlements, the group recovered about $35 million. Many people in Houston knew someone who lost their job because of Enron. But as Mayor Annise Parker says, that's Houston's history, not its present.

MAYOR ANNISE PARKER: The fall of Enron was significant to the city of Houston in many ways, but Enron wasn't Houston, and Houston wasn't Enron. We're a big city with a lot of strong corporate leaders. It was a blow, but the city is stronger than Enron, and we moved forward.

SCHNEIDER: Today, much of the U.S. is struggling with slow growth and high unemployment, the painful aftermath of a financial-sector meltdown that made Enron's collapse seem like a hiccup. Meanwhile, Greater Houston is adding jobs faster than almost any other metro area in the country. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston.

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