Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meeting Jeff Fort

Former two-time Tyco International Ltd. CEO, Jeff Fort, has found a lot to do since leaving the giant conglomerate. Exploring for petroglyphs on the ninety sections of his Pinto Canyon Ranch in a big-tired Jeep fills part of his time. Testifying against ex-officers of his former company fills another.

“I spent five days in New York giving deposition last month,” Fort said, leaning back in his chair. “The civil part of the matter is not over.”

The waiter came and Fort let me choose the wine, “as long as its red,” he said. I went for the 2004 Hendry Block 28 Zinfandel. Fort nodded. He was casually dressed, lean and maybe sixty. Only one table remained open at the Cochinelle that night.

Fort served as CEO for Tyco from 1982 to 1992. He brought in Dennis Kozlowski to fill his shoes. In ten years, Kozlowski added hundreds of companies to the TYCO banner and billions to its sales but calls of impropriety from shareholders, about the time that ENRON and WORLDCOM came down, instigated an internal investigation.

“They had quite a lifestyle,” Fort said, referring to Kozlowski, the CFO and the general counsel for Tyco.

Kozlowski bought an 18.5 million dollar penthouse on Fifth Ave., then stocked it with art. To avoid New York sales tax he showed an out of state address.

“He was shipping empty boxes to New Hampshire,” Fort said.

Tax evasion brought on the heat, but the company’s internal investigation showed many other problems too. After negotiating with Kozlowski to step down voluntarily, which saved Tyco 120 million dollars in potential severance fees, Fort returned to Tyco to serve as interim CEO in the summer of 2002. Criminal charges were brought against Kozlowski and three other Tyco associates. Two trials later, Kozlowski and one other former employee are now serving time in a New York State penitentiary.

And Fort is glad to spend his time in Texas.

“I love the mountains out here,” he said.

He visited west Texas a little over ten years ago after getting a tip from his friend Tim Crowley.

“I grew up in the northeast and hiked a lot in New Hampshire and Vermont. But big open spaces are shrinking. And that’s why I’m out here,” Fort said.

Fort has put all of the Pinto Canyon Ranch under a conservation easement.

“A conservation easement is a permanent burden to title,” John Karges of the Nature Conservancy, in Ft Davis said. “The landowner agrees to a certain amount of conservation. No sub-division is allowed and coordination with certain agencies like U.S.Fish and Wildlife to monitor the health of the land is suggested. Conservation easements are helping to re-wild America.”

“I’m sensitive to the environment. I’ve seen what development can do, if capitalism runs unfettered.” Fort leaned back and swirled the Zin in his glass.

When asked about America’s version of democratic capitalism, he stared for a moment, then said, “I’m a big fan of capitalism. I think it’s the only way to go. The trick is, regulation and how to craft it.”

The waiter brought a green salad and before lifting his fork, Fort said, “Innovation. Capitalism. You never know where its going to pop-out. It’s always moving. Business tries to find ways around regulation, which is neat and good because the government is not very good at crafting good regulation.”

I mentioned that I lean left, politically.

“Did communism work in Russia?” he asked, like a father, like a wise man.

I shakes me head.

“And now they are run by thugs, nothing subtle about it,” Fort said. “The big difference between Russia and us, is our legal system. Our law has teeth.”

I thought about Kozlowski in the pen and his art and the gray and red walls of the restaurant.

“In Russia they’re buying up art,” Fort said. “Sotheby’s, Christies. They buy it to be ‘Big Guys’.”

There was half a bottle of wine left and he poured us each another glass. The ring on his finger was some type of yellow stone, flat, aged and square.

“I like my wine thick, red, and rich,” Fort said.

Fort is a big supporter of The Center for Big Bend Studies.

“I love what they’re doing.” His eyebrow quirked. “They taught me how to find the sites.”

The center has documented over 450 archeological sites on the Pinto Canyon Ranch including wikiups from the ancient Cielo Complex people.

“The vibes you get from an 8000 year old spear head,” Fort said. He shakes his head.

Fort’s wife, Marion Barthelme, is a free lance writer and a Time Magazine correspondent. She is also the former wife of short story meta-fictionalist Donald Barthelme, who died in the late 1980’s at 58.

Somehow, I recalled an opening to one of his stories: “The death of God left the angels in a strange position.”

“Does she find it scary?” I asked.

“To come out here?” He asked.

I nod.

“It is scary. But after a while you get over it.”

Marion spends most of her time in Houston.

The waiter came by with the check and I asked Mr Fort if we can split it, hoping that he’d say “of course not.”

“No way,” Fort said. He put his glasses on, examined the bill, then laid his credit card on the table.

Tiny rocks crunched under our feet as we walked out through the dim lit courtyard. The Marfa wind howled. We reached the curb and Fort’s hot rod Jeep.

“Can I call you if I’m fuzzy on the facts?” I asked.

“Sure, call me any time.”

1 comment:

Matthew Prebus said...

Hi there. I'm a graduate student at UC Davis working on the systematics of ants. It looks as though Jeff Fort owns a piece of land in the Davis Mountains that is the type locality of a species that I'm interested in collecting. Is there any chance that you still have his contact info?