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Nortel Network’s Obit

by ANNE MARRAN and MISSY BEATTIE

On January 24, 2013, Ontario’s Chief Warren Winkler called Time of Death—on Nortel Networks.

It is difficult to accept the debilitating illness and subsequent death of someone close, someone who is more than an acquaintance, especially when that person(hood) provided your medical coverage and helped pay your children’s education.

But coming to terms with the death of Nortel is even more complicated—as complicated as if would be with any friend initially perceived as benevolent but who later emerges as deceptive, a cheater, someone who borrowed money with no intention of repaying those who offered their creativity, generosity, and loyalty.

The grief is tempered with slight relief that the embarrassment has ended, the awkwardness of an unexpected meeting in the shopping mall, or perhaps, one more request for money.

Questions remain and will always from those of us who knew Nortel well. How could we have been swindled? All those retirees? The taxpayers? What about the overseas transactions?

Hardworking Canadian taxpayers whose fathers and mothers had worked for the Company knew and trusted a business started at the end of the 1800s. No one worried about their savings if they were invested in Nortel. Pension Plans vested their money in the Company. Canada knew it could trust Nortel to support its economy.

Canadians were proud of their leading-technology corporation spread across the globe, until it began associating with “bad company”, wearing fancy clothes, attending all-night parties, and gambling with overpriced stocks in risky acquisitions, bought with money borrowed from the savings of elderly, frail retirees and teachers.

How did we miss changes in the company we were so proud was ours, not notice that its struggle to sustain the employees benefits and pension funds were failing? Why did we ignore Nortel’s pleas for more EDC funding when asked to support a lifestyle the company had come to expect in its time of need?

Grief often is accompanied by guilt. Grief because voices heard went unheeded, as we listened instead to the sound of 10% interest compounded indefinitely and planned our retirements. Retirements of palm trees and warm white sand. Had we listened to those warnings could we have protected Nortel from its disgraceful end? Our own hubris convinced us that the 10% compounded would last forever?

State of the art companies bought with overpriced Nortel stock were sold. Finally, like a womanizing husband caught with his pants down in the presence of one of his many mistresses, Nortel could no longer hide its lies. Trust was broken. So was the company.

Not yet on its knees, Nortel turned for support to its enabler, the SEC. A small pecuniary offering was used as a token of regret rather than rehab, accountability, criminal prosecution. But to Nortel’s long lasting lament, its addiction to short-term profit was something over which it had no power.

Eventually with its financial affairs in chaos, Nortel requested bankruptcy protection A. The valuable patents that company employees worked so hard to design and develop, those that could have sustained the company if the Harper government had acted quickly, were sold at garage sales.

Nortel saw its reflection in the faces of its former employees, knew it had wasted the Canadian taxpayers’ money, destroying the country’s trust.  Absolution was granted by three of Nortel’s profit makers through an Ontario court and its outside auditor’s generosity. This action, thought to be a coup de grace, instead was mere anesthesia, a temporary pain suppressant. Nortel subsequently died. Probably the blow was shame. However, without proper investigation or autopsy, results are inconclusive. If incised, the area formerly occupying the company’s heart might bear the words: “Where’s My Bonus?”

When Winkler called Nortel’s Time of Death almost two weeks ago, sacrificing its body to the vulture capitalists waiting to feed on the corpse, there was a glimpse of despair for those who long witnessed the wasting process, unable to survive the quagmire of corporate, short-term profit and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

Goodbye, old friend. We will try to forget the final days of indignity and instead remember your early glory, when we said your name with pride: Nortel Networks, eh.

Anne Marran told this story to Missy Beattie who edited it. Email: missybeat@email.com

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail: missybeat@gmail.com

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