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Charlie McCall 1, Pre-HBOC McKesson Shareholders 0

February 6, 2008 Editorials No Comments

Inside Healthcare Computing has graciously agreed to make previous Mr. HIStalk editorials available from its newsletter as a weekly “Best Of” series for HIStalk. This editorial originally appeared in the newsletter in November 2006. Inside Healthcare Computing subscribers receive a new editorial every week in their Electronic Update.

I didn’t even know Charlie McCall was on trial. The former HBOC chairman was acquitted of one securities fraud charge last week and got a mistrial on six more as a lone juror’s holdout deadlocked the jury. I feel deprived that I missed a blow-by-blow report of his being grilled and then left to await his fate.

Federal prosecutors had worked their way up through the HBOC food chain over the years, leading everyone to speculate: wonder when they’ll get Charlie?

In case you’re a newbie, HBO and Company was the pre-Enron corporate malfeasance poster child, a prodromal symptom of dot-coms in waiting that used its optimistically valued stock to buy everything in its path. The frenzied transacting caught the attention of drug wholesaler McKesson like the mating dance of a spider, which paid a mind-boggling $14 billion for the company in January 1999.

Industry long-timers chuckling knowingly, having watched similar companies take it in the shorts for the same expensive, ill-advised healthcare IT dabbling. Investors scratched their heads after running their calculators and finding no possible way that HBOC was worth that kind of money. The general consensus of all interested parties: what the hell was McKesson thinking? Three months later, McKesson’s stock tanked on charges of book-cooking by Charlie’s crowd. Shareholders lost $9 billion of value in a single day, thereby forcefully proving the true value of HBOC.

McKesson’s executives were perhaps the only people on the planet who weren’t suspicious about the Atlanta high-flyers. Everyone was swapping insider stories. I sent two anecdotes to a healthcare IT publication in 1998 (who missed out on the scoop of the century by ignoring them.) First: I’d heard from an HBOC employee that he was ordered to mail out empty tape boxes to customers for not-ready enhancements so revenue could be recognized anyway. Second: programmers were griping about the HBOC revenue quotas each was assigned (!) since all the Y2K remediation revenue had already been booked by late 1998, leaving the programmers to scramble for new bookings while doing the already-committed work. Recognizing revenue on the basis of a shipping receipt? Oh, my.

You know how it ended. HBOC’s brass were indicted, McKesson’s were fired. Charlie went off sailing (so the story goes.) The reeling McKesson lost many employees, came up with strange ideas like co-CEOs, jumped on the dot-com era right as it imploded (taking with it hastily conceived names like i-this and e-that), and retired the stench-ridden Pathways name. Throw in the nearly $1 billion they eventually paid to settle shareholder lawsuits and the grand total for those few weeks of consensual coupling is $10 billion. What they got for their trouble was a mongrel pack of products that Charlie had hastily snapped up without having any real plan except to keep the printing presses running off stock certificates.

Among those involved were certainly some crooks and some fools, but let’s not forget those who suffered most, those McKesson lifers who had stashed away years’ worth of shares of their unexciting company’s stock instead of risking it on flaky enterprises like Microsoft and Dell. When lonely old conservative widower Dad McKesson brought home a sexy young step-mom named HBOC, she stole the kids’ piggybank. The stock went from the mid-80s to the mid-teens. People I knew glumly tried to estimate how many more years they’d have to work until retirement, with 80% of their investments gone. Even today, after eight years and with good company management, McKesson’s stock has recovered only by about half.

Only the jury can decide whether Charlie McCall and his associates are guilty or innocent, but I can say one thing: if they are found guilty, then I hope the pain they receive is commensurate with the pain they caused.

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