On the Executive Course

October 20, 2005
Category: Uncategorized

At the tender age of 12, I made a hole-in-one at the Greenwich
Country Club, a verdant home to the rich and powerful where I was
but a lowly caddy. Lest anyone be overly impressed, I feel
honor-bound to reveal my final score for the 18 holes: 131.

Despite my duffer past, it was with great interest that I saw displayed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, an article entitled:

JetGreen
The CEO’s Private Golf Shuttle

 

The story
showed in exacting detail how members of the business elite take
advantage of corporate planes meant to save time and ensure the
security of CEOs. This way, they get free transportation to
golf courses where they can indulge their passion for a pastime G.K.
Chesterton defined as “an expensive way of playing marbles.

Unlike my ace, The Journal’s story is no fluke, but a
continuation of award-winning investigative work by Mark Maremont, a
special projects editor. As he explains below, he saw in CEO golf
shuttles a way to again explore the issue of executive compensation,
specifically how CEOS use personal jets, the “biggest non-cash perk in
Corporate America.”

“JetGreen” is a textbook case of
investigative journalism that relies on harvesting databases and the
telling human details. It makes inventive use of public and private
records, conveyed with literary grace, to produce an eminently readable
account of these flying squads of golfing CEOs.

Maremont was named special projects editor at The Wall Street Journal
in January 2005. Before that, he served as deputy chief for the
newspaper’s Boston bureau, after three years with the paper as a senior
writer in Boston. In 2003, he was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Journal
team that produced a series of stories exposing scandal in corporate
America. He has worked in the New York, London and Boston bureaus of BusinessWeek magazine, and is a graduate of Brown University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

In an edited e-mail interview after JetGreen ran,
Maremont explains how his story, accompanied by visually compelling and
informative graphics, came to be. Is it just me, or do
you hear the cries of  “Fore” echoing in board rooms, Lear
Jets and locker rooms across the country?

Chip Scanlan: How did you come up with the story idea for “JetGreen”?  

Mark
Maremont: I’ve long been interested in executive compensation. CEOs are
getting paid enormous sums of money in cash and other benefits, and
despite many articles on this general topic, I still feel there are
corners of CEO pay that remain unexplored.

As for this
particular story, the idea process was strangely circular. I had done
an article earlier in the year about personal use of corporate jets by
top executives, and wanted to do a follow-up of some type. I then
noticed a mention of a link between corporate jets and distant
golf-club memberships by CEOs, in an academic paper on corporate jets
by David Yermack, an NYU professor. As it turns out, Yermack found out
about the golf-club memberships after reading about a U.S. Golf
Association (USGA) database in … a prior article in The Wall Street Journal by my colleague Carrick Mollenkamp.

I
then put two and two together: How about a story focusing on how
executives fly on corporate jets to play golf? The USGA database told
me about golf club memberships and playing dates, and I also had
separately found a way to track some flights by corporate jets. 

Why did you do the story?  

Because
personal use of corporate jets by CEOs and other top executives is the
biggest non-cash perk in Corporate America, but nobody had really
explored what these jets were being used for. Shareholders have a right
to know. Also, golfing is a popular pastime among our readers, so I
thought the story would have some resonance.
 
Could you
trace the reporting trail, particularly the paper ones, but also the
fairways and 19th holes, that made for such powerful evidence and
illuminating reading?

The heart of the story was a massive
database-matching task. I had to find companies that owned their own
airplanes, and had CEOs or chairmen who frequently flew to distant
locations to play golf. I spent weeks poring over database records. It
was complicated by the fact that many regional golf associations don’t
post their members’ scores on the USGA site, so I initially couldn’t
find golf-club membership information for some CEOs who are big
golfers. Also, flight records were tricky to get for many companies’
jets, for a variety of reasons.

Once
I zeroed in on a dozen or more CEOs, I had to trace whether they owned
vacation homes in those areas, where those homes were located (usually
on a golf course, naturally), and get information on the private golf
clubs they belonged to. This may not surprise anybody, but private golf
clubs aren’t terribly helpful to the press, especially when the
questions involve members. Most did agree to answer basic questions,
however.

And of course, a critical part of the reporting process
was approaching the companies and executives to ask about their flying
and golfing. I had lengthy dialogues with a number of corporate
spokespeople about the topic.   
 
What did it
take to identify and traverse the bureaucratic labyrinths you relied
on, from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to the U.S. Golf
Association’s handicapper database? Are there other databases that
reporters could use to better advantage?

The key to this
story was the original idea. Once I discovered the USGA database,
finding individual golfers was just a matter of spending some time and
energy plugging in different variables. The USGA also was very helpful
in explaining what the various items on their Web site meant, and the
background behind the public posting of golfers’ scores.

As for the SEC, I had a lot of knowledge of regulations surrounding corporate jet use from my earlier page-one article.

One
crucial task was to convey to the reader the cost of the golfing
excursions aboard corporate jets. I found a very helpful consulting
firm that puts out a detailed analysis of what it costs to fly each
type of corporate jet. This firm’s numbers are widely used in the
industry.      
 
The story relies
heavily on publicly-available documents, but readers also get to see
what usually constitutes a “private record,” such as CEOs’ golf scores.
Why did you use them?

All of the golf scores and dates
used in the article came from the USGA’s database. The USGA considers
all of the golfing records on its database public information, as part
of a broad peer review policy. The way I understand it, golf scores are
used to calculate handicap indexes, and the USGA wants past scores
available for scrutiny so fellow golfers can blow the whistle if
somebody has been fudging their scores. Golfers, of course, may have an
incentive to lie about their handicaps, either to brag about being a
better golfer than they really are, or conversely to gain an edge in a
competition by pretending to be a worse golfer than they really are.

On
the broader question of privacy — we took the general position that
the CEOs themselves made their golf scores and club memberships
available via the USGA Web site, to facilitate their golf games. The
USGA site is easily accessed by anybody. This type of information has
been used in articles before, and we were not revealing anything the
CEO had not himself already made publicly available.
 
At
what point did you contact the CEOs or their mouthpieces? How would you
characterize their responses to your probing into what they might
consider their private lives?

    
After I
identified the 12 to 15 CEOs or executives that we might possibly
feature in the article, I contacted them or the companies they worked
for. Typically, CEOs wouldn’t answer calls directly, and I was speaking
to the public relations staff. I always took the position that I would
be upfront about the article and how their company’s CEO might be
portrayed. There were no surprises.

Most spokespeople
immediately understood the thrust of the article, and provided thorough
answers that they believed would help explain why their CEO was flying
to and from distant golf courses on the corporate jet. A small number
were upset about the project, didn’t believe their CEO should be
“singled out,” or objected to what they characterized as an unwarranted
invasion of privacy. I shared their concerns with editors and our own
lawyers. The process of gathering responses from companies took many
weeks.
 
How much time did the story take to report and write?

About
two and a half months, not counting the period at the end of the
process spent answering editors’ questions and re-checking facts. I
also was on vacation for a couple of weeks during that period, and
spent considerable time writing and editing other stories, so the real
time spent was probably 5 to 6 weeks.
 
Could you describe the writing — and revision — process?

The
writing didn’t take long, perhaps 5 to 7 days. There wasn’t a lot of
interpersonal drama here, so it was really kind of a “just the facts”
writing challenge. The main revision process consisted of cutting a
couple of examples from my earlier draft, and burnishing the “nut”
paragraphs a bit. The hardest part of writing, for me, is always the
lead and the nut grafs. Once I got past those, it was mostly a matter
of picking my examples and carefully writing them. There were so many
facts and numbers in this story that keeping everything straight — and
correct — was a key writing challenge.
 
The story begins with a classic WSJ
anecdotal lead. It could well have begun with graf six, summarizing the
story with the observation that “companies also use their jets for
another purpose: as airborne limousines to fly CEOs and other
executives to golf dates or to vacation homes where they have golf-club
memberships.” Why did you choose one over the other?

 
The
story seemed tailor-made for an anecdotal lead, because it illustrated
for the reader the essential point: It’s the dead of winter in
Pittsburgh, but here’s an avid golfer CEO flying on his corporate jet
from Pittsburgh to Florida to play golf. He didn’t do it just once, but
over eight separate weekends in a short span of time.  

I never considered a straight lead.

What surprised you doing the story?

The USGA database was a real revelation. It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet.

Also,
I was surprised by how many companies own corporate jets, and the clear
evidence that a fair amount of flying time aboard many jets dovetails
with the CEO’s personal life. Even when companies claim trips are for
business, the business trips coincidentally seem to be aimed at golfing
venues, especially ones where the CEO already owns a vacation home.
 
Your
bio suggests you edit as well as write. What other duties did you have
to juggle while you were working this story? What advice would you give
reporters who feel overwhelmed by dailies and unable to tackle
important enterprise?

I am also the head of a small investigative/projects team at the WSJ.
While working on “JetGreen,” I edited a couple of page-one stories and
other articles. In addition, I wrote other articles myself during this
period, including some related to the Tyco trial that I had earlier
covered. 

One piece of advice is to be well-organized. I
put information on each company I was tracking into a separate manila
folder, and kept dozens of carefully labeled computer spreadsheets.
That way, when I had to stop reporting for a week or even two, I could
easily pick it up again.

I obviously have the advantage of
being given time to complete big projects. But reporters should focus
on one big question: What am I working on that, at the end of the year,
I (and my editors) will think was memorable? If the answer is
“nothing,” you’re not spending enough energy on big-picture,
high-impact stories.
 
What were the most important lessons that you learned during the process?

Organization
was key to this story, more so than with almost anything I’d ever done
before. There was so much data on so many different companies that I
would have been lost had I not kept it all separate.
 
Is your story a potential trailhead for similar explorations in other beats, subject areas, etc?

I’ll
leave that for others to judge. I’ve already noticed a daily paper
making use of the USGA database for an article on a frequent-golfer
politician.
 
How about the story’s scorecard? How have readers, subjects, regulators reacted?

I
received quite a lot of reader comment, nearly all favorable. Most
seemed to feel CEOs were taking advantage of their power; many thanked
me for bringing this “abuse” to light, or simply wanted to compliment
my investigative skills. A few objected to what they viewed as invasion
of privacy, or chastised me for too much focus on something that
involved relatively small amounts of money.
So far, almost no reaction from subjects, except from one company that thought the article was “fair.” 

The “Fore” chart drove
your story down the center of the fairway. What work did that entail?
Who produced it? Were you pleased to have it or did you resent its
occupation of newspaper landscape you could have populated with your
prose?

Chart work often takes lots of time, and this was no
exception. I sent a spreadsheet with a dozen or so CEO names to our art
department, which included most of the information about golf clubs,
etc. that ended up on the graphic. They cut it down for space reasons,
and came up with the graphical presentation. The main thing I have
learned about graphics and charts is that there is huge room for error.
I tried to triple-check everything in there.

I think the chart
was a critical part of the story, and was delighted to have it
included. Good art conveys the essence of a story to the busy reader,
and this was good art. My only regret is that it didn’t appear in
color. The chart didn’t take away from any space allocated to the main
story.
 
What haven’t I asked you that you think should be addressed?

One
interesting question in this type of project is whether
companies/targets try to counteract the investigation. In this case,
there wasn’t much they could do. The USGA won’t let people remove their
past scores from the Web site, unless they stop belonging to the
sponsoring club. One guy did remove his scores from a non-USGA Web
site, but I had already printed them out. The same for another CEO’s
scores, which disappeared from the USGA site after he apparently quit
being a member of a particular club. Again, it didn’t affect this
story, because I already had them on hard copy.

And finally, what’s your handicap?

I don’t play golf.