The last several years have been tumultuous in corporate America, as a financial crisis rippled through the economy and other disasters brought shame upon once-admired firms. The recession that coincided with the financial crisis has cost the U.S. economy about seven million jobs and left the whole nation slogging through a weak, unconvincing recovery. Yet a number of disgraced CEOs and other grounded high-flyers have fared surprisingly well, either landing plum jobs with new employers or securing golden parachutes that guarantee a luxurious retirement—or both. That's not always the case. In his 2004 book Why Smart Executives Fail, Dartmouth professor Sydney Finkelstein found that of 51 "failed" CEOs, only two ever got hired again by an existing firm. The rest started their own firms, became consultants, or slunk into retirement. Today, by contrast, companies seem more willing to hire executives with black marks on their resumes.
[In Pictures: 11 Business Leaders Who Profited After Failure.]
Of the 11 corporate "up-failers" on our list, none has been accused of crimes or illegalities, and virtually all of them attribute their controversial performance as business leaders to factors beyond their control. Yet critics blame them for problems that deeply damaged the firms they once ran or helped run. Here are some of the former CEOs and other corporate honchos who seem to have stumbled upward after being involved in some of the most notorious corporate episodes of the last decade:
Martin Sullivan, former CEO of AIG. Sullivan replaced longtime AIG chief Hank Greenburg in 2005, and presided over many of the decisions that led to the insurance giant's collapse in 2008, the year he was forced out. Under Sullivan's watch, for instance, AIG issued billions of dollars' worth of insurance on highly risky mortgage-related derivatives, which left AIG seeking the biggest bailout in corporate history when those derivatives plunged in value and AIG was unable to honor its commitments.
Where he is now: British insurance firm Willis Group named Sullivan its deputy chairman last year and put him in charge of a new global-services division. Research site Footnoted.com reports that Sullivan will earn a base salary of $750,000 and be eligible for a 2011 bonus of more than $1 million. If he stays for three years, he'll also be able to cash in company stock worth at least another $4 million.
Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP. Hayward's three-year tenure atop the British oil giant ended in 2010, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers, fouled the Gulf with oil, and forced BP to set aside a whopping $41 billion for cleanup, litigation, penalties, and other costs. Hayward got a year's salary when he left—about $1.7 million—and held onto BP stock that could be worth millions more.
Where he is now: Hayward recently launched a new energy firm in the U.K. called Vallares, which raised more than $2 billion in a public offering. The firm plans to use that money to buy and operate energy firms in emerging markets.
Mark Hurd, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. After five years as HP's top honcho, Hurd's career seemed to quickly unravel in August 2010 after allegations surfaced of misconduct relating to a personal relationship. Hurd abruptly resigned, with a $12.2 million cash payout from H-P and stock options worth $30 million more, according to the Associated Press. A shareholder lawsuit against H-P—which is still ongoing—argues that the technology giant overpaid the departing CEO.
Where he is now: A month after Hurd left H-P, Oracle hired him as president, with pay that could top $10 million per year.
Stanley O'Neal, former CEO of Merrill Lynch. O'Neal spent much of his career at Merrill Lynch and became CEO in 2002, presiding over the company as it began to place huge bets on subprime mortgages and risky derivatives that generated billions in losses, nearly sank the firm, and led to a takeover by Bank of America in 2008. In 2006—the year Merrill made many of the deals that led to its downfall—O'Neal earned $91 million, according to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. When O'Neal resigned in 2007, Merrill gave him a severance package worth another $161 million.
Where he is now: In 2008, after O'Neal left Merrill, Alcoa named him to its board of directors.
Dow Kim, former head of global markets and investment banking for Merrill Lynch. From 2003 to 2007, Kim oversaw a vast increase in the amount of collateralized debt obligations Merrill created and sold, eventually making Merrill the No. 1 Wall Street issuer of these controversial derivatives tied to mortgages, according to the FCIC. Those CDOs eventually led to billions in losses and severely weakened the firm. Kim left Merrill Lynch in the middle of 2007—shortly before its losses began to mushroom—receiving more than $35 million for his work in 2006, according to the FCIC, a paycheck second only O'Neal's during that fateful year.
Where he is now: After leaving Merrill Lynch, Kim tried to start a hedge fund, which struggled to attract investors amidst the 2008 financial crisis.
Charles Prince, former CEO of Citigroup. Like Stan O'Neal at Merrill Lynch, Prince spent his four years as CEO of Citi trying to capitalize on the boom in subprime mortgages and exotic derivatives linked to them. He resigned in 2007 as those risky bets began to unravel, leading to gargantuan losses that would ultimately require a $45 billion government bailout (which Citigroup later repaid). Citi gave Prince a severance package worth $36 million when he left, on top of the $43 million he had already earned as CEO, according to the FCIC.
Where he is now: Keeping a low profile.
Thomas Maheras, former co-CEO of Citigroup's investment bank. Maheras helped catapult Citigroup from a bit player in the market for lucrative but risky CDOs into one of the world's top originators, along with Merrill Lynch. He resigned from Citigroup in October 2007, as the securities his division created began to lose value and generate losses that would eventually overwhelm Citi. Maheras earned more than $34 million for his work at Citi in 2006, his last full year at the bank, according to the FCIC.
Where he is now: In 2008, Discover Financial Services named Maheras a director. He also started a private investing firm called Tegean Capital Management.
Jeffrey Peek, former CEO of CIT Group. Peek arrived at CIT in 2003 and began to convert the sleepy, small-business lender into a broader financial-services firm with expanded portfolios of student loans and subprime mortgages. That turned out to be a bad move, needless to say, and CIT declared bankruptcy in 2009, with Peek resigning shortly afterward. Peek earned about $27 million at CIT through 2008, according to Forbes, but CIT's acceptance of $2.3 billion in government bailout money prevented him from claiming a severance package when he resigned. Peek's wife Liz, meanwhile, famously wrote the anonymous "Confessions of a TARP Wife" for Portfolio, which turned out to be a deep embarrassment when her identity as the author was revealed. CIT's bankruptcy filing meant taxpayers were out the $2.3 billion they had extended to the firm.
Where he is now: Last year Barclay's hired Peek to be one of its top investment bankers.
John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch. Thain's illustrious Wall Street career seemed impeccable until he replaced Stan O'Neal as Merrill Lynch's CEO in 2007. Thain tried in vain to keep Merrill's losses under control, finally guiding the crippled firm into the arms of Bank of America in 2008. That may have been inevitable, but Thain drew criticism for several events under his watch, including a million-dollar renovation of his office (which he ultimately paid for himself) and $3.6 billion in bonuses granted to Merrill bankers during a year in which the firm nearly collapsed and required federal bailout money to survive. Thain, once thought to be a contender for the top job at the new Bank of America, was instead forced out of the merged firm in early 2009.
Where he is now: A year after Thain left Merrill Lynch, Wall Street's revolving door ushered him into the top job at CIT, which had emerged from a prepackaged bankruptcy. His pay at CIT: $6 million per year in cash and stock, plus an annual bonus of up to $1.5 million.
Steven Newman, CEO of Transocean. Newman enjoyed a rewarding year in 2010, even though his firm's Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig—which was leased to BP—blew up on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and triggering the huge oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. Newman had taken over as Transocean CEO barely a month earlier, yet he had been president of the firm before that, and Transocean awarded him $5.8 million in total compensation for 2010. Newman's pay included a "safety bonus" of nearly $100,000, which he earned because Transocean "achieved an exemplary statistical safety record as measured by our total recordable incident rate," according to a company filing with the SEC. After an uproar, Transocean said its top executives would donate their safety bonuses to a memorial fund for the families of the 11 workers killed in the Gulf explosion. Research firm GMIRatings points out that Transocean also gave its outgoing CEO, Robert L. Long—who left right before the Gulf disaster—an exit package worth about $21 million.
Where he is now: Still CEO of Transocean.
Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy. Blankenship and the firm he had run for two decades became enormously controversial after a gas explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010, killed 29 miners. The explosion came after inspectors had repeatedly cited Massey for safety violations at the mine, and it impaired the company's profitability. Massey swung from a $104 million profit in 2009 to a $167 million loss in 2010, and subsequently merged with Alpha Natural Resources. The combative Blankenship endured a 2010 pay cut of more than 40 percent, but as Footnoted.com pointed out, he also got a $14.4 million severance package, plus a $7 million pension and $32.1 million in deferred compensation. It's good to be CEO. Even a dethroned CEO.
Where he is now: Retired.