Hail to Thee, Saul Steinberg! We may never see your kind again. On the other hand, Wharton's still in business.
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I read the news today. Oh, boy. Saul Steinberg has retired--or at least gone out of business. He did it the way he always did things, swiftly, with panache, leaving behind a nasty aftertaste that once again reminded you why the fat little mercenary was the guy to hate for so long. I admit to a small wave of nostalgic regret upon hearing the news. What would we do without him to provide the base note to the grand symphony of capitalism?

What Saul Steinberg did last week was sell the contents of his 34-room, 19,000-square-foot apartment in New York City. He's downsizing. The list of things offered at the auction house was suitably revolting. The most expensive item, an incredible windfall for those who are fond of symbolism, was an antique bronze-plated commode that sold for more than $2 million, significantly less than what was hoped for but still quite a bundle for a plated box.

Most of the items auctioned off by Saul Steinberg were large, ostentatious objects, encrusted with gold as the obvious proof of his affluence. I am sure he was not repulsed by them. I suppose he found them beautiful. The entire trove reaped a little more than $12 million. Which is not a lot of money these days, barely enough for a guy to consider himself rich, or so I'm told by my friends in ultra-senior management.

Naturally, Saul Steinberg went to Wharton, where he and many others developed a healthy understanding of the mechanics of business--how to make imaginary numbers on a balance sheet push real people around. He graduated in 1959. While doing his senior thesis on IBM (he liked it), he had a good if somewhat pedestrian idea--that computer leasing was going to be a big thing. He borrowed 25 grand from his dad and started a company. He called it Leaseco, which reminds me of a place near my home called Mr. Shower Door. It's not a creative name, but you know what it's selling.

Leaseco was profitable almost immediately--nobody ever said that Saul Steinberg was stupid. On the contrary. From that relatively penny-ante operation, he was able to muscle in on an undistinguished insurance company ten times his size (or at least the size of his operation). No, he wasn't really interested in insurance. But insurance churns cash, and cash made it possible to do two things Saul Steinberg liked a lot: (1) to acquire tons of debt that could be used for nefarious purposes with the assistance of his Wharton buddy Michael Milken, and (2) to take ownership positions in companies that didn't want him around.

The Saul Steinberg method was simple. Step one: Secretly buy a bunch of a company--Chemical Bank, for instance, or Disney. Step two: File the federal form that lets the company know you've now got more than 5%. Step three: Meet with senior management to scare them and ask for a seat on the board. This is particularly galling to any self-respecting executive team, since you have absolutely no credibility as a manager and are nothing more than a thug in an expensive suit who is associated with other leveraged behemoths who could make your life miserable. Step four: Buy more stock until you are paid to go away.

In this way Saul Steinberg, arm in arm with Milken (who was then using his position as underwriter to screw the firms he was supposed to be representing) and deploying the insights gained at Wharton (where brilliant new solutions are born and encouraged), became the most famous and respected greenmailer in history.

He lost a couple of wives along the way, but that's nothing unusual. For the first lucky Mrs. Steinberg, he promised to give money to a Long Island school so that a center of some sort could be established in her name. Later Saul Steinberg tried to welsh on that offer, but the courts eventually made him pay up. When he divorced his second wife, she went public with charges that he used corporate assets for his own personal gain and was prone to stuffing copious amounts of cocaine up his nose. This only served to make him more famous, of course.

Now he's gone, Saul Steinberg. Gone and sort of forgotten too. He took the money from his bronze commode and about $90 million or so from his poor, desiccated insurance business, whose stock had lost 75% of its value over the past decade, and will now recede. And so ends the world of Saul Steinberg, as he follows his pal Milken and all the saggy, baggy greenmailers, unfriendly takeover artists, and gunk-bond losers who polluted the end of the century. Thank goodness those days are now over!

Not long ago I went to a high school graduation. My attention focused on the No. 3 guy in the class. Tall. Great looking. Won all kinds of academic awards that day. Each time an honor was announced, he was called to the stage, and each time he sauntered up on his own time, without a smile, an aura of disdain for the proceedings radiating outward to the very back of the auditorium. Here was a guy who even at the age of 18 was already brilliant, detached, arrogant, and unkind. I'm going to give you three guesses where this young man is going to college next year.

There are rare personal qualities that we in business select out to find our leaders. I don't have to tell you what they are, except to say that they would be unacceptable in any other domain. Once those aspects of character are found, they are immediately recognized, cultivated, and rewarded by those already established in the world of enterprise. Pretty soon, along come the title, the wives, the bronze-plated pretensions, the commitment to philanthropy, and so forth, ending in a quiet and respectful death in the midst of loved ones. What a great man was here!

And thus we move through time, each generation producing its own crop of disgusting, vicious, selfish, vulgarian robber barons. Carnegie. Frick. Milken. Steinberg. Their names are unimportant. Individuals come and go. But the academy...the academy goes on forever, making sure we have enough monsters to keep the system humming.

Good luck, Saul Steinberg, wherever you go!

And good luck to you as well, Wharton class of 2004. You rule.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.