AT&T and the Saga of the Four Armstrongs

What do Louis, Neil, Mike and Lance Armstrong all have in common?

August 4, 2000

What do Louis, Neil, Mike and Lance Armstrong all have in common?

It’s very straightforward. We all know Louis Armstrong and his cornet from songs such as “What a Wonderful World.” In essence, he’s a man who blew his own horn all his life. And you will recognize the famous sentence “That’s one small step for man… one giant leap for mankind” by Neil Armstrong. On July 20, 1969, he became the first man to walk on the moon. He was the first man to land on the moon — and to subsequently come all the way back to earth.

But what about Mike Armstrong, the current CEO of AT&T? The answer is that while Louis Armstrong tooted his horn, Neil Armstrong went all the way to the moon and back — Mike Armstrong did both of these things.

Since being chosen as CEO of AT&T in November 1997, Mike Armstrong and AT&T have been through turbulent times. When Mr. Armstrong joined AT&T, the company stock was faring badly, hovering around $30 a share.

As Mike Armstrong restructured AT&T over the next two years, the stock price skyrocketed, rising to above $110 a share for a good part of 1998. But it has returned from its proverbial trip to the moon, with a steep decline in late 1999. Now, the stock is back to the price it was at before Armstrong came on board.

But not only did Mike Armstrong go to the moon and back — taking AT&T with him in the process — but he also blew his own horn all along. In his first 18 months as chairman, AT&T’s Michael Armstrong announced $130 billion worth of acquisitions — an amount equal to 71% of AT&T’s market capitalization.

Much as the AT&T stock’s rise was a reflection of the new CEO’s ebullient personality, which analysts and investors liked, Armstrong continues to see the recent dive in stock prices as a temporary phenomenon and as a reflection of the cost of investments that AT&T undertook to ready itself for the future. Investors, however, keep bailing out AT&T, evidently listening to a different tune.

But not all hope is lost. After all, there is Lance. Perhaps the story of this fourth Armstrong will give the beleaguered AT&T CEO sufficient reason for tenacity and even optimism. It is a story of personal defiance, perseverance and success against all odds.

His victory in the Tour de France — for the second year in a row — comes after a fierce struggle with cancer. Achieving this kind of brilliant success is certainly what Mike Armstrong is hoping for. Judging by his “family,” there might be hope yet.