Bethany McLean asks questions. And keeps asking, often long after the rest of the business press has stopped. And they’re usually big questions — the ones other reporters (and, perhaps more troubling, industry analysts) refuse to take on. Take her March 2001 Fortune story Is Enron Overpriced? Its premise was a simple question: Why is Enron trading at such a huge multiple? For a company enjoying the kind of rocketship success Enron had the time, its business was stunningly opaque — nobody really understood what was fueling all that growth.
We know the result: Her questions touched off an Enron landslide, and the company eventually came crumbling down. For McLean, the article led to the 2003 book The Smartest Guys in the Room, and the book became an Oscar-nominated documentary in 2005. She became a household name.
Today, McLean is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair and Slate, and her stories continue to plumb the most important business issues of the day. In her 2010 article The Bank Job, she explored how Goldman Sachs weathered the market collapse of 2008, and questioned CEO Lloyd Blankfein and other execs about the disconnect between how the company sees itself (immensely powerful and suffering from a PR problem) and how its critics see it (immensely powerful and simply craven). McLean knows Goldman well — she worked there as an investment banker in the ’90s, and first wrote about Blankfein in Fortune in 2008 — but her reporting on the company doesn’t pull punches.
Goldman got through the darkest days of the financial crisis with an emergency $5 billion investment from Warren Buffet, of course. And Buffet is another subject of McLean’s. In her 2011 story Mr. Warren’s Confession, she takes on the biggest Buffet questions of all: Who will succeed him as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway when he dies? And does the company stand a chance of continuing its steady march without him?
In 2009, McLean wrote about another American institution with vast power and wealth and some huge unanswered questions: Fannie Mae. How did the company transition from its government-sponsored mission to spur home loans to a mission that looks a lot more like pure profit — and how did that transition contribute to the economic meltdown? Perhaps even more than Goldman Sachs, McLean shows, Fannie Mae illustrates the deeply dysfunctional ways Washington and Wall Street depend on each other.
Buffet, Skilling, Lay, Blankfein… McLean has written about the biggest players in business. But perhaps the biggest character of them all has been Henry Nicholas, co-founder of semiconductor company Broadcom. In Dr. Nicholas and Mr. Hyde, published in Vanity Fair in 2008, McLean investigates the billionaire’s alleged out-of-control life of hookers, drugs, and even a secret lair under his gilded Southern Cal mansion. It ends, inevitably, with a securities-fraud scandal and the crumbling of what could have been a great career.