“I sometimes wonder if i am still related to that person,” Rebecca Mark says softly when asked to recall her past life as the globe-trotting chief executive of Enron International. There is a moment of quiet and then:
“Mommy is in here!” Mark shouts to her 3-year-old son in the next room. “Can you go back and watch the movie so Mommy can talk on the phone for a minute? Please remember to go potty!”
This is the new voice of Rebecca Mark, 49, once one of the most powerful women in American business. At her height, Mark epitomized all that was good about Enron: the brains, the verve — and yes, even the sex appeal. Lithe and stylish, she was often photographed in Central Asia, India, and South America, entourage in tow, making her way to another “Mark the Shark” bare-knuckled negotiation with some government official over a new Enron power plant or pipeline project. In 1996, when she was named CEO of Enron International, the division responsible for building some $20 billion worth of power facilities overseas, the move was seen by many insiders — women and minorities, in particular — as proof that the only bias at the company was for talent.
Her star continued to rise from there. Mark was twice voted to Fortune magazine’s annual index of the most powerful women in business. She became a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations in New York. She was invited to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for five years straight. Then suddenly, in August 2000, just 12 months before Enron blew up, Mark all but vanished.
Since then, Mark has been conspicuous by her absence from the maelstrom of congressional hearings and perp walks. True, she left day-to-day management of Enron in 1998, long before the trouble began. Mark resigned from Enron International that August after losing a power struggle with her longtime nemesis, Jeffrey Skilling, to succeed CEO Kenneth Lay. But she became the head of Enron’s speculative water venture, Azurix, and remained vice chairman of Enron as well as a director until 2000. It seems unlikely that she would have nothing to say about what happened to the company where she spent 19 years of her 22-year career.
For the first time in more than a year, Mark has broken her silence. Fast Company reached her in July at the 10-acre mountain ranch near Taos, New Mexico, where she and her husband of four years, Michael Jusbasche, were frantically preparing to host a Fourth of July celebration for her three teenage sons from a previous marriage and “250 of our closest friends.” It is at this high-desert retreat overlooking the mesas of the southernmost Colorado Rockies that Mark has spent much of her time since leaving corporate life three years ago. (You could say she’s gone back to her roots; she was raised on a farm in Missouri.) “I’m out here building more assets,” she says jovially, over a cacophony of contractor activity. (The Mark-Jusbasche manse is under renovation, funded no doubt by some of the estimated $83 million in Enron stock that Mark sold when she left the company in 2000.)
Try as she might to convey a sense of detachment, it’s clear that Mark has paid close attention to the congressional and court-room analysis of Enron’s demise. People close to her say that she is discouraged by the government’s campaigns aimed at mid-level executives who had little power inside the organization, which she has called “a witch hunt of major proportions.”
“It’s not fair. It’s not right,” she says, her anger rising. “It’s just a convenient way to show that [regulators] are doing something to clean up the system.”
As for herself, Mark has been dropped from all civil and criminal charges filed in connection with Enron’s collapse. If she bears any responsibility for what happened at Enron, she is now off the hook — and she’s not much interested in beating herself up over the past. “There is no point in looking back,” she says. “When things are not working right and they don’t feel right, they probably aren’t right. But we all live our lives based on the opportunities that are presented to us at the time.” And what of the consequences of Enron’s collapse? “I don’t feel remorse,” she says. “I get angry when I think about the ruined lives of so many employees. I do feel sadness and a sense of responsibility for the shareholders, but equity is called ‘equity’ for a reason.”
Mark saves her deepest reflections for the subject of work-life balance and parenthood. “There are many times that I remember in my life at Enron when I should have taken more time out for my children,” she says. “Looking back, I don’t know if that sacrifice was warranted.” The issue for women, she says, is not what their children miss out on. “It’s what we as adults miss out on. Children compensate for what they don’t get in other ways. We as parents never recover [from] the loss of the joy and the richness of taking them to school in the morning, or listening to their travails of the day at night.”
Those are things that Mark has no intention of missing this time around, with the son she and Jusbasche recently adopted from Kazakhstan. “I don’t see myself ever getting back into business on that level again,” she says. “I’m good and tired.”
So how would Rebecca Mark-Jusbasche like to be described as passing the hours of her “retirement”?
“Just say that I’m sitting out here watching the elk migrate across the mesa and raising my cattle.”