Adelphia Comes Clean
Can Vanessa Wittman help bring scandal-wracked Adelphia out of bankruptcy --
and back into investors' good graces?
, CFO Magazine
December 01, 2003
When Vanessa Wittman came to Adelphia Communications Corp. as CFO last March,
the cable-television giant was in danger of being disconnected. A victim of alleged fraud
and plundering by its controlling shareholders, the Rigas family, Adelphia had been
mired in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since June 2002. Even after seven months, an interim
management team had failed to improve the company's poor performance, and now a new
CEO was assembling a new team. At one point, liquidation had been a distinct possibility
—the fifth-largest cable company in the nation, after all, had billions of dollars in assets
that could be sold off.
"There was a lot of anxiety about whether the business was fixable or not," says Wittman.
Yet the decision was made to salvage the company—clean up the toxic remnants of fraud
and get Adelphia back in the good graces of customers, investors, and even employees,
who had been demoralized by the scandal. And Wittman, who had just finished guiding
Vancouver-based broadband provider 360networks Corp. out of bankruptcy, was tapped
to help lead the effort.
At first she was surprised—and then relieved—at how little the finance rank and file
really knew about what may be one of the largest frauds in corporate history. Instead of a
corrupt environment, full of people who had winked or looked the other way, Wittman
found a staff more or less in shock over what had transpired. "There was no culture of
greed," she says, and thus no need for a wholesale purging of the ranks. Indeed, Wittman
recalls making a jesting query to Adelphia CEO William Schleyer: "Where did you hide
all the jerks?"
That sense of humor has helped Wittman maintain her balance while doing one of the
toughest jobs in finance: cleaning up a scandal-plagued company (see "Sweeping Up," at
the end of this article). Today, Adelphia is striving to regain both its solvency and its
credibility. The Rigas family—John and his sons, Timothy, Michael, and James—left the
building in May 2002, followed by former vice president of finance James Brown and
assistant treasurer Michael Mulcahey. Armed with $1.5 billion of debtor-in-possession
(DIP) financing, the company is now preparing a reorganization plan that includes
updating its cable systems and emerging from bankruptcy completely intact.
Easier said than done. Adelphia, claims Wittman, is "the most complicated bankruptcy
the country has ever seen." Not only must Wittman steer Adelphia through the shoals of
Chapter 11, she must also contend with shareholder lawsuits and criminal investigations.
Then there's the matter of separating fact from fiction in Adelphia's accounting. "Nothing