John Thain and the Art of the Modern Non-Apology Apology

It was a different time. Blame the old guy. I told you everything. Is there an excuse former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain hasn't trotted out to explain why his fall is not his fault?

Thain, who resigned last Thursday. He had come under fire for three main sins:

  • Not disclosing more quickly Merrill's $15.3 billion in losses for the fourth quarter.
  • Asking for a $10 million bonus for himself.
  • Paying Merrill Lynch employees $4 billion in bonuses, normally given in January, in December, before Bank of America closed on the acquisition.
  • Spending $1.2 million a year ago to renovate his office and three other rooms, including an $87,000 rug and a $35,000 commode.

For each of these, Thain has an excuse.

  • The world has changed. Thain told CNBC about the renovation, "It is clear to me in today's world that it was a mistake."
  • My predecessor was a jerk. In the same interview, Thain said that former Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O'Neal's office "was very different than the general decor of Merrill's offices. It really would have been very difficult for me to use it in the form that it was in. … It needed to be renovated no matter what." And Thain will pay Bank of America back for the $1.2 million
  • I told them everything. In a memo to Merrill employees, Thain said that Bank of America "learned about these losses when we did." On the bonuses: "The timing of the payments for both the cash and stock were all determined together with Bank of America."
  • And they were okay with it. Steele Alphin, Bank of America's chief administrative officer, wrote an email, leaked to Dealbreaker, which defended Thain in early December when the question of Thain's bonus first came up:
    John was not asking for a $10MM bonus, but simply to be paid fairly and anything paid him paid less than Lewis, if Ken is to receive a bonus. John had already accepted that if Ken was to be at zero, he would be at zero. Or, if Ken was below $10MM, he would be significantly below $10MM. John's reputation has not been damaged with our directors or management team which now includes him.

The important thing: None of these deals with the actual substance of the complaint. Are we to believe that in January 2008, with the mortgage market in meltdown and Merrill having just reported a $9.8 billion loss, everyone would have been thrilled with Thain's renovation? The "different world" excuse, however, focuses people's minds on the terrible state of the economy. The "blame someone else" excuse makes one think about what a jerk that other guy was. And the "transparency" excuse doesn't get into whether an action was good or bad — it's just whether someone else knew about it and failed to complain about it at the time. The key takeaway: Get the people who are criticizing you to think about something else.

Thain is a master at this. He makes other captains of industry look like bumbling fools. Take Citigroup's brouhaha over a new $50 million private jet it had on order. The New York Post had spokeswoman Shannon Bell saying the bank is "exploring its options." Then came a call from a Treasury official last night. A spokesman emailed us Citi's new party line:

We have no intent to take delivery of any new aircraft.

What, not even a token "the world has changed"? Never mind that they can't get their story straight — these are lousy excuses which don't change the topic. If Thain were running Citigroup, I think he'd be brassy enough to point out that Treasury officials knew about Citi's private-jet fleet — and maybe even start asking questions about President Obama's gigantic personal jet. You know, Air Force One?

(Photo by Getty Images)