Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/12/29/overstock_stock_dip/

Overstock shares fade as CEO warns of 'drugs or dead body' caper

Mark Cuban now part of the fun

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Financial News, 29th December 2005 00:07 GMT

Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne continues to break new ground as the head of a publicly traded company. In a single TV interview last week, he shocked investors by revealing that holiday sales were far below expectations, perplexed the financial crowd by talking about drugs and dead bodies being found in his trunk and initiated a verbal war with billionaire blogger Mark Cuban. This latest round of gaffes adds to a tradition for Byrne that includes admitting that he lied about being gay and a coke-head to financial analysts and initiating a program to uncover a "Sith Lord" seeking to ruin Overstock.

You can't make this stuff up.

On Dec. 23, Byrne appeared on Bloomberg TV and turned in a performance for the ages. First off, he declared that Overstock's sales "have been, to be honest, a tad disappointing." Byrne tried to put a good spin on this statement saying that Overstock is accustomed to growing 3 to 4 times faster than the online retail market and that it would only outgrow the market by 2x this year.

"Twice as fast is good enough for some people, but I'm a little disappointed."

Most CEOs would use a press release to reveal a major sales miss. In so doing, they can control the language and tone of their message. Not Byrne. He kept spouting off about Overstock's sales, causing a panic. Shares of Overstock plummeted from around $33 to $28.80, at the time of this report, as investors caught wind of the drop in sales. Clearly, they were more than a little disappointed.

Overstock was forced to issue a press release on Dec. 27 to explain Byrne's remarks.

"We've had a nice holiday season, just not as nice a season as we've had in the past or as I'd hoped for," Byrne said in the statement. "To get above the noise, we spent a few dollars more than we had hoped, but in my experience, over time, those dollars will pay large dividends. So I decided to do what is smart for the company in the long run, rather than focus on just the quarter's results - because I plan to be around next season as well, and to be bigger than ever."

Overstock has been disappointing investors and customers with a number of technology meltdowns that have included the inability to track orders, a customer service system that hangs up on consumers and most recently periodic web site outages. These flaws have turned Overstock into a laughingstock on numerous customer service boards, and the company's customer service ratings have fallen on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), which Overstock cites as the only real metric for measuring its customer service quality.

Away from the financial issues, Byrne has continued his pursuit of "a cabal" that he believes is out to destroy the Big O.

Byrne held an August conference call with financial analysts about this cabal that has since gone down in Wall Street history as perhaps the single most bizarre CEO moment of all time.

During the session, Byrne admitted to making up stories about being gay and a coke-head in the hopes of uncovering a mysterious group short-sellers led by a "Sith Lord." These individuals allegedly engineered an intricate conspiracy to cripple Overstock. Part of the conspiracy included tapping Byrne's phone calls and apparently some kind of spy ring. (You can read of the excerpts from the call here.)

During the more recent Bloomberg TV interview, Byrne again returned to these themes.

Screen shot of Overstock's downed web site"I can tell you they are going to come after me in January," Byrne said. "They are trying to get the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to launch an investigation. They are trying to get the DoJ (Department of Justice) to investigate me. Some of the officials are monsters. You'll probably read a headline that I was stopped with drugs or a dead body."

Part of this tirade included a jab at billionaire blogger Mark Cuban, who also owns the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Cuban was mentioned during the interview as one person who has a short position on Overstock.

"Well, I - Mark's entitled to his opinion," Byrne said. "I think he lost money on that position since he put it on."

Bloomberg notified Cuban of these comments and asked for a response, which Cuban published on his blog in an entry titled, "This will make a good movie someday."

"Patrick byrne is a paranoid fool. I am short (Overstock.com) 20k shares," Cuban wrote. "I would love to short many many more shares  because a rule of thumb I have is that companies run by people I feel are paranoid fools, tend to go out of business. That makes them a good short

"in a perfect world, if I want a company to fail, I wouldn’t go to the SEC, or to the DOJ. (Neither of which I have ever done, nor do I plan to) I would just try to get them to hire Patrick Byrne."

Oddly, the Bloomberg transcript of Byrne's interview still has the Cuban comments and the references to dead bodies and drugs, but the actual video portion of the interview no longer contains the remarks. They have been replaced with frames of stock quotes.

For all his mistakes, Byrne comes off as an affable chap during interviews. His laidback approach and candid responses to questions are a refreshing change from the typical corporate babble. Byrne, however, doesn't seem to know when he's meant to be more serious.

For example, Sun's CEO Scott McNealy has made a career out of being controversial. McNealy throws out shocking quips, dresses in blue jeans and cracks jokes at every opportunity. In almost every case, McNealy's free-wheeling antics are aimed at a competitor. When talking about Sun's business or issues considered material to Sun's performance, McNealy takes on a much more serious tone.

Byrne keeps the antics going no matter what he's talking about, and this produces some very awkward situations.

The most recent example can be seen in the press release mentioned above that triggered a drop in Overstock's share price this week. Overstock admitted to slow sales, and Byrne justified higher than expected expenses as a long-term play. But he couldn't leave it there. Instead, the last paragraph of the press release again brings up the conspiracy theory stuff suggesting that Bloomberg cut away from Byrne's tirade against short-sellers as some kind of slight.

If you're an investor looking for a sign of hope that Byrne will change his behavior, don't hold your Big O too long. Given that Byrne's father John Byrne is the Chairman of Overstock, you can't expect much beyond a spanking and more of the same. ®