Aaron Beam always had an affinity for the land. He tells me offhandedly he always was happiest in a garden.
Beam chased a different green as a founder and chief financial officer of HealthSouth Corp.
Building an enormous publicly traded health care provider made him wealthy, but in the end Beam paid a terrible price for his pursuit.
There was a time Beam had it all: a family mansion on a golf course in Alabama, a beach house on St. George Island, Fla., a condominium in the French Quarter, a BMW, a Boxster, a Lexus, and $30,000 in Hermes ties hanging in his closet.
As he recounts some of the material possessions he once worked so hard to gather, Beam’s hand reflexively touches his necktie. He is finishing breakfast at the Veranda restaurant inside the Four Seasons on Tuesday morning before a speaking engagement sponsored by John Laub and the CEO-CFO Group of Las Vegas.
Beam isn’t on the Strip to talk about gardening, but about greed and what it does to a man’s soul. He’s an authority on the subject. He helped phony up the books at HealthSouth and assisted in perpetrating one of the largest financial frauds in U.S. history.
He eventually agreed to cooperate with the government and served three months in a federal prison camp in Alabama. Although fellow HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy was found not guilty of 36 charges related to the multibillion-dollar fraud, he was later convicted of bribing former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and remains in a federal prison in Texas.
Although Beam points to Scrushy as the corruptive influence atop HealthSouth, he takes responsibility for his own mistakes.
Beam enjoyed the lavish benefits that accompanied the exponential growth of the company that specialized in outpatient rehabilitation and surgery. It had facilities in Southern Nevada.
By 1994, HealthSouth was the largest outpatient health care provider in the country. He agreed to finagle the books in order to please Scrushy and the Wall Street crowd before leaving the company in 1997.
Six years later, the feds came calling. All HealthSouth’s legitimate success had been poisoned by greed.
“Richard, though I’m not a psychiatrist, I will bet any amount of money is a sociopath,” Beam says. “He will do anything, as a sociopath will do, to achieve what he wants to achieve.
“So when we had trouble hitting Wall Street expectations, he encouraged us to cook the books. I was intimidated by Richard. He had become very scary. He always carried a gun. He had bodyguards. He was Hannibal Lecter-like scary, and I was afraid to stand up to him. And I went along with the idea of fudging the numbers to keep the stock high.”
But Beam also liked being rich, despite what he calls an ethically “corroded” environment.
“You’re corroded to the point where, when you’re actually asked to commit a fraud, you’re not as strong,” he says. “And you do it.”
And he did. Beam explained how HealthSouth joined Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and other corporate giants whose greedy executives traded $3,000 suits for prison uniforms.
Then he points to the epilogue of his book, “HealthSouth: The Wagon to Disaster,” where he reminds readers Webster’s definition of “success” has changed since 1806, when it meant, “being generous, prosperous, healthy and kind,” to a modern definition that includes “the attainment of wealth, fame and rank.”
“We need to go back to the old definition,” Beam says.
These days, he has gone back to a different kind of green. At 66, he owns Green Beam Lawn Care Service in Loxley, Ala., and spends many mornings mowing yards.
The one-man operation doesn’t pay as well as his CFO job at HealthSouth, but the peace of mind is priceless.
No necktie required.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.