Diva of the Deal

How Enron's high temptress turned massive projects into a $2 billion wet dream for the company -- and an estimated $100 million profit for herself

Sure, Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow did serious damage at Enron. And although Mark wasn't as ruthless as Skilling or as nasty as Fastow, she was every bit as cunning and every bit as vain in her quest for power, fame and, of course, mountains of lucre. The Missouri-born gal launched her quest from the unlikeliest of places: a remote Indian port on the Arabian Sea that was one of the legendary stopping points for Sinbad the Sailor, a place called Dabhol.

Rebecca Mark wasn't born into a world of high finance and international power projects, but she managed to grow accustomed to them awfully fast. She was born Rebecca Pulliam in Kirksville, Missouri, in 1954. Her parents were farmers, and she spent much of her youth learning the value of hard work and manual labor. One of four children, she baled hay and worked in the fields. Mark attended Kirksville High School, where she was a member of the National Honor Society. Joellen Hayes, the librarian at Kirksville High, remembers Mark. "She had big dark eyes and wore her hair long and straight. She was a beautiful girl. She was not terribly outgoing -- more quiet and reserved, and highly respected by teachers. She was just a very pleasant, mature-acting girl."

Top of the Mark: Rebecca rose through the ranks at warp speed.
Fred Harper
Top of the Mark: Rebecca rose through the ranks at warp speed.
Pipe Dreams author Bryce is a veteran business journalist.
Pipe Dreams author Bryce is a veteran business journalist.

After high school, she attended William Jewell College, a private Baptist school near Kansas City. From there, she went to Baylor University in Waco, where she got an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's in international management. After graduation, she worked for First City National Bank of Houston, one of many big Texas banks that are now owned by megabanks on the East or West Coast. Along the way, she married Thomas Mark, and together they had twin sons. In 1982, she jumped into the energy business, joining the treasury department at Continental Resources, a natural gas pipeline company. In 1985, Continental was bought by Houston Natural Gas and Mark's sojourn into the manly world of energy began.

Mark had been at HNG for several years when she began having an affair with her boss, a volatile autocrat named John Wing, who was heading Enron's electric power division. The former army captain put Mark through what one person compared to his own private business boot camp. "Wing treated her like a drill sergeant would treat a young private," recalled one executive. "He'd fire her publicly. He'd ridicule her on conference calls, treat her like a secretary, dress her down. He basically had her psychologically from any perspective.

"She had a lay-down sexual harassment suit if she had wanted it. Yet at the same time, they're having an affair," said the executive. "You didn't feel comfortable being around them. But you were more uncomfortable because they were having an affair."

While Wing was berating Mark in the boardroom and boffing her in the bedroom, he was also showing her how to get deals done in the international electricity market, which was just beginning to open up to foreign investors. He tutored her on the details of the Teesside power plant in England, Enron's first really big foreign power project. That schooling provided the groundwork for Mark's ascendance within Enron. In 1988, she and Thomas Mark split. The divorce left her with custody of the couple's twin sons. About that same time, she left Enron to attend Harvard Business School.

After graduating from Harvard, Mark came back to Enron ready to set the world on fire. Within a few months of her return, she convinced Ken Lay that there were many more opportunities on the international front than just the Teesside project in England. So the company created Enron Development Corporation, and in 1991 Mark was named CEO. That position led her to pursue projects from Qatar to Turkey. Without question, though, the most important project was Dabhol.

For years, foreign investors had shied away from India for a simple reason: The country's politics were in nearly constant turmoil. And that turmoil scared investors. If they invested in a big project and the Congress Party, the ruling party in India for nearly half a century, was suddenly thrown out of office, there were no assurances that their money would be returned.

By the early 1990s Mark began seeing India as her big opportunity. If she was ever going to make her mark at Enron, she needed to make a big score. And if she could get the Indian government to finalize the Dabhol power plant deal, she'd make millions of dollars in bonuses, and better yet, she'd finally be out of the shadow of Wing, the man who'd taught her how to do big power deals.

By the summer of 1993, Mark had been working on the Indian project nonstop for nearly 18 months. And she was making progress. She had the backing of Lay and the somewhat lukewarm support of Enron's then-president, Rich Kinder. (Kinder left Enron in late 1996. Now a billionaire, he made his fortune in the pipeline business at Kinder Morgan Inc. and Kinder Morgan Energy Partners L.P.) Plus, Mark was able to use her charm and good looks to her advantage in India in a way that wasn't possible in the United States.

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