Wyng Chow, The Vancouver Sun, May 1, 2002
As Edmonton-born telecommunications tycoon Bernie Ebbers tries to extract himself from his personal and his company's financial woes, look for him to sell his flagship British Columbia property -- the famed Douglas Lake Ranch.
While the sprawling 66,371 hectare (164,000 acres) ranch isn't officially on the market, it is known that Ebbers, the towering, charismatic CEO in cowboy boots, has been testing the waters as he liquidates assets to cover debts running in the hundreds of million dollars.
Ebbers, 60, who quit Tuesday as president and chief executive officer of WorldCom, the Mississippi-based long-distance carrier he built over 19 years, purchased the Douglas Lake Ranch in 1998 from the Woodward family, reportedly paying about $90 million.
Located in the Nicola Valley between Kelowna and Kamloops, it is one of the largest cattle ranches in North America, running some 20,000 head of cattle. It also has significant timber resources and recreational facilities, including fishing lodges.
Real estate consultant Rudy Nielsen, head of Niho Land & Cattle Co., one of B.C.'s largest owners of private recreational property, says he has fielded numerous calls from U.S.-based publications since Ebbers' financial plight came to light.
The Douglas Lake Ranch is worth $65 million to $85 million, "plus whatever premium someone will pay to own a trophy property," said Nielsen, who appraised the ranch for another undisclosed bidder before Ebbers' acquisition three years ago.
Ebbers' resignation came amid pressure from outside directors after the company's share price plunged another 15 cents US on Nasdaq Monday. At $2.35 US -- down 92 cents on the day -- the shares have tumbled more than 95 per cent from their high of $64.50 in June 1999.
WorldCom faces $28 billion US in debt and an ongoing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into lending and accounting practices.
At the time, at the height of the Internet boom, Forbes magazine ranked Ebbers as the 251st richest man in the United States with $1.4 billion US in assets.
WorldCom now has a debt load of $30 billion US, while Ebbers, who holds 27 million shares, personally owes about $184 million US to the Bank of America and to his company, which loaned him money to buy stock.
WorldCom said Tuesday that vice-chairman John Sidgmore would succeed Ebbers in both positions.
Ebbers, a 60-year-old Edmonton native, attended school in Victoria. He spent a year at the University of Alberta before finishing with a physical education degree on a basketball scholarship at the University of Mississippi.
He shot to prominence in 1998 when his WorldCom Telecommunications conducted the then-biggest takeover in U.S. corporate history, the $37-billion US acquisition of MCI. It was one of 60 of his takeovers, including Sprint.