Leland Russell and Gordon Walker don't seem like the type of people that U.S. corporations would ordinarily turn to for a crash course on how to compete in the New World economy of the 1990s.
After all, the former stage managers' last previous national undertaking was a series of concert tours that included a 96-city Barry Manilow fest in which they were responsible for making sure the lighting was to the singer's liking.
Nevertheless, these two Orange County residents easily persuaded such major corporations as Time Warner, Motorola and Northern Telecom to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars sponsoring a slick business seminar billed as the "blueprint for success in the new global marketplace."
Titled "A Day in the Future," the $595-a-person seminar featured videotaped interviews with 57 business and government leaders ranging from Fortune magazine editor Marshall Loeb to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
The interviews promoted Russell's recipe for business success, what he called "the GEO paradigm." Russell was so convinced of the power of his GEO concept--"the breakthrough business paradigm for the 1990s"--that he had it trademarked. GEO was the central theme for the six-hour seminar, a multimedia event featuring live presentations, videotaped interviews, small skits and music driving home the concept that U.S. companies must adopt a more global outlook.
The seminar debuted at the Beverly Hilton in September with rave press coverage, and Russell and Walker were gearing up for a 21-city national tour.
Two weeks later, the big tour was dead. Word was leaking out that Russell and Walker had some problems in their past.
While Russell and Walker were busy solving the nation's economic problems, they were facing accusations contained in a class-action lawsuit filed last year in Los Angeles federal court that they ran a massive Ponzi scheme in which 350 investors lost $12.5 million.
Russell and Walker deny those charges.
What's more, court records reveal that Russell and Walker were principals in more than 30 Los Angeles-based real estate limited partnerships that went bankrupt. Those partnerships had raised about $60 million from investors.
And the lighting and sound companies that they ran in Memphis in the 1970s had their business licenses revoked for failure to pay state revenue taxes. Russell said the companies were just "basically breaking even."
These disclosures, made public by a former business associate of Russell's, sent some of the sponsors of "A Day in the Future" running for the hills, raising questions about how they got involved in the first place.
"It's laughable," said Michael B. Hyman, an attorney who is familiar with Russell and Walker's background because he represents investors who claim that they were victims of the Ponzi scheme.
"Don't they (sponsors) know who these people are, what they have been involved in? I'm just amazed," said Diana Herold, a Walnut Creek, Calif., investor who lost $25,000 and is a plaintiff in the class-action suit. "I certainly wouldn't recommend that these people be set up as an authority regarding anything that has to do with business."
'Capt. Kirk' Enlisted
Gordon Walker sat in the living room of Russell's home in Irvine last week, mulling a reporter's question about how he got Fortune, California Business and some other magazines to contribute $300,000 in free advertising, persuaded General Electric to loan him $50,000 in projection equipment and talked Levi Strauss & Co. into buying the rights to the program for $200,000.
"I called them up," he answered.
It seems to have been almost that simple, especially after Russell and Walker hooked a celebrity spokesman, actor William Shatner, better known as Capt. James T. Kirk on the "Star Trek" television series.
Shatner was a natural, Russell said, because "his image really makes you think about the future." He also happens to be Walker's father-in-law.
Walker says Shatner's participation helped persuade Motorola to come on board as a sponsor. After Motorola joined up, Northern Telecom followed.
Each sponsor had its name and logo affixed to "Day of the Future" brochures and advertisements, with the headline: "Sponsored by organizations with vision."
"We had not done anything quite like this before," said Anita Giani, a spokesman for Northern Telecom, a telecommunications manufacturer. "We weren't the only ones. . . . They had Motorola on there when they came to us."
An attorney for California Business said the magazine became a sponsor after hearing about the other prominent participants.
"Fortune was involved and Motorola was involved . . . and they came to us with those kind of credentials," said attorney Duff Helsing. "I understand one of them is related to William Shatner. What that's worth, I don't know."
California Business contends that it has lost money promoting the seminar.
"We're kind of a victim in the thing," Helsing said.
Russell said none of the companies asked for any extensive background information on him or Walker.