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Bessemer's conversion

Bessemer Trust overcame years of feuding and poor performance to become one of the hottest wealth managers in America.

Bessemer Trust overcame years of feuding and poor performance to become one of the hottest wealth managers in America.

By Rich Blake
February 2001
Institutional Investor Magazine

So why was CEO Don Herrema shown the door?

One fine spring day last year, Jane Symington walked into the elegant, expansive Rockefeller Center office of her boss, Bessemer Trust Co. president and CEO Donald Herrema, with some bad news. She had decided to leave the company after four years.

Married a year, tired of commuting, the 35-year-old account officer said she wanted to arrange a smooth transition of perhaps a month for her most important clients. A reasonable notion given that one of Bessemer's trademarks has been the coddling of its very rich clientele.

But Herrema didn't see it that way. "Get out of my office," he snapped, ordering her to clear out her desk and leave that day, say sources.

Harsh words and a bitter response, indeed, considering that Symington wasn't doing anything treacherous - like defecting to a competitor. Neither principal will comment on the episode, and as it happened Symington did not leave that day, but several weeks later.

But Bessemer insiders say that such cold, peremptory outbursts were common from Herrema, a California native whose drive and ambition had propelled him to the top of the firm just a few years after he joined from Wells Fargo Bank in 1993. As he climbed the ranks, Bessemer enjoyed a remarkable turnaround, overcoming years of poor performance and internecine feuds, to become one of the hottest names in private wealth management, arguably the most fought-over area of money management today.

Last month Bessemer's assets totaled nearly $40 billion, up from $11.4 billion at the end of 1996. Impressively, half of its asset growth came from new business, much of it New Economy wealth. Bessemer reported an operating profit margin of 46 percent in 1999, compared with the median among private asset managers of 32.7 percent, according to a recent study by Investment Counseling, a money management consulting firm based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

"I'm jealous of all of the new assets Bessemer has been able to attract," says William Asmundson, CEO of Rockefeller & Co., which manages $5.5 billion, half of which is Rockefeller family money. "They sent the message to the new millionaires that they were a premier wealth manager."

Herrema's take-no-prisoners, brook-no-dissent intensity helped drive the small firm's stellar results. But in the end it also proved to be his undoing. On Friday, October 13, not long after Symington's departure, Herrema, too, was out - in official parlance, "to pursue other opportunities." By most accounts, he was shown the mahogany door, done in by a contentious and aggressive leadership style that may have boosted profits but damaged morale, antagonized staffers and finally alienated the trustees of the clubby, family-owned firm. It didn't help any that Symington - who returned to work part-time shortly after Herrema's departure - counted among her clients none other than Stuart Janney III, chairman of the Bessemer board and an heir to the fortune that created the firm 94 years ago.

"His management style was difficult," concedes Janney, who quickly tapped Frank Helsom, head of Bessemer's Southeast operations, as interim CEO.

"Don was controlling," acknowledges Helsom. "Bessemer is like a family. You have to provide a collegial environment that encourages and nurtures people."

Founded in 1907 by steel magnate Henry Phipps, Bessemer functioned for decades as a family office for the Phipps clan and its assorted branches of Janneys, Martins and Guests, who were best known for their appearances in the winner's circles of Thoroughbred racing meets and at debutante cotillions up and down the East Coast. The firm struggled for years to find its place. In 1974 it took in its first nonfamily clients. In the late 1980s it resolved to join the ranks of the leading money managers, soliciting institutional accounts. It touted its returns but failed to keep delivering the numbers. Between 1990 and 1995 its equity portfolio returned an average of 6.2 percent a year, compared with 9.2 percent for the Standard & Poor's 500 index. Clients voted with their feet. Top managers decamped.

A concerned Phipps family brought in a cadre of new executives, including Helsom and Herrema, who transformed the fusty bastion of old money. They dramatically improved returns with a well-timed (until recently, that is) shift into large-cap growth stocks and introduced cutting-edge products, such as private equity funds-of-funds, and a sharper, more focused marketing effort that included, shudder, cold calls.

Just as important, Bessemer turned back the hands of the grandfather clock, shrewdly returning to its roots as a family office. It honed its expertise in trust and estates, tax planning and philanthropic advice - personal services that some rival high-net-worth money managers like Neuberger Berman and Goldman, Sachs & Co. have only recently begun to develop. As much as shrewd asset allocation, Bessemer understood that private wealth management demands constant attention. In extensive interviews with Institutional Investor last fall before his departure, Herrema waxed on about Bessemer's intensive hand-holding, which he liked to call "the stuff."

"Fifty years ago, personal attention meant walking the dog or driving a child home from school in a snowstorm," Herrema said. "Now it's as important as ever. It can mean doing an electronic background check on a client's household servant or making online travel reservations."

The formula worked for Bessemer, whose Fifth Avenue offices today combine the dull sheen of old money - thick carpets, dark paneling, finely detailed oil portraits - with the flat-screen glow of new wealth. A decade ago two thirds of the firm's assets under management were either Phipps accounts or other inherited money; today less than one third of total assets represent inherited wealth. Just $4.5 billion is Phipps money.

"Bessemer's turnaround is a big topic of conversation when the family gets together," says one pleased Phipps heir, Michael Martin, 58. "They've really lifted themselves out of a tough period."

Adds Jane Wood, who specializes in placing executives and private bankers at high-net-worth firms as an executive recruiter with New York-based Ogden Partnership, "Bessemer is among only a handful of firms that have gotten wealth management right."

All of which made Herrema's departure puzzling - and full of irony: The CEO who emphasized a deft, solicitous touch had fallen victim to his own heavy hand. "Herrema's departure does kind of make you wonder what's going on over there," says Russ Prince, a Shelton, Connecticut-based consultant.

Modest in size, with just 1,200 clients (former president George Bush among them), Bessemer can't afford to lose the momentum it has built up or see its newly gleaming image as the place for smart money tarnished. Much new wealth was wiped out last year, victim of the devastation in technology stocks. And the high-net-worth arena has never before been so crowded or so fiercely contested. Old and new firms alike are clamoring for a slice of the highly fragmented $10 trillion market - perhaps the money management industry's last remaining frontier. Stalwarts like Northern Trust Co. and aggressive investment banking newcomers like Goldman, not to mention a host of hedge funds and Internet upstarts like myCFO, are all doing battle.

In the past year several leading managers have sold out, convinced they needed additional resources. U.S. Trust Co., the country's oldest private bank, was snatched up by Charles Schwab Corp. for $3.5 billion; Fiduciary Trust Co. International was bought by Franklin Resources for $910 million; and J.P. Morgan & Co. merged with Chase Manhattan Bank. Bankers say that Bessemer, which in August added another $4.5 billion in assets when it bought the private client group at Brundage, Story and Rose, might sell for as much as $2 billion.

Bessemer officials, who say the firm intends to remain independent, are understandably quick to play down the impact of Herrema's departure. Since he left, morale has improved, according to some staffers. Moreover, they stress that the turnaround was hardly his doing alone. "We've had tremendous success these past few years, and obviously Don was a part of that, but this is a team sport," says Janney.

Certainly Herrema has no doubts about his contributions. In a brief exchange with II after he left the firm, he staunchly defends his tenure: "If you look at the growth of the firm and its enhanced reputation, there was one distinguishing factor between 1994 and today, and that is Don Herrema. I'll leave it at that."

During an otherwise unremarkable childhood in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, in the 1840s, Henry Phipps, the son of a shoemaker, had one great stroke of luck: He befriended a neighbor named Andrew Carnegie. Twenty years later Phipps became the steel baron's business partner.

Bessemer's recent history is a tale of corporate reinvention. That's appropriate. The firm itself was built on a kind of reinvention: the Bessemer process that transforms molten pig iron into purified blocks of structural steel. When Carnegie sold his Carnegie Steel Co. empire to J.P. Morgan in 1901, Phipps walked away with $50 million - the equivalent of $1.5 billion today. Six years later Phipps created the family office to oversee his fortune, naming it after the process that made him rich.

For most of the 20th century, Bessemer Trust Co. administered the Phipps family estate, functioning as a sort of centralized credit union for the lavish lifestyles of the heirs. The Office, as it was known, paid a chambermaid's weekly salary, shelled out the down payment on a 30-room Palm Beach estate and always made sure that the cash flowed without a ripple. For decades, too, the firm's smooth style masked its subpar performance.

The Phipps heirs spent much of the 1970s sniping at each other as their pampered lifestyles, not to mention some sour real estate deals, eroded a good portion of their wealth. In 1974 the firm decided, after much debate, to open its doors to outside clients. The goal was to help offset the firm's considerable administrative costs. Though happy to save money, some Phipps heirs felt threatened by the change. "Some family members worried whether they would continue to get the same level of service," recalls Phipps heir Martin.

In 1978 the family reaffirmed its commitment to the new strategy with a fresh infusion of blue blood, when Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps, a great-grandson of the founder, took over as chairman from his father. A horseman, who today serves as chairman of the New York Racing Association, Dinny had little business experience, and he wisely deferred to president John Whitmore. Whitmore, who had joined Bessemer in 1975 from American Security & Trust Co. (now part of Bank of America), began to market Bessemer's services as the "Tiffany of Trusts," hoping to lure multimillionaires who moved in the same social circles as the Phippses. By the end of 1982, Bessemer had added some $1.5 billion in non-Phipps family accounts. The firm's assets that year totaled $2.5 billion.

In the 1980s, as the first leg of the U.S. bull market took hold, Bessemer prospered. The ranks of America's very rich were growing - and changing: Wealthy heirs were joined by a burgeoning new class of self-made millionaires and billionaires. Adept at value equity investing, the firm grew its assets at a handsome 19 percent annual clip between 1982 and 1990.

But Bessemer soon hit a wall. The firm decided to broaden its horizons and manage institutional money. Acting as a pure money manager seemed far more promising than the costly, time-consuming family office model. But returns soured, thanks to an aggressive and ill-timed push into international stocks in the late 1980s. By 1992 foreign stocks represented some 40 percent of a typical client's portfolio. That year the foreign equity portfolios returned -6 percent.

Bessemer's portfolio managers had other problems. Between 1990 and 1995, four different people assumed responsibility for large-cap stock investments. In 1993, an especially bad year, a big bet on pharmaceuticals came undone when the sector collapsed because of the Clinton administration's proposals for health care reform. For the year, Bessemer's equity portfolio returned 5.8 percent, compared with a 10.1 percent gain for the S&P 500.

Predictably, clients balked. Bessemer's few institutional accounts left, and from the end of 1991 through December 1995, even as markets began to surge, assets grew just 15 percent, from $10 billion to $11.5 billion.

In addition, Bessemer had to contend with some managerial problems, including turnover. In 1992 rising star Moffett Cochrane, the director of private lending, left to run the asset management arm of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. Cochrane took with him Guy Waltman, one of the firm's most senior relationship managers.

Bessemer also needed to groom a successor for Whitmore, who was scheduled to retire in 1998 at 65. Insiders say Whitmore favored turning the reins over to Robert Elliott, who had run client services and at various times sales and marketing. But family members wanted a wider array of choices, so Whitmore recruited a handful of senior executives.

"We knew we had to find someone who could take the business to the next level," recalls Whitmore.

Whitmore brought in Herrema from Wells Fargo and Helsom from Templeton Investment Counsel. In 1995, to turn around investment performance, he reached out to Chemical Bank for Timothy Morris as Bessemer's first chief investment officer.

While Whitmore looked for a successor, another more senior transition took place. In 1994 Janney, an attorney and investment banker who once headed the asset management division at Alex. Brown & Sons, took over as chairman of the board, succeeding Phipps, who wanted to focus more on horse racing. (His family has long bred and raced horses, including Easy Goer, the winner of the Belmont Stakes in 1989.)

The son of a California greeting card salesman, Don Herrema, now 48, was in retrospect an unlikely choice for Bessemer. A high school basketball star in middle-class Santa Ana in Orange County, California, and later at Whittier College, he received a masters in economics from the University of Southern California before joining Wells Fargo in 1978. Herrema had a top-notch marketing background but lacked the pedigree of many in the private wealth business.

Herrema cut his teeth working for two hard-driving bankers at an institution renowned for its tough-mindedness. As a loan officer, he toiled under Jack Grundhofer, who later earned the nickname Jack the Ripper as CEO of First Bank System, which merged last fall with Firstar. Working mostly on financing projects for midsize corporations, Herrema reported to Charles Johnson, an ex-Army Ranger and Vietnam war veteran, who retired as vice chairman of Wells in 1998. Though demanding, Johnson inspired intense loyalty, and Herrema found in him a like-minded mentor. (The two men remain close. Johnson joined the Bessemer board in 1999. He says he intends to remain there but otherwise declines to comment.)

After rising to run the bank's Los Angeles-based commercial lending business, Herrema moved over to the private banking division in the mid-1980s. By 1993 he was president of Wells Fargo Securities, the bank's brokerage arm.

"Don was tough," recalls former colleague Robert Bissell, now president of Wells Capital Management, the bank's institutional asset management arm. "If he wanted to get something done, it got done. He was a winner."

When Whitmore came calling, Herrema saw the chance to turn around the flagging Bessemer, envisioning great opportunities, both for the company and himself. And there was the special lure of one day running his own show.

"I knew that Bessemer had a strong history in private wealth management," Herrema recalls. "But I sensed that while the firm was uniquely positioned, it had slipped into a period of stagnation. I was reluctant at first. Being a native Californian, I wasn't sure I would like the Northeast."

Indeed, the Californian would never quite fit into the clubby Eastern precincts. With slicked back hair and a wardrobe more Bel Air than Beekman Place, Herrema stuck out at the society gatherings frequented by Bessemer executives. One former co-worker recalled Herrema's appearance at an elegant Fifth Avenue cocktail party hosted by Carter Burden, a descendent of the Vanderbilts and a familiar face on the Manhattan charity circuit. "Don didn't understand it when people kept asking what school he'd attended. He thought they meant college." He learned that they meant prep school.

Twice divorced, with a weakness for attractive women and swanky restaurants, Herrema did not try to pass for a well-born WASP. It was just as well.

"You have to understand, from the Phippses' point of view, the CEO of Bessemer Trust is somewhere between the horse trainer and the chauffeur," says one ex-Bessemer executive. "He's almost an extension of household staff."

What Herrema did was go to work with the same tough-minded approach he had learned at Wells. He thought Bessemer could deliver the best of both worlds: old-school private banker pampering with cutting-edge investment strategies. He sold Whitmore on this "best-of-both centuries" approach, which included aggressively opening new offices to focus on new wealth.

Herrema teamed with Elliott to run marketing and client services. Together they embarked on expansion. Bessemer, which had six offices, opened six more between 1995 and 2000 - in Naples, Florida; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Atlanta; and, last fall, Menlo Park, California; and Key Largo, Florida.

The Bessemer sales staff doubled to 20 during the past four years. These salespeople began to make old-fashioned cold calls - an oddity for a business that has long relied on referrals. Bessemer sales reps call on men and women who have recently experienced "liquidity-creating events." (They find them on the Bloomberg news wire.) Of Bessemer's $3.5 billion in new assets in 1999, a surprisingly high proportion - about one third - came from direct marketing. By comparison, virtually all of the new clients at Fiduciary Trust are referred to the firm, says James Goodfellow, who heads Fiduciary's private wealth business.

Management also moved to shore up investment returns. In 1994 Bessemer hired John Chadwick, a portfolio manager at Kidder Peabody Asset Management, as senior equity portfolio manager, and, the following year, landed CIO Morris. With an astute move into large-cap growth stocks, these men turned Bessemer's performance around. Between 1995 and 1999 the portfolio posted an annualized return of 33 percent, versus 28.6 percent for the S&P. In last year's volatile markets, the firm was off 9.9 percent, versus the S&P's -9.1 percent.

Bessemer began to set itself apart from its rivals with an astute early push into alternative investments. The firm had dabbled in venture capital as far back as 1987, when it placed $50 million of non-Phipps money into the $100 million Tyler Fund managed by Bain Capital. (Bessemer's sister company - and the Phipps family's private investment vehicle, Bessemer Securities Corp. - has long been an active venture investor through its primary subsidiary Bessemer Venture Partners.)

The firm began to roll out a string of new products. In 1994 it offered its first exchange fund, which allowed wealthy individuals to monetize long-term holdings by contributing their low-basis positions in a single stock in exchange for shares in the fund, comprising a dozen or so other low-basis stock positions. This fund was followed by an LBO fund-of-funds in 1995 and Bessemer's first venture capital fund-of-funds, Old Westbury venture fund, in 1996. In 1997 Bessemer launched the Fifth Avenue fund-of-hedge-funds.

Bessemer's competitors followed its lead. During the past 18 months, for example, $100 billion-in-assets Wilmington Trust bought stakes in Cramer Rosenthal McGlynn and Roxbury Capital as a way to access hedge funds and private equity fund-of-funds. In 1995 there were fewer than a dozen private equity funds-of-funds; today there are more than 70.

"Over the past two years, almost every investment bank, commercial bank and high-net-worth manager has tried to come out with something. Bessemer was early in the game," says Gary Robertson, head of private markets research at Callan Associates in San Francisco.

Returns on these vehicles have been strong. Bessemer's first exchange fund has returned 31.1 percent annually, versus 28.6 percent for the S&P 500. Today Bessemer offers four such funds, with a combined $1.5 billion in assets. The Old Westbury venture fund has had an average annualized return of 41 percent.

Of Bessemer's $35 billion in total assets, fully 18 percent is in alternative investments. (Of the rest, 52 percent is in U.S. stocks, mostly in large caps, 16 percent is in bonds, 5 percent in non-U.S. stocks and 9 percent in cash, to pay taxes and cover big-ticket expenses.)

In addition to allowing current clients to diversify, the drive into alternative assets introduced Bessemer to new clients.

"Our private equity presence has opened doors into the new-wealth market," says Elliott. "That has been a major ancillary benefit. These new-wealth folks are familiar with our venture capital arm and know that Bessemer is a major player, so they see us as connected to their world."

Bessemer's success paid off for Herrema. In 1996 he was named chief operating officer and, in effect, heir apparent to Whitmore. A tough manager, he quickly became a dominant force in the firm, instituting strict cost controls, for example.

Insiders report that his hands-on management style intensified when he was named CEO in December 1998. Herrema insisted on consistently high standards and tried to lead by example. In one instance, he personally arranged to renew the car insurance of one client, a technology company CEO, that had lapsed while the client was traveling overseas.

But Herrema also led by fiat. Shortly after becoming CEO, Herrema decreed that any client phone call had to be returned within 24 hours. Good idea. But other edicts stung. An early one, which he later reversed, canceled an annual week of vacation for some Bessemer employees. "He was a micromanager," says former Bessemer executive Steve Kozak, now president of Citigroup's private client group in Palm Beach, Florida. "Don was focused on profitability."

In such a small, clubby firm - Bessemer has only about 200 employees - some began to resent what they saw as an odd combination of pettiness and high-handedness. In August 1999, when Herrema tapped David Chambers, former chairman of the Merrill Lynch Trust Cos., as his new chief operating officer, he told none of his most senior colleagues at the firm of his decision in advance. Instead, he breezily introduced Chambers at an executive staff meeting.

As it happened, Chambers, an Irish native who comes across as a likeable and energetic fellow, quickly charmed the staff. Just as quickly he lost the support of Herrema, who dramatically reduced Chambers's power when he removed alternative investments from the COO's control.

Just nine months after he joined the firm, Chambers quit. The high-level defection inevitably caught the attention of the Bessemer board. Chairman Janney urged Herrema to rally the troops. In response, Herrema doled out Palm Pilots to many New York staffers and reinstated the vacation time he had eliminated when he became CEO.

Chambers was just one of several high-profile departures at Bessemer. Since 1997, 20 Bessemer professionals had departed. In the past 12 months, Bessemer lost three of 25 senior client account managers, including the well-regarded Malcolm Travelstead, a former Chase Manhattan Bank private banker who left to join Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's private wealth management group. Though Bessemer's attrition rate was about average, consultant Prince says that "the perception in the industry is that Bessemer has a problem keeping people."

In retrospect, it seems that many of the Bessemer staff simply wanted to be treated with the same kind of respect, and even coddling, that they extended to their clients. At Bessemer few client concerns are too trivial to merit attention. When Hurricane George bore down on the west coast of Florida in 1998, employees in Bessemer's Naples office rushed off to one client's house, knowing that it was unoccupied. They closed the shutters, covered the furniture and removed everything from the walls.

That kind of "stuff," as Herrema called it, was in short supply inside the firm. When another hurricane threatened New York, in September 1999, many Manhattan offices closed early so employees could get started on their commutes. Herrema declared that "nonessential" workers could go, but "essential" employees were required to stay. A handful of executives offered an alternative: Keep a skeleton crew of Manhattanites on hand and let their colleagues who commuted leave. When a senior executive who lived in the suburbs brought the plan to Herrema, the CEO turned it down coldly, saying, according to sources, "Do you consider yourself nonessential?"

A niggler, and something of a meddler and second-guesser, Herrema was getting on the nerves of his senior colleagues, who were used to more independence. Then came the Jane Symington episode, and Herrema's days were numbered.

"Like any divorce, there's usually an accumulation of little irritations, but at the core there are fundamental philosophical differences," says Edward Oppedisano, one of Bessemer's main executive recruiters for the past five years. "I think Herrema and the board were at odds over how to run the firm."

In the end, it may be that the ambitious Herrema, who learned the ropes at one of the nation's biggest banks, simply wasn't cut out for the give-and-take of a small shop.

"When you have people in their 40s with high levels of experience, and someone is constantly changing what they're doing, people feel uncomfortable," says Helsom. "If you had a hard, structured management style at a small law firm it would be a disaster. This is a small firm. There are senior people. You can't have tight control over these folks. If we were planning on selling the firm and trying to maximize profitability, Don would be the perfect guy. But we're not selling the firm."

Barring unforeseen developments, Bessemer's new chief will take charge of a well-positioned firm that has a strong claim on the high-net-worth business. "This is the most glorious time in the history of the firm," says interim CEO Helsom. "We're finally on the map as being the premier wealth management firm." Still, he insists he has no interest in keeping the job. "I think my wife would kill me," he says.

One reason the firm expects continued success: While many of its competitors service the merely rich, Bessemer handles the superrich. The average Bessemer client is an individual or family with a net worth of $35 million and a portfolio of $25 million. For those with a net worth under $10 million, Bessemer will usually manage at least 80 percent of the investable assets; for a net worth of $25 million or more, that falls to 40 to 60 percent. Each four-person client services team manages no more than 60 clients: The firm's overall client-to-staff ratio is 12 to 1, and 70 percent of firm's $20 million in operating expenses goes to employee compensation.

Bessemer's highly touted personal touch doesn't come cheap. Charging fees that average 72 basis points on assets under management, Bessemer earns handsome profit margins: In 1999 net income reached $53.1 million on revenues of $202.8 million, up from $35.7 million on revenues of $151.8 million in 1998.

And the firm is positioned smartly for the future. One of Herrema's hallmarks was an embrace of technology. Last May the firm launched BessemerOnline, a joint venture with DLJdirect (now CSFBdirect), which gives clients an exclusive, self-directed brokerage option, as well as account aggregation. Clients can check the value of their portfolios, read Wall Street research and access information about their non-Bessemer accounts. They receive 25 trades a year for free.

"Our clients want consolidated information," says Mary Martinez, the senior vice president who is responsible for Bessemer's technology initiatives. "But they also want to analyze the data and figure out - What does it mean?"

Sums up consultant Prince: "Bessemer embodies the perspective and traditions of the classic private banker, coupled with state-of-the-art technology. It's an effective mix that will be hard to duplicate."

Hard to duplicate, perhaps, but not so hard to acquire? Might the Phipps clan one day decide to sell out? Bessemer reportedly considered putting itself up for sale and even entertained a few offers back in the early 1990s. But the right moment, or price, never arrived.

Before Herrema's sudden departure, the Phippses were feeling flush and rather content. After talking to the family members who control Bessemer, Martin believes that they have no intention of selling the firm in the "foreseeable future."

But Bessemer, like other asset managers, could soon find itself stuck somewhere between $50 billion and $100 billion in total assets - no longer an elite small firm nor yet a far-flung behemoth. Given the $910 million Franklin paid to buy Fiduciary in early October, analysts estimated that Bessemer could fetch between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

But that was before Herrema flew the coop. In a business so dependent on personal relationships and alliances, the sudden departure of a CEO can be quite unsettling, to the firm's clients as well as its owners. It's as true today as it was in 1907: Private banking is essentially a fragile network of interpersonal connections - easily frayed, not always so easily repaired.