Executive Quirks II

Four years ago CE collected a random sampling of idiosyncrasies about CEOs. In this, our second look at this phenomenon, we find that some CEOs are, indeed, getting quirkier.

June 1 1990 by Amaid Josef Finkelthal


Martin Marietta’s chairman and CEO Norman Augustine has a unique perspective about his role as company chief: “The idea is to take the job seriously, not yourself,” he jests. Being a stuffed shirt isn’t any fun. Augustine is such a comedian that when his secretary got stuck in an elevator and called him on the emergency phone, he said, “As long as you’re stuck, can you take dictation?”

A CEO’s unique persnicketiness can turn any difficult situation into a windfall. Take Petrossian caviar’s Chairman Christian Petrossian, for example-a man who portrays himself as the epitome of high class, who eats caviar with a mother-of-pearl spoon because anything else would be “degrading.” In his travels, Petrossian always flies first class, but once, when he arrived late for a flight and was squeezed into the last seat in economy class between a screaming baby and an overweight woman, he reportedly said, “It’s good to fly with the common folk once in a while.”

But some CEOs don’t want the common folk anywhere in sight. While building a royal palace in Jedda, Saudi Arabia‘s King Al-Faud noticed that guests at a nearby Intercontinental Hotel could peer into his garden. Annoyed, Faud bought the hotel and turned it into the palace guest house.

Another oil-rich CEO, the Sultan of Brunei, lives in a 1,788-room palace and has two wives to help him entertain the many visiting dignitaries and royalty. When Britain‘s Prince Charles paid him a visit, the Sultan rolled out a spare throne chair and seated The Prince beside Wife No. 2 at the banquet. Wife No. 1 skipped the event.

By contrast, Taiwan‘s Y.C. Wang, founder and chairman of the Formosa Plastics Group, typifies the frugal lifestyle of the so-called Overseas Chinese, a group of billionaires who dominate business from Indonesia to Taiwan. Wang is known to be a generous philanthropist; he gave $250 million to a private hospital. But he doesn’t like to spend money on himself. His wife has to sneak out of the house whenever she buys him a new suit, and when his staff recently spent $1,000 on a new carpet, he threw a near temper tantrum.

Then there are those CEOs who are too nice to be true. Y.F. Chang, another Taiwanese billionaire and owner of one of the world’s biggest container shipping lines, Evergreen International, has handed out free lunches to his workers and even let deck hands stay in private cabins on hoard ship. Many observers say Chang’s good works are based on strong religious beliefs; some even believe he belongs to a religious sect that worships at night in the nude, though an official and rigorous government inquiry refuted this comical but persistent rumor.

When the U.S. government investigated the affairs of Leona Helmsley, it found plenty to he suspicious about, and a federal court in Manhattan found her guilty of deliberate tax fraud. But to prove just how meticulous she could be, Leona badgered and scolded employees during a segment of CBS’s 60 Minutes-in some cases just for standing idly at their posts-and she allegedly told the Palace Hotel’s meat supplier she wouldn’t pay his $8,500 bill because she didn’t like the corned beef sandwich she ordered while visiting the hotel late one night.

The Helmsleys did manage to keep their distance from neighbors-unlike Idaho spud king Jack Simplot, who once topped the hill he lived on with a 50-foot-high flag that flapped so loudly in the wind that the neighbors in the valley below complained.

Many CEOs like to separate their home life from work-but not Microsoft’s CEO Bill Gates, who has been known to work at home until the wee hours of the morning. At the other extreme is Vehbi Koch of Koch Holding, Turkey‘s largest industrial combine, who once left a theater performance when he saw he was missing his bedtime.

There is a very close connection between life at the office and life at home for Godfried Brenninkemeyer of C&A, a major Dutch clothing store chain. His family has owned the chain since the nineteenth century and run it with a tight hand ever since. The family is said to be deeply secretive and very religious; rumor has it that when the family council meets in Amsterdam, one chair stays vacant for “Our Dear Lord.” And the family is so tightly knit that whenever a member of the clan dies in any part of the world, 100 guilders is given to the local priest to say a prayer for the deceased.

Another Dutchman, Freddy Heineken, former CEO of Heineken Beer, has a passion for writing music, in spite of the fact that he’s taken seven years of piano lessons and can’t read a note. Undaunted, he composes popular melodies in the hope that they’ll be recorded. The only song Heineken’s recorded so far resulted from a 1983 kidnapping attempt in which he was chained to a wall. Its title: “Let’s Get Away From Here.”

Music plays an important part in the life of Aaron Spelling, Chairman and CEO of Aaron Spelling Productions (producer of Dynasty and The Love Boat). When meetings in his office get bogged down, he pushes a button and Judy Garland sings “Over The Rainbow” or Gene Kelly sings “Singin’ In The Rain,” even though his managers don’t jump up and dance. When someone has a great idea, he pushes a button and Louis Armstrong sings “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Armand Hammer is very particular about music, too. Before a dinner for visiting Russian executives, he reportedly told his secretary, “I want to impress our visitors, so find me a violinist who can play Russian folk music-and I don’t want him to be stumped-so make sure he knows every Russian folk song that’s been written since the nineteenth century!”

Then there are CEOs who are quirky about food. Philip Morris’s Chairman and CEO Hamish Maxwell is so devoted to his products, he constantly consumes Jello and Miller beer. Waiters at the restaurant where former CEOs Charlie Luger of Sara Lee and Eddie Hogan of Gillette lunched together used to remark, “How can they decide what companies to buy out when they can’t even make up their minds on a club sandwich?”

Chicago‘s Pritzker brothers (Hyatt Corporation chairman Jay and Marmond Group’s president and CEO Robert), often split a corned beef sandwich in a show of fraternal spirit.

Adnan Khashoggi, on the other hand, consumed almost an entire kilo of caviar all by himself during a Texas dinner party. Khashoggi, who went to trial March 20 on charges of obstruction of justice and mail fraud, probably wishes he never sold Donald Trump his yacht, so he could hide out on the open seas.

Some executives turn out to be a lot less quirky than people think. There were those who thought the late Ray Kroc was eccentric when he first got the idea to start McDonald’s. After a visit to California, he told Gerald Marlatt, manager of the Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, Ill., “I saw something that’s gonna make me a millionaire; Give me $500 and I’ll put your daughter through college.” Marlatt heard this and told the bartender, “give him a free drink and get him the h- out of here.”