A Number’s Game: ITT’s Harold S. Geneen
At $846,000 in salary and bonus, Harold Geneen was the highest-paid executive in 1977; he was also perhaps the most revered. Then 67 and in his final year of an 18-year run as CEO, he was already being referred to in the press as “the fabled Harold Geneen.”
Well before the acquisition binge of the ’80s, Geneen and his merry band roamed the world on the make; during his tenure, Geneen undertook an astonishing 350 mergers and acquisitions-an average of some 20 each year. When he took over the hodgepodge of little European and Latin American companies in 1959, ITT had revenues of $766 million and earnings per share of 95 cents; in ’77, revenues exceeded $16 billion, while earnings neared $5.
Of course, not everyone was enamored with “the boss.” Some accused him of being an unimaginative numbers grubber; others, a too-demanding ruler. But to most employees and observers, this finance man born to a modest English family was a dedicated and inspiring leader who understood the value of employee morale and the importance of taking a long-term view.
Perhaps most endearing, Geneen spoke of what he saw. Before he left office, he complained that his empire was undervalued by the Street. A decade later, he admonished leveraged buyout pros for being like car thieves lusting after stripped auto parts. This year-at age 87-he wrote a book (The Synergy Myth and Other Ailments of Business Today) blasting the “baloney” spewing forth from management consultants (such as the notions that managers should “nurture” workers or show social responsibility). In that book Geneen also takes issue with the belief that an overly demanding job will burn out an employee. Quoting an 18th century English philosopher, he writes: “It is better to wear out than to rust out.” No doubt Harold Geneen, who still works 10-hour days overseeing the companies in which he has invested, doesn’t have a speck of rust on him.
The Buzz in 1977
A hot IBM (stock price $270, revenues $18.1 billion) saw Cary, CEO since ’73, predicting, “we’ve really just scratched the surface,” that products undreamed of will change IBM in ways that can’t yet be predicted. Unpredictable was also Cary‘s much-admired hallmark: he frequently introduced products or reduced prices without warning.
Succeeding the abrasive, authoritarian Henry Weigle, observers were thrilled when the 44-yearold personable Johnson was tagged CEO a year earlier. Johnson immediately promised more teamwork and group planning.
Highly regarded in and out of the company for “doing his homework,” “thinking in a broad-gauged manner,” and “being a wiry, tough chief,” as one business magazine that year put it, Jones, CEO since ’72, had already made big strides towards creating what he hoped would be “a new G.E.”
Still No. 2 that year to C. Peter McColough (Kearns would be named CEO in ’82), the 47-year-old fast tracker (and 6:41 minute miler in that year’s Corporate Invitational Relays) had beaten three rivals to the president’s post; observers anticipated his rise to the top of a napping, bureaucratic company facing tough Japanese competitors.
When CEO Eli Black hurled himself from the 44th floor of the Pan Am building in anticipation of the eruption of a million-dollar Honduran bribery scandal, and the succeeding CEO stepped down after just 20 months, shareholder and shirt-sleeved manager was tapped that year to lead the company back to tranquility and, it was hoped, profitability.
The 41-year-old polished Harvard M.B.A., just named CEO, was acknowledged as having a tough act to follow: former CEO Howard Clark’s 17-year reign saw profits increase 2,061 percent!
The first non-DuPont (and a Democrat, Jew, and lawyer, to boot!) to take the helm, the 60year-old (CEO since ’74) was boldly upping DuPont’s long-term debt-to $1.5 billion, from $250 million-and using the money to increase capital spending. The bid was already winning kudos; observers credited the bold maneuver with putting the company on track to once again reach its vaunted 20 percent-plus return on shareholders’ equity.
Named CEO at the young (for Sears) age of 58 that year, the demanding but courteous Telling thrilled observers who were finally getting a take-action CEO-one who, as EVP, rescued Sears from its disastrous fling away from Middle America into style, fashion, and higher-priced goods.
CEO since ’69, the dapper 56-year-old was praised for smart business savvy, aggressive acquisitions (including non-oil properties, like ’74’s buy of Montgomery Ward), and gushing up his company’s public profile in the generally demure field of oil.
With international banking-the cash cow of Citicorp-suddenly less profitable and more risky than it had been in decades, the 58-year-old patrician (already boss for a decade) had the banking world intrigued that year when he undertook the development of a massive company 10-year-plan. Another game of intrigue: predicting Wriston’s ultimate heir; his rich group of potentials (including John Reed, the eventual winner) seen as yet another sign of his management strength.
HOW History Views Him:
With superior R&D and marketing, IBM computed a market share near 80 percent during his reign. It was Cary who oversaw Big Blue’s move into midrange systems and, in ’81-his final year- PCs. Only after Cary logged off (though he remained on the executive committee until ’91), did the increasingly competitive industry shift to open systems and IBM begin its long, deep slide.
Though he presided over Standard Brands’ merger with Nabisco and, later, RJR, Johnson (very sympathetically portrayed by James Garner in Barbarians at the Gate) will always be remembered for his ’88 defeat by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in the battle for control. Many CEOs recall his “greed” as excessive, even by the standards of his time. Shareholders, however, are grateful for the tremendous price his wrangling got them.
Meticulous planning and aggressive expansion with carefully managed risks helped the respected Jones light up G.E. to $25 billion during his nine-year tenure-but it was left to successor Jack Welch to shake up the company’s rigid, ingrown culture.
Woke up the company by delegating power downward and obsessing on quality-a tack that earned him Financial Words Man of the Year (in ’89) and praise from his peers. Beat his own chest in the immodestly titled ’93 corporate tale, Prophets in the Dark: How Xerox Reinvented Itself and Beat Back the Japanese; his unsuccessful detour into financial services, however, somewhat mars that prophetic position.
Milstein upped joint ventures with Central American countries, but he didn’t undo Black’s failed diversification strategy-which included ice cream, sunglasses, telecommunications, and other unrelated businesses, in addition to the core meat and bananas. It was left to shareholder Carl Lindner, who took control in ’83, to shed those distractions and bring the company-now called Chiquita Brands International-back to the black.
This “A-list” society elite’s own 16-year run is largely remembered for his faulty “financial supermarket” acquisition campaign-and the highly-charged public board fight that hounded him from office in ’93.
His great business acumen-including the huge, and hugely profitable, acquisition of Conoco in ’81, the year he retired-did keep the company on firm financial soil. His place in business history was further sown from his role in shaping the Business Roundtable and in thrusting CEOs into the public-and White House-eye.
While credited with shaking management out of its long lethargy and increasing sales, when he left in ’85, antiquated stores still pushed largely drab goods. His action in buying Coldwell Banker, Dean Witter Reynolds, and Allstate to create “Sears financial centers” (he even wanted to go further, creating limited-service family banks) rang up only problems for future CEOs.
His long-running dynasty (until ’86) with president William Tavoulareas is largely remembered for its financial glory in the early ’80s, if not for its encouragement of openness in the ranks. But the company’s longtime weakness for finding oil-rather than buying it-remained, and the high-flying spending (including six jets) had to be curtailed after he departed.
Boss for 17 years, until ’84, Wriston bet the bank on technological innovations (ATMs, telephone banking) that ultimately made Citi the first truly global consumer bank. This important figure was the subject of a 1,000-page bio in ’96-one reviewers actually said didn’t give him all the accolades he deserves.
The 77-year-old Darien, CT, resident puts his computer background to use as a trustee for MIT and as a director of several medical and high-tech firms.
After pocketing more than $50 million from the RJR buyout, Johnson took over air humidifier maker Bionaire Inc. (and was promptly accused, as in his RJR Nabisco days, of too-lavish spending). Lambasted in ’95 for an informal remark to Emory U. business students on the “scumbag” FBI, a reference to the agency’s probe of Archer Daniels Midland Co., one of the companies on whose boards he now sits.
“This great grandfather no longer feels guilty slipping away from his office for family or golf,” he says, but he is still often found in his Stamford, CT, office, overseeing venture investments with former associates.
His mantra, “business competitiveness requires dramatically better schools” landed him the No. 2 slot in George Bush’s Education Department. Now chairman of New American Schools Development Corp., a nonprofit group aiming to increase the country’s grade in public education.
Ripe to return to his real-estate roots, Milstein is VP of his family’s New York building company, Milstein Properties.
Friends still know him: Reportedly testing the waters for a $200 million private equity fund, including approaching former Amex execs he didn’t always agree with. Also invests himself in information technology companies.
The legal eagle returned to law as a partner in the Wilmington, DE, office of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.
Now lives a quiet, private life. No longer serves on any corporate boards.
Still on several boards in ’93, he was the American Express director who almost single-handedly led the charge to oust Robinson. Now retired from all the boards, he follows the market-and reads business mags-between rounds of golf near his Hobe Sound, FL, winter- and New Canaan, CT, summer-homes.
Writing books (the latest: ’92’s Twilight of Sovereignty) and articles on technology, money, and the future-even if he won’t live to see it all-for the Harvard Business Review, economic journals-and even Wired magazine, where he was their unlikely coverboy.
Hazy Vision: Eastman Kodak’s Colby Chandler
It was perhaps prescient that, in 1977, 51-year-old Colby H. Chandler rose to the position of Kodak president largely on his success in launching Kodak’s instant-camera business. Industry publications that year hailed this “tough, tight-lipped businessman” camouflaged in a “kindly uncle” persona as someone who would move Kodak into the future. Of course, the company’s future in the instant photography business wasn’t as picture-perfect as it then seemed: Kodak was ultimately forced to retreat after losing a bruising patent battle to Polaroid Corp.
So it seemed to go for Chandler during his reign at the Rochester, NY, company (the 40-year veteran got the top job in 1983). Lauded as a hero during the early part of his tenure, the ex-farmer and WWII Marine sergeant slashed Kodak’s bloated workforce (and such overblown perks as employee bowling alleys) and oversaw its diversification into batteries, electronic publishing systems, blood-analysis tests, and optical-disk storage systems-moves praised by many at the time as recognition that, with 80 percent of the U.S. photography market, a single-industry Kodak had little room for growth.
When his craving to be a major force in the drug industry (which he saw as synergistic with Kodak’s chemical expertise) led Chandler to pay (or rather, overpay) $5.1 billion for Sterling Drug Inc., in 1988, however, critics sharpened their lenses. “He is going to be judged on that purchase,” said an analyst at the time. And, unfortunately for the once-grand figure, he is. (It also doesn’t help Chandler‘s legacy that most of the other diversified businesses went nowhere).
Credit for finally making Kodak click now goes to today’s CEO, George Fisher, who cropped nearly all of the non-imaging businesses, paid down the company’s mammoth debt, plowed resources back into photography-including new digital imaging products-and increased sales to previously ignored, high-growth developing countries. Chandler now watches Fisher’s success from his retirement in the Rochester area (he stepped down in 1990, at Kodak’s customary age of 65), where he sits on several corporate boards.
Soap-Opera Fare: Bendix’ William Agee
Oh, what a difference a decade (or two) makes! Here’s a boyish William M. Agee, smiling out from the pages of business magazines in 1977, a “young turk” who at age 39 had just risen to CEO of the diversified Bendix Corp. If these articles had heaped any more praise on the “zestful and wholesome” Agee (“He took the toughest courses, got the highest grades, and was a popular class officer from grade school through Stanford, the University of Idaho, and Harvard Business School,” one tribute applauds), readers might have thought Paul Newman was being described. His success as senior VP at Boise Cascade and rising star at Bendix are adoringly chronicled. Then there’s his personal life: Agee-married since age 19, with three small children-actually calls himself a “happy family man.”
Of course, only someone living deep in one of Bendix’ tree forests doesn’t know how differently the end looks from that beginning. The steamy soap-opera romance with his blonde, savvy executive (soon to be his next wife), Mary Cunningham; the messy, failed takeover attempt for Martin Marietta Corp. which cost him his Bendix job; the seeming resurrection in 1988 as CEO at construction giant Morrison Knudsen Corp., which in reality became marked by low employee morale, the inability to generate steady operating-profit growth, and the Agees’ desire for a lavish lifestyle at a California seaside estate far from the company’s Boise headquarters (they used the company’s $21 million Falcon 900 jet so often the IRS argued the trips should count as income).
When it all came crashing down two years ago-both because of a tremendous financial loss that year and Agee’ unrealisticdesire to, as one critic put it, operate by remote control from a luxury resort Agee fled, with a parting gift (based on his employment contract), he hoped, of $2.5 million. A shareholder lawsuit later torpedoed that dream. Among other payments from the company, the settlement called for Agee to give up all severance and much of his pension.