Monday, August 14, 2006

A tale of two CEOs

In recent years the three initials CEO have become so embedded in the American lexicon that it is no longer necessary to define what they mean. The fabulous salaries and perks, the cases of incredible mismanagement, and the scandals associated with many of them have made the CEO a household figure.

During the late 1960s through the early 1980s, I interviewed and wrote about countless chief executive officers of both giant and lesser corporations for Business Week and Forbes magazines. This is the tale of two of those CEOs. In one case, the man's wife is actually the key figure in the story. I am using pseudonyms for the people involved, and I am disguising the names of the companies, their industries, and their geographic locations.

One CEO, whom I will call Howard Thorpe, headed a highly-diversified industrial company headquartered in the southwest. I will call it Amalgamated Machinery Co. The article, which ran as a cover story in Business Week, focused on the company's aggressive acquisition campaign that had been undertaken under Thorpe's management.

Thorpe was a handsome, charismatic man who apparently possessed all the standard WASP-establishment credentials that are commonplace in upper corporate echelons.
But in my interviews with him, he painted a rags-to-riches portrait of his personal background. He told me that he came from an impoverished rural family, that his father deserted his mother and his siblings when he was a child, and that he had spent many years as a boy in an orphan asylum. He was exceedingly proud that he had succeeded despite an underprivileged and dysfunctional early life. At our last interview, Thorpe told me that he was about to be remarried in a Presbyterian church.

I dutifully recorded these facts in my article. At that time, the major newsweekly magazines rarely published writer bylines, reserving them for unique pieces like personal commentaries and book reviews. At Business Week, however, a reader could learn the name of the writer of a particular article by calling the magazine's librarian.

Shortly after the article about Amalgamated Machinery and its CEO appeared, I received a phone call from an irate woman who introduced herself as Thorpe's sister. "You insulted my father!" she shouted angrily at me. "My father never deserted our family, and Howard was never in an orphan asylum."

Defending myself, I said that this was what her brother had told me. "Oh," she responded wearily, "Howard has always had a tendency to dramatize things."

A few days later, I received another phone call about my article. The caller claimed to have known Thorpe for many years. He said the article had omitted some important background material about Amalgamated's CEO. The caller said that he had belonged to a Bnai Brith lodge with him, and that Thorpe had deserted his wife, had had cosmetic surgery on his nose, and had moved to another city after changing his name.

"Did you expect me to use such personal detail in my article?" I asked the caller. "And do you expect Business Week to publish a correction now?" No, the man said, but he explained that his information might call into question the accuracy of other facts in the article. There were no further reader challenges to my article. Shortly after, Thorpe wrote to the magazine's editor-in-chief and to me, complimenting us about the piece we had published about him and his company.

The dimensions of the other CEO's tale differ markedly from the story about Thorpe and Amalgamated Machinery Co. I will call this man Theodore Morrison. His company, which I will identify as the Paragon Corp., was a giant multinational company founded by his grandfather. It was headquartered in a small New England city.

My interest in writing about Paragon and its CEO was prompted by significant technological developments in the company's primary market that were forcing Paragon to make a drastic change in its basic corporate strategy. The company, which had no internal public relations department, rejected my request for interviews.

Paragon's external relations were handled by a prominent New York public relations firm. In previous months, the firm had been trying to interest me in writing an article about another one of its clients which, unlike Paragon, was eager for publicity. But I was unable to find anything significantly newsworthy about it to justify an article at that time.

Perhaps my ethics were questionable, but I told the PR firm's executives that I would seriously reconsider doing a piece about their publicity-eager client if they could arrange for me to interview Morrison about how Paragon was contending with the technological developments that were forcing it to revamp corporate strategy.

A few weeks later I was granted an invitation to visit Paragon's headquarters and meet the company's top brass. An executive from the PR firm, however, would have to accompany me. I had no objection, and for two days I interviewed Morrison and other key executives and toured the company's local production facilities.

Morrison was a shy and amiable man who, despite his huge wealth, lived modestly. The night before we were scheduled to return to New York, he invited me and the PR executive to his home for dinner. His wife was a strikingly beautful woman who had been born and raised in New York City. When we arrived at their home, their two small children were already asleep.

The dinner, which Mrs. Morrison had prepared, was served in the kitchen. Midway through the dinner, Morrison excused himself and left to attend an important local chamber of commerce meeting, leaving me and the PR executive alone with his wife.

Ever since our arrival in their home, Mrs. Morrison had been drinking heavily. Shortly after her husband's departure, she looked at me flirtatiously and began to complain that her husband was "not an affectionate man." She claimed that his father had deserted his mother for a younger woman and that this boyhood experience had affected Morrison's personality.

Moreover, she complained, her husband was away from home "half the time," flying to inspect Paragon's far-flung overseas factories. She was bored, she said, by their social life in their small New England city.

As she continued to pour out her personal grievances, the PR executive grew increasingly uncomfortable. His face turned red, and I could see perspiration forming on his forehead. As Mrs. Morrison was about to serve dessert, he decided that he and I should leave. He told Mrs. Morrison that we had to get a head start driving to the airport for our return to New York. He quickly headed for the door, practically dragging me with him as we said our good-byes.

The article about Morrison and Paragon's new corporate strategy was published a couple of weeks later in Business Week. It contained photos of Morrison taken by a local free-lance photographer I had hired. Shortly after the article appeared, I received a phone call from Mrs. Morrison. She called to complain that the photos of her husband were very uncomplimentary.


Blogger Chancy said...

Mort-- Incredible stories but I do not doubt they actually happened. I suppose the "rags to riches" lies were useful to ""Mr Thorpe" or so he thought in his rise up the corporate ladder.

As for Mrs Morrison, what can I say. You left before you found out what she was "offering" for dessert. :)

Monday, August 14, 2006 4:41:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I just don't understand the kind of people who become CEOs. That driven personality is too alien to me. I meet them from time to time and just wonder how their brains work. Reading interviews about them seldom shed any light on what they're like. Perhaps it is because, as you have illustrated, they don't let folk in and they cover themselves in a tissue of lies so that nobody does figure them out. Who'd want to live like that?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 5:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These stories appear rather incomplete.How well did these corporations do under the guidance of the CEOs.Personal details are fine---CEOs are human.Did the shareholders who invested in these companies profit or was money lost.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger saz said...

Well you never know what you'll find when you scratch the surface. I'm with Chancy - you should have stayed to find out what was for "dessert"!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006 10:39:00 PM  
Blogger Mortart said...

In response to the question posed by the anonymous reader:
I cannot easily assess their managerial performance as it relates to their shareholders' experience. The articles were published some 35 years ago. One of the companies was privately held at the time, I have not kept tab on their profitability and stock prices, and new CEOs have taken over during subsequent years.
But, in regard to the other reader comments, I have always wondered what kind of "dessert" the lady would have served.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 12:22:00 PM  

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