Dunlap portrayed himself as a foe of corporate waste and a servant of the shareholders who benefited from his actions. But he became famous for ruthlessly cutting payroll and factories at businesses he ran, and ran afoul of securities regulators and stockholders at his final company, Sunbeam.
Albert J. Dunlap, a tough-talking executive whose ardor for turning around troubled companies by laying off workers and closing factories earned him the nickname Chainsaw Al, but whose career ended in an accounting scandal, died Jan. 25 at his home in Ocala, Florida. He was 81.
The cause was prostate cancer, said Eric Carr, a friend and executive with the fundraising arm of Florida State University athletics, to which Dunlap pledged more than $40 million.
Dunlap portrayed himself as a foe of corporate waste and a servant of the shareholders who benefited from his actions. In the 1990s, when he ran Scott Paper, he laid off 11,200 workers; it was just one of the measures he took that brought him financial rewards of $100 million in salary, stock profits and other compensation after engineering the company’s sale to Kimberly-Clark in 1995.
“Sure, people had to get fired, but as time goes by that company will grow and prosper and new jobs will be created,” he told The South Florida Sun-Sentinel soon after.
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Dunlap was soon hired by Sunbeam Corp., an appliance maker, and within a month anticipation on Wall Street about Dunlap’s plans to overhaul the company sent its shares soaring by 73 percent. He did not disappoint the traders: He promptly announced that he would halve Sunbeam’s work force of 12,000 people; close or sell most of its plants and other facilities; and pare its number of product lines.
“I’ve done this enough times to recognize the death gurgle of a corporation,” he told the reporter Hedrick Smith for “Surviving the Bottom Line,” a PBS documentary series. “And this corporation had the death gurgle.”
Unlike other corporate executives who laid off even more employees, the preternaturally confident Dunlap unapologetically boasted that the brutal efficiency of his methods was critical to saving the jobs that were not axed. In 1996, for example, he stepped forward when dozens of other executives refused to speak to Newsweek for a cover article, titled “Corporate Killers,” about downsizing.
“We’re painted as villains but we’re not,” Dunlap said. “We’re more like doctors. We know it’s painful to operate, but it’s the only way to keep the patient from dying.”
He said he was an advocate of corporate governance reforms, like paying directors in stock instead of cash, to better align their interests with those of shareholders, and limiting directors to single five-year terms.
Dunlap played to the image of a bull in a corporate china shop, accepting nicknames like “Rambo in Pinstripes” and “The Shredder.” He preached his motto — “You’re not in business to be liked. If you want a friend, get a dog” — and wrote an autobiography with the title “Mean Business: How I Saved Bad Companies and Make Good Companies Great” (1996, with Bob Andelman).
“The Al Dunlaps of the world would not be hired if corporate people did their jobs,” he wrote. “But because some executives can’t make decisions or consistently make the wrong decisions, their incompetence virtually screams out for an Al Dunlap.”
His critics included Robert Reich, the secretary of labor in 1996, when Dunlap announced that he was laying off half of Sunbeam’s workers.
“There is no excuse for treating employees as if they are disposable pieces of equipment,” Reich said in an interview with The New York Times that year.
Albert John Dunlap was born on July 26, 1937, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Differing family accounts say his father was either a dockworker or a boilermaker and his mother either a store clerk or a homemaker. Albert played football in high school in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, and boxed as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy.
After graduation, he trained as a paratrooper at Fort Benning, Georgia, then served as an officer at a nuclear missile facility in Maryland.
He began his business career in Kimberly Clark’s management training program, working on “the third shift at a dirty, smelly paper mill,” he wrote in his book. After four years there, rising to project leader, he was hired by Sterling Pulp & Paper as general superintendent and started turning its faltering operations around.
A decade later he joined American Can in its strategic planning group, then moved to jobs at Lily-Tulip Cup, a large paper cup manufacturer; Crown Zellerbach, a timber and pulp corporation; and Consolidated Press Holdings, a media and publishing company in Australia.
He was named chairman and chief executive of Scott in 1994, taking on a company burdened by high debt and depressed earnings. Within two years he had arranged its sale to Kimberly-Clark for $6.8 billion and left to take over Sunbeam.
But in June 1998, Dunlap’s corporate career came to a quick end.
Sunbeam’s board fired him in the wake of several quarterly earnings disappointments and regulatory filings that showed that Sunbeam had essentially applied 1998 payments — from retailers buying barbecue grills — to the previous year’s books, creating a false picture of a surge in 1997 sales.
Shareholders soon filed suit against Dunlap and the company. With a crushing debt load, Sunbeam filed for bankruptcy in 2001.
The news continued to get worse for Dunlap, even in the years after he left Sunbeam.
In 2002, he and other Sunbeam executives paid $15 million to settle a shareholder lawsuit that accused them of using inflated stock prices to complete the company’s purchases of Coleman, a manufacturer of camping and leisure products, and First Alert, a maker of smoke alarms.
Later that year, Dunlap settled a civil suit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission that accused him of several counts of accounting fraud that misrepresented Sunbeam’s financial results. He paid a $500,000 fine and agreed to be barred from ever again serving as an officer or director of a company. He neither admitted nor denied the allegations.
In a second edition of his autobiography, published in 2014, Dunlap deleted nearly everything he had written about Sunbeam.
Survivors include his wife, Judy Stringer, but complete information about survivors was not immediately available.
In recent years Dunlap was a prominent supporter of Florida State, where he gave $5 million to build a Student Success Center on its Tallahassee campus, and announced a gift of $20 million last October to help build a football facility, which bears his name. A statue of Dunlap stands outside it.
For all his generosity to Florida State, however, Dunlap’s reputation rests more on his being an unbridled cost-cutter whose actions enriched shareholders and himself.
“I’m a superstar in my field, much like Michael Jordan in basketball and Bruce Springsteen in rock ‘n’ roll,” he wrote in his autobiography. “My pay should be compared to superstars in other fields, not to the average CEO.”
“Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, 1937-2019
Birthplace: Hoboken, New Jersey
Education: U.S. Military Academy
Career: Began as a management trainee in a Kimberly Clark paper mill. Later became CEO of Scott Paper, and then Sunbeam.