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Powerplay: What Really Happened at Bendix, by Mary Cunningham

Love and Work

Powerplay: What Really Happened at Bendix.
by Mary Cunningham.
With Fran Schumer. Linden/Simon & Schuster. 286 pp. $15.95.

In June 1979, Mary Cunningham, then twenty-seven years old, was graduated with high grades and first-rate recommendations from the Harvard Business School where she had been the beneficiary of the case-study approach to management-by-objectives, strategic planning, and human behavior in organizations. Naturally, she landed several lucrative job offers from prestigious firms. She chose a promising “mentorship” as executive assisant to William Agee, the youngish (in his early forties) chairman of the Bendix Corporation, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate.

Powerplay is her best-selling memoir—an account of her life, her career at Bendix, and her headline-grabbing association with Agee, written in a prose that combines the diction of management with the jargon of the helping professions, especially psychology, social work, and talk-show therapy. At first the style is merely amusing, but as her intense, very personal tale unfolds, the reliance of this high-achieving, “liberated” young woman on so many stillborn phrases takes on an interest, and a pathos, of its own.

Miss Cunningham was raised in a religious family, had a fairly typical small-town (New England) childhood and adolescence, majored in logic and philosophy and was named to Phi Beta Kappa at Wellesley, and, before she entered Harvard in the mid-1970′s, married “Bo” Gray, a black alumnus of the Boston Latin School, Exeter, and Harvard College, and himself a student at the Harvard Business School. They were a thoroughly modern couple, “schooled,” as she writes, “in careerism,” for whom “there was no question that work came first.” Sharing an interest in steep learning curves, inclined to see life as a matrix, they plotted the flow charts of their careers on a business-school model of rationality, confident that they could “handle” or “deal with” whatever challenges came their way.

Thus schooled, Miss Cunningham entered the complex world of big business, there to pursue her interests in divestiture and acquisition planning. Her decision to seek a mentor was probably influenced by the fairy tale promulgated by feminists, and popularized by sages in such institutions as the School of Management at Yale, about how men make their way up the corporate ladder. Bill Agee was right for the role. He too had been raised in a small town (Meridian, Idaho), where he was a popular high-school athlete, a successful student, and a member of every club except Chorus and Future Farmers. He married his high-school sweetheart, and after college (University of Idaho, highest honors), he too prepared himself at the Harvard Business School. He was graduated in 1963, and found a high-level post at Boise Cascade, then a “hot” company, where his “open and innovative” style—highly valued as long as there was a bull market—was soon commended by the business press. After a few years at Boise, mindful of the time-event chart of his career, but probably mindful as well that the feedback loop indicated trouble ahead for Boise’s balance sheets, Agee responded to the drumbeat of a head-hunter and went to Bendix, where he quickly rose to the top, succeeding Michael Blumenthal as chairman when the latter became Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration.

In the mid-1970′s, when Agee arrived at Bendix, the “corporate culture concept,” a desperate but misguided attempt to explain the success of Japanese industry, was high fashion in the business schools. In due course, the New York Times reported that Agee had altered the corporate culture at Bendix. To wit: he eliminated reserved spaces in the parking lot, abolished the executive dining room, and even removed the conference table from the board room, so that directors could sit in a circle, “for better communication.” He also wrote a “self-appraisal checklist” for an in-house managerial training program (inspired by organizational psychology courses at Harvard) and instituted periodic “mind-stretch sessions” for executives. Gloria Steinem was one guest speaker. “Nothing gave [Agee] greater pleasure,” according to Miss Cunningham, “than presenting people with radically new ideas, particularly if he thought they could learn from them or become better people.” During this period Agee’s board was paying him nearly $700,000 a year, plus perquisites.

Amid all the attention to corporate culture and self-actualization in the executive suite, there was old-fashioned, hard-core work to do at Bendix. Earnings forecasts were down for some of the company’s main divisions—automotive filters, spark plugs, brake shoes, forest products—and a strategy for continued growth was needed. During most of 1980, Miss Cunningham became Agee’s “right and left arm” (his words). Together they worked on a long-range strategic plan—in top companies, the cornerstone of the practice of management. In a nutshell, they concentrated on improving the “numbers” for Bendix: divisions at risk would be sold, and “cheap assets” acquired without too much regard for how the new properties related to the company’s history, the skills of its employees, or the good will it had achieved in many years of productivity in discrete fields.

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At this point, Mary Cunningham’s career was thriving. She was promoted within her first year to vice president for corporate and public affairs, and then, when she was only twenty-nine, she was promoted again to one of the two or three most important positions in the organization, vice president for corporate strategy.

Then the trouble came: first, within weeks after her promotion in September 1980, for her own career, as rumors spread throughout the firm that she was sleeping with the boss; next, less than two years later, for Bendix itself, its more than 80,000 employees at home and overseas, and many of its shareholders.

Whatever they were doing with each other, these two utterly contemporary, mainstream Americans, with their “can-do” attitudes and prejudice-free “life-styles” (Miss Cunningham’s husband was black; Agee was an officer of the National Business Council for the Equal Rights Amendment), were soon stumbling helplessly, trapped by the rhetoric that had till then helped fuel their careers. They were not “functioning as man and woman” but as “high-minded professionals,” they told the Bendix board, which seemed more interested in their private lives than their strategic plan, a plan that would ultimately damage them all. They had merely taken “the freedom to be friends,” they told the newspapers. Mary’s rapid rise to the top only proved that Bendix was a “meritocracy,” Agee told the employees, in person at an annual assembly for hundreds of headquarters staff and live-on-video tape to the many thousands in this and thirty-six other countries.

What they did with each other after all those late nights, in adjoining hotel suites, in the corporate limousine and helicopter, on the way to and from great seats at championship tennis matches in Forest Hills, became, not surprisingly, a matter of national interest. They soon found themselves in a zero-sum game, where neither the root-and-branch approach of the incremental school of decision-making nor the valence-expectancy formulations of the motivational schools could help. For they were only human, and notwithstanding the doctrine of self-fulfillment, the theories of rationality, and the social currents that had carried them along, they were finally caught in the bind called civilization—here a large, formal organization—with obligations to others, and within boundaries meant to channel rather than indulge strong emotion.

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In one of his letters to Milena, Franz Kafka, another person with a full-time office job, considers why he cannot lie to the office in order to get away early for a weekend with Milena in Vienna: “In all cases where, among the reasons . . . I would have for lying, happiness, the necessity for happiness, is the main reason, there I cannot lie.” The office, he writes, is a strange, even frightening place (to be sure, this is Kafka); nonetheless he is connected to it, and it is a connection that must be acknowledged and honored.

Alas, all the business-school texts on motivation, on maturation needs and ministration needs, could not enlighten Mary Cunningham and Bill Agee on this simplest of points. Without much ado, the Bendix board forced her to quit (albeit with a sizable severance check), and Mary Cunningham finally had to confront “the inherent problem of being mentored.” An assistant professor of organizational behavior duly intoned in the Wall Street Journal at the time: “A depth of intimacy may have to be sacrificed for the integrity of the business relationship.”

About two years later, Miss Cunningham and Agee were wed, after obtaining annulments of their first marriages. In her case, the Archdiocese “judged that at an impressionable young age I had mistakenly used the institution of marriage to try to help someone.” For she and Bo, she writes, had been “much more focused on the message we were sending to society” than on their feelings for each other. In the meantime, the strategic plan for Bendix, carried out by Agee alone, with Miss Cunningham sometimes at his side as an unofficial consultant, led to an episode of another kind—a dramatic merger battle between Bendix and Martin Marietta, reported by the media with the same lip-smacking pleasure so evident earlier in the coverage of their alleged personal merger.

In her account of this unseemly spectacle, Miss Cunningham characteristically denatures the details. In brief, with their boards of directors sitting blithely by, a collection of corporate kingpins trailed by high-priced lawyers and investment bankers went at each other in an orgy of opportunism and greed. In a series of tender offers, Bendix sought to acquire Martin Marietta, which responded in kind, followed by a threat from a third company to the other two, ending in Agee’s selling off his entire enterprise and bailing himself out with a golden parachute (awarded by his board) worth nearly $5 million.

Mary Cunningham’s ambition for herself was boundless; she and Agee were buccaneers of self-fulfillment. By the time her book ends, one large company and two marriages have been pillaged in the name of “new rules” and “individual self-worth.” Powerplay, self-serving, sometimes misleading, is nonetheless a useful book, illustraing some of the consequences for individual lives and for the well-being of our institutions when traditional notions of personal responsibility and the responsibilities of business leadership are overtaken by ideas now rampant in our culture.

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About the Author




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