Chainsaws vs. Growers (and the Story of a Business World Psychopath)

Let me introduce you to Mr. Al Dunlap.

“Hi. I’m Al Dunlap.”

I typically have respect for the whole, “Don’t speak ill of the dead” thing, but Dunlap’s been gone since early 2019, so I think we’re good in giving a critical review of a man who once tried to stop a company from using its plane to transport terminally ill children to the destinations of their final wishes.

Of course, I am hardly alone in disparaging the name “Al Dunlap.” He was the dream-crusher for hundreds of thousands of people during his time as a corporate executive during the mergers-and-acquisitions era in the 1980s and ’90s.

Oh, he had a good run, did Mr. Dunlap. A hired-gun executive, he sat on the throne of nearly a dozen companies and spread misery for the employee base wherever he went. He was known as “Chainsaw Al,” a moniker he marinated himself in. “Rambo in Pinstripes” was another one he particularly loved. During his active years — and here I am purposefully using a phrase typically reserved for serial killers because there is psychopathy in both — Dunlap fired tens of thousand people at businesses ranging from a disposal-cup company, a plastic ketchup bottle manufacturer and a toilet-paper giant. Before we googled things and snapped people, Dunlap’s name was a verb. “To dunlap” a company was to turn it from a wounded dog into an overnight success.

Of course, Dunlap never actually grew anything. He just lowered expenses by cutting equipment maintenance, eliminating research and development, and trimming payroll by firing people, executives and factory workers alike. Oh, and he allegedly cooked the books. After he was ousted in 1998 from his final stop in the corporate world — Sunbeam — for suspected shady accounting, news reports detailed a pattern of fraud all along his hideous career.

Not surprisingly, his people skills were, to put it mildly, lacking. He once threw a chair at Sunbeam’s HR chief. When a financial analyst confronted him with evidence of his shady financial practices at an investor’s meeting, Dunlap reportedly grabbed the man by the shoulder and said:

“You son of a bitch. If you want to come after me, I’ll come after you twice as hard.”

Oh, and then there’s his divorce filings, one of which detailed how he threatened his first wife with guns (yes, plural) and a Bowie knife (singular).

Journalist John A. Bryne authored the definitive work on Chainsaw Al’s legacy — the 1999 biography, “Chainsaw.” Said Bryne:

“In all my years of reporting, I had never come across an executive as manipulative, ruthless and destructive as Al Dunlap. He sucked the very life and soul out of companies and people. He stole dignity, purpose and sense out of organizations and replaced those ideals with fear and intimidation.”

Among Dunlap’s journalistic accolades:

  • Time magazine list of “Top 10 Worst Bosses”
  • A Fast Company story headlined “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?”
  • GQ feature — “Your Boss Actually Is a Psycho”

In his own eyes, Dunlap was an American success story, a self-made man, a “nothing kid from the slums of Hoboken, N.J.”

Of course, his sister, Denise, detailed a very different upbringing for Businessweek, saying that she and her brother had a “very comfortable childhood.” He said his mother was a dime-store clerk and his father was a dockworker; his sister said their mother was a homemaker and their father was a successful boilermaker for United Engineers.

Not exactly tomato-tomahto.

When Dunlap’s house of cards finally fell and he was sacked at Sunbeam, his own son said: “I laughed like hell. I’m glad he fell on his ass.” And his sister added: “He got exactly what he deserved.”

The entirety of Chainsaw Al’s career — and, if you’re not feeling particularly generous, the entirety of the man’s life — can be summed up by saying he was a fraud who gained an undeserved reputation for turning companies around and built that undeserved reputation on voodoo accounting and other people’s misery, whether they were his workers or his wives.

That, ladies and gentleman, is Al Dunlap.

Profit Isn’t Hard to Find … Today

Now let me say this straight out: No one I know was ever negatively affected by Rambo’s chainsaw. I’ve got no personal dog in this fight. I just happen to think very little of executives who manage by cutting, cutting, cutting, and Dunlap happens to be their messiah.

It doesn’t take a genius to make a floundering company profitable. Anyone with a few business courses under their belt can do it … for awhile. All you really have to do is identify the divisions (Which, of course, are made up of people) that have the least impact on bringing money in and who have the biggest impact on sending money out — and fire them. Yes, I recognize that’s a bit simplistic, but you get where I’m going.

Bingo! All of a sudden your dead-in-the-water company is bubbling up with new life! You are Wall Street’s darling (or the board’s or the media’s)! Within a few quarters you have taken the business from red to black, and that green is rolling in. The stock price soars! Good times are here again!

The problem is that you can’t cut forever. And if all you’re doing is cutting and squeezing the budget so tight that the remaining departments or divisions start to lose their competitive edge as frustrated top talent departs to work for real leaders who aren’t so naive, you’re not addressing the problems that led you to have to cut in the first place.

I’ll say it again: Any idiot can cut to make a company profitable in the short-term. I’ve seen it done in multiple industries and been party to it with newspapers. You don’t have to be as extreme as Dunlap to find a short-term profit. But if all you’re doing is focusing on the expense side of the ledger, you’re not a leader. An angry high school student can do that.

A Grower vs. A Chainsaw

A Grower (we also call these folks “leaders”) are able to help a business expand and do so for the long term. In other words, they can create something that lasts and isn’t just smoke and mirrors.

So many Chainsaws couldn’t grow a weed in the jungle. They lack two key fundamental, innate abilities that Growers have.

  1. The ability to cast a vision that inspires others to do difficult things for the good of the business.
  2. The ability to get a company to a new place before the competition, to tap in not just to unmet demand but to find places where consumers don’t even know they have demand to be met.

Chainsaws can do neither of these things, if for no other reason than because their people resent them — as they should. It is justifiable to resent managers who fail to be leaders and have no vision, yet try to become rock stars off your colleagues’ misery. I can tell you from experience that exactly no one’s work is better after their co-workers are sent packing so a manager can have a nice fat bonus. (Dunlap once received a $100 million payout after cutting 11,000 workers and said “I deserve every penny of it.”)

Because of their slash-and-burn tactics, Chainsaws have no ability to stand up in front of a team and inspire them to do anything, so even if an idea to find unrecognized demand smacks them in the face, their companies are not going to be the first to meet it. Dunlap’s companies never were.

When Chainsaws try to inspire their people, employees stand around dutifully until the ceremonial showcase of “leadership” is over … and then they return to their workspaces and quietly mock the attempt.

This is not a suggestion that Growers must be universally liked or and never have to cut or trim. No one is universally liked, and sometimes cuts do have to be made.

What I am suggesting is that the ax is the last tool pulled out of a Grower’s toolbox because he or she understands the importance of people to the future of the business. A Chainsaw looks in the toolbox and finds he has but one tool, his namesake.

Listen, I get it. Companies die. Entire industries die. Mass firings happen. The business world is ever-changing, and all it takes sometimes is one bad decision to end a fantastic run of success.

But if you fancy yourself a leader or love the title “executive” and find the only way you can think of to make a company profitable is to chop off major pieces without having a vision and a plan to make something grow somewhere else, you’re nothing more than a hack playing the role of leader.

Managers cut. Leaders grow.

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