Chainsaw by John A. Byrne HarperBusiness, 1999, 400 pages, $26
For many, "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, former CEO of Scott Paper and Sunbeam, epitomizes the short-sighted greediness that touted reckless downsizing as a long-term strategy for profitability and growth. By now, it's clear that the profits from indiscriminate cost-cutting tactics are short-term at best, and that destroying a company's human capital is hardly a prescription for long-term financial health. Eventually Wall Street, which had egged Dunlap on, would recognize the house of cards he and chief financial officer Russell A. Kersh were building; soon thereafter, Dunlap's friends on the Sunbeam board, seeing the value of their shareholdings plummet, revolted. Their decision to fire Dunlap in June 1998 was cheered across the nation.
Byrne's well-researched book reveals Dunlap as a poor manager who made arbitrary, destructive decisions, used smoke-and-mirrors accounting to create the impression of a turnaround, and dismissed the concerns of anyone who disagreed with him.
Professional and Personal Cruelty
Chainsaw also sketches an unseemly human being, as insensitive, arbitrary, and uncontrolled in his personal life as he is in his professional one. Byrne, for example, details the excessive psychological and physical cruelty with which Dunlap treated his first wife and their son, Troy. Dunlap would fly off in a rage if he discovered on his arrival from work that the one-year-old Troy had left fingerprints on the furniture (Dunlap wanted the boy kept locked in his room during the day). Dunlap would also give his wife $15 a week for grocery money and then become violent because she couldn't buy more food.
Dunlap is not the only villain in the story, of course. In addition to his lieutenant, Russell Kersh, Coopers & Lybrand senior partner C. Donald Burnett is also portrayed as one of Dunlap's most loyal mercenaries. The consulting firm in general does not come off well in these pages, as a number of their consultants seemed to fit their recommendations to whatever Dunlap had already decided.
Journalist Byrne, a frequent critic of Dunlap in the pages of Business Week, has written an important cautionary tale for all those who want to know the difference between arbitrary, destructive pseudo-leadership and the real thing.