Monday, January 17, 2011

ITT: Present at the Creation

ITT Corp. is making its final endgame move in dismantling the historic behemoth that Harold Geneen built in the 1960s and '70s. It will separate its remaining major businesses into three specialized companies serving the industrial products, water treatment, and military equipment industries.

Renowned investment advisor Felix Rohatyn was present at the creation of the corporate empire that Hal Geneen built upon his joining ITT in 1959. He was a close counselor to Geneen and banker on the multitudinous deals that were to come. In fact, Rohatyn brought to Geneen the very first deal that started it all — a small company in California called Jennings Radio Manufacturing, which made vacuum switches and other products for the telecom industry.

Rohatyn recounts that first step in the launch of the ITT conglomerate in his memoir Dealings: A Political and Financial Life [Simon & Schuster, 2010]. It was a deal that came with a certain amount of boardroom drama and had crucial implications for the future of the company, as Rohatyn describes:

Here was an acquisition, I suggested, that made sense for ITT. Not only did it fit into Geneen's plan to build an economic core of American technological concerns, but Jennings was also a company with potential: its engineers were exploring new and profitable areas.

Geneen was intrigued. He ordered his staff to run the numbers and to investigate the science. Very quickly, they agreed: purchasing Jennings Radio made sense. It was a deal with a promising upside. And the $20 million price — a pittance for ITT— was reasonable.

It would be Geneen's first acquisition as CEO, and the first deal we had made together. But my excitement was abruptly dashed. When Hal proposed the purchase to his board of directors, he reported to me with a feisty bewilderment, they were reluctant. The board did not want ITT to make the deal.

Geneen realized at once that more was at stake than simply the acquisition of a small San Jose technology concern. The board was attempting to undermine his control — and all his large plans for the future growth of ITT. With a calm resolve, he gave the board members an ultimatum: either the deal is made, or I will resign.

The board capitulated. With the acquisition of Jennings Radio, the principle was established in the company that what Harold Geneen wanted, he would get. Hal was soon off and running on one of the largest acquisition sprees in American corporate history. And I was running with him.

Now that the Geneen empire is drawing its final curtain, how interesting to see how that first act set the stage for what was to come.