April 21, 2021


Icon: Albert Dunlap

Corporate downsizer and turnaround specialist, 70

Art Levy | 6/1/2008
We lived in south Florida, which we liked, but what happened is it got a bit built up. We wanted some land. Well, you know, they sell it by the inch in Boca. So we looked at Ocala and found a place we really liked and bought it. You can have privacy here, yet we’re eight minutes from a Wal-Mart. It’s the best of both worlds.

"It’s not pleasant to lay people off. It’s not pleasant to shut down factories," says Al Dunlap. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
I’m a dog person. No horses. I’m kind of an inner-city kid. To me, horses look like dinosaurs.

I was born in New Jersey. My dad worked in the shipyards. Remember that movie On the Waterfront? Well, that’s where my dad worked. Todd Shipyards in Hoboken. My mother worked in a five-and-dime.

After I kind of retired, I did this speaking tour with Mikhail Gorbachev and Norman Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf, he was tough as hell, a big bear of a man. And Gorby was very bright, charismatic and could be charming, but you knew you were dealing with somebody who wasn’t exactly Mother Teresa.

My mother was a very strong person. She would always tell me: ‘You’re a smart boy. You’re a good athlete. You’ve got to make something of yourself.’ Whatever job I did, she instilled in me to do that job to the best of my ability.

I saw people who I thought were smarter than me who didn’t do too good because they didn’t have that fire in the belly.

When I speak at universities, the kids want to know how to be successful. Marry a rich woman. That works real good. Be born rich. That works terrific. Or go out and work for it.

There’s a price for success, an enormous price. Leadership is very difficult. When you lead, you will be severely and unmercifully criticized. That’s why most people don’t want to lead.

Opportunity still exists in business, but it has become so technical. I’m essentially an industrialist. I worked in factories, and I learned about products, like toilet tissue and cups, products you could understand. Now you have all this high-tech stuff that nobody can pronounce, and it does something that nobody knows what it is.

My wife says that living with me is like being on a roller coaster, but it’s a lot more fun than being on a merry-go-round.

I’m content. There’s this country western song — everybody thinks I’m crazy when I say I like country western music — and it’s about this guy living on the street and another guy comes along and gives him a little handout and the homeless guy says to him, ‘You know, I’ve had my moments.’ I’m not exactly living on the street, but I’ve had my moments. The theme is life changes.

We lost one of our dogs just this last year. ... It came time to put the dog down. My wife was crying. I said I’ll go in and lay on the floor with the dog when he gets the needle. There’s a foreign student there. I don’t know what his origin is, and I start crying, and I told him I used to be a paratrooper and I’m sorry I’m crying, and he says to me, ‘It’s all right to cry, Al. I cried when I lost my dog.’ Then he told me he’s in Israeli special forces, and he’s over here going to vet school.

I was at a party in England and John Aspinall (a British acquaintance) says to my wife, ‘Where’s Chainsaw?’ And my wife says, ‘Who’s Chainsaw?’ And he says, ‘Your husband. He’s like a chainsaw. He cuts the fat away from companies and leaves a great sculpture.’ It was a wonderful compliment from a friend. I come back to the U.S., the media picks it up, and I’m ‘Chainsaw Al,’ the crazed killer. ‘Chainsaw’ was always a nuisance to me because it was taken out of context.

Without a sense of humor, you’re done.

I was with like 11 major corporations, so some of them are not going to turn out the way you wanted. Sunbeam was less enjoyable. Sunbeam, I don’t talk too much about it.

My father was a staunch union person. I’m cutting back all these people, and he says, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And I said, ‘Dad, if I don’t do this, they’ll all lose their jobs.’ He reflected for a moment, and he said, ‘OK, that makes sense.’

It’s not pleasant to lay people off. It’s not pleasant to shut down factories. There’s no joy in that, particularly if you come from a working-class background. At times, my father was out of work, not because he didn’t want to work, but because he got laid off. It was so hard on us. I’ve seen my mother cry.

I have this theory — a predator has to get its own dinner. It can’t order room service. And I’ve always felt in life that the people I really respected went and got their own dinner. That’s why I like predators.

My dad was a good man. My mom was a good woman. But the first mentor I had outside of my family was my football coach in high school. He was tough. He said if you play the game, you’re going to get knocked on your butt, but get up. He didn’t accept any excuses. Just get up.

I got to know T.K. Wetherell, Florida State’s president. Real nice. And then I got to know Bobby Bowden. I played golf with Bobby and developed a relationship. I respected them. They respected me.

FSU needs a student success center so the kids have somewhere to interview for jobs. They approached me and said they wanted to do this. It’s very exiting to see it happening. I truly believe these kids are going to get a lot out of it.

I would just go in, very strong-willed, and say we have to do this, this and this. The early part of my career, I didn’t know I was doing turnarounds. It was just go in and do a job. What the heck is a turnaround? But then that’s what I became known as, the leading turn-around person in America.

I would stay until the job was done, and about that time somebody would call me about doing something else.

I’ll ask somebody, “How old do you think I am?” and they’ll say “70” and I’ll be crushed. I think of myself as 50.

A heart doctor goes in and operates on your heart, but you don’t want this guy cutting your heart open. But then he says, “OK, fine. If I don’t do this, you will die.” There’s an analogy between that and business. Nobody wants to go through a turn-around. Nobody wants a heart operation. In either case, if the person doing it has the skill, the patient lives.

Myself, Jack Welch, people like that, don’t really exist now. People want to be liked. I always said, in business, strive for respect. If you want to be liked, get a dog.

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