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Walter Industries gets new boss

Joe B. Cordell, an accountant who joined Tampa home builder Jim Walter more than 30 years ago, will retire as president and chief executive officer of Walter Industries Inc., the company announced Monday. Cordell, 63, said he is stepping down because of health reasons. Cordell has had recent operations for cancer.

In his place, Walter Industries, which is struggling to reorganize its debts in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, has lured a top CEO out of retirement.

G. Robert "Bull" Durham, 62, former chairman, president and chief executive officer of Phelps Dodge Corp., a mining company based in Phoenix, Ariz., will take over the position on Monday. Durham, who retired from Phelps two years ago, has been recognized nationally for his corporate skills.

Jim Walter, founder and chairman of the company, was out of the country and could not be reached for comment. In a press statement he said Durham "has a rigorous, team-spirited personality that's ideally suited to our needs. The record shows that he also has a strong work ethic and believes in leading by example."

It's a major corporate change for the company, which grew during Cordell's leadership from a small home building operation into a Fortune 500 giant. The company, strained by the heavy debt incurred during a leveraged buyout, filed for bankruptcy protection in December 1989.

Walter Industries, which changed its name from Hillsborough Holdings Corp. earlier this year, also is in a legal tangle about asbestos-liability issues involving a former subsidiary.

Cordell, a native of Daytona Beach and a graduate of the University of Florida, joined Jim Walter Corp., the predecessor of Walter Industries, in 1958 as vice president and chief financial officer. He later became president and chief operating officer and in 1983 succeeded Jim Walter as chief executive officer.

To help Durham's transition as chief executive, Cordell said he plans to remain with the company for an undetermined amount of time.

Durham is a native of West Frankfort, Ill., a small coal-mining town, and a 1951 graduate of Purdue University. As a youth, he was dubbed Bull after a popular tobacco brand.

He joined Phelps Dodge in 1967 after the company bought an aluminum products manufacturer that he headed.

Phelps Dodge is the nation's largest producer of copper and through its subsidiaries, manufactures truck wheels and rims and is a major producer of carbon black, a substance used in making rubber and ink.

Durham retired from Phelps Dodge in 1975, but returned two years later to rebuild the company's troubled international division. He was elected president and chief operating officer in 1985 and chairman two years later.

When Walter Industries first contacted him about two months ago, Durham said, he initially turned down the offer. But when contacted a second time, he agreed to meet with Walter, Cordell and Henry Kravis, one of the leaders of the company's leveraged buyout.

"It became increasingly interesting to me as to the people, the corporation, the potential," Durham said during a phone interview from his home in Paradise Valley, near Phoenix.

"The company has a fine reputation," he said. "I'm sure it will begin to show as the company reorganizes (in bankruptcy court)."

Most of Walter Industries' $1.3-billion in annual sales comes from home building, with about 25 percent of its sales generated by a coal-mining operation in Alabama. The company also has some aluminum operations. "It's a different ball game," Durham acknowledged.

But one analyst and friend said Durham can handle the challenge. "Bull is a superb strategist and fine administrator," said William G. Siedenburg, vice president for Smith Barney in New York. "His skills are transferable (to another industry) and I suspect he will do that."

Durham, who serves as a director on several boards, said Monday he will leave the board of Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. because of a potential conflict of interest. Manufacturers is a creditor of Walter Industries.