Remembering 'Chainsaw' Al Dunlap, ruthless corporate cost cutter and big-time FSU donor

The former CEO of Scott Paper and Florida-based Sunbeam died Friday. An accounting scandal ended his tenure as one of the nation's best known executives.
Published Jan. 29, 2019

Swagger, arrogance, ego, "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap had them all.

The corporate raider — turnaround specialist, if you prefer — boasted about laying off workers. He blasted his corporate brethren's incompetence for necessitating his slash and burn tactics. He'd name names.

Hot tempered, he was known to yell at subordinates.

"If you want to be liked, get a dog," he was fond of saying.

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Dunlap's death at age 81 on Friday at his home in Ocala conjured memories from the 1990s, when he was one of the most recognized corporate executives in the country, before a scandal sent him into relative obscurity.

Dunlap grew up in hardscrabble Hoboken, N.J., his father a union steward, his mother an employee of a five and dime. A West Point graduate, Dunlap served in the Army before starting his business career. He had already helmed paper cup maker Lily-Tulip and timber company Crown Zellerbach Corp., when he became CEO of Scott Paper in 1994.

It was there that he cemented his reputation as a ruthless cost cutter. He slashed a third of the payroll, about 11,000 jobs, including half the managers. Soon after, Dunlap helped sell the leaner, money making company to Kimberly-Clark for $9.4 billion. Dunlap pocketed $100 million. Not bad for 20 months work.

The outcome made Dunlap a villain to workers, a hero to shareholders and a fascination of the business media. In his 1996 memoir Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good Companies Great, Dunlap summed up his role in the corporate ecosystem:

"The Al Dunlaps of the world would not be hired if corporate people did their jobs. But because some executives can't make decisions or consistently make the wrong decisions, their incompetence virtually screams out for an Al Dunlap."

That same year, Dunlap joined Boca Raton-based Sunbeam, founded in 1897 and well-known for making appliances including the Mixmaster and Grillmaster. When he arrived, Sunbeam was "an absolute basket case," he said later.

Dunlap, also known as Rambo in Pinstripes, announced plans to cut the company's workforce from 12,000 to a little more than 6,000. Soon after, he reported a spike in Sunbeam's sales and profits. The stock price soared.

But the surge was a mirage, built on accounting voodoo. As pressure built, Businessweek reported that Dunlap accosted a critic at what turned out to be his last investors meeting before he was fired.

"You son of a b----," Dunlap yelled. "If you want to come after me, I'll come after you twice as hard."

The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Dunlap and members of his team with concocting ways to cover up the company's financial woes.

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Dunlap was allowed to settle the civil charges without admitting or denying that he had masterminded the accounting fraud. He paid a $500,000 penalty and agreed to never again serve as an official of a public company, an embarrassing demise for a man who had equated himself with GE's legendary CEO Jack Welch.

He also ponied up $15 million of his own money to settle a class-action suit brought by Sunbeam shareholders.

"I was with like 11 major corporations, so some of them are not going to turn out the way you wanted," Dunlap told Florida Trend magazine in 2008. "Sunbeam was less enjoyable. Sunbeam, I don't talk too much about it."

Dunlap and his wife, Judy, settled to a large property in Ocala and began giving away their money, including more than $40 million to the Seminole Boosters at Florida State University.

In the same Florida Trend interview Dunlap said: "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."

It was vintage Dunlap — straightforward, self-assured, and unsettling.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this column. Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.

Albert J. Dunlap

Born: July 26, 1937

Died: Jan. 25, 2019

Survivors: wife, Judy; no children.