James L. Dutt, the controversial, autocratic chairman of Beatrice Cos., was ousted over the weekend by the board of the Chicago-based food and consumer-products company, capping a steady exodus of executives either fed up with, or fired by, Dutt.
Dutt was replaced as chairman by William W. Granger Jr., 66, a retired vice chairman of the company. The board also named former Beatrice chairman William G. Karnes, 74, as a director and chairman of the company's executive committee. Karnes is no stranger to corporate rescue missions: Three years ago, he was named to a similar position at International Harvester Co. when that company ousted its chairman, Archie McCardell.
Dutt, who was not available for comment, will become a consultant to the company. Over the past several years, he has directed an aggressive acquisition and diversification strategy aimed at overhauling the widely diversified company, whose products include Tropicana orange juice, Eckrich and Swift meats, La Choy and Hunt-Wesson foods, and Playtex and Danskin clothing. Dutt has indicated he wanted Beatrice to be the nation's preeminent maker of packaged goods.
Beatrice officials were tight-lipped yesterday about the board room coup, which took place at a special directors meeting on Saturday, except to express their enthusiasm and support for Granger and Karnes. Their words of praise for the new executives seemed to reflect some of the reported turmoil at the top of the company in recent months.
David E. Lipson, an executive vice president and board member said of Granger, "Bill is a guy who is considered to be a people guy . . . . The reaction to this this morning here in the corporate office . . . was very, very positive; very, very enthusiastic."
Another executive vice president and director, Richard J. Piggott, said, "We set our alarm clocks an hour early here to get here and get at it."
Wall Street analysts, however, suggested that Beatrice's board had become tired of the recent steady stream of criticism directed at the company, questioning its strategy and Dutt's leadership. Dutt's ouster seemed to be greeted warmly on Wall Street: The company's stock, which had been stagnant for months, shot up $2 to $32.25 in extremely active trading yesterday.
"I think it was bound to happen. It was a question of when. I don't think anybody expected it this soon," said William Maguire, an analyst at Merrill Lynch. "Fundamentally, the guy wasn't running the ship right. People were quitting under him."
More than three dozen of Beatrice's 60 top officers have left the company since Dutt became chairman in 1980 and, lately, the departures have come fast and furious. Last month, Dutt suddenly fired William E. Reidy, a senior vice president in charge of corporate strategy; a few weeks ago, Nolan D. Archibald, a senior vice president who headed Beatrice's consumer-durables group, quit to become president of Black & Decker Co.
In addition, the top managers of two principal divisions at Esmark Inc., the conglomerate Beatrice acquired for $2.7 billion last year, departed shortly after the merger was completed -- one fired by Dutt, the other quitting on two weeks' notice.
Dutt was reported to have ruled the company with an iron hand, brooking no disagreement from subordinates. In one unusual incident earlier this year, at a meeting of food-industry analysts, Dutt answered a question about how he would respond to an unsatisfactory performance by the company by threatening to fire the three high-level Beatrice executives who were sitting on the podium behind him.
Dutt's performance as head of Beatrice also caused whispers in the usually close-knit Chicago business community, with chief executives of other large firms in the area suggesting privately that Dutt was on some sort of ego or power trip. Particularly perplexing to these and other observers and analysts was a corporate advertising campaign, under the slogan, "We're Beatrice," that was designed to unite the company's many disparate products under a single logo and image. Analysts suggested that the company was getting little benefit from the costly advertising program, which they said seemed more to glorify Dutt and the company. Beatrice's corporate magazine and other publications also began to dwell increasingly on the exploits of the chairman, insiders complained.
Another controversial venture was Beatrice's corporate sponsorship of the Mario Andretti auto-racing team, at a reported cost of as much of $70 million -- even though Beatrice has no auto-related products and, indeed, sells very few products to men, the principal audience for car-racing. Dutt defended the racing team as a way of promoting the Beatrice name and entertaining large customers and suppliers.
How many of these factors played a part in Dutt's ouster was not clear yesterday, as Beatrice officials and directors declined to comment on why Dutt had been forced out. "I'd rather not dwell on the past," Piggott said.
"I hear 5,000 different versions. Everybody has their own view," said Donald Kelly, who was chairman of Esmark when it was taken over by Beatrice and who is a prominent member of the Chicago business community. "It has to be a culmination of some disagreement between some pretty powerful forces in the company . . . . Everybody has their own style and maybe, in this instance, with the convergence of events, the management style didn't fit the needs of the moment."
Piggott and Lipson said the new management team would continue the strategies begun by Dutt of attempting to expand Beatrice's mostly regional food brands into national products. "We have a new guy behind the wheel with his foot on the gas, but it's the same car," Lipson said. Piggott said, "We know we have something so good here that we don't want to miss realizing its full potential . . . . We know we have at the helm a man, Bill Granger , who will take us to our goals."
And Beatrice officials denied that the new management team was in place on an interim basis, despite Granger and Karnes' ages. "Bill's election as chairman and chief executive is not interim, is not temporary," Lipson said.
But analysts were not convinced. "Karnes and Granger are not the answers," said Maguire, who suggested that Beatrice might now be a takeover candidate. "A number of companies may want to buy this one up," he said. "It's rudderless."