THEY WERE "kindred spirits," and as she would later tell The Detroit Free Press, theirs was a "meeting of the minds." To him, she was very unusual, very talented, a very close friend. When they met 15 months ago, it was the kind of corporate coup de foudre that is probably unprecedented in the annals of American boardrooms. He became her mentor, and she went from being his executive assistant to vice president for corporate acquisitions in one short year.
The stars of our story are none other than William M. Agee, chairman of the Bendix Corporation, one of the nation's largest independent auto suppliers, and the country's 88th largest corporation, and Mary E. Cunningham, who last week was promoted from vice president for public affairs to the vastly more important job of vice president for strategic planning, in charge of guiding Bendix's acquisition of high-technology companies. She, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a role model for aspiring businesswomen if there ever was one, is 29. He, once a wunderkind of American industry himself, is now 42. He, father of three, is recently divorced. She recently but "permanently separated" from her spouse, according to a Bendix spokesman.
There has been talk.
There has been enough talk, in fact, that Agee did a rather extraordinary thing last week. He called a staff meeting of 600 Bendix employes at the corporate headquarters in the Detroit suburb of Southfield to discuss current corporate activities. According to Bendix spokesman David Taylor, Agee has these meetings periodically. This time he discussed the sale of the forest products division and decentralization of the management structure, and he discussed the new vice president for acquisitions, Mary E. Cunningham. In about one minute of the hour-long session, said Taylor, Agee "discussed Miss Cunningham's status and indicated that in her case, as in all cases in which he had been involved, promotions are based on performance."
Reporters were present at the meeting. According to the account in the Detroit Free Press, Agee said of his protege: "I know there have been a lot of questions. For once and for all, I want to slow down the rumor mill. Her rapid promotions are totally justified. It is true that we are very close friends, and she's a very close friend of my family. But that has nothing to do with the way that I and others in this company evaluate performance."
Both Agee and Cunningham promised to make a joint "major announcement" as well as separate announcements about their relationship last Friday. But stage one of the announcement process caused such a flurry in the business press -- "interest broadened to a national level," is the way Taylor put it -- that Agee and Cunningham decided to clam up. "Both have said nothing more will be said on the subject at least in the current environment," said Taylor on Friday.
He said Agee "would not put himself in a position of denying or confirming press reports," about a romantic relationship with Cunningham. "It is one of those media traps that we are all too familiar with by now." So, you might well ask, why bring it up? "The reason Mr. Agee felt the need to address this speculation is because he felt Miss Cunningham was being unnecessarily burdened by this speculation. As a mentor, he was confronted with the dilemma of whether to yield to the pressure of that speculation or to continue to provide her his support. He chose the latter course and explained that very frankly to employes at that meeting."
Just how frank Agee was is a question. Asked why Agee did not make it absolutely clear that there was no affair, no romantic relationship, issuing a denial that could have gone much further in removing the burden of speculation, Taylor paused and then said, "I appreciate your advice."
Agee and Cunningham see the controversy as sexist. "There's no question that if a man were in my position," the controversy would not have come about, she told The Wall Street Journal. She feels she is a victim "of the stage society is in right now," and perhaps she is right. But the fact of the matter is that women are going to be accused of sleeping their way to the top as long as they can look back and see people behind them. There is going to be gossip and it is going to be vicious and, until mentor relationships become much more common, the men and women involved are going to have to be excessively careful not to create questionable appearances. Are out-of-town business trips by a male mentor with his protege worth the gossip and the price for their careers? It may be, too, that men and women involved in these corporate relationships will lose some privacy, particularly at the level of Cunningham and Agee where they are running a multibillion-dollar corporation with stockholders and some 80,000 employes. In the full spirit of the new sexual openness, this might well have been the time for Agee to categorically deny a romantic relationship, instead of dropping titillating hints about future announcements.
But what if the mentor can't make that denial? What happens if the mentor relationship changes and the two kindred spirits fall in love? What happens if the woman reports directly to a man with whom she is sleeping? Should he still promote her, or does she forgo raises and career opportunities? Think of the impact on office morale, on the other people on the same rung as the woman who is reporting to that supervisor. The people working for her feel they have no appellate court from her decisions. It creates the appearance that no matter how talented she is, the track she is on is a little faster because of her favored relationship.
The Bendix controversy developed last Wednesday and has been in the business press ever since, a case study in how not to get out of a situation when the human factor sets in. There's been a flurry of press statements, each concluding with the vow that the matter is closed, the story is over, only to find it reopened again. By Sunday night, Cunningham was blaming the media for "placing her in an impossible position." She requested an immediate, temporary leave of absence, explaining that she wasn't resigning because that would tend to confirm the media's "base and erroneous assumptions."
"I have a responsibility not to create a dangerous precedent for every other woman who has and will accept the unusual challenges of breaking new ground and setting new records in a predominantly male business environment," she wrote. By Monday night, Bendix's board of directors' personnel committee had refused to accept her request and urged her to stay with the company. That committee's press statement concluded that "the committee has complete confidence in Miss Cunningham and that it would be unjust for the corporation to respond to speculation in the media by accepting her request."
Whatever the next chapter in the Bendix drama is, the principal players are missing a point. The media didn't create the controversy. It was already at Bendix before the media heard about it. It wasn't the media that got up in Southfield and announced that Cunningham was being promoted for her talent and acknowledged a close friendship without ever saying what that was. It wasn't the media that in answering one question, raised a larger one.
With women becoming business executives, it is only a matter of time before romance enters the boardroom, if it hasn't already. There's a lot to be said for forthrightness and even bluntness in these kinds of situations. Sometimes it may be sexist, but it also might be relevant to the welfare of the corporation and the people who work for it.Bendix is no mom and pop store, and people who work for it are entitled to know the full score, whatever it is. It might cost someone some privacy and it might cost someone a promotion, but the lesson of the American frontier has always been that there's nothing easy about breaking new ground.