Wherever Albert J. Dunlap went, success seemed to follow. A hired-gun CEO, he presided over nearly a dozen corporations, including a disposable-cup company, plastic ketchup bottle manufacturer and toilet-paper giant, and grew profits while firing thousands of employees in the name of efficiency and cutting costs.
An unabashed proponent of downsizing, he became known as “Chainsaw Al,” “the Shredder” and “Rambo in Pinstripes,” while his own name entered the corporate lexicon as a verb — “to dunlap” — for turning a wayward company into a highflying success.
Yet Mr. Dunlap, who was 81 when he died Jan. 25 at his home in Ocala, Fla., went on to face allegations of smoke-and-mirrors accounting that led to his 1998 ouster from Sunbeam, a small-appliance company, and to news reports that unearthed similar fraud allegations earlier in his career.
He never faced criminal charges. But in 2002, he agreed to pay the Securities and Exchange Commission $500,000 to settle the Sunbeam allegations and was barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company.
“In all my years of reporting, I had never come across an executive as manipulative, ruthless, and destructive as Al Dunlap,” journalist John A. Byrne, author of the 1999 Dunlap biography “Chainsaw,” later wrote in Fast Company magazine. Mr. Dunlap, he added, “sucked the very life and soul out of companies and people. He stole dignity, purpose, and sense out of organizations and replaced those ideals with fear and intimidation.”
Mr. Dunlap denied wrongdoing and insisted that he was nothing less than a corporate doctor, saving “dying” companies that were overburdened by debt. While he generally disdained charitable giving as an executive, canceling $3 million in charity pledges while running Scott Paper, he refashioned himself in recent years as a leading Florida philanthropist, donating more than $40 million to Florida State University.
Still, his reputation as a cutthroat corporate leader proved hard to shake. Since being ousted from Sunbeam, he was cited in articles such as a Time magazine list of “Top 10 Worst Bosses” and a Fast Company story headlined “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?” For a 2015 GQ feature — “Your Boss Actually Is a Psycho” — writer Jon Ronson visited Mr. Dunlap’s estate in Florida, asking him whether he might not be a psychopath. Ronson based his questions on a list of traits assembled by psychologist Robert D. Hare.
Mr. Dunlap, he wrote, redefined certain psychopathic traits (impulsivity, manipulative behavior) as “leadership positives” and wrote off his Sunbeam years as “a footnote” in his career.
As Mr. Dunlap told it, in frequent interviews and a best-selling 1996 manifesto, “Mean Business,” his was an all-American success story, in which “a nothing kid from the slums of Hoboken, N.J.,” rose to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and claw his way to the heights of American business.
That image of heroic, self-made success was undermined by accounts from his sister, Denise Dunlap, who told Businessweek that she and her brother had “a very comfortable childhood,” and from divorce filings in which his first wife, Gwyn Donnelly, alleged he had threatened her with guns and a Bowie knife. According to “Chainsaw,” Mr. Dunlap could also be cruel to co-workers; on one occasion, he threw a chair at Sunbeam’s human resources chief.
On Wall Street, however, Mr. Dunlap was long viewed as a hero who could do no wrong. Under his leadership in the 1980s, the cup-maker Lily-Tulip increased its stock price by more than 900 percent, from $1.77 to $18.55, according to “Mean Business.” He was later credited with tripling the stock price of Scott Paper, which was struggling with $2.5 billion in debt when he was named chief executive in 1994.
In both cases, the growth was fueled by massive cuts. Mr. Dunlap eliminated about half the staff of Lily-Tulip and about 11,000 jobs, or one-third of the workforce, at Scott Paper.
When Scott Paper was sold to Kimberly-Clark in 1995 for $9.4 billion, Mr. Dunlap received a $100 million payout. “Most CEOs are ridiculously overpaid,” he wrote, “but I deserved the $100 million.” Indeed, two days after Mr. Dunlap joined Sunbeam, in July 1996, he told analysts in a conference call, “I love every dollar like a brother,” and declared that he “would have hung” the previous management team for incompetency.
Mr. Dunlap’s rise was halted suddenly in 1998, amid news reports that he had inflated sales figures through tactics such as buy and hold, in which products such as outdoor grills were “sold” in the winter but not paid for until spring.
When Mr. Dunlap was confronted by a skeptical financial analyst at an investors’ meeting that May, according to one Businessweek account, he responded by grabbing the man by his shoulder, placing a hand over his mouth and saying: “You son of a bitch. If you want to come after me, I’ll come after you twice as hard.”
The Sunbeam board fired Mr. Dunlap that June, declaring that he had misled investors. In 2001, the company filed for bankruptcy, struggling under $2 billion in debt; the SEC charged Mr. Dunlap with accounting fraud that same year, saying he “orchestrated a fraudulent scheme to create the illusion of a successful restructuring of Sunbeam and facilitate the sale of the company at an inflated price.”
In addition to the SEC settlement, Mr. Dunlap paid $15 million to resolve a shareholder suit. Sunbeam’s accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, which was later charged in the Enron scandal, settled a separate shareholder lawsuit for $110 million, after signing off on an audit that allegedly included false profits.
Mr. Dunlap effectively retired from business after his ouster at Sunbeam, although he continued to maintain he had done nothing wrong, and embarked on an international speaking tour with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The subject was leadership.
“The harsh reality of business life is that what works today won’t even be satisfactory tomorrow,” he had written in “Mean Business.” “The predators are out there, circling, trying to stare you down, waiting for any sign of weakness, ready to pounce and make you their next meal.”
Albert John Dunlap was born in Hoboken on July 26, 1937. Mr. Dunlap said that his mother was a dime-store clerk and his father was a dockworker; his sister said their mother was a homemaker and their father was a successful boilermaker for United Engineers.
After graduating from West Point in 1960, Mr. Dunlap served as a paratrooper and was stationed at a nuclear missile site. He joined Kimberly-Clark in 1963 and went on to serve as a senior vice president at American Can before becoming chief executive of Lily-Tulip in 1983.
His success attracted the attention of British French financier James Goldsmith, who named him the head of Diamond International and Crown Zellerbach, a pair of forest products companies. He also restructured parts of Consolidated Press Holdings, controlled by Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer, before joining Scott Paper.
Amid the SEC inquiry into his work at Sunbeam, the New York Times reported on fraud allegations that stemmed from Mr. Dunlap’s previously overlooked tenure at Nitec Paper in Upstate New York. He had been fired there in 1976, although the job had been scrubbed from his employment records, and was accused by Nitec of acting fraudulently, reporting multimillion-dollar profits while the company was suffering a $5.5 million loss.
Lawsuits between Mr. Dunlap and Nitec dragged on for years and were dropped or settled out of court after the company filed for bankruptcy in 1982. Mr. Dunlap maintained his innocence even as the company’s financial vice president testified that Mr. Dunlap had ordered him to cook the books.
Mr. Dunlap died of prostate cancer, said Eric Carr, a family representative. He had a son, Troy, from his marriage to Donnelly. In 1968, he married Judith Stringer. They had no children, Carr said, but for several decades considered several pairs of German shepherds part of the family, naming each dog Brit or Cadet, in the way of school mascots whose names persist through multiple generations.
The dogs had often served as a punchline of sorts for Mr. Dunlap, who told Forbes in 1995, “If you want somebody to like you, get a dog.
“I’ve got two,” he added. “I hedged.”