Sweat Inside the Boardroom with Icahn
Shortly following CEO Joseph Corr’s rapid departure from TWA, Carl Icahn decided to take a more “hands-on” approach to running the company. He installed long-time operations guy Jerry Nichols as Chief Operating Officer, and moved everyone from 605 Third in Manhattan up to Mount Kisco, a short drive from Icahn’s mansion.
Jerry did his best to keep Icahn in line but it was a short one year later that a frustrated Jerry threw in the towel and retired ending a 30-plus year TWA career. Bill Hoar was selected to replace Jerry in the COO slot, and I became VP of Employee Relations replacing Hoar in his prior position.
Glenn Zander was Chief Financial Officer and we both maintained offices at Mt. Kisco and KCAC -- trying hard to spend as much time as possible at the latter. Glenn and I would commute back and forth, trying to leave Mt. Kisco early Friday afternoon to catch a flight home to Kansas City for the weekend. But it wasn’t long before Icahn decided to schedule senior staff meetings on Friday afternoon to make sure everyone was around late in the day. That made the weekends for us commuters even shorter than before.
Despite some of our personal feelings about Icahn, we really believed that it was important for the future of the company to put a positive spin on him as the owner and leader of the company. By this time (circa 1990), Icahn was despised by the unions who had apparently forgotten that he was the “savior” who kept Lorenzo out four years earlier. Nevertheless, we embarked on a “polish Carl”s image” project, scheduling some employee road shows so he could meet employees in person. After the first two shows (one at JFK and one at STL) it was apparent that Carl was incapable of sticking to an upbeat message and continuously invoked Titanic metaphors to describe the plight of the company.
We then decided to put him on a video tape that would be used to kick off employee meetings that Bill, Glenn and I would appear in person. So, we prepared this “great message” and proceeded to have our crack audio visual department, headed by Rudy Monks, come to Mt. Kisco to tape Carl. After several days, Rudy’s team spliced together various takes to come up with about ten minutes of tape. We were to screen it for Carl late that week. When Bill, Glenn and I went to the board room for the screening, Carl was there along with his mother and “Uncle Elliot” Schnall, the board member relative who gave Carl his start on Wall Street. The lights went down and the tape started. We all sat there, seeing it for the first time. It was awful.
When it was over and the lights went up, Carl looked at his mother and asked, “What did you think, Mom? A typical “mom”, she answered, “You looked very impressive and I liked the message.” Uncle Elliott chimed in saying, “Nice job, Carl”. Carl then looked at me and asked, “What about you, Chuck?” Trying to ease the tension among the TWA group with a touch of humor, I said, “I’m pretty sure Dan Rather’s job is safe”. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop, and Glenn and Bill refused to make eye contact with me for fear of exploding in laughter.
Thankfully, there was no further comment from Carl and that was the end of the meeting.
Charles J. “Chuck” Thibaudeau was with TWA from 1965 until his retirement in 1997. During his career he held positions in most major departments starting as a part time reservations agent and completing his career as Senior Vice President of Employee Relations.