Cameron Hawley provides an honorable and favorable account of the
majority of businessmen in his excellent, suspenseful, and engaging 1952 novel,
Executive Suite. A 1954 film adaptation of the book stays rather close to
the novel but is a bit more negative in its depiction of people in business.
Both the novel and film remind one of an Ayn Rand novel. Overall, both versions
provide a realistic and positive image of the businessman, and show the actual
machinations and politics of corporate life. They communicate the drama and
romance of business, and make excellent business school case studies.
The story begins with Avery Bullard, president of Tredway
Corporation, in New York to determine if an outside person would be right for
the vacant position of executive vice-president. Bullard was 56 years old in the
novel but only 53 in the film. He had just met with Bruce Pilcher and Julius
Stiegel, respectively president and chairman of the board of Odessa Stores, to
discuss this position.
Bullard had lacked sufficient foresight to create a succession plan
and to select an executive vice-president soon after the death of the former
executive vice-president, John Fitzgerald. Many months had gone by without
appropriate actions being taken. It had taken pressure from investment fund
executives for Bullard to give the matter some serious attention. He had been
too busy building the company to give consideration to who was going to run it
after he had retired.
After meeting with Pilcher and Stiegel, Bullard wires his loyal and
professional secretary, Erica Martin, in Millburgh, Pennsylvania and asks her to
call an executive meeting for six o’clock that evening. Bullard had decided to
present a new business proposition at this meeting to see how his various
vice-presidents reacted to it. Based on their respective performances, he was
going to select one of them to be his executive vice-president. The efficient
Erica Martin notifies the executives of the last-minute meeting. Perceptive of
office politics, she adeptly handles the dilemma of the order in which to inform
the executives of this meeting.
As Bullard hails a taxi, a catastrophe occurs—he suffers a cerebral
hemorrhage just outside of Pilcher’s building. Bullard is not identified
immediately because his wallet has been picked up by a passerby who took the
cash it held and discarded it. All that is known to the authorities is that
there is a John Doe with the initials A.B.
In the film version, it is George Caswell, Tredway board member and
head of a stock brokerage house, who witnesses Bullard’s death. He decides to
sell Tredway Stock short with the intention of repurchasing it at a lower price
after Bullard’s demise becomes publicly known. The success of Caswell’s scheme
depends upon Bullard’s passing being announced after Caswell borrows and sells
Tredway shares but before the news of Tredway’s strong quarterly earnings report
(of which he is aware) is announced to the public. The use of such knowledge is
indicative of insider trading. Only then could he buy back and replace the
borrowed stock at a price lower than the one at which he had sold it. It is
interesting to note that in the movie it is Bruce Pilcher, rather than Caswell,
who first sees Bullard’s dead body and who schemes to sell Tredway stock short.
Pilcher, a candidate from a competing company whom Bullard has been considering
for the executive vice-president position, is severely chastised by his
colleague, Julius Stiegel, for this devious stock scheme.
At the six o’clock meeting, no one knows yet that Bullard is dead.
In the film, it is Caswell who phones a number of hospitals and eventually finds
a short article in the Friday evening paper about a John Doe with the initials
A.B. in the morgue. Caswell then phones the police and informs them that Avery
Bullard is the unidentified man in the morgue. However, in the novel, the woman
who picks up Bullard’s wallet feels guilty and calls the police after she reads
the small piece in the paper. Either way, news of Bullard’s death spreads as the
evening goes on. With the death of the king and the lack of a successor in
place, the story shifts to the jockeying that takes place among five executives
vying for the throne: Loren P. Shaw, V.P. and Comptroller; Frederick W. Alderson,
V.P. and Treasurer; Don Walling, V.P. of Design and Development; Jesse Grimm,
V.P. of Manufacturing; and J. Walter Dudley, V.P. of Sales.
Loren P. Shaw, vice president and comptroller, takes the lead to
establish his power immediately after finding out about Bullard’s passing. He
takes it upon himself to release positive financial information to the press and
to set a date and time for Bullard’s funeral. Shaw’s quick thinking keeps
Tredway stock from declining. Because the company has until Monday, quarterly
financial reports are sent out in Saturday’s newspapers thus ensuring that
Tredway’s stock price will not fall. Shaw’s immediate action gains favor
throughout the company as well as with customers and suppliers.
Alderson and Walling are proactive but not as much as Shaw is. When
they arrive at Tredway Tower, they are surprised to find that Shaw has already
released a statement to the press and the financial statements for the last
quarter so that the stockholders will not lose faith with the death of Bullard
and sell their stock. Shaw’s plan works and, as a result, Caswell (in the film)
is unable to repurchase the stock that he has sold short.
When Alderson and Walling arrive to find Shaw making such decisions
without consulting the rest of the board, Alderson is infuriated because he
knows that Shaw disrespected Bullard. Alderson and Walling are in agreement in
not wanting Shaw to be president. Shaw is a planner and is excellent in the
areas of cost control, finance, budgeting, and so on. He seems to have an answer
for almost every situation. He is concerned with the company’s profits and with
satisfying stockholders. He is not concerned with the quality of the products,
though, and argues that low-priced merchandise has an important place in
Tredway’s profit structure. Shaw is also unimaginative and not particularly
concerned with the morale of the plant employees. He lacks long-term vision and
does not see the big picture for the company. Alderson and Walling blame Shaw,
the efficiency expert, for making Bullard recently lose sight of the Tredway
tradition of quality products.
Shaw is a skilled, calculating, ambitious, and politically-astute
businessman who is relentless in his efforts to climb the corporate ladder. In
the film he is depicted as a ruthless and manipulative schemer who blackmails
Caswell and Dudley. Shaw makes a deal with Caswell that if Shaw is elected, then
Caswell will get back the Tredway shares he sold short at the price at which he
had sold them. In addition, having spied on Dudley, Shaw catches him in an
affair and blackmails Dudley for his vote. In the novel, there is no reason to
blackmail Caswell, and Shaw merely contemplates blackmailing Dudley for his
Walling initially champions Alderson, Bullard’s right-hand man for a
great many years, for President. Alderson has the most tenure of the various
vice-presidents but he does not believe that he would be able to defeat Shaw.
Although he has the background, he does not think that he is the right fit to be
president, nor does he think that he has the passion and drive to succeed as
president. He also firmly believes that he is incapable of performing the job as
well as Bullard had done. He thinks that a younger man should take over.
Before Avery Bullard was president of Tredway, Oliver Tredway had
been the head man. He had built a large corporate office building, Tredway Tower,
in Millburgh, Pennsylvania, a small city where Tredway was the major employer.
Its carillon rang loudest in its executive suite. Bullard took over as president
after Oliver Tredway committed suicide because of impending financial disaster.
After Bullard assumed the presidency, the people of Millburgh looked at the
tower with admiration and respect. In Millburgh, everything seemed to center
around Tredway Tower, the tallest building in town.
Avery Bullard began at Tredway as a salesperson but he also became a
designer and a production specialist. He was an insightful man of superlative
talent and keen business sense who had a commanding presence and the loyalty,
admiration, and respect of his employees. Luigi, the elevator operator and
Bullard’s best friend, idolized him, as did his executive secretary, Erica
Martin, as well as most of the vice-presidents. All of the vice-presidents were
affected by him as he was personally involved in each of their areas. As a
hands-on president, he desired what was best for each of his vice-presidents.
Bullard had assembled a team of executives by capitalizing on their individual
strengths and by keeping each vice-president focused on his own special area. He
was a one-man-show who did not share his views and thoughts with the entire
executive committee. Although each executive knew about his particular areas and
what Bullard wanted from him, there was no brainstorming among the executive
team members. The executive committee was not a team. Each vice-president wanted
Bullard’s approval but was not concerned with what the other VPs thought of
Bullard had selected vice-presidents who had strengths and abilities
in their specialties. He, on the other hand, as president, had to have knowledge
of and make decisions regarding all aspects of the business. Although Bullard
was highly intelligent, charismatic, and had a powerful personality, he could
perhaps also be seen as manipulative. A master of psychology, he knew each of
his VP’s talents, ambitions, motivations, desires, and personalities so as to be
able to predict their reactions and behaviors and, at times, to play them off
against one another. Most of the time, however, he simply kept each VP focused
on his area of specialization.
Bullard, as the “one man” in the operation, valued building the
business more than he valued personal relationships, marriage, family, etc. His
affair with Julia Tredway, daughter of Orrin Tredway, had ended badly as Bullard
could not balance the challenges of work life and personal life. Julia had
broken down after her father’s suicide. She is now embittered because Bullard
loved the company more than he loved her.