Rumsfeld's prospects mixed

Arrogance may mar resume, experts say

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November 14, 2006|By Susan Chandler | Susan Chandler,Chicgo Tribune

Departing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld may be leaving behind a legacy of discord and failure at the Pentagon and in Iraq. But that doesn't mean he won't be highly sought after as a board member or corporate executive, say headhunters who have tracked his career.

"He has a great business background and a great government background. As long as Nancy Pelosi isn't the lead director, I think he would be a real prize for any board," said Greg Crecos, who heads Gregory Michaels & Associates, a Chicago search firm. Pelosi is the California Democrat who is the presumptive next speaker of the House.

Rumsfeld has a marquee name, but his age - 74 - may work against him. Many publicly traded companies have set a retirement age of 70 for directors and 65 for chief executives. But those rules are not hard and fast, and plenty of firms allow directors to stay on past retirement age.

In recent years corporate giants such as Boeing Co. and American Airlines have recruited retired executives for top leadership positions during times of crisis or scandal.

Rumsfeld may find himself particularly popular with Chicago companies since he was long part of the city's tight-knit corporate elite. He grew up on the North Shore, served as a congressman from Illinois in the 1960s, became the country's youngest secretary of defense under President Gerald R. Ford and went on to head pharmaceutical-maker G.D. Searle & Co. in Skokie, Ill., from 1976 to 1985.

While at Searle he spearheaded federal approval of its artificial sweetener, NutraSweet, and slashed the company's payroll by half, earning him a place on Fortune's list of the 10 toughest bosses in America.

Later Rumsfeld led General Instrument Corp., a Chicago maker of television set-top boxes that was eventually sold to Motorola for $11 billion. Along the way Rumsfeld sat on blue-chip boards such as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Allstate Insurance Co., Kellogg Co. and Tribune Co., the owner of the Chicago Tribune, and earned a reputation for bluntness that sometimes was considered rude.

Rumsfeld has the knack, say those who know him, of summing up a contentious issue in a very clever, funny way that can help defuse the tension in a room. A dry sense of humor is his trademark.

Yet as secretary of defense Rumsfeld frequently came off as arrogant, overly self-assured and unwilling to acknowledge that some of his decisions were wrong. To some critics, Rumsfeld seemed to delight in ridiculing anyone he felt had asked a stupid question. Such a harsh demeanor would hardly make Rumsfeld the kind of individual most board members would want to join them.

His role in orchestrating the war in Iraq also could make him a lightning rod for anti-war protesters or activist shareholders who might speak out at annual meetings.

Rumsfeld, who could not be reached for comment for this article, has so far not spoken publicly about his plans.

Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr., the former CEO of Baxter International Inc. and now executive partner of Madison Dearborn Partners, believes Rumsfeld would be a mixed bag as a corporate leader or director. He would score highly on intelligence and integrity but fare less well in other key areas such as communication and flexibility.

"I think this guy does what he truly, truly believes is in the best interest of the country. I never see the hidden political motive," said Kraemer, who teaches classes on values and leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "The problem is if you're not communicating, you're not listening. If you're not flexible, you can have a lot of ... problems."

One place where Rumsfeld's recent experience would be a gold mine is the defense industry, headhunters say, but such an affiliation would be very risky. It would almost surely revive Sen. John McCain's campaign of criticism about the revolving door at the Pentagon, the pattern of retiring military leaders taking high-level jobs at large contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Rumsfeld would likely decide to avoid those opportunities for that very reason, say those who know him. After serving as Pentagon chief in the mid-1970s Rumsfeld declined to have any direct dealings with defense firms. He didn't serve on their boards or purchase their stock, according to the Web site OpenSecrets.org.

Affiliating with a consulting firm or a private equity outfit could also be an option.

Rumsfeld's name would open doors that might otherwise be closed and he could stay under the radar in that capacity in a way he could not as a corporate director. Or he might choose to affiliate with a conservative think tank, such as the Hoover Institution, as he has done in the past.

Many headhunters agree that Rumsfeld isn't ready to retire and won't want the final public image of himself to be President Bush announcing his replacement at the Pentagon.

Susan Chandler writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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