Management’s Mixed Signals

Sometimes you get in real trouble when you think you’re doing nothing out of the ordinary. At a chance meeting with Malcolm McLean in New York in 1983. I said nothing about our business at RJR. (Malcolm had long before left the board and had opened his own shipping company.) At the time, I reported through my boss the Treasurer to our CFO, Joe Abely. When I later casually mentioned to Mr. Abely that I had talked with Malcolm, he was displeased and wanted to know what I had said about the shipping business. Of course, I was not privy to any Sea-Land information that would have benefitted McLean, and I thought it odd that Joe would be so sensitive about the subject even if Malcolm was a competitor. Later it became apparent that RJR was planning to spin off Sea-Land and Abely was going to be its CEO. This made Joe supersensitive to any contact with Malcolm McLean, soon to be Joe’s major competitor.

Ty Wilson asked George King about selling Aminoil USA in 1980. Yet Aminoil reported to Joe Abely. It is doubtful that Ty could have made a convincing case that would have overcome the politics and allowed him to sell the oil company.

One financial staffer tells how Ty Wilson asked him to explain spinoffs and how complying with that simple request got him into very hot water. The staffer had a “dotted line” relationship to both Wilson and Abely. Independent of Ty, the staffer had researched spinoffs, and he gave Ty the information on a Friday. Then, on Saturday morning, Joe Abely called him at home, asking if he had talked to Ty about a spin-off of Sea-Land. He honestly said that he had not. This emergency call suggested that Abely was secretly working on a spinoff. (I now understand why Joe Abely was so upset when he learned of my conversation with Malcolm McLean. In retrospect, Abely was concerned about such incidents because he was planning to become the Sea-Land CEO.)