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Just Which One Is The `Other' Bowles?



While her husband helps run the White House, Crandall Bowles helps run a corporation

On Monday, Apr. 21, at 9:30 a.m., shareholders of Springs Industries Inc. gathered at the Fort Mill (S.C.) High School auditorium for their annual meeting. A routine and, by all accounts, a happy affair, for it marked the first public steps toward center stage for the 110-year-old textile maker's new No.2, Crandall Close Bowles. Great-great-granddaughter of the company's founder, Bowles is heiress to a $2.5 billion complex that produces such household names as Wamsutta, Springmaid, and Ultrasuede.

Chairman Walter Y. Elisha soon turned the meeting over to Bowles. She seemed to enjoy herself as she ran through initiatives ranging from investments in high-tech looms to a contract with Kmart Corp. for Springs's Martha Stewart home furnishings line. "It was kind of like a family affair," she recalls, smiling. "Not a high-stress thing."

But if she was at ease in her first turn in the spotlight, there's reason to suppose she was experiencing some stress. To wit, "the Erskine thing," as it's sometimes called in this corner of South Carolina, across the state line from Charlotte. Erskine? That's Erskine B. Bowles, Crandall's husband and, since January, President Clinton's Chief of Staff. Thing? That's shorthand for the Whitewater mess he finds oozing around him. Only six days before, Erskine Bowles had been forced to testify about why he tried to line up work for disgraced former Administration official Webster Hubbell. Was he trying to keep Hubbell quiet about Whitewater? Erskine Bowles insists not, but the episode clearly upset him. Now, Washington is buzzing about how long he'll stay at the White House.

While her husband's difficulties are one reason Crandall Bowles's stress level might spike, there are others. By herself, she's a rising power in Corporate America. She sat on the boards of Deere, Duke Power, and Wachovia. For a decade, she ran the $700 million Close family fortune, and she still leads her mother and seven siblings in overseeing the real estate, insurance, and railroad holdings that complement a controlling stake in publicly held Springs. Since January, when Bowles, 49, was named president, she has been confronting the tricky task of wringing more profitability and better stock performance from the company's industry-leading sales. She also figures to follow Elisha as CEO, which would make her one of the top two or three women executives in the country.

Is she up to it? It's hard to find doubters. Friends and colleagues uniformly say Bowles has a keen aptitude for finance and works hard, rarely sleeping more than four hours. "She's a good, quick study and a good adviser on strategic issues," says Wachovia Chairman John G. Medlin Jr. On top of that, most find her warm and down-to-earth, if sometimes inscrutable. Unsurprisingly, her No.1 fan is Erskine Bowles. "The woman is a star," he says. "She has a real passion for business."

TRICKY GOING. Yet what many people miss is the extreme delicacy with which she must operate, balancing her roles as political spouse, career woman, and guardian of a heretofore very private family's fortune. If she says the wrong thing about some touchy political issue--say, most-favored nation status for China, a huge textile exporter--she could cause her husband endless grief. Asked if Springs has a position on the issue, she rears back and says: "Oh! No--I hope not!" before looking to an aide for reassurance. (Springs, a spokesman confirms, does not.)

"We all spend a lot of time in our tutus here, walking on tippy-toes along some very fine lines," a Springs executive confides. That's especially true of Bowles, given that she is at once Elisha's employee and, ultimately, his boss. As heir apparent, she labors in hopes he will recommend her as his successor to the Springs board, which includes such business titans as BellSouth Chairman John L. Clendenin. Yet as head of trusts that hold 70% voting control, she could in theory oust the lot of them.

To outsiders, Bowles's ascent to CEO is a fait accompli. Not so, though, to Elisha, who joined Springs as president in 1980, became CEO the next year, and chairman in 1983. Elisha is a sturdy man, shiny-bald on top with a ring of straight, silver hair. His office, which features what must be the smallest desk in use by a CEO, is perfectly neat in the way of a high school principal's. He is so direct, with such a level gaze, that you believe him when he says that a promotion for Bowles "is not a slam dunk, and she knows it." Springs director Robin B. Smith, CEO of Publishers Clearing House, agrees that Bowles's future at Springs is not set. Nor is there a succession timetable, never mind that Elisha turns 65 in December.

Bowles, says a colleague, "is not a clean-desk person." But that doesn't begin to describe the clutter that defines her domain. Forget the paperless office: There are all manner of forest products--reports, books, yellow pads--spread out and piled up everywhere. All over the walls and, seemingly, on any available space are dozens of framed photos, including huge, matted pictures of vacations she and Erskine have taken with their three children, aged 22, 21, and 19.

Curiously, Bowles first encountered Hillary Rodham Clinton at Wellesley College, where the two graduated in 1969. (She says she barely knew Hillary then and knows her only a bit better now.) Bowles then headed to New York and Morgan Stanley & Co. Her resume--Wellesley, economics; Morgan Stanley; Columbia University, MBA--suggests an uncommonly self-directed young woman. But "to tell you the truth, I really didn't know what was going on," says Bowles. "I got the job at Morgan because of my father." Morgan had taken the family's textile business public two years earlier, and there Bowles landed in a world of pink-collar scut work. Realizing that she needed more schooling to get ahead, she enrolled at Columbia, at a time when less than 10% of the MBA class were women.

In 1971, she married Erskine, a North Carolinian she had met at Morgan. A year later, they moved to Charlotte, where he built an investment bank. After finishing courses toward her Columbia degree, she took a financial post at Springs. In 1978, she moved to her family's investment arm, which she ran for a decade beginning in 1982.

KEEN FOCUS. Because the family holding company is private, her track record there can't be verified. James Bradley, a consultant to the firm and its previous president, estimates that during her 10 years in charge, the value of the family's nontextile interests more than doubled. The railroad drew in new industrial customers, and Bowles brought in a new executive to expand the insurance business. In any case, her stewardship seems to have been good enough that whatever disputes arose--and Bowles acknowledges some--stayed quiet. "As far as the family goes," says her mother, Anne Springs Close, "everybody respects Crandall's judgment."

Probably more important in smoothing relations is the $1 million-plus each sibling now sees annually in dividends from Springs. Since 1983, however, the profits supporting that payout have been the work of nonfamily management under Elisha. Piloting Springs during a time of crippling leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies in the industry, he guarded the company's financial health. Today, borrowings are less than 20% of capital.

In 1992--at Elisha's invitation, both she and he say--Bowles rejoined the textile company in corporate planning. Since Springs is a public company, her continuing ascent is more than a Close family concern. Brett L. Barner, a principal at STICapital Management who has bought stock in several textile companies, checked out Springs carefully. "I always get a little concerned about a nepotism-type deal--does this person know what she's doing?" he explains. Reassured that Bowles has "paid her dues," he bought the stock.

Executives who have worked with Bowles are quick to note her facility with figures. Duke Power Chairman William H. Grigg says it was particularly helpful when, as a director, she helped develop plans to finance capital projects while keeping dividends strong. At Springs, Elisha says her style complements his. "Her judgment of people is quite good. She gets there reasonably, not emotionally," he says. "I'm a little more visceral."

Bradley, who trained Bowles before handing over control of the family's investments, says she showed a keen sense of which issues to focus on. As a manager, he says, she gave the employees who run the family's railroad and insurance company their head. Few executives leave.

After returning to Springs, Bowles rose to run manufacturing. She helped focus the company on lowering costs and boosting productivity by closing less-efficient mills and investing in air-jet looms. Most recently, as head of bath products, she led the integration of towelmaker Dundee Mills, acquired in 1995. Perhaps she has had to work hardest at sales, a skill she says doesn't come naturally.

She is clear about her No. 1 challenge: making Springs more profitable. Since 1992, sales have risen just 13.6% to $2.2 billion and operating earnings, at $113 million, are the same as they were four years ago. By contrast, rival WestPoint Stevens had operating earnings of $196 million on sales of just $1.7 billion. Springs's stock has lagged, too: Even at a recent high of about 53, it has risen only 12% since an earlier peak in April 1993.

Bowles wants to achieve the industry's fattest margins. To get there, besides cutting costs, Springs has shifted away from commodity textiles, which foreign competitors can turn out more cheaply, and toward more highly designed and processed home furnishings, all packaged together smartly.

Trouble is, such strategies are simple to talk about and wicked to achieve. Get a hit product, and rivals rush to rip it off. Springs had a good thing going with a quick-drying bathroom rug, for instance, but "it was copied in a matter of months," Bowles laments. She also finds investing in computerized order-management systems, as demanded by big customers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., hazardous. "Are we spending enough?" she asks. "Are we spending too much?"

Some who have sat across the table from Bowles call her a tough bargainer who knows when to give--and how to exploit the leverage Springs enjoys as the biggest producer of some textiles. Recently, she dickered with Kmart Vice-President Steve Riman over the Martha Stewart project. The negotiations were "difficult," recalls Riman, his voice still evincing the pain. "She told me, `No."'

DEEP ROOTS. That sense of authority no doubt derives in part from Bowles's firm sense of place at Springs. Her roots in Fort Mill go back to 1755. By 1831, her forebears had prospered and built a late-period Georgian mansion now called the White Homestead. There, the Confederate cabinet made its last decisions. Today, it's where Bowles chairs family business meetings--and where she put the President up in 1994.

With her husband consumed by politics, Bowles leaves behind their secluded, 17-acre estate in Charlotte each weekend to join him in a rented house in Georgetown. Monday, she's up by 4:30 a.m. to fly to Charlotte and reach Springs by 8. While Erskine Bowles has been widely depicted as unhappy at the White House, his wife brightens at talk of Washington, saying: "It certainly gives you the opportunity to meet interesting people." Keeping her business separate from his political matters, she adds, is something she works at. She leaves it to him to disclose, for example, that they socialize with such power brokers as Vernon Jordan and Mickey Kantor. "I kind of compartmentalize it," explains the executive, who has kept a low profile in the capital.

Elisha concedes that the Bowleses' star power could be a plus for Springs. But he worries about unwanted publicity and unchecked speculation about succession. That, he says, "wouldn't be good for the company, and it wouldn't be good for Crandall." Bowles herself won't talk about succession. "I really don't think about that," she says, adding: "My role is to maximize the potential of our current operations."

Perhaps that's all that is on her mind--or, at least, in that one compartment of her mind. But those who have known her longest suggest not. Jim Bradley, who worked with Bowles for 14 years, thinks she has "great foresight," and has envisioned a future in which she can prove that "she has the same business ability that her father had and her grandfather had and her great-grandfather had."

Her mom, for one, doesn't doubt she'll get that chance. "Yeah," says Anne Close, laughing. "I think she's about there."By Robert Barker in Fort Mill, S.C., with Richard S. Dunham in Washington and Nicole Harris in AtlantaReturn to top

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