If Dana G. Mead were superstitious, he might have thought twice about coming to Tenneco Inc. On one visit to Houston as the company courted him, Mead arrived at Chief Executive Mike Walsh's house just as his longtime friend was leaving in an ambulance to undergo surgery for a ruptured disk. Walsh prevailed upon Mead to take the No.2 job, but even before his first press interviews, Mead was handed a note saying a company gas line had blown out in Tennessee and burned down four houses. "That was my introduction to the gas business," he laughs.
Tenneco's president can joke about all that now, but there's nothing funny about the position he's in. While Mead, 57, was handpicked as Walsh's heir apparent, Walsh's cancer casts that status in an unfortunate new light. Mead deals with the situation by simply accepting it for what it is. "Obviously," he says, "everybody's praying this thing is going to work out."
Tenneco's employees, directors, and investors are just glad Mead is there. The former U.S. Army colonel's calm manner and clear competency have gone a long way to soothe their fears about what would happen if Walsh failed to beat the odds. Would Tenneco be seriously wounded without Mike Walsh? Says one major institutional investor: "If he had not brought in someone I think is sensational, the answer would be a big yes."
Outward appearances aside, the stocky, silver-haired Mead has much in common with his leaner, more intense boss. Like Walsh, he's a former White House Fellow and star athlete. He was All-State in three sports at his high school in Wood River, Ill. Mead also knows plenty about restructurings. A 14-year vet of International Paper Co., he helped that $14 billion behemoth modernize manufacturing and expand in Europe. He rose to executive vice-president and was a front-runner to succeed CEO John Georges.
But when Walsh called in late 1991, Mead was ready for a change. They had been friends for years thanks to their White House ties, and when they first discussed the Tenneco job, "we had a terrific meeting of the minds on nearly everything, from the way you raise your children to the way you run your business," says Mead. He had been approached about CEO jobs at smaller companies but was drawn by the Tenneco challenge and a chance to work with Walsh.
Mead's career has taken more than a few turns. After graduating from West Point in 1957 with an engineering degree, he served tours in West Germany and Vietnam. While still in the Army, he earned a doctorate in political science and economics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1968, he helped write part of the controversial Pentagon Papers. He served as deputy director of the Domestic Council under President Nixon and then became a West Point professor. "He had a great sense of humor and didn't take himself as seriously as some military officers," recalls former Nixon staffer John Ehrlichman.
A sense of humor has certainly helped at Tenneco, where Mead is now working longer hours due to Walsh's illness. He was already swamped with responsibility for day-to-day operations. As architect of Case Corp.'s transformation, he spent months last year in a blacked-out "war room" in Case's Racine (Wis.) offices. Now, he spends more time with headquarters staff and handles other duties Walsh used to shoulder. In April, Mead led most of the 72 "road shows" Tenneco used to sell its $1.1 billion stock offering.
His jammed schedule has left little time for visits to his home in Santa Fe, N.M., or his farm in Vermont. But he's enthralled with his new job, regardless of the strange circumstances. "I doubt if there's another corporate president in America that's got a better job than I've got," he says. Anybody want to swap?