He may not have the fire in his belly to mount a Presidential drive. But Corporate America is hoping that a tingling in his wallet may yet drive Colin L. Powell into a boardroom career. Powell's Nov. 8 decision to forgo a White House run disappointed admirers, including many business leaders. But that has only fueled a new frenzy among others who are angling to convince the former general to carve out a private-sector career. "He's a hot property," says former Reagan Administration personnel czar E. Pendleton James, who heads a New York executive search firm. "There isn't a corporation in America today that wouldn't love to have Powell sit at their table."
Since his retirement two years ago, Powell has received more than 100 requests to serve on boards. Recruiters say clients are salivating at the prospect of nabbing Powell. The general "has great judgment, common sense, and a skepticism that would be healthy on any board," says Brent Scowcroft, George Bush's national security adviser while Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Even as companies press Powell to accept their lucrative offers, they ought to mull the decidedly mixed track record of other militarists turned capitalists. Battle ribbons, it turns out, are lousy indicators of corporate glory.
A POOR FIT. Many well-known soldiers end up being mere decorative epaulets for companies. Douglas MacArthur, for one, was a lackluster chairman of Remington Rand. "What they really wanted was his connections," says Indiana University historian John K. Stevens. Alexander M. Haig Jr. gets kudos for his brief stint as president and chief operating officer of United Technologies Corp., but his service as a director didn't prevent Chapter 11 filings by Leisure Technology Inc. and Allegheny International. Boards "are only as effective as the management allows them to be," responds Haig. Bobby Ray Inman provided early leadership for Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corp., but the former Defense Intelligence Agency chief's command-and-control background was ill-suited for the collaborative high-tech consortium.
Some military heroes turn out to be disasters in private life. Andrew Jackson lost his shirt in real estate. And after Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant backed his son's investment firm, it went bust--and he lost both his and other investors' money to swindlers. "He had the biggest collection of crooks for friends and relatives of anybody in history," says historian Charles J. Tull.
There have been successes as well, of course. Charles R. "Tex" Thornton, who invented statistical controls for tracking the military's resources during World War II, helped build Litton Industries into a corporate titan. Similarly, Lucius D. Clay, the military's World War II procurement chief, worked to transform Continental Can Co. into the industry leader. And William G. Pagonis, the logistics hero of the Persian Gulf War, wins praise for improving Sears Roebuck & Co.'s distribution network.
MILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION. Powell certainly has many of the qualities of his military predecessors: stature, international experience, and intimate knowledge of Washington. Top military men have "spent a lot of time thinking about leading big organizations," notes Robert N. Burt, chairman and chief executive of FMC Corp., which recruited former Army Chief of Staff Edward C. Meyer as a director. Meyer's understanding of the Pentagon's future needs helped FMC "concentrate our research efforts," notes Director and former Chairman Robert H. Malott.
Will Powell sign on? He passed up offers from corporate recruiters while he wrote his memoirs and weighed a White House bid. But "with the book behind him, that could change," says aide Peggy Cifrino. Still, several Powell intimates doubt he'll take the corporate plunge any time soon. Powell chum Frederic V. Malek, chairman of Thayer Capital Partners, says the general would be a good director but not a good executive. "He has no business experience," Malek says. Many of Powell's friends doubt he would even accept a board post. With a $6.5 million advance from his book, now in its sixth printing, and speaking fees of more than $50,000 a pop, he doesn't need the money.
In the end, Powell might reject any and all corporate comers to pursue charitable activities. The upshot? Executives could be as disappointed by the latest round of Powellmania as they were by the first.
From Militarist To Capitalist
-- General, War of 1812
-- Real estate speculator; lost heavily when land prices sank
-- Head of Union forces, Civil War
-- Promoted and invested in son's investment firm
-- Firm collapsed after son's partner stole funds; Grant bailed family
out by writing memoirs
-- Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
-- COO, United Technologies; director, Allegheny and Leisure Technology
-- Performed well at UT, but quit after 13 months to become Secretary
of State; Allegheny and Leisure filed for bankruptcy protection