Unemployed And Loving It

You're 54 years old, heading a $61 billion food and tobacco conglomerate, and it's been a dog of a year. Profits are wobbly, the stock is in the tank, and restive shareholders are urging you to break up the company. You'd like to oblige, but your predecessor, who still wields clout, fights the plan. The board sides with him. What do you do now?

Michael A. Miles, CEO of Philip Morris Cos., called it quits. On June 17, facing near-unanimous antagonism from his directors and from former Chairman Hamish Maxwell--who had voted against splitting Philip Morris into food and tobacco units three weeks before--Miles delivered his resignation. He ditched New York, and has spent the days since immersed in David McCullough's Truman and H.R. Haldeman's diaries.

NO REHASH. It wasn't the most graceful of exits. But the day before Miles left the company, "he was walking around whistling," says one person who knows him well. And when BUSINESS WEEK caught up with Miles 10 days into his "vacation" at his home in Lake Forest, Ill., he sounded nothing if not cheerful. "I'd be happy to talk if you can put up with my noncommunicativeness," laughed Miles, who in five years at Philip Morris had earned a reputation as a dour, reticent workaholic.

Miles won't talk much about Philip Morris or his departure, except to say that "the way it's been played in the press has been pretty accurate. I don't think anything is served by rehashing it at this stage of the game." He has no regrets about pushing to split the company: "I did the best I could. I don't have any second thoughts about the decisions I made." And he denies the rumors that his resignation was forced: "It was my decision, and the timing was mine."

Forced or not, Miles now reigns as America's most eligible executive. "When a talent like [Miles] is available, boards will find a way to attract him," says Thomas J. Neff, CEO of headhunter Spencer Stuart, who recently called Miles. Headhunters and food and tobacco industry insiders say Miles could be a candidate for a top position at H.J. Heinz, PepsiCo (where his oldest son works), Procter & Gamble, and Pet Inc.

Miles himself says such talk falls "under the heading of wild rumors." He won't start pursuing employment until Sept. 1, after taking the summer off "for the first time since I was a freshman in high school" to read, baby-sit his two grandchildren, and travel with his wife, Pam. As for what he'll look at then, he says, "without wanting to be coy...I really haven't thought much about it."

He concedes that he probably won't end up in an industry that is totally foreign to him: "I think I ought to stick to something I know something about, which is consumer packaged goods and restaurants." Friends have suggested he put up some of his own capital--he owns, among other assets, 86,267 shares of Philip Morris stock, worth roughly $4.5 million--and join an investment firm such as Clayton, Dubilier & Rice Inc., which has a history of attracting recently departed CEOs. Miles hasn't entirely ruled that out. What about General Motors Corp., which recently announced it is looking for a new marketing chief? "I don't want to talk about that," says Miles. "That is strictly a rumor, and it's very unlikely."

Whatever happens, Miles won't sit still. "Mike is too active a person, too inquisitive, to retire," says Arthur C. Martinez, CEO of Sears Merchandise Group, where Miles has been a director since 1992. For now, though, Miles insists he's happy just hanging out. "My wife thinks I'll be jumping out of my skin six weeks from now," he says. "In the news coverage of my departure, someone said I was going to play golf and go to Italy. It never occurred to me to go to Italy." And he doesn't know how to play golf. But this summer, with time on his hands, he says he'll learn.

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