(Bloomberg) -- William Agee, a one-time corporate star whose career foundered with an ill-fated acquisition attempt in the 1980s and the collapse of construction company Morrison Knudsen Corp. in the 1990s, has died. He was 79.
Agee died Wednesday at Swedish Hospital in Seattle of complications from respiratory failure and scleroderma, a connective tissue disease, according to his daughter, Suzanne Agee.
After rising to chief financial officer at lumber and paper company Boise Cascade Co., Agee joined Michigan-based Bendix Corp. and in 1976, at age 38, was named chief executive officer when CEO Michael Blumenthal left to become U.S. treasury secretary.
Agee shifted the company away from slow-growing businesses such as auto parts and machine tools and toward more technology-related operations. He removed the conference table in the main meeting room at headquarters, insisting that executives sit in comfortable chairs to facilitate conversation, according to a 1980 Time magazine article.
He also caused a stir by rapidly promoting his young executive assistant, Mary Cunningham, leading to tabloid articles about an alleged office romance. After pushback from Bendix’s board, she resigned from the company in 1980. Agee and Cunningham divorced their spouses and were married in 1982.
In 1982, Agee pursued a hostile acquisition of aerospace and building-materials company Martin Marietta Corp. that led to an early example of the so-called Pac-Man defense, in which the target turns around and tries to buy the acquirer. Both efforts failed, but Bendix ended up selling itself to Allied Corp., ending what the New York Times called “one of the most bizarre takeover battles in American corporate history.”
Agee resigned from Bendix in 1983. Five years later, he returned to his hometown of Boise, Idaho, to become CEO of Morrison Knudsen, the construction company that built the Hoover dam. Agee led an effort to transform the company into a maker of rail and mass-transit cars that left Morrison Knudsen deeply in debt and sent its shares into a tailspin. He left under pressure from the board in 1995, and the following year the company filed for bankruptcy and its shares were delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.
William Joseph Agee was born Jan. 5, 1938, in Boise, Idaho, the son of Harold Agee and the former Suzanne McReynolds. His father was a manufacturing executive, dairy farmer and member of the Idaho legislature. Agee earned a master’s degree from Harvard Business School in 1963.
Agee and his first wife, the former Diane Weaver, married in 1957 and divorced in 1980. They had three children: Suzanne, Kathryn and Robert. He and Cunningham had two children: Mary and William. He had eight grandchildren.
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