When the end finally came, Westinghouse Electric Corp. vanished not with a bang, but a whimper.
On Dec. 1, the day the 111-year-old Pittsburgh conglomerate became CBS, three dozen retirees and employees, many of them on break, gathered on the granite steps outside the 23-story headquarters to bemoan their loss and castigate Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael Jordan. That was about all the indignation the local populace could muster.
Perhaps Pittsburghers have become immune to layoffs and corporate vanishing acts. Or maybe they realize things might not turn out so badly for the 6,300 or so local workers at the remaining Westinghouse divisions, which are slated to be sold by the end of this year.
After all, there are plenty of examples of former Westinghouse divisions that have done better under new ownership: Adtranz, the mass-transit cars and people-mover maker in West Mifflin; Cutler-Hammer, the former electrical controls and distribution business in Green Tree; and Wesco, an electrical equipment supplier on the South Side, all come to mind.
Or, maybe, everyone had just grown tired of the Westinghouse deathwatch. The corporation's survival had been in question since the early 1990s, when the collapse of its financial services subsidiary hit with the force of a Joe Frazier left hook. Already on a slow decline, regional employment, which stood at 28,000 in 1980 and18,000 in 1990, fell even faster as Westinghouse laid off thousands and sold divisions to survive.
It's true that Jordan, the outsider brought in four years ago to right a foundering ship, sank it instead. But the answer to the question, "Who killed Westinghouse?" goes far beyond the actions of a man who never tried to make a home in Pittsburgh, nor ever felt comfortable at the old Westinghouse.
It is a death that had been decades in the making.
Even though the financial results didn't always show it, the company that gave us electricity, commercial radio broadcasts, radar,the nuclear era, frost-free refrigerators and the Mike Douglas Show had been struggling to find its footing since the 1970s.
But instead of identifying and shoring up core businesses for the long term, Westinghouse's leaders, starting with Douglas Danforth in 1983, began to put more and more emphasis on increasing "shareholder value." The strategy worked -- for a while. The stock price rose and the corporation's books looked good.
But, dozens of former Westinghouse executives and other observers who watched the conglomerate slip into oblivion now believe, that blind devotion to Wall Street -- more than anything else -- was what killed the corporation.
Some would argue Westinghouse was flawed from the beginning.
Founded and run by engineers and scientists, it long had a reputation as a company with some of the best technology and technicians in the world, but only so-so managers. It's worth noting, many say, that two dozen years after he founded the company, George Westinghouse was forced out by bankers and bankruptcy.
There are, of course, more recent events that put Westinghouse on its final, fatal course.
The most obvious -- and serious -- was the collapse of its go-go financial services subsidiary early this decade. Its failure sucked $6 billion out of the corporation.
Westinghouse Credit's stunning fall was equaled by its stunning ascent during the late 1980s, when Danforth and his successor, John Marous, transformed the formerly low-profile unit, which once just financed appliance purchases, into a speculative commercial real estate and corporate lending vehicle that promised fast growth and fat profits.
The mess left behind by the collapse of the credit unit overwhelmed Paul Lego, the CEO who succeeded Marous. The son of a Johnstown steelworker, Lego had been groomed for the top post for years, but when he finally got his shot, his headquarters office turned out to be more a prison than a palace.
When Jordan, Westinghouse's 14th and final CEO, was brought in to right the ship, he confronted a paranoid, angry and insular organization. His attempts to turn the culture around crumbled under the weight of promises made and not kept.
Seven months into office, Jordan said Westinghouse needed minor surgery, not a drastic overhaul. A year and half later, he launched a $5.4 billion bid for CBS, the start of a massive makeover that seemed to make the industrial businesses an afterthought.
In a way, Jordan's plunge into broadcasting brought Westinghouse full circle. Nearly two decades before, CEO Robert Kirby, concerned about a heavy reliance on slow-growth manufacturing and nuclear businesses, bet big on television, snapping up one of the country's biggest cable systems. It was the most significant strategic move made at the conglomerate since it built the nation's first nuclear plant in Shippingport, Beaver County.
Kirby wanted to be a leading player in the growing fields of TV and radio programming and distribution, and his cable venture would do that.
But Danforth, his successor, didn't share that vision, and sold cable instead. He went on to sell a lot of smaller businesses, too, using proceeds to write down shuttered facilities, buy back stock and boost the dividend.
Investors loved it. Westinghouse's stock price and returns to shareholders soared during Danforth's four-year tenure. The high-water mark had been set, and the obsession with pleasing "The Street" only grew stronger.
It didn't help that Westinghouse's chief executives in this fateful era had little time to put their stamp on the corporation.The last four CEOs, excluding interim replacement Gary Clark, who filled in for six months during the search for Lego's successor, each had an average of only 3.5 years to show results.
By comparison, rival General Electric would have only one man, Jack Welch, at the top during the same 14-year span, and he's still there.
During that period, Dec. 1, 1983 to Dec. 1, 1997, when Westinghouse Electric officially ceased to exist, GE's stock price soared 931 percent to $74.
And Westinghouse? It rose 126 percent, to $30.62 1/2, with three-quarters of the gain coming in the last 12 months -- after it said it would abandon the industrial businesses.
The conglomerate that 30 years ago was composed of 172 divisions is now down to three: nuclear energy, process control and government operations.
It's expected all three will be sold by the end of summer.