Son of a Russian Jewish father and an Italian catholic mother, Harold Geneen was born in Bournemouth, England, in 1910.
Son of a Russian Jewish father and an Italian catholic mother, Harold Geneen was born in Bournemouth, England, in 1910. Geneen’s family moved to America before his first birthday, but his parents separated soon after they arrived. As a result Geneen’s childhood was spent at boarding schools and summer camps. When Geneen started work, as a runner for the New York Stock Exchange, he continued to study at night at New York University. In 1934 his hard work was rewarded with a degree in accounting.
For the next 25 years his career took in a string of companies starting with the forerunners of Coopers & Lybrand followed by Montgomery an accounting firm, then the American Can Co., Bell and Howell Co., Jones and Laughlin Steel Co. and Raytheon. After Raytheon, where Geneen was vice- president, came the biggest challenge of Geneen’s career and the job that made him famous – International Telegraph and Telephone Company more commonly known as ITT.
When Geneen arrived at ITT in 1959 the corporation was a ragbag collection of businesses, loosely focused around telecommunications, with revenues of $800,000. During the 1960s the predominant organisational trend was one of diversification and conglomeration. CEOs went into a purchasing frenzy raiding the corporate aisles for any company, no matter what business it was in, so long as it turned a profit. Geneen was no exception.
Over the ensuing decade Geneen purchased over 300 companies operating in over 60 different countries. There was no rationale to these purchases, no common thread, other than that of profit. Sheraton hotels, Avis car hire, Continental Baking, were all tucked away in ITT’s roomy locker. “I never met a business that I’d didn’t find interesting,” said Geneen and the ITT balance sheet certainly bore him out.
It was a mammoth undertaking to manage so many disparate companies. Fortunately for ITT, Geneen was a fiercely driven workaholic. His ITT office in New York was equipped with eight telephones and a clock that showed what parts of the world were in daylight, and what in darkness. Ten suitcase-sized leather attaché cases crammed full of documents were stacked along the window ledges. Six of the cases, stuffed with reports, communiqués and memos from over 400 reporting corporations, followed Geneen around the country and the world.