Donald Davis was not concerned about imports in the late 1960s, when he started out as CEO of the Stanley Works, the country’s leading manufacturer of hand tools. By the early 1980s, the challenge of competing against inexpensive tools made in Taiwan, Korea, and China had swept most of Davis’s other concerns aside. His first response was a plan to streamline management, reducing the company’s white-collar ranks through attrition. An old-school CEO who had been with Stanley most of his adult life, Davis considered layoffs a last resort. But by the time he stepped down as CEO in 1987, hundreds of factory workers had lost their jobs on his orders.
His successor, Richard Ayers, had the advantage of knowing what he was in for. An industrial engineer by training, Ayers mapped out a long-term strategy that called for layoffs, plant closings, and outsourcing: sledgehammer and crowbar production was moved to Mexico; socket wrench production to Taiwan. But the company also invested in making its domestic operations more efficient, and Ayers took special care to preserve jobs and facilities in New Britain, Connecticut, where Stanley had been a major employer for more than a century. By the mid-1990s, revenues had stabilized, profits were up, and Ayers could reasonably tell himself that his “evolutionary” approach had worked.
Wall Street, however, was not impressed. Securities analysts, comparing the jobs eliminated by Ayers with the layoff numbers at other old-line companies—Scott Paper (11,000), Sears (50,000), General Motors (94,000)—suggested that Stanley’s key problem might be leadership rather than imports. At age fifty-five, according to Louis Uchitelle’s The Disposable American, Ayers concluded that he did “not have the stomach” for any more job-cutting.
When Ayers retired, Stanley’s directors turned to an outsider. The new CEO, John Trani, approached the import question with a clear mind. In his seven years as CEO, he shifted virtually all tool production to East Asia and Mexico, closed forty-three of Stanley’s remaining eighty-three plants, cut the payroll from 19,000 to 13,500, and reduced its presence in New Britain to, in Uchitelle’s words, “a collection of mostly empty factory buildings and reproachful former workers.”
Through the story of the three Stanley CEOs, Uchitelle traces a mental journey taken by a great many top managers over the past few decades, and it would be hard to find a better distillation of the new mindset than his brief account of an interview with Trani in November 2004 (just a few days before he, too, retired, with an $8 million bonus and a $1.3 million-a-year pension). “Layoffs and plant closings,” Trani says, “are not such a rare event anymore that one generally makes a big deal out of them.” Scarcely mentioning the laid-off workers, he acknowledges no hesitation, no regret—in fact, no alternatives. The story, as he tells it, comes down to the difference between successful leaders, who “look at reality as it exists,” and unsuccessful ones, who …