The Dec. 4, 1980 headline was stark: Business executives killed in hotel fire. Among them were Arrow Electronics Inc. CEO B. Duke Glenn; Roger E. Green, executive vice president; and 11 other members of Arrow’s management team.
That night, a flash fire swept through the Stouffer’s Conference Center in Harrison, N.Y. Arrow’s senior management team had been deep into budget planning for the next year.
In all, 26 people perished in the fire.
Electronics distributor Arrow had been growing at an astounding rate of 35 percent per year since the venture capital partnership, Glenn, Green & Waddell, acquired controlling interest in 1968. Now, with $263.7 million in annual sales, the company had rocketed past all but one competitor and was closing in on the industry leader Avnet, Inc. It was on track to nearly double sales. Net profits of $5.58 million were 14 percent above the prior year, according to the Graziadio Business Review (GBR), a publication of Pepperdine University.
Arrow’s success was credited to the strategic vision of its three founding partners: Glenn, Green and John C. Waddell. They had been together since 1965 when Glenn, head of the corporate finance department for the New York-based investment banking firm, R. W. Pressprich & Co., recruited fellow Harvard MBAs Waddell and Green. After a short time there, aspiring to own a “billion dollar” company, the men had formed their partnership and gone out on their own.
Other Arrow managers were in an adjacent building at product training meetings and thus were able to escape, recalled Walter Tobin, now CEO of the Electronics Representatives Association (ERA).
“It is hard to believe that it has been 40 years since this tragedy occurred,” he said. “As was the common business practice back in the day, attendees were doubled up as roommates, often done alphabetically. I was a newly named general manager for Arrow in Boston – part of the Northeast Region – and thus in the adjacent building. My roommate was Lawrence Unger, GM for Arrow in Houston and in the Southwest Region, who died in the fire. As we struggle through the year of Covid, let us give pause and remember those who came before us.”
The catastrophe marked the tipping point in Arrow’s history, ushering in a two-year period of doubt and uncertainty as the company struggled to overcome the loss of so many talented executives, reported GBR. “It fell to the survivor, Waddell, battling the odds in the midst of a severe recession to hold the grieving company together, stick to the agreed upon strategy, and find a new CEO with the right vision, values, and leadership style.”
Arrow closed its fiscal 2019 with sales of $28.92 billion.
”Waddell shepherded Arrow Electronics through a major crisis after the tragic loss of the company’s top executives,” said the publication. “This case study offers enduring lessons in leadership, strategy, and human capital management.”