EXECUTIVES: White's Great Hope

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"As long as you are Interested enough to take any job that comes along, you will find something worthwhile to do, and it usually turns out to be a better job than the last one."

Semon ("Bunkie") Knudsen once articulated his work ethic in those words, and Detroit veterans recalled them when he surprisingly was passed over for the presidency of General Motors in 1968. Sure enough, Knudsen has since found plenty of jobs. He shifted from executive vice president of GM to president of Ford Motor Co., but lost that position after a power struggle with Lee Iacocca, the current president. Then Knudsen founded Rectrans Inc. to produce mobile homes, only to sell out in 1971 to Cleveland's White Motor Corp. Part of the deal was that he would become chairman of White, a builder of trucks and farm machines that was in deep financial trouble.

Though Knudsen is a somewhat racy personality by the standards of Cleveland's business establishment (he is noted for wearing aviator glasses and ankle boots), he was eagerly greeted as a potential savior. Indeed, by last week, as truck manufacturers were finishing their best year ever, Knudsen had done much to turn White around. It moved from a loss of $5.6 million in the third quarter of 1971 to a profit of $1.1 million on sales of $226 million in the equivalent period of 1972. To break into the black, Knudsen has had to remake the company.

When he took charge, White's banking relations had deteriorated to the point where credit was becoming difficult to raise. He quickly had to arrange a $290 million line of credit, as he says, "just to keep the company afloat." All but a few of White's high executives had left; to replace them, Knudsen recruited from the senior ranks of GM, Chrysler, Ford, Borg Warner, Sperry Rand and W.R. Grace. Then he consolidated the company's many truck lines, which were engaged in a debilitating competition against each other. After selling off Diamond Reo, he pulled together the four remaining lines—Autocar, White, White Freightliner and White Western Star —under one marketing group and advertised them heavily as the "Big 4."

White's share of the farm-equipment market had fallen from 10% to 4%, partly because the company rarely made model changes. In 1972 Knudsen budgeted almost $17 million in research and development of new tractors, trucks and other machines. He also shook up the company's network of dealers, making each responsible for selling all of White's machines instead of only one line. (The company markets farm equipment under the Minneapolis-Moline, Oliver and Cockshutt nameplates.) Still, says Knudsen, "in marketing and merchandising, the farm-equipment business is just about where the auto industry was 50 years ago."

Under Knudsen, White's stock has jumped from $22 to $71, and his family holdings have increased to $17 million. Not that he needs the gain. In all, Knudsen has a personal net worth estimated at well over $30 million. Why did Bunkie Knudsen, now 60, bother to take the White job? "Hell," he says, "I was too young to retire."