William Agee, Boise native who headed Morrison-Knudsen, Bendix Corp., dies in Seattle

William Agee, in a 2012 photo provided by Suzanne Agee.
William Agee, in a 2012 photo provided by Suzanne Agee.

William Agee, 79, a Boise native who famously quit under pressure in 1995 as the CEO of Morrison-Knudsen Corp., died Wednesday at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, his family reported.

Agee, who spent his last months living in Seattle, died of scleroderma, a rare disease that causes hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues, his family said.

Agee, who started a long business career at an early age, headed Morrison-Knudsen from 1988 to 1995. The company, founded by Harry Morrison and Morris Knudsen in the 1920s, was known for its role in constructing the Hoover Dam, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, among other massive projects. It was bought by the Montana-based Washington Group in 1996.

“Agee nearly wrecked the company and thoroughly destroyed his already shaky reputation as a corporate manager. In the simplest terms, he tried to turn Morrison-Knudsen — a bridge, dam and factory builder — into a railcar and locomotive manufacturer, and failed spectacularly,” Fortune magazine reported three months after Agee left the company.

Agee was born on Jan. 5, 1938, the son of Harold J. and Suzanne (McReynolds) Agee. A graduate of Meridian High School, the University of Idaho and Harvard Business School, he was a wunderkind who became chief financial officer at Boise Cascade at age 31 and was appointed senior vice president two years later.

He moved to Detroit in 1972 to work for Bendix Corp., a leading manufacturer of brake shoes and other automobile parts. He was recruited by then-CEO W. Michael Blumenthal, who later left the company to become President Jimmy Carter’s treasury secretary.

At age 38, Agee was named CEO of Bendix, which in 1976 reported sales of $4 billion.

Agee dressed in business casual attire years before that practice came into vogue. He removed the company’s boardroom conference table and replaced it with large, comfortable chairs that encouraged better communication.

He also instituted policies that allowed young employees to obtain promotions based on merit rather than seniority. And he even did away with reserved parking spots for executives, allowing employees who got to the office early to take those spots.

In 1982, Bendix tried to buy the Martin Marietta Corp., a rocket manufacturer. The plan backfired, and Bendix was sold to Allied Corp.

Agee, divorced from his first wife, Diane Weaver, married Mary Cunningham in 1982, two years after she had left Bendix. Cunningham, who earned an MBA from Harvard in 1979, had been hired as Agee’s executive assistant, and later served as vice president for corporate communications and VP for strategic planning.

“My husband was one of the greatest men I have ever known. It was an honor to be by his side until the end,” Mary Cunningham Agee said in a statement to the Statesman. “I will honor his tremendous legacy through the remainder of my own life.”

Morrison-Knudsen suffered from financial problems before Agee joined the company, and the situation got worse under his leadership. In 1994, the company reported losses of $310 million.

“Management experts were scathing in their assessment of Agee, denouncing him for arrogance and self-indulgence – first displayed during his rocky tenure at Bendix Corp. in the early 1980s. His reign at Morrison was likened to that of RJR Nabisco's Ross Johnson, whose excesses led to a dramatic downfall,” the Los Angeles Times reported in February 1995, the month Agee was forced out.

Suzanne Agee, Agee’s oldest child from his first marriage, said she and her two siblings were estranged from their father for many years. Agee renewed a relationship with them the past few months, she said.

“It was the best Christmas gift we could have had,” she said of the time they spent with him.

Agee is survived by his wife, Mary Cunningham Agee; his children, Suzanne, Kathryn Agee Gillis, Robert Agee, Mary Agee Kurz and William N. Agee; and two sisters, Carolyn Hjort and Jacqueline Agee.

A service has not yet been scheduled.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @JohnWSowell