Rubbermaid Inc.'s belt tightening has captured more than the usual amount of attention in this era of daily corporate shrinkage for two particularly interesting reasons. The first is that the Wooster, Ohio, housewares firm previously annually earned kudos from the nation's business press as one of the country's most admired companies.
The second reason has to do with public criticism by former, senior-level Rubbermaid employees of the management style of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Wolfgang R. Schmitt.
Schmitt, who assumed his positions in 1993, was faulted by current and former company executives in a recent Wall Street Journal profile for meanness and destructive behavior. One, John L. Mariotti, who once headed Rubbermaid's office-products division, said the public company has a ``fundamental leadership problem.'' Mariotti is among a dozen executives who have quit or been fired during the last two years.
There doesn't appear to be any question that Schmitt is a demanding boss. The strong suggestion, however, is that his behavior is not so much demanding as it is abusive.
For his part, Schmitt rebuked the Journal's profile for ``perpetuating rumors that got published in some papers.'' He also suggested the newspaper speak with current employees.
Unfortunately for Schmitt, the public concerns raised by insiders about his alleged treatment of subordinates can't be dismissed. They merit inquiry by Rubbermaid directors to judge whether the behavior has adversely affected company performance. The reality is that too often inappropriate behavior by powerful individuals subject to great pressures within organizations is overlooked to the detriment of employees and shareholders.
Such issues, however unpleasant, need to be firmly confronted by those responsible for appointing senior management. Schmitt, a career Rubbermaid employee, is in a difficult position. He has enough problems dealing with generally high resin prices, intense product pricing pressures, and the shadow of Stanley C. Gault, the firm's respected former chief executive who retired in 1991.
Rubbermaid's board of directors has every reason to help him out.