Over two decades, during a tumultuous time for American business, he winnowed an unwieldy corporation and fended off corporate raids.
Rand V. Araskog, who as chief executive of the ITT Corporation in the 1980s and ’90s successfully refocused an unwieldy conglomerate that at various points ran the Sheraton hotel chain, owned the New York Knicks and Rangers and made Wonder Bread, died on Aug. 9 at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his daughters, Kathleen Araskog Thomas and Julie K. Araskog. No cause was given.
A West Point graduate who worked at the Department of Defense before pursuing a career in business, Mr. Araskog took the helm of ITT in 1979, when the company, then known as the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp., was the 11th largest industrial concern in the United States, with $19.4 billion in annual sales (in today’s dollars about $73 billion, putting it on a par with IBM and Procter & Gamble). Its global holdings included pulp mills, baking companies, a large network of hotels as well as financial services and telecommunications and electronics operations.
Over two decades Mr. Araskog whittled down ITT to a group of core units and reduced the company’s $5 billion debt load, in part by selling off some 250 companies, which he referred to in his book “The ITT Wars: An Insider’s View of Hostile Takeovers” (1989) as “redundant, unprofitable, or just plain odd acquisitions.”
It was a reversal of the strategy pursued by his predecessor, Harold S. Geneen, who had built the company into the massive conglomerate that it was. Mr. Araskog ultimately zeroed in on the hotel, gaming and entertainment businesses, which included Sheraton hotels and a large stake in Madison Square Garden, which owns the Knicks and Rangers in New York.
A meticulous, hands-on manager, he distributed ownership of 11 percent of the company among its employees.
Mr. Araskog fended off hostile takeovers, even resisting one that would have paid him handsomely. On more than one occasion, though, the company became a potential target of corporate raiders like Jay Pritzker, who built the Hyatt hotel chain, and the billionaire Philip F. Anschutz. To ward off those efforts, Mr. Araskog cut costs through layoffs and additional divestments. The experience left him embittered about the merger and takeover mania of the 1980s.
“There was a single-mindedness in their pursuit of profit,” he wrote of corporate raiders in “The ITT Wars.” “They seemed to be motivated by the idea of playing a game, and devil take the resulting damage and disruption.”
Randolph Vincent Araskog was born on Oct. 30, 1931, in Fergus Falls, Minn., a small city in the west-central part of the state. His parents, Randolph Araskog, the local tax collector, and Hilfred (Swanson) Araskog, operated a small dairy farm.
Mr. Araskog graduated from West Point in 1953, then attended the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, studying Russian, before joining the Defense Department. He spent five years at the Pentagon, working in the office of the secretary of defense; the last two years were spent as a special assistant to the director of the nation’s nascent space program.
In 1955, Mr. Araskog proposed to Jessie M. Gustafson, who was studying library science and education at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. It was their first date, and another couple was in the car with them at the time.
In a phone interview, Ms. Araskog recalled being incredulous at her future husband’s quick proposal and seeking her mother’s advice. “He asked me to marry him — should I believe him?” she remembered telling her. “And my mother said, ‘I wouldn’t believe him if I were you.’”
But Ms. Araskog said yes, and the couple were married on July 29, 1956.
In 1960, Mr. Araskog took a job at the industrial giant Honeywell in Minneapolis. He worked in marketing and planning in the aeronautic division before joining ITT in 1966. At ITT he held senior positions in the company’s defense, aeronautics and telecommunications divisions before being named chief operating officer in 1978.
The next year a boardroom shake-up resulted in the ouster of his predecessor, and he was named chief executive. He was named chairman in 1980.
Mr. Araskog served on a number of corporate boards, including those of Dow Jones, Royal Dutch Shell and Target. As a philanthropist he donated money to, among other organizations, West Point, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the Henry Street Settlement, a social services organization in Manhattan.
After retiring from ITT in 1998, Mr. Araskog opened his own investment firm in Palm Beach.
In addition to his wife and daughters, he is survived by his son, William, and eight grandchildren.
Mr. Araskog, an Episcopalian who attended church every Sunday, was also a family man. He routinely brought his wife along on business trips and joked that she was ITT’s second chief executive.
But his professional fastidiousness could sometimes come into conflict with his family life. Mr. Araskog would hold morning meetings in an ITT conference room at exactly 9 a.m., and then lock the door to any stragglers. One morning before he left for work, the family puppy shook its wet coat onto Mr. Araskog’s business suit, forcing a change of clothes and making him late for the meeting, as his daughter Ms. Thomas recalled. When he arrived, the door was locked.
“He had such a good laugh about that,” she said.