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Arthur M. Wood, 93; CEO Steered Sears Through Lean Times

June 22, 2006|Josh Noel | Chicago Tribune

Arthur M. Wood, who guided Sears, Roebuck & Co. through highs and lows during his 10 years as a leader of one of the nation's premier retailers, died Sunday at his Lake Forest, Ill., home of complications from pneumonia and heart failure, his family said. He was 93.

His signature is on the last beam used to build the Sears Tower in Chicago -- an appropriate honor for the man who presided over the company when the high-rise was completed in 1973 and whose office sat on the 68th floor.

Wood joined Sears' legal division in 1946, quickly impressing the company's chief executive, Gen. Robert E. Wood, who was no relation.

"The general would embarrass him by saying, 'Young Artie Wood is one of our bright young men, and he's going to run this company some day,' " Donald R. Katz wrote in his 1987 book, "The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears."

Wood was sent on several postings during the next two decades, including close to five years in California as head of the company's Far West territory, before becoming president in 1968.

In 1973 he was elected Sears' chairman and chief executive, and he held those posts until his retirement in 1978. He sat on the board of directors until 1983.

Wood presided over difficult times at the mail-order retail giant, including sagging morale and reduced profits in a changing marketplace.

With Sears' profits off 58% in 1975 from the previous year and its stock price plunging, he took an unusual step for an old-guard company such as Sears, Katz wrote. He hired management consultants to help steer the company out of its lethargy.

"He faced a change in merchandising," said his son, Art Wood Jr. "The whole catalog wasn't what it used to be. He had to start thinking strategically about where merchandizing was heading."

By 1976 Wood "exuded optimism ... after reporting sharply higher sales and profits" during the company's annual meeting, according to a Chicago Tribune article.

Born Jan. 27, 1913, in Chicago, Wood was the older of two children growing up in the Highland Park suburb. He spent two years at a boarding school in Los Alamos, N.M., where each student had a horse, and he developed a lifelong love of Western vistas and American Indian art.

He graduated from Princeton in 1934 and from Harvard Law School in 1937 before becoming a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army during World War II, serving overseas.

When he returned to the United States, he married Pauline Palmer. She died in 1984.

Wood, known to family and close friends by his middle name, MacDougall, is described in Katz's book as an "old-world gentleman-businessman."

"I remember once being with him in the elevator in the Sears Tower," his daughter, Pauline Egan, said. "He said, 'Hi' to [an employee], then the fellow turned to me and said, 'Your father is an amazing man. He's the head of this company, but he knows everyone's name.' "

In addition to his two children, Wood is survived by seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

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