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OBITUARIES / Edward Brennan, 1934 - 2007

Sears chairman worked his way up

December 31, 2007|Susan Chandler | Chicago Tribune

Edward Brennan, the last home-grown chairman to lead Sears, Roebuck and Co., died Thursday night at his home in Burr Ridge, Ill., after a brief illness. He was 73.

A member of Chicago's tightly knit business elite, Brennan continued to play a high-profile role in the corporate world after he retired from Sears more than a decade ago. He served as an independent director on a number of boards, among them McDonald's Corp.

Brennan was known for being calm under pressure and stepping forward when companies were in trouble. He was a director at American Airlines when the carrier was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2003.

After Chief Executive Donald Carty abruptly resigned, fellow board members tapped Brennan to become American's executive chairman and president. In his year as executive chairman, he helped American avoid Chapter 11, a fate that had befallen United Airlines.

"He was always prepared to step in and help in a crisis situation," said John Madigan, former chief executive of Tribune Co. and Brennan's friend.

Andrew McKenna, a close friend and chairman of McDonald's, said, "You couldn't have a better listener, anyone with sounder advice. He was at his best in difficult times."

Brennan definitely had Sears in his blood, although whether he presided over the beginning of the company's downfall is still a source of debate among retail experts.

Born in Chicago on Jan. 16, 1934, Brennan graduated from Marquette University in the 1950s and joined Sears, selling men's furnishings in Madison, Wis. He followed in the footsteps of his father, four uncles and a grandfather who had worked beside founder Richard Sears.

Brennan quickly rose through the ranks, moving his family more than a dozen times.

In 1980, he returned to Chicago to become president of the Sears Merchandise Group. Four years later, he became corporate president and chief operating officer, and in 1986 he became chairman and chief executive of Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Brennan's critics contend that he was slow to respond to the threat posed by discount chains, particularly Wal-Mart, which would eventually replace Sears as the nation's largest retailer. Despite several strategy shifts, Sears' growth stalled.

"The retail business changed more under Ed than under many of the previous chairs. Sears was just keeping on, keeping on," said veteran Chicago retail consultant Sid Doolittle. "In hindsight, he was slow to make radical changes. Sears could have done something during his regime that would have put them in a better position to compete in a changing world. But it's hard to say that anyone saw that at that time."

Brennan also was part of the management team that built Sears into a financial conglomerate by acquiring real estate brokerage Coldwell Banker and financial services firm Dean Witter. By adding them to the company's existing Allstate insurance unit, Sears sought to become a one-stop shop for everything from mattresses to stocks.

The financial businesses prospered, but the synergies with retailing never materialized. In the early 1990s, Brennan oversaw the dismantling of the financial empire through spinoffs and sales, generating large returns for investors. He also recruited his successor, Saks Fifth Avenue executive Arthur Martinez, to head Sears' retail side.

After leaving the company, Brennan emerged as a high-powered independent director at corporate boards in the United States. He also served as chairman of the board at Marquette and DePaul universities. Last year, Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., renamed its business school in honor of Brennan and his wife, who was a student there when they were dating.

Brennan played an important civic role at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. As chairman of the board at the teaching hospital, Brennan reversed financial losses, recruited a chief executive and shored up morale among the medical staff.

"When Ed took over, Rush was facing some very serious financial challenges," said Dr. Larry Goodman, Rush president and chief executive. "During his tenure, we really turned that around."

Brennan insisted that Rush not abandon its social mission of serving a racially and economically diverse community, Goodman said. "He understood patient care was the most important thing we provided."

Brennan is survived by his wife, Lois, six children and 19 grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will take place at 10 a.m. today at Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago. Burial will be private.

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