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He Remade Transamerica, and a Skyline

06/22/10
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704256304575321113184563210.html

At Transamerica Corp. in the 1960s, Chief Executive Officer John Beckett cobbled together one of the largest conglomerates in the U.S. yet was worried about his company's image problem.

Mr. Beckett, who died Thursday at age 92, was concerned in particular that despite being a financial-services powerhouse, Transamerica was almost totally unknown as a brand.

"It gravels me to be head of the Anonymous Company," Mr. Beckett fumed in one of a series of print ads featuring his photo and extolling Transamerica's profitability. "Some pizza parlors are better known," he said in another.

After the 1967 ad campaign failed to raise brand awareness to his satisfaction, Mr. Beckett tried something more audacious: He built what was at the time the tallest building in San Francisco: the Transamerica Pyramid.

Designed by William Pereira, an architect who had once burned Atlanta in the film "Gone With the Wind," the 853-foot skyscraper caused a ruckus in its planning phase, but today remains arguably the most distinctive feature of the city's skyline.

By the time the Pyramid opened in 1972, Mr. Beckett had mostly completed his career as a takeover artist.

Originally a holding company for Bank of America, Transamerica divested its bank shares in the 1950s. When Mr. Beckett became president in 1960, Transamerica was parent company to the Occidental Life Insurance Co. Mr. Beckett launched a series of takeovers designed to create an all-purpose financial-services company, starting with the acquisition of the Pacific Finance Corp. in 1961.

The acquisitions soon broadened in scope to include a turbine manufacturer, Budget Rent a Car and, in 1967, the film distributor United Artists Corp. So, Transamerica started the decade selling life insurance and ended it by selling James Bond as well.

During the 1970s, Mr. Beckett settled back to run his empire and, despite his flamboyant new home high up in the Pyramid, he kept a lower profile. Transamerica no longer sought the limelight. It took a beating during an early 1970s recession, but emerged still profitable at the decade's end.

Mr. Beckett stepped down as CEO in 1981, and was discomfited when his successor's first major act was sell United Artists—in the wake of the money-losing fiasco "Heaven's Gate."

During the 1980s, Transamerica sold off most of its nonfinancial holdings. In 1999, it was acquired by the Dutch company Aegon NV.

A native of Marin County, Calif., Mr. Beckett earned a Stanford University masters degree in economics and worked at the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1944, he joined investment bank Blyth & Co. and was vice president in charge of the San Francisco office when Transamerica wooed him to help with its acquisition plans.

After retiring as CEO of Transamerica, Mr. Beckett stayed on for two years as chairman. He served on the board of Bank of America and several other large companies.

In later years, he tended to a greenhouse full of orchids, and continued to compose love songs that he played for his wife on the piano into his 90s.

 

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