Cullman, Joseph Frederick III

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Cullman, Joseph Frederick III

(b. 9 April 1912 in New York City; d. 30 April 2004 in New York City), giant of the tobacco industry who helped create the Marlboro Man advertising campaign and led Philip Morris to become one of the largest corporations in America.

Cullman was the son of Joseph Cullman, Jr., who headed the General Cigar Company. Cullman had three brothers, and the family ran a tobacco business started by his great-grandfather, Ferdinand Kullman, a German immigrant cigar maker. After attending the Ethical Culture primary school in New York City and the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, Cullman enrolled at Yale University. After graduating in 1935, he worked for a time in the Schulte Cigar store in New York City as a clerk. He then went to Havana, Cuba, where he worked at the H. Upmann cigar factory. Cullman married Susan Lehman in 1935, and the couple had one child.

In 1942 Cullman became a gunnery officer on the USS Montpelier, and he served the next three years of World War II fighting in the South and Central Pacific. Following his discharge at the end of the war, Cullman took over the Benson and Hedges tobacco company, which his father had purchased. Cullman quickly oversaw a significant increase in sales of the company’s Parliament luxury cigarettes. When the Philip Morris company bought Benson and Hedges in 1954, Cullman joined the company as a vice president and moved up the ranks quickly, becoming executive vice president in 1955 and president and chief executive in 1957. In 1967 he was named chairman and chief executive and held those positions until 1978.

During Cullman’s early years at Philip Morris, the company languished, in 1961 ranking last in sales out of the six major American cigarette companies. But Cullman had already laid the foundation for the company’s turnaround in 1958, when he decided that the company’s advertising representative—a bellhop in a pillbox hat who shouted out “Call for Philip Morris”—was not the right image for the company. Cullman personally oversaw the company’s efforts to market its new Marlboro filtered cigarette, including the mixture of tobacco used in the cigarette and the design of Marlboro’s flip-top box. But his most important move was to insist on developing an advertising image that would attract men to smoke a brand that had once been marketed primarily to women as a nonfiltered cigarette. The result of Cullman’s efforts, which were conducted through the Leo Burnett advertising agency, was the “Marlboro Man” advertising icon, a tough-looking cowboy who liked to smoke while riding horses and enjoying the great outdoors. The Marlboro advertising campaign proved to be an enormous success and is largely credited with increasing the company’s sales 63 percent from 1964 to 1969. By 1972 Marlboro was the best-selling cigarette brand in the world, with sales increasing from an average of $440 million per year in the 1960s to $2.6 billion in 1973.

Cullman’s accomplishments at Philip Morris were made even more extraordinary in light of the human studies in the mid-1950s that had begun to link smoking cigarettes with a dramatically increased risk of lung cancer. In 1964 a comprehensive report developed by a research panel formed by U.S. surgeon general Luther L. Terry stated unequivocally that smoking was “a significant health hazard.” Cullman, however, refused to accept the scientific evidence. He spoke out publicly against the findings, in 1963 telling a meeting of Philip Morris shareholders he believed there was enough evidence developed by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to show that other factors besides smoking were causing cancer in smokers. Cullman was especially irked by new government regulations requiring cigarette packages to carry warning labels stating the negative health effects of smoking. He was also against the growing limits to cigarette advertising campaigns. In 1969 Cullman took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to protest the paper’s new policy of not accepting advertisements for cigarettes if they did not include health warnings. On 23 April 1969 Cullman appeared before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, which was conducting a hearing about the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. Claiming that he represented virtually all cigarette manufacturers in the country, he continued his defense of smoking, noting in his speech “that there is no biological or clinical proof that smoking is causally related to the diseases and conditions which are claimed to be statistically associated with smoking.” Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, he appeared on the television program Face the Nation in 1971 and unequivocally stated that he did not think cigarettes were hazardous to smokers’ health. At the time he was also serving as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Tobacco Institute.

In addition to guiding Philip Morris to become America’s most successful tobacco company, Cullman is also credited with laying the foundation for the company’s eventual diversification into other products. Under his leadership the company began diversifying in 1969, when it bought the majority of shares in the Miller Brewing Company. In the 1980s the Philip Morris Companies would buy such companies as Kraft, Nabisco Holdings, and General Foods. Although Cullman retired from Philip Morris in 1978, he remained an industry spokesman until 1990, continuing to do battle in what he referred to as the “cigarette wars.” During that time he served as chairman of the company’s Executive Committee from 1979 to 1985 and then became director emeritus and chairman emeritus of the parent Philip Morris Companies Inc. He was also on the Board of Directors of Philip Morris from 1954 to 1985.

In addition to his role at Philip Morris, Cullman had many other outside interests. He divorced his first wife in 1974 and married Joan Paley Straus the next year. (The couple would later divorce and then remarry in March 2004.) With his second wife, Cullman coproduced revivals of the historical musical 1776 and the comedy Anything Goes, which was produced 1 April 2002 in honor of Cullman’s ninetieth birthday. Cullman was also a tennis aficionado and player who played a role in fostering the first nationally televised U.S. Open in 1968. He also served as the U.S. Open tournament chairman from 1969 to 1970. He helped pioneer women’s tennis by playing a major role in developing the women’s professional tour, known as the Virginia Slims Circuit, in 1970. He served as president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1982 and as its chairman from 1985 to 1988, after which he became chairman emeritus and then held the appointment as chairman of the Executive Committee for the next ten years. Cullman was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990 as a contributor to the sport.

Cullman was also an avid outdoorsman and hunter who was first inspired as a boy by the exploits of President Theodore Roosevelt. His travels as a big-game hunter in Africa and throughout the world ultimately led him to become a wildlife conservationist. He helped initiate the World Wildlife Fund and supported the fund throughout his life, serving on its board of directors and giving the organization office space in a building he owned in New York City. In 1990 he and Robin Hurt, a professional hunter, formed the Cullman and Hurt Community Wild-life Project and a trust that focused on wildlife problems in Tanzania.

Cullman’s conservationist efforts included serving as a trustee of the New York State Nature and Historical Preserve Trust and of the American Museum of National History. He once served on the Smithsonian Institution’s national board and as president of the International Atlantic Salmon Foundation. His support of the arts included serving as the director of the American Folk Art Museum. Cullman’s philanthropic efforts were many, both on the personal and corporate level. He is credited with guiding the Philip Morris company into contributing billions of dollars to the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, the Lincoln Center, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and such museums as the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan. He donated $2 million to establish an endowment to support the Joseph F. Cullman III Library of Natural History at the Smithsonian Libraries. Cullman received many awards and honors, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Award from the National Urban League in 1972 and the Lone Sailor Award from the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation in 2003.

Cullman, who smoked for many years but eventually quit, published his memoirs, titled I’m a Lucky Guy (1998). Many critics noted that his autobiography sidestepped the issues surrounding tobacco and public health, including his role in speaking out against government regulations concerning cigarette smoking and advertising. Nevertheless, he noted in his book that he would probably be remembered most for his work at Philip Morris. Cullman died at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan at the age of ninety-two. The family did not announce the cause of death.

Despite taking over a tobacco company just as the industry was starting to undergo attacks for the ill effects of its products on people’s health, Cullman guided the company to become one of the largest corporations in America and the maker of the best-selling product in the world in the form of Marlboro cigarettes. Although he remained a controversial figure for his vehement denial of the health risks of smoking and his continuing role as a staunch defender of the tobacco industry, Cullman was much admired and honored by many for his efforts both inside and outside the business world. Once described as an “old-breed mogul,” Cullman left a legacy that lies beyond the “cigarette wars” in the recognition that he was a quintessential American businessman who knew his customers and how to sell his product.

Cullman’s autobiography, I’m a Lucky Guy (1998), provides a firsthand look at how Cullman viewed his career and his personal life. Several books are available about the “tobacco wars” and Cullman’s role in defending the industry, including David A. Kessler, A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry (2001), and David B. Moyer, The Tobacco Book: A Reference Guide of Facts, Figures, and Quotations about Tobacco (2005). Articles about Cullman’s role in the tobacco industry and his outside interests include Morton Mintz, “Former Executive of Philip Morris Blames FTC Rule,” Washington Post (25 Feb. 1988), and “Mixed Reviews,” New York Times (25 Feb. 1990). An obituary is in the New York Times (1 May 2004).

David Petechuk