Ling, James Joseph

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LING, James Joseph

(b. 31 December 1922 in Hugo, Oklahoma), Texas-based business executive and conglomerateur who, through a series of daring and controversial acquisitions, built one of the largest single corporate entities of the 1960s, Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV), which was eventually the target of federal antitrust action.

Mary (Jones) and Henry William Ling gave their son a Bavarian ancestry and a Catholic upbringing. Ling's mother passed away when he was eleven, and a few years later his father left his six children and his railroad job to join a Carmelite monastery. Ling grew up working on his own in the oil fields of Texas and never completed his high school education. He married a young Dallas woman in 1939, while he was still in his teens, and they had three children. He picked up practical training in electrical contracting when he joined the navy in 1944, and he started Ling Electric Company with the $2,000 from the sale of his house when he returned to Dallas in 1946. Ling continually sought to expand the tiny contracting business through the sale of common stock, personally handing out the firm's prospectus at the state fair. With the proceeds Ling purchased undervalued corporations, snapping up eight different contracting firms and one electronics producer. By 1958 Ling had built a small but powerful firm grossing nearly $7 million.

By 1960 Ling had purchased the audio equipment manufacturer Altec Lansing and merged the resulting Ling–Altec Electronics with a government defense contractor, Temco Electronics and Missile Company. At the end of the year the newly established Ling-Temco reported sales of $148 million. While the merger with Temco had been largely amiable, Ling now initiated a hostile takeover of Chance Vought, another defense aerospace company. Chance Vought fought back, but by March 1961 Ling and his company owned 39 percent of the available stock and offered stockholders a price considerably above market value for additional shares. At the end of 1962 the consolidated Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) brought in sales of more than $325 million.

Ling then moved to reorganize his corporate behemoth. Calling his plan Project Redeployment, Ling attempted to sell, streamline, or restructure debt in the disparate parts of the vast empire. Ling's complicated stock deals and management reorganizations confused some but allowed Ling the opportunity to initiate Project Touchdown: the ambitious takeover of Wilson and Company. In 1967 Wilson was worth about a billion dollars, more than twice as much as LTV as a whole. But the corporation was undervalued, and Ling raised $80 million from investors in Europe and the United States. With that cash Ling bought control of Wilson and then acquired the rest of the company in a huge stock swap. He split Wilson into the meatpacking section (which investors dubbed "Meat Ball"), the sporting goods section ("Golf Ball"), and the pharmaceuticals section ("Goof Ball"), which together received around $250 million in increased market valuation from public investment.

With this acquisition Ling truly rose to national attention, and glowing articles about him began to appear in mainstream magazines. Fortune's Stanley H. Brown called Ling "part prestidigitator, part brooding genius, and part wunderkind" in a January 1967 article. Newsweek's October 1967 profile dubbed him "Ling the Merger King," while Business Week lavishly praised him in their March 1967 cover story. Most journalistic coverage of Ling emphasized his dynamism, his inclination to military or sporting analogies, or his then astronomically expensive $3 million Dallas mansion (where he lived with his second wife, Dorothy Hill, whom he married after divorcing his first wife in 1954, and his stepson). Many described him as a physically imposing man with an intense gaze and a compact physique perhaps better suited to football but instead stuffed into a button-down shirt and Ivy League suit.

After the successful acquisition and "redeployment" of Greatamerica Corporation, which was split into its component parts (National Car Rental, Braniff Airlines, and a banking/insurance firm), Ling was able to offer an unprecedented $425 million cash for the venerable Pittsburgh steelmaker Jones and Laughlin. Once the deal was completed, excited investors bid the LTV stock price up to a stratospheric $135. At this point LTV was the fourteenth largest corporation in the United States, with about $2.8 billion in sales for 1968. Despite its size LTV was not a monopoly or a trust like Standard Oil. Ling had not built a corporate empire based on vertical combination (the acquisition of suppliers and distributors) or horizontal combination (the acquisition of competing firms). LTV was not a combination but a conglomeration: a grouping of largely unrelated firms under the loose control of a single parent company.

Although the conglomerate could not control or manipulate a single market like a monopoly, the sheer size of the corporation made many observers concerned about the concentration of power. A Saturday Evening Post story from November 1968 stated in its headline that "It Is Theoretically Possible for the Entire United States to Become One Vast Conglomerate Presided Over by Mr. James J. Ling." While the general public fretted about the impersonal size of the corporate giant, the financial world grew concerned about the viability of this vast organization and whether it would be able to absorb and "redeploy" the debts and assets of the corporations it had acquired. But LTV's most powerful critic was the federal government, which surprised many in the business world by choosing to take antitrust action against LTV. The Justice Department under President Richard M. Nixon announced its case against LTV in early 1969, driving the LTV stock price into the basement. Though LTV eventually settled the federal suit, a plunging stock market and accumulating debts dragged LTV stock down to $7.125, and Ling was forced to cede control of the company.

For some Americans of the 1960s Ling was a model of executive action, lauded for his assertiveness and mastery of the corporate world. For others Ling was an archetypal self-made man who came from humble beginnings to single-handedly create a multibillion-dollar corporation. But for critics he represented a disturbing trend toward the corporate conglomerate: vast institutions driven by their own logic, largely disconnected from the actual marketplace, and pledged to a naked avarice openly detested by the anticorporate generation of the 1960s. In all of these aspects Ling foreshadowed the charismatic chief executive officers, corporate raiders, and merger kings of later decades.

While his methods lived on, Ling never reached the same level of financial control or popular acclaim he enjoyed during the decade of the 1960s. Even as LTV entered bankruptcy in April 2002, Ling continued to structure financial deals from his Dallas office. Ling has been involved in various charities, including the National Jewish Hospital and Research Center in Denver, the boards of trustees of numerous Texas institutions of higher education, and many Dallas-area cultural organizations.

Biographies or other works on Ling include Stanley H. Brown, Ling: The Rise, Fall, and Return of a Texas Titan (1972), and "Jimmy Ling's Wonderful Growth Machine," Fortune (Jan. 1967). See also "LTV Blitzes Its Way into Ranks of Giants," Business Week (18 Mar. 1967); "Ling the Merger King," Newsweek (9 Oct. 1967); Don A. Schanche, "It Is Theoretically Possible for the Entire United States to Become One Vast Conglomerate Presided Over by Mr. James J. Ling," Saturday Evening Post (2 Nov. 1968); and Claire Poole, "Merge Ahead," Texas Monthly (Aug. 2000).

James Longhurst