Maintaining a Flexible Payout Policy in a Mature Industry: The Case of Crown Cork and Seal in the Connelly Era

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Abstract

This case study suggests that the payment of cash dividends may not be essential to the long-run success of even mature companies. A mature company in a mature industry, the Crown Cork and Seal Company did not pay any common dividends during John Connelly's 33-year tenure as chairman and CEO. During that period (from 1957 to 1990), the company used stock repurchases along with a compensation policy featuring low executive salaries and generous executive stock options to motivate and execute a focused business strategy.

Under the leadership of Connelly, Crown was rescued from what appeared to be certain bankruptcy to become one of the most profitable firms in its industry. Debt was immediately paid down, preferred stock was retired, and the firm's operations were revamped and streamlined. Instead of following the diversification strategies of larger industry peers, Crown's strategy was focused and driven by profit margin and customer service. This strategy eventually led Crown to invest internationally and acquire one of its major rivals.

In addition to significant equity ownership by Crown's management and board members, the company's board had a remarkable number of “outsiders” and representatives from international operations, creating a culture that was outward-looking as well as cohesive. And without paying a dollar of dividends—a practice that many finance scholars believe imposes a necessary discipline on mature companies—Crown both preserved its financing flexibility and produced a remarkable record of increases in both profits and market value.

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