A conglomerate whiz, 84, sharing his know-how

It's hard to forget Royal Little, the multimillionaire industrialist who originated Textron Inc. and the modern conglomerate financial system. The Talon zippers in clothing, the Bostitch staples in everything from notes to memos to mailers, the Speidel watchbands on people's arms,t he Gorham silverware in a nearly restaurant, and the Sheaffer pen in this writer's hand were all made by Textron affiliates.

And at 84 years of age, although he retired from Textron years ago, Mr. Little is stll active in the business world. At present he is helping companies to make corporate acquisitions. Together with a longtime associate, Jim Robison , he has created a new consulting firm called Lonsdale Enterprises Inc. The office is a sort of company brokerage, with corporate presidents calling for advice and small companies offering themselves for acquisition.

Having bought so many companies as president of Textron, his experience and expertise are making the brokerage practice popular and profitable.

In his spare time, between golfing trips to Scotland (10 courses in 10 days) and safaris in East Africa, he writes.

His most recent effort, a book about his financial mistakes, is titled "How to Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Advice" (Little, Brown & Co., $12.95). It is amusing, candid biography.Best of all, it is not burdened by technical financial terms, making it easy yet informative reading, tracing the life of a financial genius and a wonderfully human fellow.

Mr Little is quick to discuss his blunders. He almost lets you forget what he's achieved. Introducing his book, he writes, "The personal histories of most businessmen are ego trips and of no real value to the business community. . . . I finally decided [that] by writing about my mistakes I might contribute something to our free-enterprise system."

"No businessman has ever written such a book -- possibly because no one else has compiled such an impressive record of mistakes. . . . People ask me, 'How did you ever lose so much money?' Well I tell 'em, I didn't lose it, the stockholders lost it. I went through and added up the exact amount my mistakes cost the company and it came out well over $100,000,000, but why spoil a good title?"

It's hard to understand why a man who has founded a multibillion-dollar corporation is working so hard. "I've seen so many friends," he explains, "presidents of some great companies,w ho retire and go to Florida. They just give up. My concern has been, and always will be, for the future."

But all in all, Mr. Little says, his heart still belongs to Textron.

He started his first synthetic yarns processing plant in New England in 1923 on "less than a shoestring." That year, he says, "We almost broke even." In 1980 , Textron Inc. is expected to exceed $4 billion in sales.

Mr. Little decided to diversify Textron in 1952.The conglomeration process was started under criticism from financial associates. "They'd say, "Roy, this idea cannot possibly work. How can any one person run 20 or 30 different businesses?'

Mr. Little says, "They were failing to understand the imminent practicality of the conglomerate system. Anti-trust laws can't stop you from buying unrelated businesses, and this is the best way to stabilize cycles in textiles. As Textron is now, there are no textiles."

When he talks about his company today, in Providence, Mr. Little forgets all the industries included in Textron and runs to the next room to get the annual report with all the names of the cover.

"All of these are leaders in small, million-dollar industries," he explains, pointing to each of the names. "Jacobsen, the most recent acquisition, is a leader in lawn mowers. Gorham leads the silver industry. Sprageu, Polaris, Bell Helicopter, Homelite, Camcar, all leaders."

He does have some regrets, such as not buying Tupperware or Jostens Inc., a school yearbook, class ring, and trophy company. "Tupperware made $500 million after taxes in '78 and I had a chance to buy it for only $10 million, for gosh sakes." Mr. Little shakes his head. "I got chintzy."

Words like "million" and "billion" come easily to him. He can't understand why anyone would be intimidated by these figures -- "it's just a question of a few ciphers," he says. "All the basic economic principles remain the same."

Mr. Little is a staunch advocate for the free-enterprise system. "Nothing is going to stop the entrepreneurs of this country from creating new products and services," he says. "There has never been a country with a system as good as ours."

He also fears for the welfare of the system. He wonders if Americans will have sufficient tolerance for a recession to end today's double-digit inflation. "As I see it, that [the recession] is the only way to curb it. It's kind of scary."

Mr. Little relinquished his role as chairman and president in 1962. His offices were later held by G. William Miller, who in 1978 became chairman of the Federal Rserve Board and the following year secretary of the Treasury.

Characteristically, Mr. Little concludes his book, "If your friends start saying, 'Roy, you haven't changed a bit in the last five years,' don't be flattered -- that's a sure sign you're slipping. . . . If I had my life to do over, I'd make the same mistakes -- but I'd start sooner."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.