Published: February 24, 2011
Sanford C. Sigoloff, a corporate turnaround expert who called himself the Skillful Scalpel as he sought to preserve the value in failing companies, died on Saturday at his home in Brentwood, Calif. He was 80.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, said Michael S. Sitrick, who worked for Mr. Sigoloff during the restructuring of the Wickes Companies in the early 1980s — the largest Chapter 11 case outside the railroad industry at that time. Mr. Sigoloff also had Alzheimer’s disease, Mr. Sitrick said.
Although Mr. Sigoloff started as a chemist and physicist, he switched careers and spent the 1970s and 1980s restructuring severely troubled companies. He became a familiar face to television viewers in the Midwest and on the West Coast in the early ’80s when, as chief executive of Wickes, he played himself in a series of commercials, much as Lee Iacocca did in Chrysler commercials around that time.
Mr. Sigoloff talked tough in the ads, exhorting his workers to cut prices and bolster service on behalf of Wickes retailers like Builders Emporium, Wickes Furniture, Red Owl Supermarkets and Snyder Drug Stores. The employees always responded with a chorus of “We got the message, Mr. Sigoloff!”
The ads were credited with rallying morale and increasing Wickes’s retail sales by 25 percent, according to a profile in The Los Angeles Times Magazine.
Mr. Sigoloff sometimes said his science background had given him the ability to unravel complex business failures and make unsentimental choices. He had a reputation as a perfectionist who calculated every move, mapping out his progress on charts. Asked why he and one of his troubled companies, the Republic Corporation, had parted ways, a board member replied, “Too many damned charts.”
In addition to the Skillful Scalpel, Mr. Sigoloff liked to call himself Ming the Merciless, after the evil ruler of the planet Mongo in the Flash Gordon comic strip. During the reorganization of Wickes, he had his entire management team adopt names from the strip, and urged them to think of themselves as fighting a science-fiction war to win back the company’s lost respectability, which he called Princess Aura.
At another company, the Los Angeles-based retailer Daylin, he outlined his strategy in a 260-page report known internally as the I.B.B., or Infamous Black Book. It called for dismissing more than half of Daylin’s 16,000 employees and selling or closing numerous manufacturing units and distributorships.
But those who managed to hang on were rewarded. Mr. Sigoloff got 3 percent of the company’s new stock when it emerged from bankruptcy and kept only a third of it. The rest, worth more than $2.5 million at the time, was distributed to Daylin’s employees.
“The people who work with you to help turn around a troubled company put forth a superhuman effort,” he told The New York Times. “All during the trouble they get no rewards, but they endure the stress and strain. They deserve something for that.”
Among the other distressed companies Mr. Sigoloff worked on were Kaufman & Broad, a Los Angeles home builder, and the L. J. Hooker Corporation, an Australian-owned retail enterprise whose holdings included the Bonwit Teller, B. Altman and Sakowitz chains. That company proved impossible to turn around, and most of its department store holdings had to be liquidated.
Sanford C. Sigoloff, known as Sandy, was born on Sept. 8, 1930, in St. Louis. His father became an Army physician during World War II, and the family had to move from town to town, finally settling in Los Angeles when Mr. Sigoloff was in high school.
He earned a degree in physics and chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles, working part time for the Atomic Energy Commission while completing his studies. He stayed on with the commission after graduation, and during the Korean War became a researcher for the Air Force, studying the effects of nuclear explosions.
He told an interviewer that while working on those research projects, he realized he would rather “put up the money and manage the projects” as a business executive.
In 1963 he joined Electro-Optical Systems, a Pasadena company that later became a division of Xerox. He left in 1969 to avoid a promotion that meant a transfer to Rochester. He founded an investment company but was soon recruited to the Republic Corporation as a troubleshooter. He replaced the chief executive there in a matter of months.
Mr. Sigoloff is survived by his wife, Betty; two sons, John and Stephen; a daughter, Laurie; a sister, Roberta Silverman; and six grandchildren.