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Fatal Attraction in the Boardroom: The Bendix Affair Shocks the Business World


Executives question the rapid promotion of a 29-year-old MBA grad.

It was the era's steamiest business soap opera. Thirty years ago, Mary Cunningham was an attractive newly-minted 29-year-old Harvard MBA wunderkind and her boss William Agee, then 43, was the chairman/CEO of Bendix, a manufacturing conglomerate. Her rapid rise under his mentorship and the fact that both left their spouses led tongues to wag that the pair were having an affair.

Matters came to a head in 1980 when Agee denied at an employee meeting that Cunningham's quick promotion to vice president of strategic planning had anything to do with a "personal relationship we have."

Cunningham was forced to resign after just 15 months, but went on to receive more than 170 job offers from other companies. She eventually took a six-figure post with Joseph E. Seagram & Sons. Two years later, Agee and Cunningham married. The newlywed Mary Cunningham Agee left Seagram after two and a half years and set up a venture capital firm and strategic consulting firm, Semper Partners, with her husband.

In her tell-all bestseller published in 1984, Powerplay: What Really Happened At Bendix, Cunningham Agee maintained the romantic relationship didn't begin until after she left Bendix. Mrs. Cunningham Agee has spent most of her adult career in philanthropy and was twice voted by World Almanac as one of the "Twenty-five most influential women in America."

The free-wheeling CEO, meanwhile, got a five-year golden parachute but lost his job at Bendix after attempting a takeover in 1982 of the Martin Marietta Corp. In 1988, the Agees returned to his hometown of Boise, Idaho, where William, known as Bill, was planning to rescue the giant construction company Morrison Knudsen Corp. as chairman and CEO. But as the company's troubles mounted, he retreated to the family's seaside home in Pebble Beach, California, and ran the firm remotely. The board bought the family's home after approving the move as a "corporate relocation."

Even more controversy accompanied the couple to Morrison Knudsen, which ran into financial ruin while Agee was at the helm. He was ousted by the board in 1995.

Among the areas of concern were the travel perks the chairman and his wife negotiated. In addition, some of the Morrison-Knudsen Corporate Foundation's gifts were donated to The Nurturing Network, an outreach group Mrs. Cunningham Agee founded to provide support to women with unplanned pregnancies. She established the organization, which helps women find alternatives to abortion, just after her own miscarriage.

Today the Agees live in Napa Valley, California, and have two grown children. Bill, 72, is chairman of Semper Charitable, the family's charitable foundation, and Mary remains president and CEO of The Nurturing Network, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this Mother's Day. According to its website, more than 19,000 women and children have used the Network's services.

In a 2005 interview with US News & World Report, Cunningham Agee said, "Women are reflected in corporate culture at higher levels today. I think I educated young women on some of the politics in business. If I had to do a little suffering for my daughter to have a better experience, that's okay."

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