Jump to:

Weissman, George

(PM Chairman & CEO '79-84) Vice President of Philip Morris from 1954 to 1956. Vice President and Assistant to the President in 1957. Vice President of Marketing from 1958-59. Executive Vice President of Marketing in 1960. Exec. VP Overseas in 1961, Exec. VP PM International 1962-66. President from 1967 to 1972. President and Chief Operating Officer in 1973. Vice Chairman from 1974-78. Chair and CEO from '79-84 and on the Board of Directors from 1959-84.

Biographical Information:George Weissman was born in the Bronx on July 12, 1919, the middle of three children. His father, Samuel Weissman, was a Russian-born Jew who worked as a milliner, while his mother Rose had emigrated from Austria. According to the 1930 census, the first language of both parents was Yiddish. George Weissman would later describe his upbringing as middle-class, but growing up in the midst of the Great Depression, George and his older brother Norman both had to work hard for the privilege of earning an education.As a teenager, he sold the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's door-to-door and proved such a natural at sales that he had to hire classmates to deliver the magazines. After graduating from Townsend Harris High School, George Weissman followed in the steps of his older brother by enrolling at City College of New York. But while Norman Weissman had taken science classes, eventually going on to earn a doctorate in biochemistry under the direction of Rudolf Schoenheimer and Nobelist Harold Urey, George took accounting and business classes. He worked nights at Ohrbach's department store to finance his education, doing much of his studying on the subway ride back to the Bronx, but still found time for an array of extracurricular activities that included serving as class historian and as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Ticker.Upon graduating in 1939, the Depression was still in full force and jobs in George Weissman's chosen profession of accounting were not to be found. He later recalled that the only offer he received paid a mere three dollars per week and was accompanied by a hint from the interviewer that he would need to make a fifty-dollar sub rosa payment in order to be hired. As he quipped after attaining the presidency of one of the nation's largest firms, "I couldn't afford to be an accountant." So Weissman turned instead to a job at a New Jersey weekly newspaper, the Raritan Valley News. The economic climate meant that he had to wear many hats, acting as reporter, editor, ad manager, and subscription sales manager. Characteristically, he still found time to moonlight as a feature writer for the Newark Star-Ledger and would look back on the job as "the best time of my life."Pearl Harbor ended this chapter of his life, as George Weissman responded by enlisting in the U. S. Navy. After completing officer training, he spent the next three and a half years in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Pacific theatres as Commanding Officer of the Subchaser S. C. 497 and as Executive Officer of the U. S. S. Horace Bass. Weissman also met and courted a young woman named Mildred Stregack. The young couple exchanged vows on June 4, 1944, beginning a marriage that would last for sixty-five years. At the war's end, Weissman sat down at his typewriter and spent a month pounding out what he hoped would be the definitive book about the war. But after pounding out 50,000 words, he was confronted with a writer's block and the need to support his wife. He began taking freelance assignments, including one to write a review of a Samuel Goldwyn war film called The Happiest Years of Our Lives for a labor paper. The review attracted the attention of Goldwyn publicity director Lynn Farnol, who offered Weissman a job publicizing the movie.The job proved a perfect fit, bringing together George Weissman's infectious enthusiasm and his knowledge of the newspaper business. His greatest triumph was orchestrating a publicity tour for Harold Russell, a Canadian-born disabled veteran who was featured in the movie. By its end the hitherto little-known Russell was a familiar figure and he earned both the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and a special award from the Academy, making him one of only two non-actors ever to win an acting Oscar and the only person ever to win two Oscars for the same performance. In 1948, Weissman had a falling out with Farnol and, depending on the version, he either quit or was fired. But his work had drawn the notice of public relations consultant Benjamin Sonnenberg, who hired Weissman and began to entrust him with his best accounts. One of these was Philip Morris, which at the time was still the smallest of the six giant American tobacco manufacturers. Weissman's primary function was promoting the company's radio shows, but from the start he took a broad approach to public relations. Most notably, he worked closely with the National Urban League to establish Philip Morris in the African-American community. Understanding that positive coverage in the African-American press of the era began with enlightened hiring practices, he pushed the company to become a leader in this regard. It was an unusual approach to public relations and could have backfired if the effort had been perceived as being less than genuine. But Sonnenberg maintained that Weissman was able to make it a success because he possessed "a high degree of believability. He's without guile."After four years of handling the Philip Morris account for Sonnenberg, Philip Morris president O. Parker McComas hired him away in June 1952 and made him his assistant. His initial duty was to oversee the company's broadcasts as they made the transition to the new medium of television. But as usual George Weissman began to wear a multitude of hats and after only six months McComas gave him a crucial assignment, to write a report on how Philip Morris could turn itself into an industry leader. Weissman mulled over whether to approach the question with tact or with candor and eventually opted for the latter approach. He submitted a thirty-two-page report that stressed two basic themes: that the health concerns of consumers made it essential for Philip Morris to plunge into the popularly priced filtered-cigarette market and that the company needed to replace its "antiquated" organizational chart with one that included separate and independent departments for market research, packaging, and new product development. McComas read over the report, called Weissman into his office, and told him that he would be in charge of those three departments and of deciding how to enter the filtered-cigarette market.Weissman then put all the energies of a newly hired staff of market researchers to plot a course for entering the filtered-cigarette market. After conducting its due diligence, which included more than ten thousand interviews, the company made the historic decision to "rebrand" its Marlboro cigarette, which had previously been marketed as a woman's cigarette, as a symbol of masculinity. The rebranding was accompanied by the "Marlboro country" cowboys-and-open-spaces ad campaign created by Leo Burnett and by a redesign of the packaging that resulted in the creation and patenting of the flip-top box. Marlboro remains the most successful example of rebranding in marketing history and it transformed Philip Morris and made the career of George Weissman. To many, there would be a contradiction in the idea of a Bronx-born son of Yiddish-speaking emigrants riding the theme of cowboys and open spaces to success, but Weissman saw no contradiction. Indeed, he told Fortune magazine in 1978 that he saw himself as the quintessential Marlboro man. "I'm no cowboy and I don't ride horseback," he declared, "but I like to think I have the freedom the Marlboro man exemplifies. He's the man who doesn't punch a clock. He's not computerized. He's a free spirit." Defying the reality that public relations specialists rarely ascend to the top ranks of corporate America, Weissman experienced meteoric success in the years after rebranding Marlboro. In 1953, only a year after being hired by Philip Morris, he was named a vice president. Four years later, when Joseph F. Cullman III took over as company president, Weissman was named an executive vice president and a special assistant to Cullman. A new turn in his career arrived in 1960, when Weissman returned from a vacation in Europe bubbling with enthusiasm and new ideas. Cullman responded by asking him to take over Philip Morris International. After initial uncertainty about whether he was "being thrown sideways, downstairs, or out the window," Weissman threw himself into the assignment and was able to produce healthy increases in overseas sales.In 1966, he was named to succeed Cullman as president of Philip Morris. He held the position until 1978, when he was named Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, retaining both posts until his retirement in 1984.His long tenure saw the firm that had once lagged behind all of the other major American tobacco manufacturers make its way up the ladder and establish itself as the industry leader. Highlights included the decision to diversify Philip Morris with the purchase of Miller Brewing and Seven-Up. After the acquisition of Miller, Weissman played a major role in a move that harkened back to the rebranding of Marlboro when he decided that the health concerns of consumers would make a "light" brand a success. The result was Miller Lite. According to a competitive intelligence report prepared for R. J. Reynolds, "Philip Morris' number one image builder is George Weissman and his pitch is that Philip Morris is a quality organization." Included in that definition of quality were such planks as being "an enlightened corporation committed to equal rights, equal opportunity, and a policy of treating its employees as partners," being "a civic-minded corporation interested in its 'hometowns,' improving the quality of life, and supporting the Arts," and being "a moral, fair, honest company with a real allegiance to integrity." It is easy to pay lip service to such ideals, and not altogether surpising that R. J. Reynolds could conclude Philip Morris was a moral, honest company committed to integrity while at the same time it and its competitors were trying to obscure that their products killed hundreds of thousands of people every year. Thus, as might be expected, Weissman did have critics who questioned whether he was indeed without guile, as Benjamin Sonnenberg had claimed. Nevertheless, Weissman did sometimes take courageous stances when he could have opted for caution. Most notably, Philip Morris remained committed to hiring African Americans even when faced with the prospect of a boycott led by the racist White Citizens Council. (Weissman believed that Philip Morris's rivals helped fuel the boycott.) The company not only hired African Americans but promoted them to executive positions, while continuing to advertise in minority-oriented newspapers and magazines. Weissman's leadership on civil rights earned him numerous awards, including the New York Urban League's Frederick Douglass Award for "distinguished contributions toward the cause of equal opportunity," the Jackie Robinson Foundation's "Robie" Award for Achievement in Industry, the NAACP's Corporation Recognition Award, and the National Urban League's Equal Opportunity Award. Weissman also used Philip Morris's resources to support the arts. The company sponsored experimental initiatives such as a traveling exhibition of modern art and the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. These were hardly the predictably risk-aversive decisions of a huge multinational, but to Weissman that was the whole point. "We wanted to demonstrate to our own employees that we were an open-minded company seeking creativity in all aspects of our business," he explained. "And we were determined to do this by sponsoring things that made a difference, that were really dangerous." Once, when asked if arts organizations should decline to accept tobacco money, he replied, "Do you stop the Bolshoi from coming here because you don"t believe in the Russian system?" Weissman's progressive outlook was not limited to civil rights issues and the arts. He signed a petition denouncing the Vietnam War. When asked about his main concerns, he cited "how we deal with the potential social cancers such as 44% of black and Hispanic youth being unemployed...how we improve our educational system...how we improve the infrastructure in the country..." the railroads, our housing starts, our hospitals and health care." His stance earned George Weissman a place on one of the last lists to be expected to include the name of a successful business executive, the Nixon administration's "enemies list." Not surprisingly, very few in the public health community believe that Philip Morris's support of minority groups and the arts was motivated by altruism. Matthew Myers, the president and chief executive of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, has accused the company of using philanthropy to buy "a better image, and frankly, the silence of some powerful voices who would normally be expected to speak out about the tobacco public-health problem." Myers noted that the company asked arts groups that it funded to lobby the New York City Council as it considered a ban on smoking in public places. Similarly, in 1985, after Weissman's retirement, new Philip Morris president Frank Resnik asked for the support of a group of African-American newspaper editors by reminding them of the company's commitment to civil rights and then declaring, "intolerance is still the name of the game. The anti-smokers, like the White Citizens Councils, are saying, Do it my way, or don't do it at all. We need to stand up to this bigotry the way we stood up to the bigots of thirty years ago." In fairness to George Weissman, however, both of these incidents took place after his retirement.It was the smoking and health issue that brought George Weissman's contradictions into the sharpest relief. In 1954, shortly after becoming a Philip Morris vice president, he told the National Association of Tobacco Distributors that the industry would "stop business tomorrow" if it believed its products were harming customers. Yet he remained a Philip Morris executive for the next three decades as study after study established that cigarettes were killing millions of smokers. Weissman continued to smoke forty cigarettes a day and, uncharacteristically, to advocate caution. In a 1969 memo to Cullman, he proposed that Philip Morris "be cautious and judicious" in responding to "the avalanche of government and do-gooders." He went on to stress the importance of not "box[ing] our opponents in corners from which we cannot get out," while continuing to maintain that the company's position that causation had not been established was "based on truth and integrity and even more scientific truth than our opponents use."What George Weissman actually thought about the smoking and health issue remains difficult to determine with much certainty. Unlike so many tobacco company executives, he was never asked to testify in court, and aside from his 1954 pronouncement on the subject, he seems to have avoided bringing the subject up. Nevertheless, some insight may be had from a 1980 interview in Forbes magazine in which he said that Philip Morris had a "Masada complex." The idea of the chairman and chief executive officer of a huge multinational tobacco manufacturer comparing his firm to the desperate plight of oppressed first-century Jews struck many as incongruous. But to Weissman, it was an apt analogy for the way Philip Morris had had to outvie its rivals, only to then come under attack from the government and the public health community.Adding to the delicacy of Weissman's position, his older brother Norman had become a well-known toxicologist, whose career included seven years teaching at Johns Hopkins Medical School. One of Norman Weissman's colleagues at Johns Hopkins was Luther Terry ��" the man who was Surgeon General in 1964 when that year's Surgeon General's Report forced many Americans to recognize the health risks of smoking. Internal Philip Morris documents show that George Weissman corresponded with his brother throughout his tenure at the company's helm but remained reluctant to commit his thoughts on the topic of smoking and health to paper. In one particularly intriguing note, George Weissman forwarded his brother's curriculum vitae to Tobacco Industry Research Committee chairman W. Thomas Hoyt in 1954 along with these instructions: "Before you do anything further on it I would like to discuss it privately with you for a minute." Norman Weissman never did align himself with the tobacco industry and never did any tobacco-related research. This may have been a conscious decision, since his research interests in amino acid metabolism, bacterial chemistry, histochemistry, copper and connective tissue, and toxicology methods would have been more suited to tobacco research than many who did such research. Three years after George Weissman's letter to Hoyt, Norman Weissman moved west to accept a position at the University of Utah and he became involved in the environmental movement, serving as president of the Utah Audubon Society. Norman Weissman died in California in 2005 at the age of ninety.After retiring from Philip Morris in 1984, George Weissman became vice chairman of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, then presided as its chairman for another eight years. Under his watch, the Lincoln Center added new buildings, launched its Classical Jazz series, and launched a nineteen-month celebration of Mozart's bicentennial. In 1994, he retired for good. To the end, George Weissman remained a staunch advocate of progressive causes. His final political contribution was to the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama. On July 24, 1909, at the age of ninety, George Weissman died in Greenwich, Connecticut, as the result of a fall at his Rye, New York, home. Survivors included his three children and his wife of sixty-five years. Sources:Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (New York: Basic Books, 2007)."City College Editor Is Named," New York Times, February 24, 1939, 25.Scott Ellsworth, "Oral History Interview with George Weissman," April 27, 1987, summarized at: http://tobaccodocuments.org/ness/8659.html.C. M. Faino, "Competitive Intelligence Research Report. Competitive Profiles: Domestic Cigarette Companies," R. J. Reynolds Internal Document, June 29, 1982, http://tobaccodocuments.org/rjr/507573489-3667.html.Paul Gibson, "The George Weissman Road Show," Forbes, November 10, 1980, 179-188."How Weissman Views the Cigarette Industry," United States Tobacco and Candy Journal, July 5-July 25, 1984, 1, 16.Richard Kluger, Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris (New York: Vintage Books, 1996)."Marketing Man at the Top," Sales Management 99, December 15, 1967."Marriages: Weissman-Stregack," New York Times, June 11, 1944, 45.Andrew Martin, "As Altria leaves town, so will its arts funding; New York groups look for new support," International Herald Tribune, October 9, 2007, 16.Douglas Martin, "George Weissman, Leader at Philip Morris and in the Arts in New York, Dies at 90," New York Times, July 27, 2009.Frank E. Resnik, "Philip Morris Replies to Smoking Criticism," New York Amsterdam News, November 23, 1985, 15."Norman Weissman," American Men and Women of Science. Vol. 7. 23rd ed. (Detroit: Gale, 2007), 579."Norman Weissman (Paid Notice: Deaths)," New York Times, February 20, 2005."Tobacco Man Hits Cigarette Cancer Talk," Washington Post and Times Herald, March 31, 1954, 6.