Abstract: Trying to Turn an Elephant around in a Bathtub: Managing Western Union's Post–World War II Decline

David Hochfelder


Once dominant in the nation's telecommunications, Western Union began a long decline after 1929 due to technological obsolescence and declining demand. Postwar company leaders attempted to overcome these twin challenges in two ways. Walter Marshall, president from 1945 to 1964, modernized its plant and tapped new but closely related markets such as desktop fax machines and turnkey communications networks. Marshall's successor, Russell McFall, pursued a radically different strategy after 1964 and tried to turn Western Union into the nation's "information utility," investing heavily in computing and satellites. McFall transformed Western Union, but only by racking up a huge debt that it could not service. Western Union's decline and fall is significant because scholarship on corporate failure is sparse. Western Union's story has three lessons. Most important, a company having as its major asset its capacity for technological leadership must never lose that capacity. Second, a radical reorientation from a firm's core capabilities may be too costly to withstand in the long run. Finally, the telegraph industry may be dead, but the market it served, record communication, persists in the form of fax and email, indicating that technologies often outlive their corporate shells.