Ex-Arco, RCA Chief Thornton Bradshaw Dies

Times Staff Writer

Thornton F. Bradshaw, a corporate statesman who espoused social responsibility as he reshaped Atlantic Richfield Co. and RCA Corp., died early Tuesday evening. He was 71 years old and lived in Manhattan.

Bradshaw had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage Monday and was admitted to New York Hospital where he died.

The mild-mannered executive rose to national prominence during the oil crises of the 1970s as the Arco president who advocated environmental values and such unlikely causes as a windfall profits tax on his industry. In the 1980s, he took the chairmanship of the long-ailing RCA Corp., restored its financial health, and then, in a last and highly controversial act, sold it to General Electric Co.


The one-time Harvard business school professor gained himself a place in the business textbooks as an impassioned advocate of corporate planning and other modern management methods.

During his 17-year tenure at Arco in Los Angeles, the company became a major contributor to charities and took a leading role in local civic causes, such as mass public transportation and oil conservation.

“The purposes of a corporation are more than simply producing a healthy return on investment,” he once wrote. “Those who believe as I do in the value of the market system must develop a more humanistic, responsible form of capitalism.”

Such talk jolted some of his oil industry colleagues. But others held up Bradshaw and his fellow Arco executive, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert O. Anderson, as paragons of corporate virtue. In 1976, Time magazine gushed that Bradshaw would “make as able a candidate for President as the dozen politicians who have declared themselves in the running.”

Late Tuesday, Lodwrick M. Cook, the current chairman and chief executive officer of Arco, remembered his old friend as “a major figure in our corporate history. . . . Those who heard him speak remember his wit, wisdom and eloquence not just on business topics but in the cause of a more rational world. . . .”

Thornton Frederick Bradshaw was born to a poor family in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 4, 1917, and grew up in New York City. Through a series of scholarships, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, where he received bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in business. He served as a naval officer during World War II and afterward taught at Harvard for seven years.


In 1952 he began to apply his academic learning in the business world, joining the New York management consulting firm of Cresap, McCormick & Paget. Bradshaw began articulating his philosophy of modern management, calling for long-range business planning and urging colleges to begin basic scientific research on management methods.

He joined Arco’s predecessor, Atlantic Refining Co., in 1956. In 1964 he was elected president, beginning a 16-year partnership with Arco Chairman Anderson, whose interests in social issues and the humanities made him an equally unconventional oilman.

Bradshaw earned his national reputation during the 1970s, when the oil industry came under sharpest attack by environmentalists and others. Arco showered its generosity not only on hospitals, universities and museums but on its sometime-adversaries in the environmental movement.

Billboard Ads Canceled

The Arco Foundation once gave a $1-million donation to the Nature Conservancy so the group could purchase Santa Cruz Island and make it a wildlife preserve. In 1972 it canceled advertising on 1,000 billboards in 36 states as part of an effort to help preserve “America’s natural beauty.”

Meanwhile, Bradshaw took public positions that did not always make him welcome at industry gatherings. He contended that the industry should give up the oil-depletion allowances that greatly reduced its taxes in return for decontrol of oil prices.

He argued that the government needed to plan and regulate the energy business to ensure proper supplies in the years ahead. “Brad was willing to publicly defend a position that to many of his . . . colleagues seemed unthinkable,” William F. Kieschnick Jr., another former Arco president, said in an interview last year.

Even recently, Bradshaw differed with many oil industry executives in advocating a hike in the gasoline tax to support energy research and encourage conservation.

In 1979, Bradshaw was one of four finalists for USC president before he withdrew his name from consideration.

One of Bradshaw’s greatest triumphs began in 1981 when he was 64 and due to retire within a year. Bradshaw was picked to become chairman and chief executive of RCA Corp., which had floundered amid continuing boardroom intrigue through its last three chief executives.

Bradshaw was expected be a caretaker, someone who would hire others who could lead a company that had lost its way. But he chose a more active role.

One of his first acts was to hire independent television producer Grant Tinker to lead RCA’s NBC subsidiary, which had been sinking ever deeper in the ratings under departing President Fred Silverman. Within months, the ratings began a reversal, eventually making the network No. 1. The network was again profitable in 1982.

Bradshaw sold off other assets of a company that had become a grab-bag of unrelated operations and concentrated it on the businesses of entertainment and high technology. RCA’s earnings soared to $369 million in 1985 from $41 million in 1981, as its stock price quadrupled.

One of his admirers was Tinker. Bradshaw was “a fooler,” Tinker said in an interview last year. “He never seems to sell hard or work hard, but he gets a lot done.”

It was because of RCA’s prosperity that critics howled in 1985 when Bradshaw recommended the sale of the company, a proud pioneer in radio and electronics.

But Bradshaw defended the decision. He said that the television business is too risky to be the company’s principal financial base and that RCA’s other businesses were not strong enough to assume that role either.

Bradshaw had recently spent some of his time as chairman of the MacArthur Foundation. He headed several journalistic and educational groups and was a member of four corporate boards.

Survivors include his wife, Patricia, two daughters and a son. Services will be held Saturday morning at St. James’s Episcopal Church in New York.