Chicago Edward A. Brennan, who started as a sales associate at a Sears store in Wisconsin and rose to become chairman and CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co. in the mid-1980s, died Thursday at his home in Burr Ridge, Ill., after a brief illness. He was 73.
Brennan was the third generation of his family to work for the company. His grandfather worked with founder Richard Sears and his father and four uncles all worked as Sears buyers. His younger brother, Bernard Brennan, also worked for Sears but left in the mid-1970s, eventually becoming one of his brother's biggest rivals as head of Montgomery Ward & Co.
Brennan began working for Sears in 1956, shortly after graduating from college, and rose steadily through the ranks. He was appointed chairman and CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 1986, when the company was at its peak as the nation’s largest retailer and a financial conglomerate whose holdings included Allstate insurance, Dean Witter Financial Services Group and Coldwell Banker & Company, the real estate firm.
Critics contend that Brennan was slow to respond to the threat posed by discount chains, particularly the upstart Wal-Mart. He led the company through several rounds of cost-cutting and big layoffs in the early 1990s, and bowed to shareholder pressure to spin off the company’s financial divisions: By the time Brennan retired from Sears in 1995, Sears had lost much of its dominance to the Bentonville retailer. It had also lost ownership of its namesake skyscraper in Chicago, the Sears Tower.
During his retirement, Brennan sat on a number of corporate boards, including those of McDonald’s and 3M. He was a director at American Airlines when the carrier was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2003, and after chief executive Donald Carty abruptly resigned, fellow board members tapped Brennan to become American's executive chairman and president. He held the executive chairman post for a year and helped American steer clear of the journey through Chapter 11 that befell United Airlines.