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Steve McCracken, the charismatic former president of Lycra Worldwide who made the brand into a global powerhouse, died of stomach cancer Thursday at his home in Toledo, Ohio. He was 54.
McCracken headed the Lycra spandex business in Europe from 1988 to 1992, and doubled the worldwide Lycra operation to a volume of almost $2 billion when it was part of the Textiles & Interiors division of DuPont Inc.
This story first appeared in the February 11, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
During his five-year tenure as president of Lycra Worldwide, which ended in 2003, McCracken built the Lycra business into a $3.5 billion operation. He served as president and chief executive officer of the $6.3 billion Invista Inc. textile business from April 2003 to January 2004, after it had been sold to Koch Industries.
McCracken left Invista in 2004. Until poor health forced him to leave in 2006, he was chairman and ceo of Owens-Illinois Inc., the largest manufacturer of glass containers in the world.
Known as a maverick and innovative leader among his peers at corporate-oriented DuPont, McCracken’s spirit was reflected in his hands-on approach and casual attire, often wearing khaki pants and a chambray shirt with rolled-up sleeves amid the pinstripe suits of his colleagues at the firm’s Wilmington, Del., headquarters.
A tennis enthusiast for most of his life, McCracken was a strong competitor both in the boardroom or on the court. His legacy included a collegial style, wit and infectious humor, and many of his employees throughout his 32-year career considered him a mentor and a friend.
Bill Ghitis, former president of Invista’s Global Apparel business, remembered McCracken as a “fun-loving guy who gave me a huge break.”
“He believed in giving people an opportunity,” said Ghitis, who now oversees Bian International, a global business management company specializing in textiles, apparel and luxury goods. “I will always be grateful to him because eventually he gave me the opportunity to become the global leader for Lycra and nylon. If he had not gone to bat for me with DuPont at the beginning, it just wouldn’t have happened.”
Ghitis said he first met McCracken in Geneva in 1990 when McCracken was the business director of Lycra in Europe. “Steve lived intensely,” Ghitis said. “You may have disagreed with his strategies or thoughts, but he was a can-do guy and certainly was a breath of fresh air in Europe, where it was so staid and conservative.”
Linda Kearns, communications director for Invista Apparel, who had worked with McCracken at DuPont for six years, said, “To me, Steve was a great leader, a great friend and a great teacher. His inspiration has impacted me, my job, my life.”
Carol Gee, chief communications officer at Owens-Illinois and former global brand manager at Invista, said, “I knew Steve in New York before working for him in ’93 at Corian and later Lycra. I think I’m no different than any other person who was ever touched by the man. The amazing thing about Steve as a business leader is that people always remembered how he made you feel. He was either the smartest man in the room who never made you feel dumb or he was the big guy who came in the room and didn’t make you feel smaller. He was a pied piper of people.”
In an interview in 2000 in Lyon, France, where the Lycra stand was a mainstay at the Lyon, Mode City trade fair, McCracken talked about his stay in Geneva, joking that he couldn’t find a good hamburger in Switzerland. Some associates in the U.S. got wind of McCracken’s displeasure and overnighted him a crate of White Castle burgers.
When McCracken returned to the U.S. in 1993, he was assigned to turn around DuPont’s then-floundering Corian business. McCracken thrived on challenges, and in three years tripled annual revenues for the division to more than $1.5 billion by taking Corian beyond kitchen and bathroom products to a lifestyle-driven image in magazines and TV.
At the time, a plaque with an oversize Corian carrot with the saying “In Case of Emergency…” was displayed at his former office in Wilmington. Asked about the plaque, McCracken told WWD, “In advertising, I don’t like an image of enticing and selling. I get upset about pushing and selling. It all seems less noble to me quite frankly. I think the idea is to give consumers what they want — value. They don’t need to be enticed, surprised or tricked.”
McCracken grew up in Franklin, Ind., a farming community of 10,000, where his father managed the only movie theater and his mother was a bank teller. At age 10, he began picking up the trash in the cinema for $3.50 an hour.
“We didn’t belong to a country club or have new cars like a lot of people did,” McCracken said in an interview in 1998. “But the lack of money didn’t bother me.”
After earning a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., McCracken joined DuPont in 1975 as a field engineer. He later worked in operations, finance, planning and marketing and business positions throughout the U.S. and Europe. He also served on the boards of several DuPont ventures in Latin America and Asia.
McCracken described his professional and personal style to WWD this way: “Basically, a lot of folks view a DuPont executive as a stuffed-shirt type. It got to the point where the chairman invited me to breakfast and asked me, ‘Why do you dress that [casual] way? Some people think you do it out of spite.’ I told him, ‘Because I’m comfortable.’ My ego is outwardly focused, not upwardly focused. I’m not antiestablishment, it’s just that I’m not here to carry someone’s bags. I’ve got this strange, idealistic bent to me. I get off on the notion of creating jobs.”
McCracken is survived by his wife, Judy; three daughters, Morgan, Kelsey and Molly; a son, Connor; his mother, Dixie, and a sister, Julie Stephenson.
Memorial services are planned in three cities: the Walker Funeral Home in Toledo on Wednesday, the Flinn & Maguire Funeral Home in McCracken’s hometown of Franklin on Friday and a third service in the spring in Wilmington.