Reinventing a Corporation: The "Satellite" Structure of Thermo Electron

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Thermo Electron has created a unique and highly innovative corporate structure by selling to the public minority equity interests in 19 of its business units over the period 1983 to 1996. Since 1983, the company has achieved extraordinary gains for stockholders, both those of the parent company and those of most of its publicly traded subsidiaries. The company's "satellite" structure is intended to preserve the benefits enjoyed by small entrepreneurial organizations without sacrificing many of the advantages enjoyed by larger firms. Although decentralization is a key element of the organizational design, another important feature of the Thermo Electron approach is that administrative activities unrelated to the focus of the unit's operations continue to be managed at the parent level. The combination of an entrepreneurial atmosphere with the financial and administrative support of a larger organization is used extensively by the company to attract and retain management and technical talent. In fact, the company made the remarkable claim in a 1995 Forbes article that "no developer or entrepreneur has ever left Thermo Electron." Another major contributor to the company's entrepreneurial culture is an incentive structure that is tied directly to the equity performance of both the public units and the parent. Managers of the publicly traded units are granted significant amounts of stock options, but only 40% of those options are based on the performance of their subsidiary. Of the remaining 60%, 40% are granted in the stock of the parent and the other 20% are in stock of the other subsidiaries.

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SMU Cox School of Business Research Paper Series