Avery Bullard (Raoul Freeman), President of Tredway Corporation, concludes a meeting with his investment banker, Julius Steigel (Edgar Stehli), in Steigel's Wall Street office. With them is one of Steigel's executives, George Nyle Caswell (Louis Calhern), who is a member of Tredway's board. Bullard then rides the elevator to the ground floor, where he sends a wire to his company headquarters in Millburgh, PA, calling an executive-committee meeting. Finally he steps out onto Wall Street, tries to hail a taxi, collapses, and dies.
Caswell is arguing with Steigel about the wisdom of Bullard's "one-man" governance of Tredway when he overhears a police whistle, looks down from the office window, and sees Bullard's body being lifted into an ambulance. Immediately he calls his stockbroker and orders him to start selling Tredway common stock short. He confidently predicts that Tredway stock will sink when "The Street" heard of Bullard's death. Steigel, shell-shocked, expresses his disapproval of Caswell's "sure thing."
Back at the Tredway Tower, Bullard's secretary, Erica Martin (Nina Foch), receives the telegram and starts making the rounds of the Executive Suite to notify the five Vice-Presidents of the meeting. She finds Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), the treasurer, in his office; Alderson asks whether Bullard said anything else in the telegram, and Miss Martin says no. She finds that Jesse Q. Grimm (Dean Jagger), VP for Manufacturing, has already left for the weekend, and instructs his secretary to call the tolltakers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike if she has to, to get him back to the office. Loren P. Shaw (Fredric March), the controller, is in his office, dictating a memo to Bullard critical of the money that McDonald Walling (William Holden) is spending on his experiments, when Miss Martin informs him of the meeting. He imperiously asks what other information he ought to bring, and Miss Martin clearly resents his probing questions. She goes on to deliver the message to J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas), VP for Sales, and Dudley's secretary Eva Bardeman (Shelley Winters) says that he is "in the phone." Miss Martin tells Eva to deliver the message, and Eva does--after Dudley has finished yet another angry conversation on the phone with his wife. Finally, she has to call Don Walling at the Pike Street furniture-making plant, where he is about to supervise another experiment. Chagrined, Walling assures Miss Martin that he will attend the meeting, and tells his chief design assistant to run the experiment without him.
Back in New York, Steigel is teasing Caswell about his uncertainty about Bullard's death--because unknown to both men, a thief stole Bullard's wallet out of his dead hand, removed the cash, and stuffed the wallet into a trash can before the police could notice it. All the police have, therefore, is a body without identification and wearing clothes custom-monogrammed with the initials "A.B." Caswell has sold 3,700 shares of stock short, and if Bullard turns out not to be dead, he is ruined. Caswell reads every paper he can get his hands on, and none report the death. At the Stork Club, he calls the hospital, but they refuse to give out any information on privacy grounds. He places a call to Bullard, and is told that Bullard is expected within twenty minutes. He then makes another call, as his wife impatiently chides him about keeping her waiting.
In Millburgh, the five Vice Presidents have gathered for the meeting, and while Don Walling tries to run his experiment from a distance, Dudley boasts about losing a golf game in order to make a sale. Shaw comes in and finds that everyone else is as mystified about the meeting as is he. Six o'clock comes and goes--and no Bullard.
Miss Martin announces that Bullard has missed his train, and then privately informs Alderson that Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck) is in Bullard's office. Alderson talks to Miss Tredway, who reveals that George Caswell has inquired on behalf of an unnamed friend as to whether he can purchase 3,700 shares of stock at the price at which it closed for the day. An outraged Alderson tells Miss Martin that he must see Bullard at once when he comes in--but Miss Martin says that Bullard missed the next train as well, and hasn't even check out of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
Back in New York, Caswell has finally seen an item in a late paper saying that a man having the initials "A.B." has dropped dead in front of an office building on Wall Street. Caswell tells the maitre d' to cancel that last call he placed to Millburgh (just as Julia Tredway is calling him back), then telephones the police and orders a magnum of champagne.
In Millburgh, Fred Alderson goes home, where he has dinner guests waiting. Shaw drops Dudley off at the airport--and then watches as Dudley does not get onto a plane, but instead is picked up by none other than Eva. Shaw does not follow, but merely takes note.
Don Walling returns to Pike Street and finds that the experiment has failed. His wife Mary (June Allyson) drives him home and tries to console him--but the two then get into an argument over the question of whether Avery Bullard has in fact betrayed Walling, whom he recruited into Tredway, saying, "Design what you want, build what you want"--only to let him twist in the wind as Shaw constantly interfered with his experiments, saying that they cost too much. Jesse Grimm takes note of Walling's early departure from the plant, and bitterly comments that he didn't need any "wonder boys" to tell him how to build the plant in the first place.
In the city room of Millburgh's daily newspaper, reporters ask for prior file photos of Bullard, and of Julia Tredway, taken on the day that Miss Tredway's father jumped from a window of the Tower. They also discuss the legal wisdom of reporting what they know of the extramarital dalliance between Miss Tredway and Bullard.
When Don Walling returns home, he takes a call from a newspaper reporter asking him for "a statement" in light of the death of Avery Bullard. Don, heartsick, rushes to Fred Alderson's house. Fred has heard the news, too, on the radio, and goes with Don back to the Tower. To their chagrin, they find Shaw already in the Tower, issuing press releases and authorizing the immediate release of the company's quarterly earnings report, which will show high earnings. Alderson loses his temper with Shaw over the proposed funeral arrangements. Shaw protests to Don that Alderson has accused him unfairly; Don cooly brushes Shaw off. Alderson confesses that he "made a mess" of his encounter, and realizes that Bullard never wanted him as a successor--but is determined that that successor will *not* be Shaw.
Alone in her home, Julia Tredway takes a call, confirms her identity--and then silently hangs up the phone.
Don Walling goes back home and tells his wife that the next President will likely be Jesse Grimm--and that Fred Alderson had proposed that Don himself seek the presidency, but Don had turned him down. Mary suggests that Don resign from Tredway and seek an opportunity elsewhere, but Don won't turn his back on the company or the town until he knows the situation is untenable.
Shaw goes directly to Eva Bardeman's apartment, where, not to his surprise, he finds Dudley. He informs them both that Bullard is dead and that the entire Board of Directors will have a special meeting next evening at six o'clock. Shaw then orders Dudley to take the business flight he was supposed to take to Chicago, stay there until he can fly back just before the meeting, and not take any calls from Millburgh--and that Dudley's wife need not know of his dalliance with his secretary.
Don Walling is playing catch with his son Mike (Tim Considine), who is preparing for a big Little League game, when his chief design aide calls him from Pike Street to tell him that the failed experiment might be workable after all. Don rushes to the plant, where he hears that Shaw has suspended all work except production work. The factory foreman complains to Don that instead of making the fine furniture for which Tredway is famous, now they make cheap cookie-cutter furniture of the type Bullard himself once condemned as "not good enough." Other employees at the plant express their fear that Tredway might see the same kinds of closures it saw during the Depression.
George Caswell is very much alarmed at the earnings report, and demands an immediate meeting with Shaw. He travels to Millburgh and demands from Shaw the right to buy 4,000 shares of stock from the company reserve at Friday's close. Shaw asks, "Why the extra three hundred?" and confirms that he knows about the short sale. Caswell confesses that if he tries to cover the short sale on the open market, he will go personally bankrupt. As the two are arguing, Shaw gets a call from Julia Tredway. We hear only Shaw's side of the conversation, but it is enough to show that Julia Tredway wants complete information on all her holdings of Tredway stock. Afterward, Caswell demands his 3,700 shares as the price of his vote in the upcoming board meeting, to elect Shaw the next President of Tredway. Shaw agrees to the bargain, but as soon as Caswell leaves, Shaw asks his secretary to assemble some information on Caswell, including information about Caswell's earlier run-ins with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
At the Little League game, Fred Alderson reveals that he finally got in touch with Jesse, who refuses to consider being President, as he wants to retire. Fred then proposes Dudley. Don swallows his gorge and agrees--but then, shortly after he resumes his seat in the bleachers, he rebels against the prospect. He rushes to the airport and tells Fred that Dudley must not become President, as he would be too weak. Don then proposes himself. Though Fred tells him that Jesse won't accept Don, Don tells Fred to talk to Jesse anyway, while he, Don, will talk to Julia Tredway. Fred agrees, when he realizes that Don is actually talking like a commander, an attitude Fred respects. But as Dudley gets off the plane, he refuses to talk to Fred, and then accepts a summons to meet Shaw at a downtown eating club. Before he leaves the airport, a tearful Eva Bardeman tells Dudley that their relationship is through, because Dudley "never faced an unpleasant situation in [his] life."
Don rushes home, where his son tries to tell him about the game, but he doesn't have time. He announces his intention to run for President of Tredway, and asks Mary to forward to him any messages from Fred. As Don leaves, Fred does call and asks Mary to have Don hold up all proceedings of the board meeting until Fred arrives. Mary says that she will give Don the message, but then declines to do so.
At the Tower, Don arrives and finds Julia Tredway in Bullard's office, burning all of her stock certificates and saying that she is selling out completely. Don loses his temper and asks why she won't do her own dirty work instead of giving a proxy to Shaw. Julia throws him out of the office and almost jumps from the office window herself, stopped only by the loud chiming of the tower clock.
Don finds Caswell already in the boardroom, making a cryptic reference to an early bird failing to catch 3,700 wriggling worms--a reference Don does not catch. Shortly thereafter, Shaw and Dudley arrive, with Miss Martin, who will take minutes. Dudley is about to nominate Shaw, when Julia enters the boardroom, tears up Shaw's proxy, and says, "I'll do it myself." Then Dudley nominates Shaw, Caswell seconds, and Don cannot stop the board from voting. But the vote is only three to one for Shaw, with one abstention--and under company by-laws, it takes four votes to elect, not a majority of members present and voting.
Don apologizes to Julia for his earlier outburst--while Caswell takes Shaw aside and admits that he had cast the abstaining vote. He demands written assurance that the 3,700 shares will be his; Shaw shows him a letter of transfer already made out and ready to sign when he becomes President. Thus assured, Caswell returns to the boardroom, with Shaw in tow.
In the meantime, Mary Walling has rushed to the tower to confess to Don that she held up Fred's message. Don forgives her for the deception and assures her that he can still win. So as the meeting reconvenes, Don protests that the board has gotten too used to quick decisions. Shaw takes the bait and makes what amounts to a campaign speech, based solely on his achievements as controller in saving the company money. While he is doing this, Fred and Jesse arrive, but Fred admits to Don that Jesse is stubborn in his refusal to vote for Don.
Nevertheless, Don forges ahead, emboldened by Fred's exasperated protest against Shaw's penny-pinching methods. Then Don lays out his vision of what sort of leadership the company ought to have, and finally admits something that he himself has only now realized: that Avery Bullard had lost his way, and was wrong to emphasize money alone as the reason-for-being of the company. He concludes by smashing a flimsy table, a product of Tredway's KF line, and shouting that the Tredway image has been debased by the sale of "junk" to raise dividends. He offers his own vision of a new product line, one that the company and everyone in it will be proud to make and offer, and of a philosophy of standing for quality and introducing new products to meet people's ever-changing needs. His speech concluded, he receives the enthusiastic endorsement of Fred, Dudley, and Jesse. Julia Tredway adds her endorsement, Shaw simply nods, and Caswell dares not utter a word. And so Don Walling is unanimously elected President of Tredway.
Shaw manfully congratulates Don. Caswell asks Shaw about his stock, and Shaw replies by tearing up the letter of transfer and stuffing the shards of it into Caswell's breast pocket. As the board members file out, Julia Tredway notices Mary Walling waiting outside, and offers Mary some advice about not being able to understand a man like Don--or like Avery Bullard. Julia asks Mary to thank Don for saving her (Julia's) life. As Don comes out, Mary embraces him. Don asks Miss Martin to call an executive-committee meeting for ten o'clock Monday morning, to select an Executive VP--and then finally asks after the Little League game, which Mary assures him that his son's team won.