Over the past ten years it has become fashionable to predict the demise of the charismatic leader in favour of a more logical and consensus-based style of leadership.
UK-based Proficiency Group has been a close observer of leadership styles and whether it be in business generally, or in the OP industry specifically, it hasn’t noticed any ‘low personality businesses’ blazing a trail in high performance.
In fact, what it has noticed is quite the opposite: The rise and rise of ‘charismatic characters’ in both the Fortune 500 and in the growing OP marketplace.
Take probably the most successful leader in global business over the past five years, Steve Jobs – where would Apple Mac, the iPod phenomenon, iTunes, iMovies and Pixar movies be without this icon of our generation? Then there is Jeff Bezos at Amazon, as well as Michael Dell and John Chambers at Cisco. In the UK there is, of course, Richard Branson, but the less well known Terry Leahy from Tesco is a passionate, hands-on leader of the UK’s dominant retailer. Take any of these leaders out of the equation and performance would not only dive, but the innovation drive would surely dry up.
Move into the political arena and you see former US President Bill Clinton leading the way with his Clinton Foundation. His organisation promotes global relief campaigns for natural disasters such as the 2005 Asian Tsunami, fights tirelessly against Aids, works to reduce obesity, while running awareness campaigns about climate change and famine in Africa. The campaign against global warming has been dramatically enhanced by Al Gore. And in the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair has done a courageous job in greening and enhancing the economy, moderating Northern Ireland, supporting the US against terrorism… the list goes on.
Whether or not you agree with what these people stand for or whether you like them, they have demonstrated leadership in a bold and courageous way. They love what they do and go forward with conviction.
Turning to our beloved OP industry, we have lots of examples of low-profile, logical and committee-style leaders. Their companies’ performances often reflect their personalities.
By examining the star performing companies, invariably a charismatic leader is not far away. That’s not to label them as loud or self possessed. Instead, they are recognised for their passion and love for their company. These leaders make a huge difference and demonstrate a genuine high touch with customers and employees.
The Proficiency Group fully subscribes to the view that one person can make a team. That is not to say the companies they lead are ‘one man bands’, rather these individuals are the catalysts that make things happen.
Here is a list of seven leaders (including two who have retired but remain great examples) who make a difference – they build and inspire their skilled and talented teams to achieve performance levels few could dream of. Without these leaders and strong disciples, their companies would fade, become very ordinary and join the mediocre masses:
1 Ron Sargent. Mr Staples joined the company in 1989 and loves the business. He leads from the front and brings his aces into play – eg Jay Baitler. Under his direction the retailer will achieve sales of $20 billion and profit of $2 billion this year – all in addition to being the industry’s ‘eco champion’. The iconic Easy button has been a stroke of marketing genius.
Every quarter you can listen to his webcast on the latest results and prospects going forward. Pure entertainment… straight to the point, simple analysis and self critical… humility personified.
2 Irwin Helford. Head of Viking since 1986, now retired. Without question the man of the 90s, leading Viking to be the best direct marketer our industry has seen, whilst achieving net profitability levels many dealers can only fantasise about. He invented ‘personalisation’ and led his company with style, grace and humility. Gone in the US but will Office Depot close the brand by the end of 2007?
3 Jack Miller. Mr Quill was a huge character during the 80 and 90s. His State of the Industry reports were legendary, well written and widely acclaimed. Quill was the mail order king of the US under his leadership. Acquired by Staples in the 90s, Ron Sargent has maintained his legacy and it is now Staples’ most profitable business unit.
4 Eric Bigeard. Mr Lyreco since the mid-80s. He has driven the originally France-based superdealer all over the world with a phenomenally efficient logistics/human sales model. High performance is measured and achieved in salesmanship, customer service and distribution. The Viking and Lyreco operations vie for the best practice in logistics and profitability in our industry.
5 Leo Meehan. Who but WB Mason has been a revelation in the OP industry since 1995? Based in Brockton near Boston (the ‘City of Champions’), Meehan has turned in a champion growth performance growing the privately owned superdealer from 1995 sales of $50 million to nearly $600 million expected this year.
He leads from the front but engages his team in critical decisions. The Masonville atmosphere is electric, powered by his energy, the company is very much a B2C marketer in the B2B space of SMBs. The 500+ strong sales force is supported by highly visible TV/radio campaigns and sponsorship of the Boston Red Sox and other major league baseball teams. A truly inspiring success story for independent dealers.
6 Jack Truong. Mr Post-It Notes has rekindled the spirit of innovation that was 3M. The division VP of the office supplies division has accelerated the pace of introducing new products which seemed to have paused in recent years. Since 2005, he has reorganised the division’s marketing efforts around campaigns of high interest to women, eg The Devil wears Prada and The Apprentice.
At the recent Vision conference held by United Stationers in Las Vegas, Truong frontlined efforts with his sales colleagues to demonstrate seven categories of products to the 2,000+ dealers. There were big queues waiting enthusiastically to see the latest exciting colours and designs. The top stand at the show by a mile.
7 Guerrino De Luca. The CEO of electronics company Logitech International takes calculated risks and consistently beats the odds. An engineer who developed a reputation as a marketing whizz at Olivetti and Apple Computer, De Luca took Logitech’s helm in early 1998, when the company was known mostly for selling mice to PC makers. Today Logitech, with headquarters in Fremont, California, sells a wide range of retail PC peripherals known for catchy designs and reasonable prices: webcams, wireless keyboards, game controllers and speakers.
During a period that hasn’t been kind to his industry, De Luca has kept Logitech growing to reach sales of $2 billion. Its profits are expected to swell 25 percent, to $94 million, in the fiscal year ending next March. The company’s stock price has more than quadrupled under De Luca.
A native of Lanciano, east of Rome, De Luca bursts with an Italian passion for style, which insinuates itself into Logitech’s curvaceous product designs. When executives bring him a prototype, "his face glows", says David Henry, a senior VP.
Logitech has 50 products on the drawing board for next year. Beyond the usual PC gizmos, De Luca is betting on a new line of peripherals for game consoles, mobile phones, PDAs and TV set-top boxes. A cloth PDA case that unfolds into a keyboard made its debut earlier this year, and the latest offering is a pen that captures handwritten notes in digital form. The global market for such devices – what De Luca calls "the last inch between human fingers and the digital world" – is about $8 billion, surely enough for Logitech to grow rapidly over the next five years.
Charisma is a subjective leadership quality. But ask the people – employees, suppliers and customers – about the effect on their lives and performance and there will be no doubts about how special and inspiring they truly are.