In those days, loyalty ran up the organization as well as down it, and you took pride not only in your small part of making the company great, but in the greatness of the company itself. You would either move up to the extent of your ability or, if desired, park yourself in a space to become a seasoned expert and help groom younger professionals with more aggressive ambitions.
Some of my early mentors were these “stationary colleagues” — ones who had hit their ceiling whether voluntarily or otherwise. These professionals contributed with dignity while enjoying a security that allowed them to provide for their families.
They shared invaluable knowledge and their reliability made excellence predictable. As mentors, they provided maturity, perspective, and standards, which provided a calming influence on excess and bad ideas. Even now, some of their single-sentence pearls of wisdom stick with me: “Protect your integrity as a sacred thing” and “Reduced costs are pure profit,” etc.
An Early Lesson in Innovation
Like many CPG professionals, I started my career at P&G. During the first formative decade of my career, P&G provided training in retail distribution, the paper industry, chemicals and the health and beauty category. Under watchful eyes, P&G allowed a naïve 20-something out of Notre Dame to negotiate shipping contracts with some of the shrewdest businessmen on the planet.
I learned demand and supply chain, rail, intermodal, truck and stevedore operations … and, in the early days of technology, learned how to digitize processes that had been paper-based for centuries. To this day, getting my offer letter from P&G marks one of the happiest days of my life and, in retrospect, the key determinant in how I conduct business.
In those days, P&G believed in training and grooming executives early based solely on merit. As one executive told me, “We’ll keep your feet on the ground by putting responsibility on your shoulders.”
The company’s culture demanded performance and there was a jovial competition among colleagues: Who can make the biggest improvement to the business? Who can save the most money? Who can drive the next big thing? The underlying cultural theme, however, was always innovation, and the future was as bright as you wanted to make it.
A perfect example of the culture of innovation comes from one of my early experiences. In 1988, I was 24 and promoted to a small field office in New Orleans (my now-adopted hometown) to manage inbound logistics for Folgers Coffee.
Strong Mentorship Breeds Strong Performance
The head of beverage distribution at P&G in those days was a wise, old bird named Joel Edinburg. In retrospect, Joel wasn’t that old, nor for that matter that high up in the organization given his tenure, but I was a bit in awe of Joel.
He acted like he owned the company, and people who spoke of him always did so with reverence. He held himself a bit like an old-school Mad Men executive — chain smoking and driving an Alfa Romeo. He always smiled while talking about tough and important subjects.
Joel hand-picked me from the “central distribution office” and flew me to New Orleans to my new 9th floor office, which faced East overlooking NOLA’s suburban swamps and bayous with the Folgers Coffee plant in the remote distance.
He asked, “Do you see the smoke coming out of the stacks at that plant?” I said yes.
“That means that they’re roasting coffee over there,” he added. Then he put his hand on my shoulder, smiled, and said, “If the smoke ever stops coming out of that stack and it’s your fault, jump out of this window before I get down here.”
He followed up by saying, “Oh, and your predecessor dropped the per-pound inbound distribution cost of green coffee by 12 cents over the past two years. I expect you to do better.”
With that, he left me there to figure out how to improve the system while ensuring that it never broke down. To my recollection, he never checked back in on how I was doing. He just left and expected great things.
Luckily for me, the team down there was excellent. My predecessor had indeed built a solid foundation; my immediate manager was intelligent and driven, and the two administrative women who did most of the inventory process work tolerated my early inexperience and my awkward adjustment to New Orleans. The Big Easy can be quite a culture shock for a greenhorn, single guy from the Midwest.
Although I was technically their boss and they weren’t management, these two women coached me into a sharp mindset to constantly improve. Any failure of mine was an embarrassment to them. These were two of the many stationary mentors who were P&G’s unsung backbone.
What I learned down in New Orleans very early in my career was that there was really only one way to drive big wins, especially in a stoic, mundane business that had been frozen in time like managing green coffee beans from source country to roaster: through innovation.
So how did our little four-person Folgers import office innovate in an age-old logistics process? Well in three years, we just completely changed the entire industry, that’s all.
Taking a Look at the Past
A Phoenix Rising From the Ashes
The moral of the story is this: You are never too small to make monumental positive change through innovation. Our little office came up with a transformative idea while literally being dive-bombed by displaced pigeons. Out of the ashes of one destroyed export grain silo came a conceptual phoenix to completely transform the coffee industry.
In the end, on top of the immense self-satisfaction of being a small part of one of CPG’s great innovations, the smoke never stopped coming out of the plant stack, the per pound cost of coffee indeed dropped, and I didn’t have to jump out of the window.
Every morning as I sip my cup of java, I smile thinking about how this industry innovates and how proud I am to be a part of it.