Executive Word -- From Stand-Up To Boardroom

Ronald G. Shaw, president and CEO of Pilot Pen Corp. of America, talks with IndustryWeek about humor in the workplace.

Ronald G. Shaw CEO and president, Pilot Pen Corp. of America, Trumbull, Conn. Born: Sept. 17, 1938. Education: University of Miami, majored in radio, TV and film. Entered broadcasting at age 11 and went on to become a stand-up comic. Later he shared billings with Dean Martin and Liberace. Career Highlights: 1961: Left an 11-year career as a comedian to take his first job in the corporate world with Bic Pen Co. His title: retail salesman for Miami. 1969: Appointed national sales manager at Bic. 1975: Becomes national sales manager for Pilot Pen Corp. 1986: Becomes president of Pilot Pen Corp. of America. 1992: Adds duties as director of the Japanese parent company, Pilot Corp., Tokyo. 1993: Adds duties as CEO of the U.S. operation. Family: Wife, Phyllis, three children. Interests: Plays piano. Plays and watches tennis. Enjoys golf and attending live theater.

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Pilot Pen Corp. of America, Trumbull, Conn., is part of Pilot Corp. of Japan, a $1 billion manufacturer of writing instruments. IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor John Teresko interviewed Ronald "Ron" Shaw about how his early experience as an entertainer helped him achieve business and career success. His new book, "Pilot Your Life" (2001, Prentice Hall), documents how the things he learned as a performer continue to serve him well in the corporate world. IW: Your book details how a background in entertainment can be a springboard for business success, yet humor seems to be rarely evident in corporate practice. What accounts for the general absence of humor as a business tool? Shaw: The observation is absolutely correct, and an unsubstantiated fear [of humor] is the reason. I think that in terms of building a brand or [marketing] a consumable, the right amount of humor can create substantial recall and retention in the consumer mind. The benefit is the creation of a tremendous amount of attention impossible to gain in any other way. When I came to Pilot, a totally unknown pen company in America in 1975, I had to make a brand out of this thing. Conventional thinking wouldn't have worked. If we had gone to the consumer and simply said that our pen wrote longer or smoother without leaking, we'd be merely parroting the timeworn claims of our competitors. I knew we had to market the product a different way, and humor was the route I took. (Shaw starred in some of the early TV ads. In one that appeared well before the New York terrorist attacks he proffers his Pilot Pen when a flight attendant screams for a pilot during a flight emergency. In another, a woman writing while seated on a park bench and tending a baby is overheard getting compliments an onlooker mistakenly thinks apply to the child. In response to "I wish I had one," the woman says: "Here you can have this one. I have 11 more at home!" The onlooker breathlessly bursts in: "Won't your husband mind?" The woman replies that "they're not even his!") I have no regrets that we did it. (Indeed, sales for the U.S. operation grew from $2 million when he joined Pilot to $200 million in 2001.) IW: What's behind this fear of humor? Shaw: It's rooted in insecurity -- the same characteristic that encourages CEOs to hire consultants. Needless to say, at Pilot Pen we don't need the guidance of management consultants to direct the use of humor in our marketing and branding efforts. I guess I've never been afraid to make a mistake. I'm a human being. I'm comfortable that both my associates and myself know this business so why not listen to our instincts. Ordinarily people don't get fired for making mistakes; they get penalized when they try to blame someone else. IW: You've alluded to humor's benefits in a well-planned and executed marketing program, but how has your experience in performing stand-up comedy contributed to your personal leadership success? Shaw: Being funny is a serious business. Success hinges on developing a sensitivity to the customer, the audience. Comics aren't the only ones who "bomb." Business initiatives often fail because CEOs can't or won't listen to the customer. My livelihood has depended on developing deep insight into how people think, work and behave. The better that understanding, the better my chances are and the more I can do to build our company. Whether comedian or CEO, success depends on being able to "read" your audience. Comedy also sharpens speaking skills and teaches the importance of a graceful entrance and exit. Another lesson CEOs can learn from the entertainment business is the importance of dressing for success. I make that a rule. It emphasizes your purpose, whether on stage or in the boardroom. [Doing] anything less subtracts from your effectiveness with any audience. "Business casual" is not a positive signal. I always wear a suit. Pride in appearance helps build customer confidence. E-mail nominations for Executive Word to Editor-in-Chief Patricia Panchak at ppanchak@industryweek.com.
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