The Three Tenors of Ecolab

Oct. 19, 2007
Each of the three CEOs had a strong leadership core, developed and evolved from "shaping experiences" from youth onward.

I have had a long association with Ecolab. It is a wonderful company that has served its customers and clients well in the hospitality industry, has enriched the lives of its employees as well as its shareholders and enjoys leadership positions in the market-place.

For those at any level who aspire to be on or lead the senior team somewhere, there is much to learn from Ecolab about succeeding in different circumstances during different periods.

Each of three CEOs I have known has contributed in their own way to the successful transformation and growth of Ecolab. There is and will be a legacy associated with each of them.

Sandy Grieve took over a traditional and quite local company. He brought in new blood and built a management team capable of succeeding in an increasingly competitive environment. Judging that the team needed to focus on its core strength serving institutional clients (divesting the consumer products group), he oversaw the transformation from a product supplier paid for cleaning products to a service enterprise paid for the value the products and service delivered: problem-solving and problem-avoidance. Sales and profits grew and the market awarded Ecolab a higher multiple of those earnings in its stock price.

Al Schuman tripled the size of Ecolab to a goliath in its industry and proliferated the offering with new service lines. In his long tenure with the company, starting as a field technician, he had recognized the nascent consolidation of client companies in the marketplace and built a formidable national accounts business that drove the principal competitor out of the ballpark.

And now Doug Baker has rebuilt the senior team yet again with both new blood and long-serving executives as he faces very different challenges. More about these shortly.

Each of the three CEOs had a strong leadership core, developed and evolved from "shaping experiences" from youth onward.

Sandy's independence and self-reliance was developed early, losing his parents at a young age. And, as with many of the CEOs I've worked with, serendipity played an important role in his growth. His first chance at being CEO of a company came around age 30 when the front running candidate for the post could not serve. His career included a number of leadership positions and as well as experience as a consultant and an institutional investor. He came to Ecolab as its CEO.

Al's work in his father's butcher shop taught him a lot about pleasing diverse customers and differentiating himself in the process to raise sales. Going to college and leaving the neighborhood were "firsts" in his family. One of the first, if not the first Jew hired by Ecolab, Al set about proving he could hold his own. Al's approach was to leave no stone unturned, willing to do whatever it took to succeed and expecting others to do the same. And he learned the business from the bottom up.

I know Doug Baker less well than Sandy and Al. But I do know that, as with the two dozen CEOs I have interviewed previously, Doug's memorable learning moments were made possible partly by paying attention to guardian angels and partly by seizing on serendipity.

Guardian angels harangued Doug to get sales experience -- something he loathed to take on. "It is the currency of business," they told him. "Go with a first class organization and get the training," they advised. Then P&G offered him a job with product management and sales accountability. Notwithstanding he had higher paying offers, he took it. And P&G gave him what I've called "P&Ls with training wheels:" running a small business, then a larger one and a larger one -- experiencing the unique attributes of being the guy in charge.

And though he started in staff as a marketing director at Ecolab, when he moved to Europe at the time of the joint venture with Henkel, serendipity appeared again: an opportunity to be the acting chief of the then $200 million combined.

When he returned stateside to Ecolab, he had another learning experience, running an acquired company in danger of losing a sole source customer representing 65% of revenues. He says the toughest challenge wasn't the strategy or customer contact -- it was coaching his senior team through their fears that company (and their positions) would not survive.

Each of the three CEOs has had a different leadership style.

Sandy focused on the numbers and the story they tell. Calm amid crisis, he exuded confidence and strength. Underlying Sandy's leadership was a keen sense of character and a determination to hold people accountable. Early on, he presented the top fifty executives with a code of conduct and set of expectations that he called "The Quest." Many were skeptical. But he told them: "Sometime in the next year you will sign this or find work elsewhere." And he added: "Your direct reports determine how much you can accomplish and what your risks and limitations are. In the next year, you will decide whom to keep, whom to replace. After that, you are accountable for their performance."

Al focused on sales and client satisfaction. He was chief cheerleader, rallying the troops in good times and bad. He was demanding and in your face. It took confidence and courage to disagree or give Al bad news though he respected such behavior. On at least one occasion in a tough one-to-one conversation, he threw a telephone at me. But no matter how loud the shouting, you left Al's office feeling that he really cared about you. And in the process, he raised the bar and drove the culture to "no excuses, can-do, find a way."

Doug's style is his own. He believes in putting self-starters in positions, sharing his vision, his priorities and his take on situations, then holding the people accountable for performance. He is cerebral, low key, encouraging the sort of debate that produces better solutions and engenders greater ownership of the way forward. He would rather rein people in than have to drive them.

The CEOs I have interviewed for my book agree that leadership is distributed throughout a company every day. And when, as Doug puts it, they have "audibles," the calls they make are consistent with the strategic intent.

If you were a direct report to each of the three, you would clearly have to adapt your style. And some people have. Half of Doug's team has been with the company through at least two CEOs.

Doug's challenges are different from those of his predecessors:

  • Grow the company while updating and investing more in infrastructure
  • Continue to make the company more and more global and take every advantage of it
  • Beyond organic growth, enter new businesses

There is every reason to believe that Doug, together with his ever-upgrading team, has the core with which to succeed at these challenges.

As I said, there is a lot to learn from Ecolab.

Stephen H. Baum, director, Point Group Network. He is an adviser and coach to CEOs.

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