Leadership from the Outside, In
“Don’t study the great realty companies, study the great companies,” said Paul Charron. “The great companies will have something for you to take away.” As chairman of the board for the Campbell’s Soup Company with a rich career of leading many diverse firms to mega success and expansion, Charron brought inspiration and an invaluable outside-world perspective to attendees at RISMedia’s Real Estate CEO Exchange earlier this month. “I’ve kind of become a student of industry over last 40 years of my career,” he explained.
During his candid and eloquent conversation with RISMedia President & CEO John Featherston—“Lessons in Leadership,” held at the Yale Club on September 17—Charron encouraged the audience of nearly 200 real estate brokers and industry leaders to “Step outside your world; but if you don’t have an institutionalized way to do that, you’ll get sucked back into the maelstrom.”
According to Charron, his own path to success, “hasn’t been a straight shot to the stars,” but rather a combination of what he referred to as three, key foundational experiences followed by several roles in the top leadership position at notable firms like Proctor & Gamble and Liz Claiborne.
Being born into a family of six sons—and being the first on either side of his family to attend college—served as Charron’s first foundational experience. His five-year stint in the U.S. Navy served as his second foundational experience and enabled him to pay for his Notre Dame education. “When you’re 21-years-old on the bridge of a bouncing destroyer or having 50 men working for you in a combat situation, it helps you grow up real quick,” says Charron. “I was blessed to have that opportunity.”
After graduating from Notre Dame, Charron was accepted at Harvard Graduate School where he took business classes for the first time in his life. After receiving his degree from Harvard, Charron started his seven-and-a-half year role at Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati, his third foundational experience. “I learned a lot there from a number of mentors I still think about today,” said Charron. “I also worked for some jerks and some losers. But I knew who was a jerk, who was a loser and who was a great person. I was able to say, ‘that’s the one I’m going to emulate and those are the behaviors I’m going to avoid.'”
The classic Dion and the Belmonts song, “The Wanderer,” is how Charron best characterizes his career. “I’ve wandered around from the detergent business to the packaged food business to the advertising specialty business, and then to VF Corporation and then to Liz Claiborne where I spent 12 years as CEO.”
Charron referred to Liz Claiborne as the best job he ever had. “When I got there, there were four brands. When I left there were 40 brands, including Juicy Couture, Kate Spade and Dana Buchman. Many of those brands were acquired, because one brand cannot be everything to everybody.”
At the age of 64, Charron left Liz Claiborne wanting “to do something else” and joined the Campbell Soup Company’s board of directors as chairman in 2009, where he spent a lot of time on capital allocation. “You have to keep your finger in the game and keep your mind active,” he explained. “If you don’t use it, you definitely lose it. And I’m not prepared for people to learn to live without me.”
According to Charron, real estate leaders are confronted with the same challenges as leaders from other industries. “CEOs of other corporations are dealing with exactly the same issues you folks are dealing with,” he told the CEO Exchange audience. “We have a sense that these are problems unique to this industry, but they’re not. Everyone is concerned about getting closer to the consumer and consumer concentricity.”
Charron also expressed that CEOs from every industry are also concerned with “retaining and motivating your most precious asset—your people. Other industries are also concerned about consolidation as in the real estate industry. You have to be open to listen; you can’t assume you know it all and can’t ever assume that things will be tomorrow the way they were yesterday.”
Charron also offered meaningful insight into acquisitions. “In looking at an acquisition, you have to look for the complementariness in the deal,” said Charron. “What do you bring to them that will make them better, and what do they bring to you to make you better. The best acquisitions I ever made were the ones that had management teams who knew what they knew and knew what they didn’t know. If you don’t know what you don’t know, that’s a potential problem.
“If you’re just buying someone to get larger, it’s not necessarily the right thing to do,” added Charron. “Large is not necessarily better—faster is better; smarter is better."
According to Charron, the biggest hurdle for any CEO is creating the space for proper perspective. “The challenge of being a CEO is when, in addition to being a CEO, you’re also the chief bottle washer and fire putter-outer,” he explained. “As your business grows, it’s hard for one person to do everything. The CEO has to be the visionary, the pilot, the chief strategist. The CEO has to be the most objective thinker in the company—the one who sees things as they really are, not the way they appear to be. You can’t do that if your head is cluttered with details and you’re running around with a fire extinguisher in the back of your Mercedes.
“You also have to find people you can delegate to,” advised Charron. “I worked in all these different industries and had to get people to teach me what it was I needed to know. As CEO, you have to have a reasonably positive IQ, great objectivity and the ability to relate to people and identify talent—and then give them responsibility with guard rails. I was an asset allocator—time, dollars and people. That’s it. If you’re doing everything, you can’t possibly being doing that to the best of your ability.”
For any company to succeed, says Charron, culture is the most critical factor. “The most important thing is culture; it is the ultimate competitive advantage.”
Carrying through on his theme of looking outside one’s industry to gain perspective and strategy as a CEO, Charron recommended creating an advisory board, not just of one’s “cronies,” but those who “stimulate your thinking—somebody from outside your world. When you institutionalize external stimulation it guarantees that you’ll get that great idea from outside your world.”
The bottom line for Charron? “CEO is the most wonderful job in the world. You get to determine the quality of life for so many different people. It’s a privilege, a blessing and a responsibility.”