One of the niftiest things about b-school is all the cool speakers who come to campus, and the last two weeks have been an embarrassment of riches in that regard. We’ve heard from leaders of Under Armour, Coca-Cola, Amgen, Medtronic, Time Warner and Mars, including three CEOs, one CFO and one head of strategy.
After listening to a roster like that, certain themes begin to emerge: work hard, follow your passion, be a team player, know yourself.
But a couple nuggets of information stood out. And since I know not everyone is lucky enough to get a Q&A session with three different CEOs every few weeks, here are some bits of wisdom I gleaned.
Joe Ripp, former CFO of Time Warner: If it doesn’t smell right, it probably isn’t.
Ripp came to our Taxation class and talked about an opportunity he had to set up a Double Irish arrangement for Time Warner 20 years ago to delay paying some U.S. taxes. Nowadays this set up is pretty common (Google, among others, does it). But at the time it was a pretty radical strategy and Ripp didn’t want to risk the company’s reputation by engaging in something that didn’t pass the smell test. He also feared that Time Warner would face extra criticism for the move because it was a media company and media companies love to write about other media companies.
“Was it legal? Absolutely,” He said. “Did it smell a little funny? It didn’t make sense to me.”
Quotable: “Every major corporation in the country is breaking tax laws right now. I can guarantee it. Because the tax laws are too damn complicated,” Ripp said, eluding to the fact that changes in tax laws and the court decisions about them are difficult to impossible to keep up with.
Lyons Brown, CEO of Altamar Brands (an alcoholic beverage company): How to create a luxury brand.
Brown — who used to work for the family business Brown-Forman which makes Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort, among other alcoholic beverages – distilled the essence of luxury brands better than anyone I’d heard before. His company sells a number of luxury liquors, including absinthe.
“How do I get someone to pay not $25 for something but $50 and feel like they got a deal because it feels like it’s worth $100? That’s what gets me going.”
Michelle Kessler, former VP of Global Chocolate Strategy at Mars: The Chocolate Pyramid
First, the base: Hunger (satisfied by chocolate like Snickers);
Then socialization (candy you can share, like M&Ms);
Then self-actualization (candy that is a reward like Dove);
And finally indulgence (ultra-decadent candies like Lindt truffles).
John Farrell, VP of Strategy for Coca-Cola: Career planning is crap.
Farrell, in addition to being one of the men who created Diet Coke, also left to work for Coke in Japan in 1989 on an 18-month assignment. He just got back. And he wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything even though it wasn’t what he anticipated.
“Career planning is bullshit,” he said, recalling the story one of his professors used to tell to illustrate the ridiculousness of planning one’s career. “He said, ‘When the tanks were coming at me in Hungary, I said, ‘I want to be a professor in Charlottesburg, Virginia.’”
Fun facts: Coca-Cola Co. sells 1.6 billion drinks across all its brands every day but only two people know the Classic Coke secret recipe.
Kevin Planck, CEO of Under Armour: Perfection is the killer of great ideas.
Quotable: One company owns over 95 percent of the basketball shoe market, a market Under Armour is trying to enter. “You can guess who that is,” Planck said. “It’s a four-letter word.”
Bill Hawkins, Medtronic CEO: Your family has to be on board.
Hawkins detailed a twisty, tangled series of moves across the country he and his family endured as Hawkins pursued his career. He admitted that none of it would have been possible without the support of his wife.
But it wasn’t always easy. He recalled how he and his wife planned to tell their kids about the most recent move from Atlanta to Minneapolis. He said his oldest daughter walked down the stairs, saw he and his wife sitting together in the living room and burst into tears. She knew.
Kevin Sharer, Amgen CEO: Know yourself and stay independent.
In a small group talk, Sharer was blunt about his past leadership style. He used words like arrogant, manipulative and intensely competitive. He said he has learned the importance of really listening to people and knowing how others see you – because it could be very different from how you see yourself.
He also had an encouraging message for women MBAs, of which his daughter is one. While managing a two-career household might be tough, it’s worth the effort.
“It is imperative that women maintain their independence,” he said.
It was like he was reading my mind.