Real Leaders

Lessons Learned on My Journey from Shipping Clerk to CEO

Over the course of twenty-six years, I progressed from an entry-level position at Products Research and Chemical Corporation (PRC) to CEO of the $240 million global company.

With no prior experience, no college degree, and no inside connections, I was hired as a shipping clerk at age 19. My goal? To make enough money to buy skis, boots, and lift tickets for the upcoming ski season. 

But my supervisor, Danny Iwamoto, impressed me with his precise vision and clear-cut expectations. So after mastering my daily tasks, I sought out other areas to help and learn more about my company, SEMCO, a subsidiary of PRC that manufactured packaging for use with adhesives and sealants.  

I learned the organization’s workflow — from taking a customer’s order to order fulfillment and everything in between — and recognized that the weak link in the paper-laden process was knowing an order’s status. I asked the expediters responsible for finding an order’s status for a customer. They wanted me to look for orders as I moved in and out of the production areas to pick up finished inventory. Doing this was easy, and it made my day more interesting. 

My efforts led to a promotion and taught me my first lesson about career advancement: 

1. Go above and beyond your assigned duties. Volunteering to take on more responsibilities can alter the course of your career. Look for opportunities that connect you to an influential person, put you face-to-face with different departments, or help you develop new skills. Seek ways to make a real impact. Showing initiative and anticipating needs will make others take notice. 

The following year, SEMCO’s general manager was promoted to general manager of the parent company, PRC. His first order of business was to offer me a customer service position in that part of the company — my first desk job. PRC manufactured sealants, adhesives, and coatings for the aerospace, marine, insulated glass, and construction industries. PRC was known for its high-quality products and its poor customer service. Like at SEMCO, keeping track of it wasn’t easy once the order was placed. And, to make matters more difficult, people in some departments weren’t interested in providing me with the information I needed.  

What did I do? I approached the problem differently to provide better information to the customers. My goal was never to have customers call back after making their first order inquiry. I set up a process whereby I provided the anticipated shipping date, and then three days before that date, I’d track down the order to see if it was going to ship on time. Then I’d call the customer and report whether the order was on track or would take more time. Either way, customers were grateful that I’d provided the information. They gained confidence that someone was looking out for them.  

Through my experience in customer service, I gained another vital lesson: 

2. Advocate for the customer. Customer advocacy is both an art and a science. It’s about pleasing customers while showing empathy and patience, but also about managing time and understanding cost-efficient ways to resolve problems. It’s knowing when to put a customer’s interests above the company’s, when to refer a competitor’s product over your own, and when to go straight to upper management. When customers feel heard and valued, you maintain good faith. 

Reports of what I was doing impressed my managers. Two years later, I was offered a promotion to go back to SEMCO as the customer service supervisor. This role marked the first time a team reported directly to me.  

I needed to create a positive relationship with my team, so I made an effort always to communicate situations and ask for help in resolving them. The benefit of this approach was that senior managers in sales, manufacturing, quality and engineering took an interest in mentoring me. They willingly answered my questions, and I soon was promoted to sales administration manager, reporting to the national sales manager. 

The new corporate vice president and general manager of SEMCO at the time, Dick Cude, took note of my efforts and wanted to develop my sales capabilities. After some training, he offered me the position of national account manager. Imagine! I’d risen from shipping clerk to national accounts manager and part of the executive team in a little more than five years! 

With the experience gained through my boss’s encouragement, I learned the next important lesson that allowed me to add value while advancing me into the company’s upper echelons: 

3. Create the change. When you learn to dance with change and not be afraid of it, you learn how to sense its arrival in advance to prepare yourself accordingly. You must initiate the process of adjustment that circumstances demand. Sometimes this means that companies need to molt their outer skins the way snakes do. If they don’t transform, they die. Always recognize the need for change — whether adapting to evolving consumer habits or investing in new technology, or merging with a competitor — and you’ll have control over your future. 

Going above and beyond my assigned duties to make an impact, putting the customer first, and looking for ways to create positive change led to achieving results in every position I held. In addition, it earned the confidence of my team and company leaders and paved the way for a meteoric rise in PRC.  

But the real lesson here is that you can learn from my experience and do this, too! 

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