How top CEOs think, from CEO priorities to the future

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Have you ever wondered what’s top-of-mind for leading CEOs? Below are direct quotes from a recent discussion I had with some of the most admired CEOs on key topics like uncovering emerging changes, CEO priorities and what’s around the corner. The CEOs in the discussion all have 100-plus-year-old companies that lead their specific industry. 

- Hikmet Ersek is CEO and President of Western Union, which might actually be the world’s largest retailer with 520,000 storefronts and more than 1 million agents. Ersek was cited as 2012 “Responsible CEO of the Year” by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

- Shivan Subramaniam is a 14-year CEO and Chairman of FM Global. FM Global is the 185-year old insurance leader with no actuaries — only engineers — where 30 percent of the Fortune 1000 are clients. 

- Jim Hackett, 19-year president and CEO, Steelcase. He transformed Steelcase from a West Michigan-focused business to a global leader in workflow, services and innovative work products.

1. How do you uncover emerging changes?

Jim Hackett, Steelcase: “We take an intense look at the most abstract level of ‘why’ things are as they are. In other words, we try to understand complexity and the dynamics we can isolate what ‘emergence’ is taking hold in our sector. We saw the implications of mobility when we were studying the first placements in the U.S. of PCs in American MBA programs. The students wouldn’t turn off the PCs between classes because they took too long to boot up. The emergence of tablet-based software was playing out right in front of our eyes. The year was 1996.”

Hikmet Ersek, Western Union: “For many years, Russia was an inbound country, meaning people sent money into Russia. Now it’s a different environment. Russia is much more of an outbound country, where we are seeing people sending money from Russia to Central Asia and other countries. We knew about the shift in Russia before any newspapers or economists.”

Shivan Subramaniam, FM Global: “Every month we look at data from our Fortune 1000 clients, in terms of the facilities they are buying or building versus those they where they’re actually contracting. So we could have told you back in the 1980s, based on our client data, that consistently Fortune 1000 manufacturing companies were reducing their manufacturing capacity in North America and increasing it outside of North America. And that allows us to position our engineering forces all around the world as our clients expand. For instance, approximately 30 years ago we started to hire Mandarin-speaking engineers because our data clearly showed more of our clients in North America and Western Europe were pursuing growth opportunities in China by either buying facilities there or building on greenfield sites.”

2. As CEO, what’s your priority?

Shivan Subramaniam, FM Global: “My No. 1 priority is to look ahead and ensure the company is leveraging its scientific research capabilities to anticipate what kinds of property-related risks are emerging that clients may be unaware of and that might one day threaten their operations and business continuity. Such research informs our underwriting and engineering decisions. Two decades ago, for example, we started to recognize that clients’ supply chains were becoming more sophisticated, geographically dispersed and vulnerable to natural hazards and manmade risk. If we hadn’t sought to understand those trends, associated hazards and develop loss prevention solutions, we wouldn’t be as prepared today to help them manage their supply chain risk, nor would we have the needed financial strength." 

Jim Hackett, Steelcase: “Seeing the patterns to create the business model that propel our future. The speed of change is such that if you don’t aim ahead you will be behind. But first, we have to earn a license by responding to issues now if we want to be in business.”

Hikmet Ersek, Western Union: “What keeps me motivated daily — and I think that’s the most important thing for a CEO — is to react to the customer’s needs. But I think what differentiates a good CEO from a great CEO is that ability to anticipate the future needs of the customers and then adapting the company.”

3. Talk about the future … what’s around the corner?

Hikmet Ersek, Western Union: “My prediction is that there is a huge new middle class coming from countries like Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Russia. Globalization will continue in a different way, with strong customer needs from new demographics, from different parts of the world. Global companies should start understanding the needs of the future customer to create solutions while growing their companies.” 

Jim Hackett, Steelcase: “I think there’s a new era of intensity because of low growth which exposes when you’re not competitive. High growth can cover that up. And so the intensity of finding models to compete is a really big thing in the minds of all the customers.”

Shivan Subramaniam, FM Global: “Businesses likely are going to see the most amount of change due to the dramatic impact of urbanization around the world. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused an extensive amount of damage to the city of Miami, Florida. Today, more than 20 years later, there are now more than ten urbanized cities in the world that have grown larger than Miami and have just as much exposure to natural disasters. So, as the years progress, I believe we’re going to find urbanization and the impact of natural disasters on these economic centers are going to become more and more dramatic. That means that those who have property located in harm’s way will need to do a much better job of how they prepare for such events, manage their risk exposures and ensure their resilience.”

Robert Reiss has interviewed hundreds of CEOs for The CEO Show with Robert Reiss, a weekly, nationally-syndicated radio show. More than 600,000 listeners tune in weekly. You can learn more about his work here.


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