Bill Johnson, H.J. Heinz: Two Things To Remember

by Marianne Richmond on January 14, 2006


There is really no shortage of advice from CEOs that is offered to us in the form of  books, interviews, articles, speeches, workshops, even blogs. In November, Business 2.0 interviewed 49 "business visionaries" and asked them the "single philosophy {that} they swear by more than any other." There were of course a variety of "secrets to success" that encompassed how to allocate your time (Eric Schmidt 70/20/10 Rule), who to surround yourself with (Chris Albrecht, smart people) and which pathology will help you survive (Andy Grove, paranoia).

Given the weight of all this advise…the author, Michael Copeland quanitifes this for us in terms of the collective net worth of the "30 business visionaries" which he says is $70 billion. It is a little confusing here because in one place it says there are 30 visionaries and in another place it says there are 49 but perhaps  since the question that they were asked was about their "single" most important words of wisdom it can be assumed that we should be able to pick a single one out of the 30-49 to guide us.

Really what happens to all of this advice? It is the second week of January and that means it is just about the time of year when we have forgotten or given up on our New Years resolutions and are just about to cross the point of putting last year’s date on our checks. New Year’s resolutions can be our advice to ourselves based upon a look in the mirror which results in the exercise more, eat less resolution. On the other hand, we can read articles such as the one in Business 2.0 and decide that we are going to allocate our time based upon the 70/20/10 rule or adopt Elliot Spitzer’s advice, "Never write when you can talk. Never talk when you can nod. And never put anything in an email" which is just a variation of "be like Andy", paranoid.

Most likely, if we are able to quantify both the percentage of time that we have been spending on our core business, adjacent business, and new business and make that number add up to 100% of our time, then we are probably capable of deep and permanent change inspired by the advice of an Eric Schmidt; however, if we look at this and wonder what column to put "phone call from college roommate," dentist appointment, or son’s school play and the rest of real life then there is a high liklehood that a resolution such as this has been consciously or unconsciously sent to the resolution graveyard.

So, I don’t really believe that advise tossed out in the manner of the Business 2.0 article does much to inspire others to adopt the sworn over philosophy as their own. But what does? For me, it was advise given by a CEO although he wasn’t a CEO when it seems in retrospect, like each work day consisted of at least one of Bill’s questions, "Marianne, what are the two things that I always tell you to remember?" The correct answer was: Don’t assume and nobody cares about your business the way that you do."

Simple enough. Yes, of course…just not easy. Over 20 years have gone by and I can truthfully say that  I have applied that standard to every aspect of my life, professionally and personally. I have also neglected to do it. Eventually neglecting to do it taught me how critical it is. I also learned that it is a critical component in customer/client service. If you can promise your clients that you will handle their business like it was your own, then they will have exceptional service. If you can teach this concept to your employees they will also give exceptional service. But don’t assume that anything will happen on its own! And remember for instance, that even though the doctor operating on your mother/spouse/or child is a renowned surgeon, in a hospital that is rated among the best in the world no one cares about the outcome the way that you do and assuming that every detail is being managed would be an enormous mistake. Caring and knowledge are two different things; forgetting this can be deadly.

Bill was my first boss; he was the brand manager of Chex  Cereals at Ralston Purina and I was a marketing assistant. Bill’s father was the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals at the time and during the interview process Bill’s boss very excitedly told me that I would be meeting Bill Johnson Junior. You know, Bill Johnson Senior is the head coast of the Bengals. I had absolutley no idea. I eventually told Bill the truth. We still laugh over it. Maybe that was the second lesson I learned from Bill, albeit indirectly;  in brand management at the time it was important to know the names and the jargon of professional sports. As a matter of fact, without being able to understand the sports analogies it would have been difficult to manage a brand.

I didn’t work for him for very long (and neither of us stayed at Ralston for very long) but  his influence can’t be measured by the length of that time.  Frequent traveling meant that several times a year we would get together in a city that he lived in or I traveled to or vice versa; eventually he went to Heinz and I went to work for his Agency. Several years later my infatuation with living in NYC wore off and I moved home to St. Louis; Bill had found his home at Heinz and in 1998 was named CEO.  I talked to Bill in November and we laughed at the fact that we both used the "two things" concept with our children.

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