Imagine trying to fill Hank Aaron’s shoes. Or Wayne Gretzky’s skates. Or assuming Lawrence Olivier’s stage presence. Your predecessor is a household name. You are not. He also had a terrific run-up over 38 years. You had to spend the first year of your tenure-sometimes catching a few hours between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. on your office couch as the only respite between crises-putting out a five-alarm scandal. Never mind the long term. But there is another side in your favor. Your management style of openness and inclusiveness sets you apart. Your predecessor’s charm often disarmed, but he could also terrify. Your approachableness earns you accolades from the troops. Your push for greater transparency and disclosure sits well with regulators, who became suspicious and investors, who tired of the old, inscrutable ways.
Martin J. Sullivan moved into one of the most prestigious jobs in the corporate universe when he succeeded Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who became CEO in 1968 and took
The silver-haired CEO, the son of a Ford plant foreman in Dagenham in east
“It’s not his style to beat up on people,” says an
That said, Sullivan faces challenges. For starters, the share price- now stalled in the high 50s-should be at least $90 or higher.
He has two major advantages: One, he inherited a well-oiled machine.
When a general proffered a certain officer for field promotion to Napoleon, the French emperor waved off the usual recitation of accomplishments with the question, “But is he lucky?” Martin Sullivan is indeed lucky in one important detail. Having been with
Sullivan sets his own course.
With Katrina and the accounting scandal behind him, Martin Sullivan is transforming
Coming in as a new CEO affords an opportunity to view everything afresh. Were you tempted to make wholesale changes or hold steady?
There were a number of issues that we had to address when I took this position in March 2005, but the underlying principle of the strategy that had been laid out wasn’t being questioned. The real issue for us going forward is how we leverage the overall diversification of
Another example is our D&O business, where we are No. 1 in the
We want to build on the core businesses of
There was a period when I traveled to
We just got a license in the
In modifying its governance practices in the wake of the settlements with the government, what change do you feel most benefited the company?
The disclosure in our K and Q statements has been much more detailed, as is the information given in the supplemental data. In our third quarter 2005 conference call, we actually ran out of questions from the investment analysts because our transparency and level of disclosure was fairly comprehensive.
In addition, we amended our bylaws to allow majority voting, split the roles of chairman and chief executive and set mandatory retirement limits among other reforms.
Splitting the roles of chairman and CEO is something your predecessor would never have accepted. Would you advise your fellow CEOs to give it a try?
For me, it is fine. It is a British thing. I’m very familiar with the Higgs and the Cadbury Reports, which both affirmed the principle of splitting the role of chairman and CEO. In my case, the real issue is the nonexecutive chairman and the CEO. Working with Frank Zarb, our nonexecutive chairman, has been a pleasure and certainly has not interfered with running the business. It’s allowed me to focus on driving the business forward. It is a change that will evolve, over time, in corporate
Most CEOs don’t get six new board members in the first year of their tenure. How has this changed CEO/ board dynamics for you?
Given the headlines
Last April, we took the entire board to a two-day offsite with the senior management team. We went through every aspect of the business-the key strategies and objectives and the challenges- to get a good understanding. Ours is an interactive board where we have a lot of open dialogue. For example, Bob and Fred, who come from Citigroup and EstÂ©e Lauder, have a lot of operational experience from which we draw great benefit.
No matter how well you have been trained, no one is trained to handle the set of circumstances that we walked into when I took office. I have relearned something that I always knew-that this company is very resilient. We came through the crisis in pretty good shape owing to the culture of the organization and the determination of the team to stick together.
We are back to being very focused- not that we lost focus-but we have fewer distractions. From my perspective, it was exhilarating, but we are better for coming through the experience with people who dedicated their lives to the organization. That couch you are sitting on has been used many times by me and others in the wee hours of the morning to recharge the batteries. I’ll let others opine on whether that changed me or not. I simply tried to lead by example. It was an experience for which you would not aspire to be trained.