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Neil DeFeo on Cleaning Up

Neil DeFeo on how to clean up at Sun Products

Graduating from college with an electrical engineering degree, Neil P. DeFeo had two very different job offers – one to play the trombone for Jackie Gleason’s band in Florida and the other to join a company called Procter & Gamble as a shift supervisor. “I had never heard of P&G before they came to campus,” he says. “So it was just serendipitous that it turned out to be the greatest training company in the 20th century.”

Choosing business over music paid off for DeFeo, who went on to a leadership post at Clorox, followed by CEO roles at Remington Products and Playtex. There he tripled shareholder equity in three years and shepherded the personal care product company through a $1.9 billion acquisition by Energizer in 2007. Now he has returned to his consumer goods roots – this time as CEO of a direct competitor of P&G, Sun Products Corp.

DeFeo, who has been involved with Wilton, Conn.-based Sun Products from its inception in 2008, describes it as both a straight vendor – like P&G – and a designer and manufacturer of retail brands. The company was formed when Vestar bought Unilever’s laundry division (the All, Wisk, Sunlight, Surf and Snuggle laundry brands) and Huish Detergent (Sun brand laundry detergents and household cleaning products) and dubbed the new $2 billion entity Sun Products.

“The premise was that the combination would be a stronger No. 2 player in the marketplace, and be able to provide our retail partners with access to whatever kind of products – private label or low-price, middle- price or top-tier cleaning brands – they wanted,” explains DeFeo. “And also that we could do all that in a low-cost structure as a vertically integrated business.”

Eighteen months into the venture DeFeo has finished the heavy lifting of transitioning the business out of Unilever, combining the two entities and putting a management team in place. “Our focus now is to stand on the shoulders of that first year and complete the establishment of core capabilities, like systems to manage the business, optimization of manufacturing and warehousing and establishing our new product procedures, portfolios, etc.,” he says. The company also recently added hand and machine dish detergents to its mix with the acquisition of the U.S. and Canadian Sunlight brand from Phoenix Brands LLC.

Ultimately, however, Sun Products will need to build on its customer base to succeed, no small feat in a business where customers are constantly looking for new options. “There is no process in the home that the consumer does more often than laundry – and fails at more often,” says DeFeo, who notes that the average consumer does more than 600 loads of laundry a year. “And in those loads, often a stain doesn’t come out, colors run or fade, whites don’t stay white enough, clothes shrink, pills develop.”

As a result, detergent customers are notoriously fickle, constantly looking for a better product or value. As a company with strong value brands and private-label partnerships, Sun Products may hold an advantage at a time when many consumers are under economic stress. But DeFeo avoids banking too heavily on price as a strategy. “Winning in this market takes a long time, because you’ve got to get your products tried, appreciated and repurchased,” he notes. “It’s not enough to just satisfy a consumer. You want to delight them, because then they’ll come back and their coming back amortizes your investment in all those things you did to get them to try your product in the first place – pricing, coupons, advertising. So I’m constantly looking for ways to improve the quality and performance of each of our products.”

For DeFeo, that pursuit of continuous improvement extends to an approach to life instilled in him as a child. “Life is about becoming what you can become,” he says. “My parents raised us – their four sons – with the belief in the idea that you could do anything if you tried and that it was unacceptable not to try. But it was acceptable to fail, having tried.”

Judging from the success of the DeFeos, the lesson stuck. Neil’s brother, Ronald, turned around Fortune 500 manufacturer Terex as CEO, and his identical twin brother, Philip, who died in 2007, took over the struggling Pacific Stock Exchange in 1999 and led it through a transition to the electronic trading era. [The third brother, Noah, died in a train accident at 25.]

Commitment to personal growth is a philosophy DeFeo continues to follow today. “The road of life is a journey, and that journey is of continuous learning,” he says. “It’s not given to us to know who we can be or what we can be. It’s only given to us the energy to try. And through the crucible of doing you learn what you are capable of and what you fail at, and you become who you can become.”

About Jennifer Pellet

As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.