When Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske opens the financial-services giant’s new headquarters in downtown Milwaukee later this month, it’ll be a day for measuring accomplishments as well as skyscrapers.
And for his widely hailed performance as the company’s chief since 2010—including the decision to build the 32-story, 550-foot-high new building—Schlifske is happy to give part of the credit to lessons he learned on his first job: as a manual laborer for his family’s trucking firm at the tender age of 13.
“The company was called Acme Transfer & Trucking Company,” Schlifske told Chief Executive. “When we sponsored a softball team, I remember getting ribbed because ‘Acme’ was the name of the company in all those Roadrunner cartoons.”
Actually, Schlifske noted, “acme” is a synonym for “pinnacle” —and it usually got first listing in the local Yellow Pages for trucking companies—so it was a clever choice of name by the founder, his grandfather.
“I wasn’t treated differently than anyone else. I learned what it was like to wait on people. And I also learned all the ways that people could reciprocate.”
But it was Schlifske’s father, Edward, who took young John under his wing at Acme and bade him to work one day a week during the summer beginning at 13, then two days when he was 14, and so on until, by the age of 17, John Schlifske was working at the family company on a full-time basis in the summer—and at some other times during the school year. He would return to Acme during college summers and holiday breaks as well.
For his minimal pay, Schlifske started out cleaning bathrooms for truckers as well as inside trucks, scraping paint, and gassing up the vehicles. “Cleaning bathrooms for truckers wasn’t glamorous by any means,” he recalled.
But over the years, he graduated to more responsibility at Acme such as driving forklifts, and “the fun of the job increased,” Schlifske said.
Schlifske joined Northwestern Mutual in 1987 as an investment specialist and moved up the ranks to head the company’s investment products and services business as executive vice president before serving as president and CEO of former subsidiary Russell Investments. The company elected him president of Northwestern Mutual in 2009, and he succeeded Ed Zore as CEO the next year.
Schlifske said his first jobs at Acme taught him at least three valuable lessons that he has used to succeed in business:
1. The value of discipline. “Dad wanted me to learn the responsibility of being on time and of having discipline around work, which I did,” Schlifske remembered. “I formed good work habits, which have always been important.”
2. The importance of humility. Schlifske learned the value of everyone with whom—and for whom—he worked. Despite being a member of the owning family at Acme, he said, “I wasn’t treated differently than anyone else. I learned what it was like to wait on people. And I also learned all the ways that people could reciprocate.”
3. The security of a big company. Northwestern Mutual is an archetypal big company that was ranked No. 97 on the Fortune 500 list last year, and during his seven-year tenure as CEO, Schlifske has done what he can to boost the stature and sustainability of one of Wisconsin’s most important employers—including erecting the new headquarters.
He said his early work at Acme helped teach him the value of anchor companies in a community and industry. Edward Schlifske told his son that eventually he could take over the family company if he wanted to. But John Schlifske had seen too much, too closely, of the toll that small-company ownership could take on someone.
“What had the biggest impact was the recession of 1973 and 1974,” he said. “My dad was worried at that point about even meeting payroll. I saw the volatility of being a small-business owner, and that drew me to want to work for a big company for security reasons.”
But also, Schlifske said, watching his father toil as head of Acme sobered him with the notion of “how hard it is to be in charge of something. And so, in many ways, I have had some of the same headaches he had, just on a larger scale.”