Former Calvin Klein CEO Tom Murry: Business Lessons Learned On An Oil Rig

murryTom Murry oversaw a period of tremendous growth at iconic fashion powerhouse Calvin Klein during his 17-year tenure as chief executive. Indeed, under his leadership Calvin Klein grew from $2.8 billion in global retail sales in 2003 to nearly $8 billion in 2013.

Since stepping down as CEO in 2014, Murry has focused on teaching up-and-coming managers and leaders the secrets of his success, and how they can excel not only in the fashion industry, but in any business.

Chief Executive caught up with Murry to talk about how his time working on an oil rig when he was a college student impacted his later career,  the importance of company culture and how his leadership style evolved over the years. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Lessons learned on an offshore oil rig

It was a summer job, 80 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico from Cameron, Louisiana, and I was in college at the time. I showed up out there and I was the only non-Cajun on the rig. And I showed up in brand new clothes and a brand new helmet—the whole thing. And I just stuck out like a sore thumb. I got on the boat and I had kind of a tough time fitting in.

As a matter of fact the first night there, there were a group of roustabouts, which is what they called the people like us that worked on the tinder attached to the rig, started to shove me back and forth in the shower. And, so I fought back, and I gained their respect. That’s the short version of it. But I think that one of the things I learned was the importance of teamwork and being able to get along with people from different backgrounds. We actually became quite friendly, all of us.

The other thing I learned was the meaning of hard work—I mean, it was really hard. And being a newcomer, I got the hardest job, which was sandblasting the tinder in 100-plus degree temperatures and wearing a deep-sea diving outfit to protect me from the sand, holding my arm up for 14 hours a day to blast the old paint off the tinder. So, I learned about hard work. And I learned about being a team player.

The other thing is that it was an incredibly dangerous job at that time. It’s still dangerous, but nothing like it was back then. It was really life-threatening. I’m not even sure my father would have put me on the rig had he known that it was that dangerous, but I learned a lot from it. And, it was an experience that I wouldn’t trade.

How CEOs can create thriving corporate cultures

I worked very hard to build and maintain a team culture at Calvin Klein. I worked very closely with my management team. Everybody had opportunity to express their point of view. We were very close. We had frequent meetings, one-on-one meetings. And we had a weekly meeting with all my top direct reports, which was actually quite a number. It was like more like 10 to 12 because it was a licensing model, to a large extent. We had operating businesses as well. But a big part of our business was a licensing business.

So, it didn’t really require quite as many layers of management to operate that business. I would go around the room and just get up-to-date on everybody’s business area. And they would share that with the room, and I would ask questions. I found that to be a very important part of maintaining the team culture, which worked extremely well for us.

On how his leadership style evolved over the years

The first thing that comes to mind is obviously, you have to be a good leader, but you have to be a good listener. And if you’re not a good listener and people don’t feel as though they’re being listened to, you’re not going to be successful. And I pride myself and prided myself and always been a good listener, I was always very open to hearing what people had to say about their areas. And as I said, I had weekly management meetings with all of them and my door was always open for one-on-ones, anytime that they want to come in and talk about anything.

And so, I was a very good listener, and I think I provided good leadership. I think part of good leadership is being a good listener. My team was not only very talented but very experienced in the areas that they were responsible for. So, the whole thing just came together very well and I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish.

On what inspired his forthcoming book, “A GREAT FIT: Finding the Work That Suits You Best”

I have to give the credit to my wife for the book, because she’s the one that said to me, ”Tom, you should write a book.” And she’s my wife for 44 years. So, when she has something to say, I listen to her. That was the whole reason that I wrote the book. And I think what readers should look for in book is, it’s not just about my time at Calvin Klein. That’s a prominent part of the book, but it’s about my whole life, my whole lifetime of experiences and all the things and all the jobs that lead up to my ability to be a successful CEO at Calvin Klein.

I think that readers will find it very interesting from that perspective, and I think that they’ll find it helpful. Particularly, young people that are growing up and want to become successful in whatever industry they’re in, fashion industry or other industries. I really hope that they enjoy it. And I hope that they learn from it.

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