The Rebellious CEO

Before delving into a new business book, I ask myself a few key questions. Among them, will reading this …

  • Provide information, insights and inspiration that will help make me a better consultant to our credit union and regional banking clients?
  • Help make me a better boss who will, in turn, help my team to learn, grow, lead, and prosper?

The answer was a definite yes in a new book by Ralph Nader.

If you are a Baby Boomer or Millennial, you know the Nader name. Since the mid-sixties, he has been America’s best-known – and most polarizing — consumer advocate whose activism has led to better cars, cleaner air and water, healthier food, and safer workplaces. Many disagree with his approaches and politics. Many revere him for them.

This quote from Forbes Magazine puts it well. “Given Nader’s reputation as an anti-corporate crusader, it may be surprising to learn that he is not anti-business. Nader is anti-exploitative business. He believes that business profits should not come at the expense of our social and natural world.”

Forbes continued, “Over six decades of confronting CEOs in many different industries, Nader concluded that ‘All CEOs mouth that they are committed to their workers and customers, but it seldom goes beyond lip service.’ Nader also found that most of these CEOs put the bottom line above all else. Yet, over the course of his career, he discovered a small group of business leaders who bucked this trend.”

To that end, Nader profiled a dozen of these leaders in his new book, The Rebellious CEO: 12 Leaders Who Did It Right. The featured executives include:

  • Ray Anderson (Interface)
  • John Bogle (The Vanguard Group)
  • Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia)
  • Paul Hawken (Smith & Hawken; OneSun)
  • Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines)
  • Jeno Paulucci (Founder of over 70 Companies)
  • Sol Price (FedMart; Price Club)
  • Bernard Rapoport (American Income Life Insurance)
  • Anita Roddick (The Body Shop)
  • Andy Shallal (Busboys and Poets)
  • Gordon B. Sherman (Midas International)
  • Robert Townsend (Avis)

While the legendary John Bogle of Vanguard is the only CEO from the capital markets industry, my impression is that all senior credit union and regional bank executives can nonetheless glean insights from any of these CEO’s.

Unlike major retail banks, the inherent nature of credit unions and most regional banks is to deliver services that enrich their communities, not simply their own organizations’ bottom lines. Of course, profitability is vital – banks and CU’s cannot exist without it – but, as these CEO’s proved, social stewardship can – and should be – a foundation of a company’s profitability, not merely a low-priority initiative or PR-play.

One of things that inspired me most was that — when it came to social stewardship – the majority of these “rebellious” CEO’s did not start out that way. Their path began on the road most travelled, but as they and their organizations grew, they came to recognize the sustaining benefits that could emerge by making their business as much about social responsibility as it was about the financial bottom-line.

I found a particularly strong example in the case study of Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer.

In the mid-90’s, the company’s salespeople were under growing pressure from a rapidly growing number of large customers to know what Interface was doing to address climate change and protect the environment?

Anderson ultimately admitted that he didn’t get it. “After all,” he said, “Interface was complying with all state and federal environmental laws.” But then the lightbulb finally clicked on: That his industry’s long-established method of converting petroleum products into carpets, while pouring waste and pollution into the air, water and landfills was — while legal and profitable – not sustainable.

So, overtime, Anderson and Interface reinvented its processes to not only fundamentally re-engineer its “take-make-waste” processes, but it also ultimately became the floor covering industry’s worldwide leader in environmental stewardship and innovation.

Does this mean that CU’s and banks must become carbon neutral and aggressive clean energy zealots? Not necessarily. But perhaps they can lean into private and commercial customers who are actively pursuing clean energy investments and financing. And kudos to the few financial organizations that are installing solar on their branch and HQ rooftops.

From food-to-flooring and airlines-to-annuities, the leaders profiled in The Rebellious CEO all shared a passion for learning and re-invention. They were – and are – mavericks and visionaries.

My take is that this is a worthwhile read about much more than tactics about how to lead a company. It’s about leading a legacy for those that follow.

Corey A. Waite is a leading commercial real estate advisor to the financial services industry. As Founder and CEO of Rubicon Concierge Real Estate Services, Corey works directly with senior executives coast-to-coast to deliver strategic plans and transactional services focused on optimizing the needs of employees, clients and members.

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