In Episode 14 of Decision Dialogues, Karl Graf joins Mark Willoughby to speak with William Glenn, Executive Chairman of Crenshaw Associates. Bill’s career spans several decades and includes stints as the CEO of American Express, President at PepsiCo, and more. He discusses the decision he made to leave Pepsi, run a smaller company, and then return to Pepsi, the B2B2C focus of his work, and more.
The summary below has been created by a professional transcription vendor upon review of the recorded presentation. Please excuse any typos as well as portions noted to be inaudible.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal, Wealth Manager, and Chief Operating Officer of Modera Wealth Management, LLC. Today, my partner Karl Graf, a Principal and Wealth Manager of Modera in our Charlotte office, and I will be chatting with Bill Glenn, the Executive Chairman of Crenshaw Associates. Crenshaw Associates provides premier career and talent services exclusively for senior executives and leading corporations. Welcome everyone to the show, and I’ll hand it over to Karl.
Thank you, Mark. Welcome, Bill.
I appreciate you sharing some time with us, and some insights. And so let’s get started. Briefly, I’ll just give you an intro: after a long and successful career as a corporate executive, you became the majority shareholder and Executive Chairman of Crenshaw Associates. Why don’t we begin with that, and tell us how that you arrived there and what was attractive about Crenshaw?
Well arriving there was a long road—without giving you too detailed a résumé: After graduating school, I started selling toothpaste on the streets of Manhattan in back offices of grocery stores for Procter and Gamble. And then, after a series of assignments, went to Pepsi, and ran the bottling operations in New Jersey with 600 Teamsters, eventually running the food service business. And then I went from Pepsi to American Express. So I’m from driving a truck at Pepsi to bottling, to financial services in American Express. And then the last assignment I had is I spun off one of the two divisions of American Express and ran it as CEO for a few years, and then left, which led me to a whole lot of decisions and ultimately to Crenshaw Associates.
Well, it sounds like your career prepared you for just about anything that you wanted to take on! So why Crenshaw?
It’s a really interesting question. I had a long history of B2B businesses with B2B2C constructs. After leaving Global Business Travel (American Express), I started looking at different businesses, and especially with private equity companies, and possibly running some of their portfolio companies. And I was attracted to Crenshaw for two reasons. And the first has to do with lessons learned over my career, which are really in four areas.
One is that good, motivated people make good business, and staffing to the task. And the second was keeping an eye on the customer in compelling value propositions, because customers don’t buy products they buy what products can do for them—for you. The third is don’t incrementalize, and look at the size of the prize. And the fourth is all about strategy. And in Procter and Gamble, one of the senior executives when I was early in my career said, “strategy, smategy, it’s all about execution.”
And what I learned is that—and noticed—is that companies, regardless of the size in B2B businesses, and their senior executives, and particularly CEOs, don’t spend enough time on customers—either in person, or just what the value proposition was. And so A is, I focused on B2B2C businesses, or B2B businesses with B2B2C constructs.
The second was that during my exploration after leaving AmEx, with PE firms, I thought about where I could add the most value and drive a compelling value proposition. And there were a couple of companies that came up through the PE businesses that were probably a hundred million companies, which is far smaller than the two billion or six billion companies I had managed. And the PE firms were saying, “You only have big company experience. Can you run a small company?”
So the decision came in two ways. One was from a business standpoint—and I knew Crenshaw historically, because when I left Pepsi and joined American Express, they thought I needed an executive coach, because I’d gone from, like, running a truck, to financial services, and of course, I needed an executive coach. And Barb Bridendolph became an executive coach who was the CEO of Crenshaw, and I hired Crenshaw over the years, so I knew the brand really well. And I knew the space and understood that there was an ability to add capital and a compelling value proposition to the space. And so I thought that egotistically, I could disrupt the industry.
The second was, I got tired of hearing from PE companies that because I’ve been with a large company, I couldn’t run a small one. So I guess I decided, “I’m gonna buy a small one.” And so I put my capital in Crenshaw, and so I think, a long story, winded story, but it was a combination of what I knew I could do from a business standpoint, and also probably wrongly said, emotionally, I’m tired of these people telling me what I couldn’t do and decided to do it.
It’s pretty interesting. So you literally tried Crenshaw before you bought them, right?
That’s right. Yeah.
And then all the PE people put a chip on your shoulder, and you’re like, “All right, I’m gonna take you guys on.”
Right, which is probably the wrong way to make it (happen). But I think it was grounded in a lot of thought and thinking about what my next chapter would look like.
Just to clarify briefly, because we have a pretty varied audience, if you could just briefly clarify what B2B and B2C mean, so that everybody’s on track with either
B2B is business to business. So where you’re selling your value proposition, your products or services to businesses. And B2B businesses with a consumer construct, or an employee construct: so you’re literally selling a compelling value proposition to the corporation, as well as either to their employees or to their customers. And so really, it’s twofold in terms of how I look at those businesses—that you need something to the corporation, because companies don’t buy your product or services, they buy what they can do for them. And when I was running the Global Business Travel business, it was, we needed a compelling value proposition to the corporation to administration to the corporation, as well as to their employees.
Very interesting. I’m sure that you ran into some surprises, however, on this new journey, right? Because let’s face it, a $2 billion company has a lot of resources that a company like Crenshaw, for instance, does not.
So you know, what surprised you? What did you not expect, other than the pandemic, of course? And I would like to ask you how you responded to the challenges.
Sure. First of all, the lessons I learned over the years that I talked about upfront, were really, really important, and reinforced. The differences though, or surprises, were things that I knew—but didn’t necessarily take into consideration when I was making change, which was, it’s really hard to recruit great talent to a smaller company, especially since my network had been senior executives with larger corporations. There’s a salary component, there’s a bonus component, and then there’s equity and/or with large corporations, stock.
So that became more difficult than I anticipated, and still is the case—that the folks I want to bring in are folks that I knew, or knew of, and connected with, and probably weren’t at the same stage of the career that I was, and/or wanted a lot more equity than I was willing to give up for not an investment. So that continues to be a challenge.
The other is that in a smaller company, or a very small company, surrounding yourself with that kind of talent is critically important, and a bit lonely or difficult. So Barb Bridendolph is terrific in what she does. Of course, the smartest thing I did was to make sure that I gave her enough equity to stay and keep motivated, because I can’t possibly do what she does. She’s got years of experience, and our coaching, or support group, or one of the most valuable things we have, is our assets and the people and the coaches who engage in engagements with our customers.
But Barb’s busy doing what she does well, and for the first time in my career, I’m literally not only writing the decks, but editing the decks, and making the contacts with customers so it gets somewhat lonely. And so, which is important—I’m relying on my network of folks that I had grown up with or been my mentors or my bosses, to give us, give me, sort of advice, being able to bounce things off of, being a sounding board and a trusted adviser. Interestingly, that’s exactly some of the things that we deliver to the CEOs and executives that we do business with.
That’s really interesting how your outside network scaled down. You’re bringing in key resources to help you along the way and how you see how it equates with what you guys are doing.
Important too, Karl, part of your question, which is, I only ever had to worry about getting beat up about my P&L performance, right? And I was running big businesses in the GBT space. So large businesses, $6 billion, GBT was a $2 billion spin off. And I really never had to worry about cash flow. It was more about my P&L performance, right? Which is worrisome. And now all of a sudden, I’m worried about how much cash we have in the business and the flow of that cash. So I never had a look at sort of the bank account, which is something that I’m looking at today, which was fun, because I always managed the P&L very carefully and aware of cash flow in the P&L, but never fully had to worry about it. And today, that’s what I’m focused on occasionally. And with COVID, it became a full time job, rather than just occasionally looking at the bank account, or cash flow and the P&L.
So what adjustments did you have to make during COVID? Obviously, cash flow was constrained. So you’re looking at things in a different way, and how did you guys adjust to that, and how did you, I don’t know, make the best of what was available, we’ll say?
Well, a couple of things. One is that it’s a really interesting question, because one of the consulting firms that I used, as we were looking at some particular acquisition that we could possibly make, has a webinar session every two months, and it’s about reigniting growth during the COVID. And all their panelists for three of the meetings have been where demand during COVID went through the roof. And they had to adjust their supply chain, do things in their manufacturing plants to make sure that they were healthy and safe for their employees. And so they asked for comments from folks who were, you know, called in and been invited in and I said that, “It’d be really interesting if you had a guest, or a panelist where demand went to zero instead of demand was exceeding, right? Driving incredible change.” So the example they had is CEO from King Arthur Flour, right? And the minute COVID hit, or right after, their demand went up eightfold, and so they had to do things that they had never done before. But it was all about keeping inventory and driving inventory and making sure the quality was in place and issues in the manufacturing plant, the supply chain issue. But none of them that they’ve had where demand went to zero.
Ours didn’t quite go to zero, but approached it. So year one we grew 55%, and in 2020, our business ultimately wound up down 17%, which we’re pretty proud of. But for a period of time, it was very, very soft, and cash flows, you know, very, very tight. And so we had to cut back on some of the investments we made. And unfortunately, I had staffed up, and putting capital to grow the business because we were on a trajectory, and so it became pretty difficult. But my focus was “hanging around the rim,” as they say, which is making sure that while we couldn’t—I knew we weren’t getting engagements from the customers, but we wanted to keep connected, and keeping connected by, one is giving gratis sessions out to some of the customers that we knew they were executives who were going under some stress and anxiety and still are. And just keeping our name involved, and not necessarily soliciting business, but giving sort of our feedback and advice and observations on what we’re hearing and seeing. And I think that kept us in the game.
Did any of your prior career, Bill, prepare you for the sort of decisions you had to make in the last twelve months?
Yeah, I think so. I think, Mark, I can always pride myself on strict investment and capital allocation in large companies. So I wasn’t just managing the P&L. And as I’ve told Karl, over the years, that a lot of my experiences were the most autonomous business units that you could possibly have. So for example, at PepsiCo, I was running the food service business, which is a lot smaller than running brand Pepsi, or the brand business. And so I was able to make a lot more decisions than someone running one of those businesses.
Another example, at American Express, I chose not to run the consumer issuing business, but the merchant business, which was critically important to the company, but not necessarily day to day focus from Ken Chennault, who was the CEO. And so I had experiences making P&L decisions that allowed me to look at more than just the top line, and making decisions on capital allocation and investment prioritization, and I think that helped a lot.
But in addition to that, all of my experiences, I think, helped me from when I ran the bottling operations in New Jersey. I had 600 Teamsters and I actually had to negotiate two Teamster contracts. So there were decisions that I was faced with, that probably someone with large company experience hadn’t had those experiences. And I think that helped. At the same time, Mark, I wasn’t fully prepared from an experience—from either COVID or not being able to be surrounded by the highest, best talent that I had, throughout my career,
So many of those things that you learned in your prior life, were adaptable to your current situation, even though it was different. But no matter what, as an entrepreneur in a much smaller business, the lack of built in support creates other issues that—and how did you overcome some of those? I mean, how, when you were getting up and during the pandemic, and just trying to stay in touch with people, I think motivating the people you have staying around the rim is a lot more difficult than just saying “let’s do that,” right? How did you keep everyone moving forward during that time?
What’s very, very interesting about our business and the business model we have, which is the right one, which is our coaches and advisors are 1099s, and so they’re not employees, right? Now we try to absorb as much of their business as possible, and one of the things I did early on was getting them more engaged in our business and understanding our business, and why we were doing some things than possibly they had been exposed to in the past. So treating them as much as employees as I could, without them being full-time employees.
And there’s a tension there, because we don’t want them to know what our financials are, or a top line growth, right? And so it was really, really important to keep them engaged, and I think the relationships that we had built over the first year and a half—even though Barb had great relationships with them—but I made it a point to keep them more engaged than they had been: by meeting with them on a quarterly basis as a team and giving them just understanding what we’re doing in the marketplace and how we’re focused on growth was really, really helpful. So that helped. And it really helped, Karl, when we actually, staying around the rim, and gave gratis coaching sessions and offered that to corporations, because they volunteered to give up their time to do that. And so I think, you know, having the organization stay focused was really, really helpful.
What’s been a bit troubling for us internally—and for me, personally—is the exact same thing that has happened to executives in corporations, which is fourteen zoom calls a day.
And they’re exhausting. It’s a relentless pace, right? And they think they’re getting the work done, but really the toll on the executives themselves we have CEOs telling us about coining phrases like PTSD, and uncertainty. And I think for Barb and myself, I occasionally find myself just exhausted about not being able to make the progress we’re making and just staying around the rim takes a lot of energy and time and thinking about how we’re going to do that.
So how do you keep yourself motivated? How do you recharge, I guess? Because it is has been a relentless pace for a lot of people in this last year and a half. And for many of us, when you keep up that pace, you expect to see progress that’s tangible. And you have in the past. So how do you deal with that? And how do you keep coming back day after day?
Well, it’s also harmful to my ego a little bit, which plays into it. Because even the folks that I’ve had historically a great relationship with—and we’ve actually started to get new business from over the past year and a half—aren’t as open to the discussions that we had before, or open to me taking up their time. And I never present myself as wasting their time, right? There’s always a purpose to what I’m doing.
You know, I always learned through experience, and I’m just thinking about the financial crisis and AmEx, right? In ‘08 and ‘09. Which is keeping motivated by thinking about the size of the prize, and that it’s gonna be a long term. And the turnaround from COVID is going to be a long road. It’s not a, as I tell folks—these are not episodic events, like the tech bubble, or 9/11, or the financial crisis. This is sustainable change. And it’s not just COVID, but there are things like future of work, and it’s changing the industry. So keeping myself motivated by, I think, A is: physically and health wise, making sure I’m doing the right things—right for myself, because I know, when I’m active physically, I’m more active mentally, and that’s really, really important.
Number two is, Lisa, my wife’s, been pretty good throughout all this, which is, there’s nothing to worry about in terms of the company, not making it, which we’re not in danger of. But not making it—just not making it—is not what I signed up for. And personally, that’s not encouraging, right?
So I think those two things are, I guess, some of the motivations, and we’re starting to see a window opening up that we hadn’t seen the first nine months, right? But as I tell people, it’s really tough, I know, for them to kick me out of their office, when I’m there talking about new business—it’s really easy when you’re on Zoom, to end the conversation, and then they go on to something else. But, you know, recently the dial has started to pick up more and more people, even that I’m connecting with are starting to get—opening up their channels, or their awareness or their appetite for what we do.
That’s really interesting. It sounds like aside from the pent up demand you would have in the normal course of things, these extra stress that you just alluded to, for corporate executives all over, would drive a lot more opportunities for you. Are you looking ahead to when you are going to be the King Flower guy, King Arthur guy who has to contend with too much growth all of a sudden, after, you know, this lean year and a half? And what are you doing to try to accommodate that?
I pray every day for too much growth and an issue on capacity. That’s what I’m thinking about every day with God willing, when is that going to happen? But in terms of preparing for that, it’s all about making sure the team—the broad sense of the team—is really engaged and understand what we’re doing. And also, thinking about interviewing and keeping network with more coaches and advisors to bring on board because we have a very specific methodology that really differentiates us in the marketplace. So choosing who are our coaches and advisors, which differentiates from a lot of folks in this space, where they just choose coaches, and I wouldn’t say randomly—that’s unfair characterization. But for us, it’s critically important that they follow our methodology.
Karl, I think your question also goes back to the ability to invest in the future, and right now, it’s still difficult to make the investments that I want to make to continue to differentiate ourselves just because of cash flow and watching capital very closely.
One thing I’m interested in Bill, when I look back at your career, our podcast is about decisions. And if I were to put you on the spot and look back at your career, what were some of the best decisions, or maybe there’s one particular decision you made that you look back and say, “Wow, I’m glad I made that decision.”
Yeah, there were so many transitions along the way and decisions. I think one was, I’d been with Pepsi for two years, and they were going through a ton of restructuring, just a ton of restructuring. This is the late ‘80s. I’d been there for two years, I’d been promoted literally two times, and then they were going through another. And at the same time, Heidrick & Struggles called me and said, “We have a great opportunity with a printing and distribution business—private company, leveraged buyout, so they had just started getting profitable, and we’d like you to run their sales and marketing organization for a $35 million printing company.” By the way Mark, this is both the worst decision I ever made, and the best decision I ever made, because I went up, and I thought I was a star, I thought I was a rock star and went up in this private company, and ten months after I got there, they decided to put the company up for sale— which would have been great for me at the time, I would have made a lot of money, at the time it was a lot of money, right? And they decided they couldn’t sell it at the multiple they wanted, took a $10 million private placement and started repaying the shareholders, the five investors. And then I was stuck running a $35 million company sales and marketing, paying back debt.
And the boss walked into my office, one day, the chairman, and he said, “I think we should call it quits.” And I’m thinking “ ‘We,’ he probably didn’t mean ‘he and I,’ he probably meant me.” And so I got fired. And the best decision I made was going back to Pepsi. Because I knew at the time that I could succeed there—that a large company was really advantaged for me for a whole lot of reasons: enjoying the colleagues, the learning experiences, the breadth of experiences. And so the best decision I ever made was going back to Pepsi at the time.
That’s very interesting. It almost sounds like you didn’t want to be in a private business unless you had the levers of control in your hands. And now you do.
Yeah. With the exception of, no qualification there, you know, exactly right. Now, I don’t fashion myself as a true entrepreneur for two reasons. On the one side, I think I had made decisions throughout my career to run the most autonomous business unit and act like an entrepreneur. The second is, though, that I didn’t put all my net worth at stake buying the company, right? And so if it didn’t work out, I’d be personally disappointed, and there’s—yeah, there’s some money I would have lost—but it wasn’t going to break me.
So when I think about real, true entrepreneurs, where they put everything at risk, I don’t put myself in the same category. But I like the idea of fashioning myself as an entrepreneur.
Well, I’d say you qualify! Anything else that you’d like to add? How does—one thing we didn’t touch on—is your support network at home. Which obviously, is a big factor in anyone’s successful journey? How did Lisa feel about this new chapter that you’ve taken on?
Oh, she thought it was going to be terrific, because she had more confidence in what I could do than I did. Even though I knew what we needed to do to grow the business, I knew the brand, I knew the company—Roger Enrico at PepsiCo once said, when he was buying, I forget what company, that “you can’t pay enough for a good brand, regardless of their performance.” And I thought, as I looked at the industry that Crenshaw, my familiarity with them, and knowing what they could do, and my experiences, and the right amount of capital could really grow that business, right?
And so I had a lot of confidence. But Lisa, I think, had more confidence. She was also supportive that, “don’t worry about it if it doesn’t work.” Even though she never told me that and didn’t think that it couldn’t work, I knew it was there, right? And I’m fortunate to have three great girls. I think they were proud of what I had accomplished—not necessarily what I was going to do, but what I had accomplished. So I think with that as background, and I think over the years, pretty good financial advice and how I had invested my money, gave me, I think, a lot of confidence. And I think Lisa’s confidence in whatever happens would be just fine.
That’s great. Well, it makes me think of one other question, which is: You had a very highly successful career by anyone’s measure, I would say, but yet you took this leap and a new challenge. Was there an element of unfinished business somewhere in your mind that maybe motivated you towards that, or—?
Yeah, I think one of the—well, I didn’t want to stop working, regardless, I didn’t want to stop working.
Sounded like he wanted to prove those PE guys wrong too, Karl.
Mark, that’s where I was going to, which is part of it was, I’d done a lot of things and been pretty successful, and I didn’t want to—A is, I didn’t want to end my career, and B is, the PE guys were all 35-year-olds, who had done modeling and never negotiated contracts with Teamsters, where they were literally in a move Lisa and the girls out of our house because they thought there was going to be a strike, right? And hadn’t had that experience. And so part of it, which is probably the wrong thing, to make a decision based on—what I wanted to prove to these folks, because I don’t think they cared whether I, you know, what I did or not, but maybe prove to myself a little bit.
You put all those motivations into the pot, and you end up in a good place, Bill.
I think so. I think all said, I’m in a pretty good place.
Right? That’s great. Well, maybe this is time for the question!
The last question of the day—which is, what was the last non-financial decision you had to make?
It was getting another dog.
So we had had two dogs for a long time. And each passed away within two years of each other. And then, so we had zero dogs. And then Lisa said, “We have to get another dog.” And so we got Henry, who’s a mini-sheepadoodle. Terrific dog. And then we have Henry. And he’s now two, for about a year and a half. And we said, “I think Henry needs a friend.” And so unbeknownst to me, she’d done all the research, which I should have anticipated. And the next thing I know, she and my daughter are driving, my oldest daughter lives in Chicago, driving back to Chicago, and on the way they stop with a breeder in Ohio, and I have pictures of this other dog with Lisa and Carly, and I knew it was game over.
So Karl, I really didn’t make the decision—which is clearly non-financial, I was forced into making the decision. And so the last thing part of that is—do not, and this is advice, take it or leave it—do not buy a dog on February 4, and on February 6, have three feet of snow and ten degrees outside, and a puppy which is in the middle of the night, where they wake up, that you have to carry it downstairs, bring it outside at three in the morning with three feet of snow on the ground. And that probably qualifies for the biggest non-financial decision recently that I had to make.
Well, I think I can guess who was the one up three in the morning trudging outside with—and what’s the dog’s name? The second dog?
George. You and George outside three in the morning I can picture.
He’s an English sheepdog, so now at 16 weeks, he’s 45 pounds.
Which is larger than Henry, who now has to sort of accommodate—the other piece is, that you can never have a big enough house, regardless. And Chloe, our youngest, moved back from California. She’s staying with us for a couple of months. And she has a dog. So there are three dogs in the house.
Good luck, Bill.
Thanks, Mark. Thanks a lot.
Thank you, Bill. We appreciate your time today. It’s a great conversation. We certainly hope our audience enjoyed it, and I know I did, and I learned a few things that I didn’t know about you, even after all this time.
Thanks, Karl, thanks Mark. Thanks a lot.
And thanks very much to Karl Graf and to Bill Glenn for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.
William Glenn is the Executive Chairman of Crenshaw Associates. He is active in guiding the firm’s
long-term vision for growth and serving as a mentor to the firm’s most senior clients, sharing knowledge gained as a CEO, President, and public Director. Bill brings more than three decades of experience in global leadership, talent
management, and technology transformation to Crenshaw. As a corporate leader, he has been at the center of industries experiencing significant disruption.
Prior to Crenshaw, Bill was the CEO of American Express Global Business Travel, where he led the development of the investment thesis and Global Business Travel’s $2B spin-off as a stand-alone company independent from American Express. GBT is the world’s largest corporate travel management company, operating in 140 countries around the globe with 14,000 employees.
Previously, Bill was an Executive Officer and President of AmEx’s Commercial Services business-Global Corporate Payments and Business Travel Divisions. He identified operating synergies between the two divisions, and created a disruptive new business model that capitalized on rapidly evolving technology trends in business travel.
Modera is an SEC registered investment adviser which does not imply any level of skill or training. For additional information see our Form ADV available at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov which contains a full description of our business, operations and service offerings including fees. Statements made in the podcast are not to be construed as personalized investment or financial planning advice, may not be suitable for everyone and should not be considered a solicitation to engage in any particular investment or planning strategy. Statements made are subject to change without notice.