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This is Capitalism: Up Close, Inspired, Explained

Oct 3, 2018

Ray Hoffman interviews Steve Odland. Steve Odland’s career has taken him from oatmeal to auto parts, from Sara Lee to the U.S. Commission on National Transportation Surface Policy. Today, he’s CEO of one of the nation’s premier business research organizations, The Conference Board - year after year, the source of a lot of great insight into the economy and human behavior.


Key Takeaways:

[:44] Ray Hoffman welcomes Steve Odland to the podcast. Steve reflects on his career path. He views it as a long hallway with some doors open and some doors shut. His career has been made by doors opening occasionally so he could walk through.

[1:19] So many people struggle with closed doors instead of using the doors that are open. Steve says he has been blessed with a great and interesting career mostly by saying yes to things that seemed strange, odd and new.

[1:42] Steve’s career started at Quaker Oats. His first CEO position was at Tops Friendly Markets. Steve had worked as a bagger in a supermarket as a youth. His first job was a paper route. Most of what he learned in business started in these early jobs.

[2:37] Everyone has to eat. The supermarket is a great industry for getting close to your customer. Frequent user cards started in the mid-nineties. Supermarkets were using big data 20 years ago.

[3:43] Steve cut his teeth in an industry with really narrow margins. In the supermarket industry, you count your pennies, starting with how you price. A couple of cents difference will change how people buy a can of corn. You have to provide the best value for your customer.

[4:14] The experience at Tops Friendly Markets led Steve to his first major CEO position at AutoZone in January 2001. Then came 9/11 and the economy toppled. Steve says the auto parts industry is surprisingly insulated from recessions. People have to keep their car running.

[5:52] Going through a recession is scary. You don’t know when it’s going to end, how deep it’s going to be, or what’s going to happen.

[6:11] Steve also mentions the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. We didn’t know if the banking system would survive or what would happen to the global economy or the dollar. You learn as you go.

[6:35] When Steve joined AutoZone in 2001, it had culture problems and merchandising problems. Steve explains how AutoZone had begun as an offshoot from a supermarket company. Steve says any time someone is brought in from the outside, it is for a turnaround. AutoZone was not happy with where they were.

[7:06] The turnaround starts with people and then goes to processes and how you interface with the customer. Steve says they changed a lot of things and it worked very quickly to bring AutoZone stock from about $20 to over $100 a share in a couple of years, as they expanded margins. Their customers were happier than ever.

[7:29] AutoZone is still a great company. Steve’s old team is still running the company with Bill Rhodes as the CEO.

[7:44] The AutoZone share price topped out at $103 while Steve was CEO, and continued to climb. It peaked at over $816 in 2016. Steve credits the current management team for that but Ray notes that Steve laid down a foundation for growth, similar to the turnaround Alan Mulally executed later at Ford.

[8:35] One of the things Steve did was to bring in every senior executive to go over the books, all the time. Steve has always found that people respond well when you bring them in to share the good news as well as the bad news. That served Steve well during the financial crisis.

[9:09] Steve also says Office Depot was an incredible experience when people didn’t know if they were going to lose everything. Office Depot was headquartered in Florida, the epicenter of the housing crisis. There were 200 retail bankruptcies in that period.

[9:36] During the crisis, Steve brought all senior executives together every week at first, and then monthly, sharing everything. Steve went to D.C. to meet with the Secretary of the Treasury and people from the Fed to share data and then report it back to his team.

[9:59] This is leadership through communication and involvement.
[10:02] Ray revisits the AutoZone share price. Ray asks about ethical changes that Steve brought into the culture and how they affected the share price. Steve mentions that AutoZone is located in Memphis, Tennessee, where there is a background culture of ethics. Steve says the group responded very well to leadership.

[11:06] AutoZone is customer-oriented. The ethics of the highest level of leadership led to empathetic and ethical customer service. Steve doesn’t take credit for the ethics but agrees it is critical to a company’s success.

[11:32] Steve gives the story of becoming CEO of The Conference Board. Relying on his public policy experience as a CEO for different organizations, Steve had moved to Washington, D.C. to run the 75-year-old Committee for Economic Development. A couple of years later, they merged with The Conference Board and built up from there.

[12:10] When the CEO of The Conference Board retired, Steve moved up into that role.

[12:25] Steve notes that the merger of two not-for-profits is unusual, as no money changes hands, but they thought they would work better together and Steve sees that both organizations have become stronger from the merger.

[12:41] Ray talks about the public policy book, Sustaining Capitalism, that Steve co-authored with Joe Minarik. Ray wanted to read that book in light of his involvement in this podcast. Steve praises capitalism as the greatest economic model, and part and parcel of our form of democracy.

[13:20] Steve cites Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as the form of capitalism around which our government was built. Many regulations have been imposed upon capitalism since 1776, and Steve sees us at a new juncture where trust in industry has eroded following the financial crisis and the scandals that preceded it.

[13:58] It is up to the business community to deal with these issues of trust and address issues of inequality and social issues.

[14:14] If we want to sustain capitalism, we need to evolve it and we need to address these issues as business leaders.

[14:21] Ray brings up the crony capitalism that exists between lobbyists and government regulators and influential people in Washington. Crony capitalism is used to skew the system to bring benefit to your company or yourself.

[14:42] Capitalism is about making the system work, in total, as a rising tide. Capitalism has its faults. It’s not perfect and we need to address it and make it better, but our form of capitalism has caused global trade to increase and has taken more people out of poverty around the world than any other economic model.

[15:07] Ray calls capitalism “Human endeavor with rule of law.”

[15:10] Ray cites the subchapter, “The economic cost of crony capitalism.” Steve comments if you skew the system for the benefit of one group, it is a tax on other groups. The same issue applies to short-term value versus long-term value. If you shift value to the short term, it is not present for the long-term benefit.

[15:47] Steve explains that you need long-term thinking, with a view to the benefits for all, to make capitalism sustainable. Steve learned to see his CEO title as representing customers, employees, and owners. Those all were his constituents. He also added in community and environment.

[16:35] If you just took care of customers, you would give it away for free. If you just took care of your shareholders, you don’t take care of your customers or your employees. If you’re only there for your employees, you pay them whatever they want. It’s not one, but it’s the balance of the needs of all three groups you need to serve.

[16:59] Ray brings it back to Steve’s work with AutoZone and Office Depot. Steve says what every good business leader tries to do is strike that right balance so that it all works for all the constituencies that they serve.

[17:14] Steve makes a distinction between a pro-business government policy and a pro-market policy. The whole point of lobbying is to game the system with laws to the benefit of one company or regulations to the detriment of their competitors.

[17:48] You should want to be governing yourself and influencing the government in a positive way for the benefit of all. At Committee for Economic Development (CED), they talk about reasoned solutions in the nation’s interest, not for ‘parochial’ interests.

[18:07] As CEO of The Conference Board, what surprises Steve about the rip-roaring economy in the U.S. in 2018? Steve reminds us that it will change, and we need to look at when and how it will change. When economic lessons are not learned, and we don’t understand why things are so good, they can go bad quickly.

[18:52] It applies to companies, too. We always study what went wrong, but we rarely study what went right, so we can create repeatability of it. A diagnosis of what got us here — it’s not a politician, it’s policies and regulations and the business environment — and the study of everything involved is really important.

[19:18] Ray remembers the early months of 2008, where a lot of LBOs were still being squeezed in at the eleventh hour. They almost all turned out to be really terrible LBOs. Ray kept quoting people saying the world is awash with liquidity!

[19:40] Steve talks about being at an event in the province of Chengdu, China when he was CEO of AutoZone. The mayor turned to him and asked how Florida real estate was doing. Steve asked why he would ask that, and the answer was that Goldman Sachs had just been in and sold them a lot of Florida real estate mortgage derivatives.

[20:28] Mortgage derivatives had been sold all across the world, and that was the beginning of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

[20:33] The Conference Board periodically takes a survey on job satisfaction in the U.S. It shows a big improvement in 2018 on how we feel about job security. Job confidence is very high and the change in the numbers has been most prominent in the lower earning groups. This shows wage improvement.

[21:07] ‘Work’ goes to the core of who we are. People want to be productive. We have wage movement and people moving up in jobs now, and this is what we want.

[21:24] Minnesota is the happiest employment state. They have one of the lowest unemployment levels. They have lots of businesses, big and small. The balance is agriculture. It’s a great balanced economy, so they surveyed as the happiest.

[21:58] Minneapolis-born Steve Odland, CEO of The Conference Board. This is capitalism.


Mentioned in This Episode:

Steve Odland

The Conference Board
Quaker Oats
Tops Friendly Markets


William “Bill” Rhodes

Alan Mulally


Committee for Economic Development

Sustaining Capitalism: Bipartisan Solutions to Restore Trust & Prosperity,
by Steve Odland and Joe Minarik

The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

Washington, D.C.

Chengdu, China

Goldman Sachs

Job Satisfaction 2018 — The Conference Board

Minneapolis, Minnesota

This Is Capitalism