by Frank Murtaugh
Rola Obaji grew up in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, and Amman, Jordan, where her father, Ali Alhindi, ran travel agencies. She and her two younger siblings traveled the world for what amounted to business trips with their dad. As a result, Obaji’s world view comes from a variety of perspectives, from Paris to Istanbul, from Los Angeles to New York City. The new CEO at McDonald Murrmann Women’s Clinic has called Memphis home for more than a quarter-century now — she fell in love with her husband, Dr. Suhail Obaji, on a visit to Memphis in 1989 — but continues to draw from her global journeys in raising a family and running a business. Perhaps most poignant are her memories, not that long ago, of college life in Syria, at Aleppo University.
“My mom is Syrian, my dad Jordanian,” explains Obaji. “I was born in Aleppo, but I lived between Jordan and Saudi Arabia during my school years [before college].
“Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon . . . these places are beautiful. We have beaches, mountains. It’s very European. It’s nothing like what you see [in the news today]. It’s like judging the United States on the worst neighborhoods in Chicago or Memphis. My kids love to go to [the Middle East]. It has a lot of history, and for all religions. It was inspiring, growing up there. Traveling as I did, it made me more open-minded, more accepting.”
by Samuel Cicci
Having worked his way up from intern, Jim Meeks has had plenty of time to familiarize himself with the inner workings of Northwestern Mutual. Now the managing partner at his own Memphis branch, one of the key tenets of his personal office space is accessibility. “I feel like there’s a barrier, meaning this desk,” he says. “I have trophies, plaques by the box-loads. I’m not the guy who wants to plaster his walls full of ‘Hey, look at me, look at how great I am.’ That’s not me at all. When I meet someone new for the very first time, I have one goal: I want to spend time asking questions about you.”
That overwhelming accessibility displays itself in trust, one of Meeks’ core values in the workplace. His aim for accessibility was quickly realized when I walked in and noticed a coffeemaker and a package of organic wine in the corner: an instant connection with someone at the peak of his career powers.
The value of trust extends to his employees, as well. When Northwestern Mutual moved to their new office space on Kirby Parkway back in 2011, one of the first goals was to put his own spin on the office. “When I walk out of here, I want the office to be in the exact same condition as when I first renovated it,” he says. “Every year, I have the walls repainted. The carpet is installed in square strips, so it’s very easy to replace if one of the sections is damaged or burned.”
by Jon W. Sparks
Bryan Jordan might have been perfectly happy to be a CPA his entire life, but we’ll never know.
He spent some eight years working with columns and rows in public accounting but was drawn to banking in the early 1990s. Jordan quickly developed an interest in finding out how it all worked and was soon on the path to leadership. Now, he’s chairman, president, and chief executive officer of First Horizon National Corp., the parent company of First Tennessee Bank and FTN Financial. And he’s become something of an expert on being an effective CEO.
He took the helm at a turbulent time in financial history — just a week before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac failed in 2008. But he brought a steady hand to a steady ship, and First Horizon is today one of the 40 largest banking companies in the United States in asset size and market capitalization.
Jordan says he’s always had an interest in leadership and has cultivated that whenever he could. And with all the preparation and training, it made him ready for the surprises he’s encountered.
“I never stepped into a job where it wasn’t more complicated and bigger than I expected it to be,” he says. “I was amazed at the sheer strength of culture that First Horizon and First Tennessee had, and I see that as one of our very strong assets.”
by Andrea Wiley
While on a family vacation, Chris Hurn, founder and CEO of Fountainhead Commercial Capital, discovered his son had accidentally left his stuffed giraffe “Joshie” at the Ritz-Carlton. Once they returned home and called the resort, they learned that the staff had found Joshie in the laundry and promised his safe return. A few days later, a package arrived which not only included the giraffe but a variety of hotel goodies and photos of Joshie’s “extended” vacation at the resort. The photos showed Joshie the Giraffe sunbathing by the pool, getting a relaxing spa treatment complete with cucumbers over his eyes, driving a golf cart in front of the 18th hole, and socializing with other stuffed animals who were also on extended holidays. Hurn’s son was ecstatic about Joshie’s return and delighted to find out he had so much fun while they were briefly separated.
Joshie’s extended vacation is an example of great customer service that resonated with thousands around the world when shared via social media with 12,000-plus Facebook likes, 4,600-plus tweets, and 3,500-plus Facebook shares. The story has been memorialized in at least three books and told in many keynote speeches. It was recently featured in a MarketingProfs Webinar by keynote speaker Scott Stratten, president of UnMarketing, and an expert in viral, social, and authentic marketing, to illustrate his point that when a consumer sees a logo of a brand, in this case of Ritz-Carlton, they are immediately taken back to their most recent or most extreme experience with that brand.
by Meg Crosby
1. What is our People Strategy?
The most foundational and important people-related question every CEO should ask is “What is our People Strategy?” That is, what is our strategy for mobilizing, energizing, and growing our people? Having (and executing on) a People Strategy is just as important as having and following a Financial Strategy — and is necessary if a company wants to reach its full potential. People have always been the engine that powers the business; but mobilizing, energizing, and growing your people has never been more important than it is in the current knowledge economy, where businesses increasingly rely on the brainpower of their employees more than their physical abilities. As a result, it is critical that every CEO have a well-defined strategy for attracting, deploying, developing, and rewarding talent to accomplish their business objectives.
by Jon W. Sparks
Debbie Eddlestone was given the challenge during her employment interview: “We have to make some hard choices that we have to see through,” the interviewer said, “and we’re seeing the rocks at the bottom of the pond. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. And that set the course for the future of Stern Cardiovascular Foundation.
As a CEO in one of the largest medical research areas in the country, Eddlestone came to the company in the late 1990s to overhaul the business operation. She became CEO of the organization in 2010, guiding it through a period of growth and change.
Eddlestone built that road to CEO by making the hard changes Stern needed back then. Computer systems were being developed to handle billing and electronic medical records, a field that was evolving and full of uncertainty. But she stayed on top of the technology as well as making changes in personnel and systems, balancing the needs of both physicians and administrators. “Both teams were behind me and it was a huge challenge,” she says. “I worked more hours in my life than I ever thought I would, but it got to me. The group just took my heart — the patients we see, the commitment from the doctors, the commitment from the community is more than I could ever ask for. It’s tough, but it’s very rewarding.”
by Dr. Douglas Scarboro
I’ve been able to manage and lead most big projects by monitoring a small set of data. When I worked for the city of Memphis, one statistic from Joe Cortright with Portland, Oregon-based City Observatory, resonated with me as I worked to increase the level of talent in Memphis: 58 percent of a city’s success can be determined by its percentage of college graduates. I recently had a strong case of déja vu when hosting a group of Memphis-area teachers and educators gathered here at the St. Louis Fed’s Memphis Branch to participate in a live town hall webcast with Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen.
Yellen spoke to teachers gathered at Federal Reserve regional banks and branches across the country from the Federal Reserve Board’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. She discussed the mission and responsibilities of the Federal Reserve System, and then took questions from K-12 and post-secondary educators of economics, history, and related disciplines. This town hall followed a speech she gave at the University of Baltimore’s 2016 mid-year commencement in December, where she said, “Economists are not certain about many things. But we are quite certain that a college diploma or an advanced degree is a key to economic success. Those with a college degree are more likely to find a job, keep a job, have higher job satisfaction, and earn a higher salary.”
by Jon W. Sparks
“This was not a road I would have chosen initially,” says Stacy McCall.
The president and CEO of ServiceMaster by Stratos, a contract janitorial service, started out as a petroleum engineer, working the technical side of a career that included stints in the oil fields. But experience and opportunity would have their say in where McCall would ultimately go.
Her savvy at understanding process-driven systems led her to start a ServiceMaster franchise in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. That began drawing her toward the people side of organizations, which would eventually take her to the top of the Memphis-based franchise unit of ServiceMaster Clean.
McCall’s devotion to understanding every aspect of the contract janitorial business involved getting down and dirty.
“I went through everything any employee in our organization goes through,” she says. “I cleaned toilets, stripped floors, and did housekeeping. I also went through all of the other experiences that my people encounter in a day.”
That meant people “looking through me as if I was a ghost because I was a janitor,” she says. It also meant sometimes hearing a kind word, dealing with equipment failure, or working long hours because of unexpected problems. “I started developing a heart for my people and what they were going through personally and then professionally when they joined my organization. It helped me become an advocate within my own company.”
by Jon W. Sparks
Running a nonprofit is nothing like running a business, except when it is.
Ned Canty is acutely aware of that, having been at the helm of Opera Memphis since 2011. He jumped aboard as general director, which, as he notes, meant having to answer to everyone about both business and artistic aspects. “The artistic is why we exist — the fun part,” he says. “But the majority of the job is the CEO part, thinking strategically about the company and trying to make sure we’re flexible and strong enough to grow but also to weather whatever kinds of changes and tsunamis might happen.”
Such as the recession of 2008.
“I don’t think anybody in any arts organization across the country was prepared for it,” he says. “I’m lucky I didn’t start running a nonprofit until after the recession had already established itself and people realized it was going to hold on. I’ve always had to think about the CEO parts of the job: the audience, growing it, meeting the needs of customers and supporters. You have to think about every choice that is made and you have to know things, like the idea of finding a new customer is many times more expensive than keeping an old one.”
Canty loves opera, but hasn’t been a lifelong fan, a fact he thinks works in his favor.
Successful CEOs Find Opportunity Among the Obstacles
by Richard J. Alley
The country has just gone through one of the things that makes our nation great — change. The peaceful exchange of power every four or eight years is a tenet that sets us apart from so many other governments around the world. It is a benchmark for how we should conduct ourselves in business, politics, and social situations. We can disagree, we can advocate for our own ideas and philosophies and visions, but in the end compromise and mutual respect always win out.
As America’s office of CEO was changing hands, we were wrapping up this issue of Inside Memphis Business, our CEO of the Year Awards issue. I delighted in reading the profiles put together by Jon Sparks, and learning just what it is that makes each of these four people tick. And one thing stands out among them, as I’m sure must stand out for anyone in a leadership position — the enthusiastic embrace of change.
The latest articles from the print version of Inside Memphis Business.
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