business news in context, analysis with attitude

Content Guy's Note: "The MNB Interview" is designed to engage with business thought leaders who I like and respect, and who have something to say. It will run each workday from August 23 - 30 while I am traveling cross-country on a road trip with my son, and has a simple format. I posed to each of the interviewees the same 13 questions and requested that they answer at least 10 of them; I told them that their answers could be as short or long as they wished, and as serious or irreverent as they liked. What I was looking for was a window into how they think and feel.

Today's MNB Interview features Tom Furphy, CEO/Managing Director, Consumer Equity Partners.

I've known Tom Furphy for a long time. The first time we met, it was when he was running a technology start-up and asked Jack Allen, who then was teaching at Michigan State University, and me to moderate a focus group for him. We hit it off, and over the years have stayed in touch ... to the point where we have done presentations about innovation together numerous times, and have a standing deal to get together at Etta's in Seattle whenever I'm in town. Tom is one of the smartest people I know ... when I first learned that he'd joined Amazon, I knew that he'd be developing a grocery channel for the pioneering e-commerce giant, and that it would be a threat because Tom doesn't just understand technology, but also "gets" retailing because of the time he spent at Wegmans. But here's the real reason I asked Tom to be part of the MNB Interview series. He's what's called "a great hang" - the kind of person who is terrific to hang out with, whether it is for a few minutes or a few hours, in a local pub, at an industry conference, or a ballgame. No higher praise...

The MNB Interview...

What's the most important thing you've learned in your career?

Tom Furphy:
Passion equals performance. If you dread Sunday night, then you’re in the wrong job and you’re likely not performing anywhere near your potential. Life is too short to suffer through a job or career that you don’t enjoy. If you’re excited about your work, chances are good that you’ll do it well. As a leader, if you can inspire others with a clear purpose and provide an environment that they enjoy and that motivates them, you will have a high-performing team.

What's the biggest - and in retrospect, the most important - mistake that you've ever made, and how did you grow from it?

Tom Furphy:
It happened early in my career when I already had achieved a high level of professional accomplishment, but I had not yet developed leadership maturity. I had an important team member who was fantastic, but he regularly caused conflict and negatively impacted others’ work. I dealt with the issues one-by-one as they occurred, but my not addressing the source drove down morale and allowed the drama to negatively impact performance. In hindsight, I should have had the courage to deal with the core issue head on, sooner, and not given it a chance to get out of control. Today, I have zero tolerance for drama or negativity in the workplace. I seek to work with positive, confident, goal-oriented (driven) people. Healthy conflict is encouraged and valued. I’ve learned that setting clear goals, within a positive environment of working hard and mutual respect, results in happy and effective teams.

What is the most significant thing you do each week, and why?

Tom Furphy:
The most significant thing that I do each week is take time to deliberately prioritize family. As parents, we are supremely important to our children’s development and the time we have with them is fleeting. No matter how busy I am with business, I make sure that I work my schedule to be able to coach sports, support what they are doing and be there for them as much as I can. To that end, my wife Tricia and I make sure we find time for as many family dinners as we can each week. This is tough with my travel schedule, Tricia’s volunteer schedule, kids’ sports and social activities. But making sure we all sit down over a home cooked meal and talk about the highlights and lowlights of our days is vital to keeping us grounded and tightly connected.

What is the most irreplaceable or essential piece of technology you own, and why?

Tom Furphy:
I would be lost without my Tumi Alpha “briefcase” bag. It’s like a Swiss-Army bag. It holds my laptop, iPad, Kindle, noise canceling headphones, earbuds, sunglasses, eyeglasses (readers!), cables, chargers, mouse, clicker/pointer, Garmin GPS, notebook, document folders, old-school paper magazines, Motrin, toothbrush/toothpaste, pens, gum, mints, passport, receipts and has room for more. It’s gone everywhere I have for the past 13 years. Anything I need is in there. Three years ago, I sent it back to Tumi to be refinished with new zippers, straps and clasps. It was as good as new! Delta just sent me a brand new, ballistic nylon, Tumi T-Pass bag for becoming a Million Miler with them. It looks really nice, but I’m hesitant to make the switch. I suppose I should try it. It’s smaller and lighter.

What is your favorite movie (and is there a business lesson in it)?

Tom Furphy:
I don’t have a single favorite movie. But I do often look to movies for inspiration and guidance in business. I’ve found that messing with traditional models and building new companies requires a set of skills not naturally found in many of us. Here are a few of my favorite movies and the lessons they provide anyone who is starting a business or driving change:

Glengarry Glen Ross: Specifically Alec Baldwin’s “Art of Selling” scene. Having the “edge” to sell products or new ideas into an existing market or client base is hard. Most of us are too nice, too human to do it well. This scene shows the kind of confidence and abandon you need to convince people your product is worth buying or your idea is worth investing in. This scene, including Baldwin’s mantra of “Always Be Selling” and “Attention, Interest, Decision, Action”, while over-the-top crude and extreme, is spot on. To get others to buy into new products or disruptions takes a great deal of hutzpah and persistence. You need to always be on message. You can’t waste your time with folks that don’t want to get on board. It is fine to be friendly on the outside, but having that killer edge inside is critical.

The Social Network: If you consider that movie as a case study from the perspective of the Winklevoss twins, there are a couple key lessons to be learned. I’ve gotten to know Tyler and Cameron a bit over the past few years. They are smart, engaging and humble guys. Not at all like the movie portrays them. Regardless of your opinion of them, the movie shows that if you find a solution to a discreet market need, you can turn it into a business. And the business will almost always evolve from its original form when it meets the market.

The movie also highlights the importance of business model patent protection and securing the rights to employee-created intellectual property. A good CEO would have kept Mark Zuckerberg properly motivated, would have worked more closely with him, and would have been careful to have any created IP assigned to the company. The best leaders surround themselves with people better than them. In this case, the Winklevii made a great move in bringing on Zuck to take their idea to fruition. Had they been more diligent at the outset, they would be much wealthier and might still be involved in the company today.

Moneyball: Shows the value of measurement in evaluating performance and predicting outcomes. Every successful business that I’ve been involved in has had a culture of measurement.

Rudy: Proves that with hard work and determination, even the longest odds can be overcome.

Forrest Gump: Forrest often found himself in the right place at the right time. When opportunity serendipitously came his way, he embraced it whole-heartedly and made history. That can happen to any of us. Make sure you have the skills to put yourself in the way of opportunity, and when it knocks don’t be afraid to go with it. For me, I never envisioned myself working in the grocery business. Had I not reluctantly agreed to my interview at Wegmans, I never would have met that amazing team and joined the industry. I could not have imagined raising venture capital, moving to Silicon Valley and building a company. And what a thrill it was to go to Amazon, the epicenter of ecommerce, and build my businesses there. It’s crazy, and there’s still more to come!

Kirk or Picard?  And why do you prefer one's management/leadership style over the other's?

Tom Furphy:
Hmmm. I’m not a Trekkie, but I appreciate Kirk’s brash but endearing style and his propensity to quickly make bold decisions and act without abandon. We need more of that in business today. However, I feel that Picard’s style is better suited for success in today’s environment. The amount of available information, the complexity of markets, the diversity of the workforce, the changing demands of customers, all beg for a leader that is level-headed, willing to weigh all the facts and then act appropriately based upon the information gathered. That’s Picard. Kirk’s style would cause too much collateral damage in the workplace. Imagine the lawsuits! Although I’d rather go out for beers with Kirk, Picard would be my choice to lead a company.

Who has been the most influential person in your business life, and why?

Tom Furphy:
My wife, Tricia. She has always encouraged me to take risks and has shown confidence in my ability to be successful at the endeavors I undertake. While it’d be safer for the family for me to work for a big corporation, she knows that’s not how I’m wired. She would rather me be happy while taking risks than miserable while collecting a steady paycheck. She understands the sacrifice that’s necessary to build companies. She steadily manages our personal lives while I’m out making big bets and creating all kinds of uncertainty. Without her support, I could never have undertaken the things I have with the patience that is needed to be successful.

Professionally, I’ve been blessed to learn from and develop under some amazing people. At Wegmans, Bob and Danny Wegman taught me the fundamentals of the food business, how to deliver an incredible store experience, how to focus on the customer and how to do it all while making a profit (thank you, Jim Leo). At Notiva, Dave Epstein and Jay Fulcher were valuable coaches who taught me how to run a company, build a board and deal with investors. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos’ intelligence, vision for the model, customer focus and thirst for invention was infectious. And all throughout, over the past 15 years, I’ve been fortunate to consider Glen Terbeek a good friend and business mentor.

Most memorable meal?  Where & what & why?

Tom Furphy:
As I think back across all the great meals, in many great restaurants throughout the world that I’ve had, hosted by some of the world’s best restaurateurs, it is hard to single out one. Probably the most unique was at Kerry Simon’s place in Las Vegas, with Alice Cooper and Steve Miller having dinner together after Kerry had introduced them to each other just that day. So cool.

However, my most memorable meal doesn’t include a glamorous location, exotic food or celebrity company. It occurred three summers ago when visiting my dad who had abruptly become terminally ill. My sister was over at my parents' house and we decided to fire up the grill and have a family dinner together. Dad was too weak and off-balance to grill, so I took the lead. He sat in a chair next to me as I manned the barbecue and he discussed all of his famous tips and tricks for grilling the perfect steak. I savored every minute as I knew it was the last time I’d stand at a grill with him and one of the last times he’d bestow fatherly wisdom upon me. I think he knew it, too. Then, when we sat down for dinner, it was the first time in 15 years and the last time ever that the four of us would sit at the same dinner table together. As surreal and sad as that evening was, I look back on it warmly and am forever grateful for having had that final dinner together.

Favorite place to go to eat/drink, not your home?

Tom Furphy:
I’ve always had a fondness for the local pub. To me, there is something magical about that perfect combination of interesting people, good conversation, cold beer and mouth-watering chicken wings. In Rochester, it was the Pittsford Pub and Winfield Grill. In Palo Alto it was the Old Pro and Dutch Goose (although the chicken wings were weak at both). Now my local favorite is the Joker Pub in Issaquah, WA. On any given night you can run into friends, tech entrepreneurs, former or current pro athletes, TV and radio personalities or maybe Captain Keith from Deadliest Catch, who lives locally. I’ve become such a regular that I’ve earned a brass plate with my name affixed to one of the bar tables – such an honor! The wings are delicious, the conversation engaging and the escape from daily life a treasure.

What is the thing that you haven't yet done that you would most like to do?

Tom Furphy:
Before my oldest goes off to college, I would love to really ramp up travel with the family. We’d start with an extended trip to Europe. I get to Europe a fair amount for business, but have never been able to include the family and make it a purely social trip. It would be wonderful to dedicate 3-4 weeks to traveling the continent, not pressed for time or deadlines. Together we could experience the history, sights, people and cultures of the region, sharing a life experience and creating memories. After Europe, we’ll figure out what’s next. The more we can do together before the kids head off to college, the better.

If you had to define the most important aspect of leadership, what would it be and why?  (And, if you are so inclined, could you give an example of this quality in practice?)

Tom Furphy:
I think some combination of humility, personal connection and servant leadership is important. While chains-of-command within companies are necessary, I think it’s critical to connect with your team as fellow human beings. Get to know them a little, show genuine interest in them and their success. Let them know how important they are toward accomplishing your organization’s goals and that you are in it with them. It’s not about joking around and going out for drinks. It’s about showing them how import they are to you and that you’re willing to go the extra mile to make them successful. It’s no secret that your salary is higher or you stand to make more from company stock. You’ve earned it and they respect that. It’s about working together to reach a goal that none of you could reach individually.

I remember sitting in meetings with Bob Wegman (back in the day) and him asking me about my golf game and showing genuine interest. And when we talked business, he listened attentively and valued my opinion. I found that human connection to be persistent within Wegmans’ culture. Any time someone would add a personal touch, ask about one of my kids by name, or in any way demonstrate their knowledge or interest in my personal details, I became more connected to them and more vested in helping make them successful. I missed that at Amazon and I do my best to be that way with my teams today.

Tomorrow: Leslie Sarasin, president/CEO, Food Marketing Institute (FMI)
KC's View: