The Marine Corps: My Bootcamp for the Business World" - Ken Marlin's perspective piece on how his service in the Marines prepared him to lead businesses, in the New York Times.
Our CEO and founder Ken Marlin, recently wrote a perspective piece in the New York Times about some of the many ways that his 10 years as an officer in the US Marine Corps shaped his approach to leading businesses. Read more below.
In the 1970s, I quit college and enlisted in the United States Marines. I was young, and there was a war on. As it turned out, I spent a decade on active duty. I was deployed twice to the Far East, and spent time in a dozen other places as well — including a very cold winter in an exercise on the Alaskan tundra.
The Marines were good to me. They promoted me from the enlisted ranks, sent me to Officer Candidate School, and let me lead and learn from some inspiring people. As I progressed through platoon leader, company commander, battalion staff officer and serving on the staff of the First Marine Division commanding general, I learned the value of disciplined planning, preparation, teamwork, flexibility and perseverance. I learned how to lead in times of chaos and confusion. And I learned a lot about strategy and tactics.
The Marines also allowed me to complete my B.A. and obtain an M.B.A. It was tough to leave. But after 10 years, I had to decide whether to make the Marine Corps my career or move on. I chose to move into civilian life.
My first job was at the headquarters of Dun & Bradstreet, which was then a diversified holding company — buying, selling and managing information and technology businesses around the world. We owned 23 other global brands including Moody’s, the bond rating firm; and AC Nielsen, the market-research firm known for its TV viewership ratings. While working at Dun & Bradstreet, I realized that many of the skills I had learned as a Marine were applicable to getting things done in corporate America.
Some of my earliest assignments related to Dun & Bradstreet’s efforts to expand globally. I was charged with finding and capitalizing on opportunities in Japan, Asia and Western Europe, and even Eastern Europe, at a time when the Iron Curtain was still very much in place.
One of my more interesting assignments was to divest the company of three businesses that it owned in South Africa. This was at a time when Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the South African government was trying hard to preserve apartheid — its policy of systematic and legal segregation of its black population, which effectively forced blacks to live in second-class communities, condemned them to menial jobs and largely denied them education or the opportunity for betterment.
On college campuses, students rallied and called on their universities to divest themselves of investments in companies like Dun & Bradstreet that did business in South Africa. Many universities adopted some form of sanctions, as did a growing number of American cities and states.
Congressional legislation was introduced toward the same end, although the bills failed to become law. This was in part because President Ronald Reagan insisted that “constructive engagement” was the better approach and that sanctions would fall hardest on the very people we were trying to help, without changing government behavior. The pressure on Dun & Bradstreet was constant.
I had expressed the strong view that Dun & Bradstreet should divest itself of its South African units — arguing that it was the right thing to do from a business standpoint and from a moral one. The biggest reason not to divest was economic, and I believed that was short-term thinking.
To my surprise, the chief executive of Dun & Bradstreet agreed — and then assigned me the job. Complicating matters, he wanted the sales completed by year-end and at fair prices, while at the same time preserving our employees’ jobs. He also wanted me to negotiate some way for Dun & Bradstreet to re-enter the market should apartheid end.
In all these global endeavors I planned and operated like a Marine. Working backward from a clearly defined completion date, I assembled a team of experts, developed a plan, assigned roles, and committed to the task at hand.
Sometimes it all worked. We acquired six companies in Europe and significantly improved Dun & Bradstreet’s market position. Japan, on the other hand, vexed us for years until we found the right partner.
I was busy, and South Africa added to the tension. In early May 1986, I flew to Johannesburg. We were prepared and ahead of the wave, but just barely. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act became law on Oct. 2, when Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto.
It wasn’t easy selling three businesses when the buyers were few. As with many other tasks, it required Marine discipline, planning, creativity, execution — and a refusal to be stymied by hurdles. Ultimately, we completed two of the deals by year-end and the third in January. Two of the businesses were sold to companies that were led by former employees, and all three went to companies that planned to continue employing our people. We obtained repurchase rights for all three businesses.
My experience during that period revealed something that would be demonstrated repeatedly as I progressed in my civilian career: My education gave me one set of tools. But I was more effective when I combined those tools with skills I learned in the Corps — things like backward planning, team building, disciplined preparation and perseverance in the face of adversity.
For 30 years, those skills have helped me get things done for American corporations and, for the last 14 years, on Wall Street. I’ve never forgotten that.
This article originally appeared in the New York Times, on August 27th, 2016.
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