Spectrum Brands’ Lumley writes his own script for success

If you’re a high school kid looking to vault into the C-suite and make a killing in the business world, you’re probably not going to set your sights on journalism school. But if you ask Spectrum Brands CEO Dave Lumley, he’ll tell you that you could do worse than spending your formative years as a mild-mannered scrivener.

That’s the path that Lumley himself embarked on after high school, eventually earning a master’s in journalism from Northwestern, one of the premier destinations in the nation for any Pulitzer-coveting kid.

“From the time I think I was in the eighth grade or high school, my goal was to be a journalist,” said Lumley, the featured speaker at the June 19 Icons in Business event at the Madison Concourse Hotel. “I wrote for local newspapers all through high school and did the yearbook, the school newspapers, and I’d always set a goal that the Northwestern School of Journalism was the best one to go to.”

“If you can’t communicate, no matter how smart you are, what a great leader you think you are, it’s going to be very difficult in today’s world.” – Dave Lumley, Spectrum Brands

Unfortunately, Northwestern wasn’t in the cards for Lumley right out of high school. At the time, the prestigious Big Ten university was out of his price range, so he attended Western Illinois University on a football scholarship, continuing to write for the school paper and other local papers while dabbling in television broadcast journalism.

Ironically, it was after his time at Northwestern that Lumley’s career went in a new direction. Seeing that public relations was far more lucrative than journalism, Lumley got on the career track that would ultimately lead to his success as a CEO. A stint at iconic New York PR firm Burson-Marsteller presaged a career in marketing, which eventually opened the door to the executive suite.

He served as president of Brunswick Bicycles from 1997-99, CEO of EAS from 1999-2003, and president of the Rubbermaid Home Products North America division of Newell Rubbermaid from 2004-06 before joining Spectrum. At Spectrum, he took on several executive roles before taking over as CEO in April 2010.

It was a long, long way from the path Lumley originally intended to take, but the lessons he learned in J-school would ultimately help him forge a trail through some tricky terrain.

“I think the biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from my business career and educational investments is if you can combine whatever it is you want to be in, in my case business, with the ability to talk and write, which journalism gives you … I really think it’s a benefit to businesspeople who can do that,” said Lumley. “Because if you can’t communicate, no matter how smart you are, what a great leader you think you are, it’s going to be very difficult in today’s world. And I think that was my biggest takeaway – this combination of journalism and what it does in business is ideal in today’s world. And I would see the day where business schools should require writing classes and speaking classes.”

Engaging leadership

Of course, at the very least, an effective leader needs to have a compelling message and the ability to convey it well. That’s especially important when it comes to engaging employees and keeping them invested in your company’s strategies and goals.

A recent Dale Carnegie study found that the three main keys to keeping employees engaged are their relationships with their immediate supervisors, belief in senior leadership, and pride in working for their company. With 12,000 employees to keep tabs on from the company’s Madison headquarters – not to mention a diversified portfolio of brands to oversee, including Rayovac, Baldwin, Pfister, Remington, Black & Decker, Cutter, and Black Flag – Lumley faces a more daunting task than most.

“Well, all three of those things are correct,” said Lumley. “There are summary statements with things like trust and respect and being rewarded, not only financially, but recognition for just being listened to. The amount of stress on today’s employees [is higher than ever], whether it’s their job, in which they’re being asked to do more and more and more for what appears to be less and less and less, whether it’s taxes or the cost of everyday goods going up. … But more important, I think, is that the easy growth of promotions is kind of over. The world’s a big competitive marketplace and you have to fight really hard to be successful today.”

But even if the world is rapidly changing, there are some best practices that never go out of fashion – and some of those are key to employee engagement.

“I try to take those three points and concentrate first and foremost on trust,” said Lumley. “People don’t necessarily have to like what you say, but if you do what you say when you say you’re going to do it, they can trust you, and they’ll trust their supervisor, they’ll trust the leader, and they’ll trust the company, and that leads to respect, which ultimately leads to success.”



A simple plan

Building trust was key when Lumley took the reins in 2010. With the economy still in the doldrums, Spectrum had to settle on a strategy that would move the company forward. Noting that Spectrum’s brands were rarely number one in the marketplace but performed just as well as their competitors’ offerings, the company rallied around a “same performance, lower price” model that relied only sparingly on mass advertising.

“We were faced with some dramatic financial challenges due to some acquisitions that the previous team had made, so we went into turnaround mode,” said Lumley. “Actually, in some cases, it’s easier to effect change when you have to. Most human beings don’t do much until they have to. So in that respect, it wasn’t easy, but at least everyone had more sense of urgency to achieve what you had to achieve. And I believe in a simple plan, communicated simply – involve everyone and organize them and compensate them for the behavior you want. You can’t have Strategy A if everyone gets paid on Strategy B.”

While the company has been more acquisitive than most since launching in 1906 with a single product, it continues to search for brands that could be welcome additions to the Spectrum family.

“We look for high-growth categories – ones where our platform can bring significant synergies,” said Lumley. “I’ll give you an example. In our home and garden business, we’re already in the herbicide business, the pesticide business, and when we acquired Black Flag, we were able to acquire that brand and sales and distribution but have that product made in our factory in St. Louis, so we were able to achieve tremendous synergies and savings from what they were starting to do, and that really helped our business grow.”

While some of the best practices Lumley endorses would be valuable to anyone in the business world, some businesspeople might still find it hard to relate to a CEO who oversees a company doing $4 billion in annual sales. Still, Lumley insists that his company has more in common with small businesses than many would think.

“We don’t have a lot of layers and we’re not the number one brand in most cases, and so we’re fighting against people ironically much bigger than us – Procter & Gamble, Energizer Holdings – I could go through every category, there’s someone much bigger than us,” said Lumley. “So we’ve kind of taken a more entrepreneurial approach. … So we try to run it more like the way you would run your own company than trying to sit up there and say, we’re a big company. Because we have to win all the time against these very large competitors that have a lot more money to invest.”

If you would like to see Lumley speak at the June 19 Icons in Business event, click here for information on registration and event details.