As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Smith.
Adam Smith is a Vice President of Marketing at ACCO Brands, where he leads well-known office products brands such as Quartet, Swingline and GBC. He is currently focused on the evolution of the business to appeal to emerging consumers and e-commerce purchase.
Adam has been with ACCO Brands for ten years and previously held sales and marketing roles at Newell Brands and Preferred Brands. He earned a B.A. from Boston College and is currently pursuing his MBA at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My professional career started in a field sales job calling on Walmart stores in New England. At this time they were quickly expanding in the area and making many product decisions locally. It was a tremendous learning experience to be exposed to what it takes to be successful in a hyper-competitive consumer market and learn the ins and outs of every detail of the process. To this day I can still tell you a lot by looking at one of their price tags.
As my career continued I took on roles across sales, marketing and supply chain which prepared me to holistically manage office products businesses currently, and where I have been fortunate to spend a lot of my career. These consumers are passionate about their office product brands, and it has been fun to evolve these businesses with changing tastes and trends.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
If you’re not willing to take smart risks you rarely have the chance to win big. Throughout my career I’ve certainly made some mistakes, some more humorous than others; however, one experience before my career even began that still sticks with me is when I attempted to sell beer at age eight.
My family had moved into a new development and I started selling soda and chips to the construction workers. One day a man asked me if I had any cold beer in my cooler and said he would pay $2 for one. This was a big premium from selling discounted off-brand sodas, so I went home to get some from our pantry. Luckily my Mom was there and gently reminded me that those were off limits to sell, especially for kids!
My takeaway was to always actively listen to our consumers. In this case, I was not able to react to the recommendation but in many cases we are. Good strategy needs diversity of thought and for that you have to bring in other ideas and opinions.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with Carter Cast and have found a lot of value in his book, “The Right- and Wrong-Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade.” His position is that we will all be derailed at some point, likely by something that helped you get where you are. This is a really new topic and interesting to learn more about your pitfalls to prevent them from being a barrier to success.
In a similar vein, Marshall Goldsmith’s “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” can help you understand yourself and your own tendencies that may help or hurt your ability to be successful. I’ve found it important throughout my career not to rest on my laurels, and to regularly reflect on key choices or behaviors and learn from them for the future.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started at your company what was your vision, your purpose? Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I have found throughout my career that businesses are successful based on the choices we make and the people we have around us. There is often more than one right choice, but what can get in the way of making good choices is time or the perceived urgency required to act. One principle I’ve followed is that “What is important is rarely urgent and what is urgent is rarely important. Focus on the things you need to do to drive the business forward, not just tread water.” Often it is not one decision that impacts the health of the business, but a series of decisions we make throughout the process, and I believe that continuing to move ahead, even if pivoting along the way, is the path for making good decisions that drive the business forward in the long term.
The second thing that is incredibly important to me is our people. ACCO Brands’ motto is “The Home of Great Brands Built by Great People.” I truly believe we have many of the best people, and there can be a tendency as a senior leader to get disconnected. I make it a point to have regular 1-on-1 meetings with every member of my team. I need, and want, to hear their ideas, understand how we can operate more effectively and ultimately keep them happy and engaged.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Working from home full time with three kids, 10, 8 and 4 has been both a challenge and blessing. We reminded ourselves early on that these are unusual circumstances, that we’re all new to this, and there would be some bumps in the road. Three things that helped us come to mind as I reflect on the past few months:
- Ownable Spaces: It’s a team sport with my wife, but she has been doing all the home schooling. Just like we’ve had our personal work spaces at the office, we felt it was important for our kids to have designated space and supplies for them to continue their schoolwork. And while it’s been fun to relearn fourth grade math and writing, it was just as important for me to have a separate area where I could focus on work. Fortunately, I work for a leading provider of office and school supplies to outfit these spaces which made the adjustment a little bit easier.
- Prioritized Routine: When the internet kept cutting out during conference calls because we were all streaming video at the same time my wife and I realized we needed to get into a routine that worked for everyone. For us, that included cutting back some e-learning that we determined was not essential and me being able to use commuting time to complete work off hours.
- Re-Entry Attitudes/Behavior: Like everyone else we’re balancing the desire to get outside and the need for safety. We were excited to learn my son would be starting back up his baseball season, but it also raised a fair amount of questions, and we realized after talking to many of the other parents there’s still a lot of uneasiness out there, and everyone has a different, and valuable, perspective. So it’s important to be empathetic to those feelings, and something I try to remember as a marketer as we shift towards a new normal — that a one-size-fits-all solution may be not be likely in the near future and we’ll have to continue being flexible to changing circumstances.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
From my perspective there are two ways to look at work-related challenges. The first is the impact on our business itself. Many of our products are B2B, and with locations like schools, offices and business closed we have seen a significant drop in demand. To address this from a marketing perspective, we’ve initiated a three-pronged strategy. First, we repositioned relevant existing lines and focused on products where we saw growth in this market to support businesses like smaller dry erase boards. Next, we began to focus on how we can help places safely open, so we have pivoted our marketing and product development to identify new solutions that are still rooted in our brands’ equity. Lastly, we felt a corporate responsibility to impact communities at large, and were able to donate a significant amount of raw materials to support the creation of personal protective equipment (PPE) to help keep people safe.
The second work-related challenge is to keep our people engaged. One small step to continue building community and connections is encouraging all of our teams to utilize their video chats. Seems simple, but we’ve found that when you can still see the people you interact with it makes a big impact on clear communication and maintaining closer connections. Additionally, many of our teams are still trying to institute things like “summer hours” — we want and need our people engaged and we want to maintain as much a sense of normalcy as we can.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
First off we all need to realize these feelings are totally natural and everyone around us is experiencing something similar. We then have to make the choice to stand still or move. What I mean by move is change what you were doing or be open to doing things in different ways. For many of us this is exhausting, but it can be fruitful as we try new things and make new bets in areas that can pay off. I’ve encouraged my kids to pick up new hobbies or games, and we’ve increased our communication with extended family members through video chats. For my teams, it’s staying flexible while also challenging them to see this as an opportunity. For example, this has included focusing on solutions to support businesses reopening. We have turned categories that were very small or non existent into multi million dollar sales in a matter of weeks.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
There are two sides to every trade and often winners and losers. Nobody has a crystal ball but if we consider economies like China that were heavily impacted by SARS last decade, they put in place safeguards to control and mitigate the spread of the virus.
We think the rest of the world will follow a lot of what we have already seen, e.g. more cleaning, wearing of masks and temperature checks, etc. We also believe there may be a shift in the values, or needs, we have in the workplace, as well as the experience we have while there. For example, needs such as productivity and collaboration will continue, but the way we achieve them may be different. Needs such as safety and community were always present, but perhaps they are more top of mind, and organizations through their internal engagement efforts and the tools they provide will need to address these new or evolving needs. We see a role for ACCO in supporting much of this as people return.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There is no playbook for something at this scale, but the impact will be long lasting. I don’t think it is an all of nothing proposition, as some will be more comfortable than others in the decisions they make.
We were already monitoring the evolution of workspaces, and frankly we also believe this will accelerate those changes. Blended environments that blur what is traditionally home or office will continue to grow. Working from the office will continue, of course, but it could also be considered a thing of the past. In that sense, there is a short-term behavior change prioritizing flexibility within boundaries, with the longer-term changes where workplaces provide greater value beyond work, where individuals and teams are empowered to work anywhere and given more autonomy or control of their environment.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
There is going to be consolidation in every industry. Weaker players will go out of business or bought, leaving better positioned firms for success. It will also give many the opportunity to reassess strategies. For ACCO we are looking towards how we continue to drive our branded position in value-added categories like planners, dry-erase products and workspace tools. This includes a larger focus on our digital efforts and more direct-to-consumer marketing.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Define your VCP “Value Creation Position.” In other words, what are your resources and capabilities, and what activity system do you use to drive these? Every successful business needs a competitive advantage, so focus on what makes you different.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Perhaps ironically or coincidentally, one of my favorite Life Lesson Quotes comes from Heraclitus, “The only constant in life is change.” It was true in 500 BC and remains true today. I believe it’s critical to have a bias for action, so when changes comes we can be nimble, adapt and maintain momentum.
How can our readers further follow your work?