As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Nelson.
Tom Nelson joined Zero Halliburton as its global President and CEO effective Jan 2017. He has been in the consumer goods industry for over 30 years with most of that time concentrated in the premium accessories and travel goods segment, principally in international brand development roles and has held management / senior management level positions with several tops brands in their early / mid-growth phases, namely Louis Vuitton, Coach and Tumi prior to Zero Halliburton. Throughout his careers Nelson has traveled massively throughout my personal and business life, and have lived in New York, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong. In addition to a lifelong addiction to travel and experiencing other cultures, he loves music and music festivals, running and general health / wellness, all of which is enhanced by a fondness for drinking wine. Nelson lives in Manhattan with his wife (his two daughters are out of the nest now) but has had a long-distance, 20-year relationship with Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley as his happy place.
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?
From riding my bike far beyond neighborhood boundaries and well past curfew, to devouring books and magazines about travel, my wanderlust began at a young age. Although I did not consciously pursue a career in the travel industry, I naturally gravitated towards it. I was also innately drawn to consumer goods. I found the notion of creating and marketing a tangible item that could bring someone instant gratification very appealing. At a time when many of my peers were embarking on careers on Wall Street, I decided instead to (here comes the travel pun) take the road less traveled — by seeking roles at consumer products companies that offered international opportunities. It was a natural extension of my lifelong curiosity of other countries and cultures, and the thrill I get from being somewhere well outside my own backyard. Traveling or living in a culture different from your own provides a perspective on people, the world, and our place in it that is virtually impossible to learn anywhere else. It has personally impacted me profoundly, and I also believe I am a better manager because of it.
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?
One of the funniest things that happened to me in the earlier part of my career — or at least it is funny now — was the result of a traffic accident. In the early 90’s, I worked at a company where voice mail was the dominant way to send messages. We voice-mailed just like we use Slack or texts today. The head of my department was particularly fond of using voice mail and the etiquette surrounding its use was important to him. He was also very particular in general about style and propriety. One day, while driving to my office, I was dictating a voice message over the phone system in my car when I noticed another vehicle rapidly approaching from behind while my car was stopped. As it became apparent that I was about to get rear-ended, I uttered a loud expletive directed towards the driver of that car. The impact of the hit was somehow enough to prompt the device to send the voice message to my department head. I knew he had just gotten on a flight from New York to London, and upon his arrival, would hear my aborted message and perhaps think my comments were directed at him! I dealt with the accident as quickly as possible and then, still shaken from it, dashed off another voice mail that attempted to explain what had happened. To this day, I am not certain that he believed the expletive was not directed towards him. It was an abject lesson in how technology does not always support us.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
“The Elements of Style”, by Strunk and White, was (and still is) crucial for me in my professional writing. If your grammar is poor in the business world, you will be judged accordingly. Otherwise, I very rarely read business books, preferring novels about the human experience much more. Stories of life in other countries, or of the expat experience, are favorites. Known classics like “A Moveable Feast” and “The Quiet American” have had meaning for me as I have moved about the world and lived in other countries. More recently I read “Pachinko”, which is a great tale of family across generations in two of my favorite countries, Japan, and Korea.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
One of the reasons I was so excited to join Zero Halliburton in 2017 was the opportunity to reinvigorate and re-define this legendary brand. Although beloved by many, its 82-year heritage had become pigeonholed to one singular — albeit important — event, while the initial purpose and distinctive DNA that led to all the brand’s historical moments, had become blurred over the years. Born from American ingenuity with a reputation for strength and protection, Zero Halliburton has always been about purposeful luxury. Using this as our inspiration, we made the decision to redesign and modernize the entire product offering. Customized to our exact specifications, we created a breakthrough foundation that showcases our legendary strength in an elegant design to appeal to today’s pioneers — who, like Zero Halliburton, deliberately pursue excellence.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Honesty and integrity are the principles I value most. To succeed, it is essential that the people you do business with have trust in you and the decisions you make. And as a leader, you need to be the standard-bearer. This is always true, but especially so during challenging and uncertain times for the world,
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?
My wife and I live in New York City and as you know, the situation started to get extremely difficult by mid-March. The sense of community and shared struggle of fellow New Yorkers certainly helped to ease the psychological burden, but daily life was becoming increasingly tricky to manage. In addition to our concern about using resources that others needed more, we were afraid of being asymptomatic “carriers” due to recent travel. Thankfully, we were able to quarantine in a rural location far from the city which allowed us to protect ourselves as well as our neighbors. What was supposed to be three weeks quickly turned into three months. And while it was hard to remain isolated from family — and even the “soothing” sounds of street traffic for so long, we consider ourselves extremely fortunate.
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?
One of the greatest challenges as a manager during this pandemic — especially during its peak in New York, has been to maintain a sense of close camaraderie and group dynamic of our team. We are our own small family who have grown very used to being able to motivate and support each other in person. Although we adapted easily to the great technology that has allowed us to keep the business running, the emotional cues are absent at a time when we are all stressed at many levels. Additionally, working from home because of a quarantine is an unplanned event that offers less ability for people to control their environments. To say that it is a challenge to inspire people under these circumstances is an understatement. That said, the single most effective strategy to help us keep it together has been to help others. Inspired by the courageous response from frontline workers to the pandemic and the suffering of so many, we moved quickly with two key initiatives. Firstly, we turned our Annual Warehouse Sale in April into a fundraising effort and donated 15% of the sale proceeds to Feed the Frontlines, Direct Relief and International Medical Corps. The results far exceeded our wildest expectations. Secondly, we turned our new Spring 2020 Carry-On cases into vessels of joy through “Mission Sun.” To make our vision a reality, we contacted the Four Seasons New York hotel to help us provide 100 sun-hued Edge Lightweight carry-on cases filled with comforting products from Gillette, Venus, Lafco, This Works, and Endure Beauty — along with several kn95 facemasks — to the men and women staying at the hotel while they worked relentlessly to care for thousands of Covid-19 victims. It was a small token of appreciation that we hoped would bring a moment of brightness to the selfless dedication of New York’s healthcare workers. More than any Zoom cocktails, these actions had the most positive impact on giving all of us at Zero Halliburton a greater sense of purpose and hope.
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?
I have two young adult daughters, who are in the early years of their independent personal and professional lives and like many young people are a bit traumatized by the pandemic and its economic and social consequences. To help them through this, I emphasize that: 1) This will pass. And, over the course of your life it will represent a small (but extremely important and memorable!) period of time 2) While we are still in the middle of this, take full advantage of the opportunity to do and see things differently. Find and embrace the silver linings. For example, I had the chance to visit to my mother, who lives far from me, for three weeks. While it was weird to be doing Zoom meetings from my childhood bedroom, it was also time I would never have otherwise had the chance to share with her. It was a blessing and I will never forget it.
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?
I think the economic impact of this Pandemic will make consumers become more discerning in their spending. Instead of trend-driven “disrupters”, people will seek out brands that prioritize quality, design, and especially authenticity in the products they buy. Additionally, a more personalized approach to in-store and online shopping will become especially important. The need for real-time interaction between online shoppers and brands will continue to grow as will the demand for flawless service at retail stores and within customer service departments. On a larger, human scale I hope it changes the way we treat each other. We have seen so much suffering and have observed first-hand how intertwined our lives and livelihoods truly are. I hold out great hope that the lesson of acting for the common good during this remarkably unsettling time will not have been wasted.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Knowing that the pandemic has caused a seismic shift in the way people will travel and commute for the foreseeable future, we are tackling this in a couple of different ways. We are developing product line extensions that speak to the future of travel and building a coalition of partners that share our brand values. One very timely example is our initiative with Lexus USA which is launching this month. Road trips are back and bigger than ever, and there probably isn’t a more perfect automotive brand in the world than Lexus to transport a Zero Halliburton Travel Case.
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?
One thing that has become a priority for all of us at Zero Halliburton is a greater focus on social responsibility and civil treatment. As a business and as individuals, we plan on increasing our education and the action we take towards ensuring equality, tolerance and respect for the people in the communities where we do business and in which we live.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Now that businesses have become used to employees working remotely in large scale, I think there is a great opportunity to tap into talent that we might not have had access to before. For example, if you are a corporation with headquarters located in a remote suburban area, you might not historically have been able to attract employees beyond a certain commuting radius. With that barrier removed, it makes it easier to acquire a more diverse workforce that better represents your customer base. True growth comes from the ability to hear and learn from different points of view and experience.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I always like to remind myself and advise others to “focus on the end game.” That’s not to say the process isn’t important, however, to succeed, you need to identify what you are trying to achieve. Once you have identified your goal, the actions you take and decisions you make should be determined according to achieving your objective –within the boundaries of ethics, honesty, and integrity of course. In general, the path to achieving your goals is rarely linear, so the journey will not be a series of clearly defined steps. This approach has helped me be patient in many situations in life when my immediate reaction might have otherwise derailed the longer-term goal. It’s like the central strategy in a game of chess…try to think three moves ahead.
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