Living a Fresh and Clean Life
By Gus Mollasis
He’s a small-town boy who has done a lot of good in his life. And while his mother never washed his mouth out with soap, A. G. Lafley would develop quite a taste for soap over the years – helping to sell and market it, that is, as he climbed to the top of Proctor and Gamble (P & G) to become CEO not once, but twice. Under his guidance, the iconic company flourished, as his team developed brands like Febreze® and Swiffer®, which helped make the air a little fresher and life a little easier for millions of people in homes throughout the world. Instilled with a strong work ethic, this Harvard Business graduate learned the importance of listening, and has lived by the mantra to always put the customer first, both of which he’s never forgotten. The result is a life well-lived – a life in which he’s made a positive difference in many lives. Regarding his failures as a gift, he’s parlayed them into learning valuable lessons that have made him better. “Playing to win” is a choice that he says we all have and something he’s mastered in his life. Now retired in Sarasota, he’s naturally involved in trying to make his community a better place by giving something back to his new home. As I sat down with A.G. Lafley, I couldn’t wait to get a look at some winning scenes from an interview of his life. clean
Where were you born?
I was born in Keene, New Hampshire that was then a very small town, but I grew up in small, semi-rural town called Burnt Hills, New York.
What is your greatest childhood memory?
As soon as the newspapers were delivered, we had breakfast and the four of us kids were out the back door. If you wanted lunch, you came home. If you didn’t want lunch, my mother needed to know where you were having lunch, and you had to be home by dinner because my dad would be home by six and we would have dinner as a family. It was a time that cars, garages and houses were unlocked. It seems like a long time ago, but I think there are few places still like that, but not enough. I only had one decision I had to make. Was I going to walk or run to where I was going, or was I going to jump on my bike? Simple things. Back then if you wanted to play baseball, you showed up at the playground and you picked sides in pick-up games in which the oldest kids ran the show. I remember showing up when I was seven years old and I didn’t care if I was put in right field. I just wanted to play. I knew if I played well, then they would move me to second base or left field. As I kid I was a bit of trailblazer and all the rules were established for me. (Laughs) I had a fabulous childhood. clean
What was your first job?
Delivering newspapers. After that I was a stock boy at the local grocery store. My father worked for GE. After 10 years of growing up in this world that doesn’t exist anymore, we moved to Chicago. I always wanted to be independent so at 16, I loaded freight cars during the 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. I wasn’t the kind of kid that was going to sit around. After that, we moved every three or four years because of my dad’s job with GE.
So your father worked for Jack Welch?
My father worked for Mr. Welch and I actually worked with Mr. Welch and it was a riot. This is diversion, but I’ll come back. The day after I was elected and appointed chief executive of P&G, I get a phone call late in the evening at the office. I’m working late. I’m drinking through a fire hose, running like crazy trying to figure out the job, and my associate turns to me and says, “There’s some guy on the phone and he says he is Jack Welch.” I said to her, ‘Does he have a gravelly voice kind of like this?’ She said, “Yeah.” I told her to put him through. I pick up the phone and he doesn’t say hi, hello or how are you? He says, “Are you Al Lafley’s kid?” I said, ‘I am.’ He says, “Your father was the only honest son of a bitch in corporate when I was running the plastics business.” What do you say? So I said, ‘Thank you.’ (Laughs) Then he said, “Get your ass into New York as soon as you can. I got to talk to you.” That’s how I met Jack Welch. And then we worked together when I retired the first time from P&G in 2010 and when I joined Clayton, Dubilier and Rice, which is a private equity firm. Jack and I were kind of senior advisors. He is a great man. clean
Did your mother ever have to wash your mouth with soap?
My mom never had to wash my mouth out with soap, but she chased me around the house with a hairbrush or with whatever she was cooking with. I was a pretty good kid, but even good kids need to be disciplined. I was extremely active. Today they would probably want to medicate me. Back then the teachers and parents knew I was active and they figured out a way to deal with my energy. My father would run me non-stop and after I would eat dinner I would collapse. He figured it out.
Were you always interested in business?
I wasn’t. When we went to Chicago, my parents put me in this Dominican All Boys School to help me focus on academics. Then I went to a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, Hamilton College, because I thought I could play basketball. Not a good reason to pick, but it was a good school academically. My freshman year I majored in math; my sophomore year I majored in English Literature; my third year I went to France and majored in French and French History; my senior year I realized I had to graduate and graduated in history. I considered law school, but instead I went into the PhD program at the University of Virginia. I won this thing called the Presidential Fellowship. My whole education was paid for and I was able to study Medieval and Renaissance history at the University of Virginia, which was my interest. In November or the first semester, the first draft of the Vietnam War was held and I won the lottery. I got a 69, which meant that I had to report for active duty in March. I enlisted in the Navy in which I spent five years and three months. I started in Snowden’s Naval Security Group (Lt. Col. Benjamin Snowden). We are in the middle of the Vietnam War and I spent 47 weeks learning Modern Hebrew. I went through Supply Corps School and they sent me to Japan, where I spent three years running sort of all of the PX and club services for a big air base there. The aircraft that were on the carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin came in and out of our air base. clean
What was your great lesson from your Vietnam experience?
My great lesson is two-fold. They give both men and women a lot of responsibility at an early age and I like that. And the other thing is that at least with the Navy, it’s a relatively small unit. It’s a ship’s crew, or an air base support team, or an air group. So you have friends for life. I don’t see them all the time. You shared the same experiences. I never saw combat, just support, but we served people who went into combat.
What was your big break?
A couple of things. I was very lucky to end up with one serendipitous decision at a time, involved with something that was a good fit with my values and aspirations, and something I enjoyed and learned and grew from. Whether it was going to that all boys’ school – or whatever – I had the attitude that okay, I’ll give it a shot. It was totally different to what I was used to, going from t-shirts to a more formal jacket and tie environment. The guy that got the best grade in the class is sitting right there. Everybody else is sitting in alphabetical order. They post all your test and SAT scores and how many push-ups you can do. It’s intended to be totally transparent and based on merit. Would I have rather had 300 when the Vietnam lottery took place? Yes. Not because I didn’t want to serve my country, but because I was interested in getting my Ph.D. The Navy changed that and when that ended it was kind of interesting. I was married by then and my first son was born. I’ll never forget this decision. I was 28 years old. That’s when I applied to business school at Harvard. I had business-like jobs in the Navy and thought to myself I can do that. I also applied to law school. But I thought law school is three years. What do you do if you’re not Perry Mason and you’re a lawyer? Business school seemed a lot more interesting to me and I wanted to get on with life. It’s a series of choices that worked out. I can’t tell you it was any life plan. When I was nine or ten years old and jumped on my Schwinn bike there was no plan.
Finish the following sentences:
My best quality is…
I’m a great listener and I’m objective. clean
I wish I could be more like…
A good business always…
Puts the customer first.
A good product is one that…
Delivers on its function so it does what it says it is going to do. High quality, high service and a fair price. A good value.
The key to success in business is…
Serving the customer better than anyone else can serve the customer so the customer keeps coming back and buying the product and services.
A great leader will always…
Was there a mentor along the way who showed you the ropes?
There was never any one person. But Jack Welch kind of inserted himself and said, “I want to be your mentor.” He was helpful, but that was in my last job. Early on, one of my coaches in public school was very supportive. I was undersized. Skinny. But I worked hard to make my way on to the first team. I was made captain of the team and I wasn’t even a starter yet. I thought that if they’re going to make me captain, then I’m really going to have to work hard so I made myself good defensive player. And Digger Graves, the head of the history department at Hamilton, inspired me and was one of the big reasons I decided to major in history. clean
What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
I think the things that always got me most excited were to be part of the team that created, designed, and developed a new product and especially one that was really successful. I was on the team, and this sounds so mundane, that worked on liquid Tide® detergent. There were other liquid detergents out there, but they actually didn’t clean that well. The challenge was putting all this chemistry into liquid. I spent a lot of time on some of the hair care products that we did. With Pantene, we actually put conditioner and treatment in a shampoo and had them stay together to work on your hair. I was part of the Febreze® and Swiffer® teams. That excited me the most. The other thing that I can’t help but feel good about is that I was the “Accidental CEO.” The only reason I was elected was because we were failing in 2000. We had lost half of our market value and our stock price dropped in half. For the next seven years or so, we more than doubled the sales of the company and tripled profits. All of our established brands were growing again and then we made some acquisitions that turned out to be pretty good, one of which was Gillette®. It was a great seven or eight years and a huge team effort that was a lot of fun. We were running so fast.
Proctor and Gamble. What does that brand mean to you?
I do think that we are iconic in the sense that our brands and products are part of everyday Americana lives and now lives around the world. Ninety-nine percent of US homes have one or more P&G products. A lot of people don’t know it is P&G. They know Crest® or Pampers®. We weren’t saving lives and we weren’t curing cancer, but we were creating and manufacturing these everyday household products that make your life a little bit better. So I got a kick out of that. And I got a kick out of working with 10,000 scientists and chemists. People don’t think of that, but somebody has to create all that.
What are some of the greatest challenge you encountered in your stints at P&G?
The greatest challenge to P&G, GE or General Motors is their sheer size – the scale and global scope of these companies. When I joined P&G, it was probably $5 billion in sales in the mid 70’s with 80 or 90% of products sold in the United States. Today, it’s $65 or $70 billion in sales and they’re probably selling products in over 100 countries. P&G’s China business is bigger than the entire business when I joined the company.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the “consumer is boss?”
For most companies it’s the customer. If you’re business to business, it’s the customer. For a lot of retail companies where we shop, it’s the customer. We always distinguish between the consumer who buys and uses our product and our customer – the retailer or distributor who sells it to you – because we don’t sell anything directly. What comes to my mind, and I’m going to paraphrase, is Peter Drucker, an important mentor to me. I cold-called him when he was 87 years old. I read half of his books when I was in Asia and I went out to see him three to four times a year. His simple view of the world was no consumer, no customer. The purpose of a business is to create a customer and serve that customer better than anyone else can. Hopefully keeping them coming back and buying your product for life. The companies that are successful think about their customers. Apple had a very successful run because they made products that we love and wanted.
Play the role of the ad man for a moment and tell me a tagline for the following well-known brands that you helped revitalize.
The two best tag lines for me are For healthy, beautiful smiles for life, and Look ma, no cavities. That was fabulous for kids and put the brand on the map.
Tide’s in, dirt’s out and If it’s got to be clean, it’s got to be Tide.
Pampers keeps babies dryer and allows them to sleep overnight. That’s good for their health and development.
The ultimate in quick, convenient cleaning of any surface in your home.
Amazing. It’s a breath of fresh air. It actually makes the bad odor go away and replaces it with a breath of fresh air.
What is your definition of success in life?
Right now for me, a guy that’s about to turn 70, it’s health, happiness, friends and being able to do what you like to do with people you like a lot.
As you have written, do you really regard failures as a gift?
I’ve written several articles for the Harvard Business Review and what I’ve often heard feedback about is the one: “I Think of My Failures as a Gift.” I’ve always felt that I’ve learned ten times as much from a mistake I made, from a setback I had, from a failure than I ever did from a success. People say study the successes of great people. Okay. Sure there are lessons, principles and concepts to be learned. But I just found that these gut-wrenching, emotional and personal stakes that you have in something that turns into a failure or mistake adds a whole different dimension. And I viewed it as a gift. There are a lot of things that you fail a lot of times at before you get it right. I took up tennis at 63 and I’m not a very good tennis player but I’m bound and determined that I’m going to play two to three times a week.
Tell me about another concept you’ve written about – “Playing to Win.”
It’s interesting because “winning” or “playing to win” takes on prerogative sense for some people and we purposely chose that collection of words for that book because we feel what’s the choice? Playing to play? Playing to lose? Playing to tie? Or playing to win? And you know my view is playing to win. So in business you have to think what is winning? I think winning is when the customer wins. The business product and service provider wins. The shareowner and shareholder wins. The employees win. So playing to win for us meant it’s a win, win, win, win situation. It’s not win-lose. It’s not management wins and the shareholders lose. It’s not pitted against each other. We believe that if you just make five choices they make a difference. And the first choice is what is winning? What is the goal? If you don’t know what the goal is, any direction will do.
How did you discover Sarasota?
My grandmother used to drive her ‘52 Chevy down from New Hampshire in the late 50’s with her cousin to watch the Boston Red Sox play during spring training at Payne Park. She was a huge Ted Williams fan. That’s when I found out and first became aware of Sarasota from looking at all these pictures. As a youth, I was both a Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds fan from living in all these places. The first time I moved here was in 2004.
Tell me about your community involvement and how you plan to help shape Sarasota’s future?
One of the things that I truly believe in is that when you choose to live in a community, you should choose to give back to the community that you live and or work in, which we did a lot in Cincinnati. My wife Diana and I are still thinking through on how we are going to get involved and give back to Sarasota. We’re in the process of building our own foundation. I definitely believe in what Warren Buffet, who was our biggest shareholder for a long time, believed, and what Bill Gates also believes and that is if you’re fortunate in life, you give back during your life and at the end of your life. We’ve been dabbling at what we were going to get involved in from various arts organizations to an array of social causes. And that’s how I got involved with the Sarasota 20/20 Bayfront project. They called me and asked me to do the planning board. And I said that I would give it a try. I didn’t know a lot about it. It was nine volunteers, all citizens, not representing any interest or stakeholders. About a two-year assignment working with private and professional planners, and getting the city a master plan for civic space in which the city owns all the land. I had done a major private-public partnership in Cincinnati and had good experience there. It’s now in its 14th year of operation. So I’ve seen it happen and work well. I’m not interested in development. I don’t invest in development or in real estate. I’m not an architect. I’m looking for the greater good of the community and finding that right thing that needs to be there on that land. I read lot of comments from people on the Bayfront 20/20 master plan and it sounds like people want some combination of bay and waterfront activity, park and recreation activity and arts and culture. Mixed use. And they want it to be open to everybody, which makes it a true civic space. What we’ve done in Cincinnati is that it’s open and nothing is ticketed. When there is an event, you pay for parking and your food and drink. And that’s how you get a great mix for the community.
Hopefully many years from now, what do you hope people think about when they remember you?
This is going to sound simple and clichéd, but I would hope people would say that he made a difference with his wife Diana and with his family; that he made a difference with vocations and avocations; and, that life was just a little bit better for those he touched as result of him being there. If I can accomplish that, then there will be a smile on my face when the end of the world comes.