Greg Welch was born in Memphis, Tennessee, literally a block away from The King of Rock and Roll. “Elvis Presley and I were neighbors,” he says with a quick laugh. “The only difference was that he was a bit older, had a pretty good voice, and could dance.”
A graduate of Indiana University, Greg’s illustrious career includes sales and leadership roles with numerous Fortune 500 companies and iconic brands such as Nestle, Bristol Meyers-Squib, Colgate-Palmolive, and Kraft Nabisco. He is currently a Senior Partner at Spencer Stuart, where he’s spent the last 21 years of his marketing journey. Greg an accomplished author who has appeared in numerous publications, including Adweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Harvard Business Review, and Forbes, and co-authored the acclaimed book “Good for Business: The Rise of the Conscious Corporation.” Greg spent the last 20+ years on the North Shore of Chicago with his wife and four children, but later this year will relocate to Florida and start a brand-new adventure.
CMO Club — Welcome. So, did you get to play tag with Elvis?
Greg Welch — “Sorry, no. Although I was born in Memphis, I was just a baby at the time, but my older brother has some memories of Elvis coming out to play touch football at the schoolyard. My family moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I spent my formative years.”
CMO Club — What were you like as a kid?
Greg Welch — “Looking back, I suppose I was really hard to manage and fiercely competitive. My father was somewhat of a disciplinarian, and only now (as a parent myself) do I appreciate why. I was curious and always pushed the bounds. I had numerous aspirations as a kid and was very driven about everything I ever did.”
CMO Club — What were some of those aspirations?
Greg Welch—“I was very much into sports. I recall dreaming of becoming an NBA player or a pro golfer. That said, I soon realized that my selling skills were far better than my jump shot. What I knew for sure was that I wanted to engage with people. Those first few experiences at Nestle as a young sales rep, trying to sell store managers things he or she didn’t really need was both interesting and challenging for me. I was never one to give up easily. I recall thinking that out of every ten calls I made, I was successful, on average, about three times. So net, I’d be rejected seven out of ten times, but what I told myself was that when I got rejected, I’d be six rejections away from a yes. It may humor the crowd to know that when I joined Nestle, one of the first things I did was put up a Post-It note on my car dashboard that said, “Career goal-Become President of Nestle Foods.” (laughter)
My first sales territory for Nestle was in Berkley, California. One of the very first calls, I walked into a shop and told the manager I was with Nestle and that I was hoping to put up a Nestle Quik display. This guy immediately starts screaming at me, calling me a baby killer, and throws me out of the store. Nestle, at the time, and which I found out much later, was donating baby formula to third-world countries, some of which had been mixed with contaminated water from those countries, and sadly, a lot of kids were becoming sick and dying. I remember running to a payphone and calling my boss, asking why these people were screaming at me? Days later, I had another “learning moment,” when I drove into a grocery store parking lot and pulled right up front. The store manager watched me park my car and, before I could get a word out, he, too screamed at me, telling me to never park in a prime spot again because those spots were for his customers only, not me. To this day I usually park my car in the back of the lot because I still feel like I don’t belong in the front. I had a rough start.” (Laughter)
CMO Club — Indeed. Fast forward, now you help place CMOs into some of the biggest companies in the world. Tell us something interesting you’ve learned about yourself in that role.
Greg Welch — “Interestingly, you might not think it, but I spend a lot of my time delivering bad news to people. Over the years, I have learned that being direct and candid with people is best, that people really want to know the truth. So I take on the role of a truth-teller to people, about your career, about your aspirations, about my observations, or what your reputation is in the market. I find that most people appreciate it. I keep a file of letters I got over the years from people thanking me for a variety of things. I can’t tell you how many of those are from people that I’d delivered bad news to, how much they appreciated my candor and honesty in telling them straight. When I put my head on the pillow at night, my hope is that maybe I’ve impacted 30 or 40 people that day as professionally, honestly and as forthcoming I could. I suppose my mother would laugh, but many of my basic guiding principles came from her-treating people with the respect they deserve and to be caring in general, all that golden rule stuff. It allows me to sleep better at night.”
CMO Club — You mentioned something your mother taught you. Is there anything that stays with you from your dad?
Greg Welch — “He shaped me in so many ways. Ironically, my dad taught me the beauty (and the power) of just saying, “no.” As I’ve grown older, I have come to really respect that. It is most often the more difficult path to take, but all great leaders do it.
CMO Club — Any advice to marketers seeking a big new job in today’s environment?
Greg Welch — “It’s a difficult time. What I try and tell young aspirational CMOs is to take a good, hard look at who you are and where your towering skills and strengths lie. Emphasize the positive aspects and focus on that. Understand, though, at the end of the day, my colleagues and I are interested in one thing; finding people who put the ball through the hoop. I’m looking for people who have continually won over time. Success today and a track record of tangible results; building brands, growing revenue, building outstanding teams, mentoring, taking on greater responsibility, that’s what’s important. In other words, do you have that “special sauce” that will allow you to be a big-time CMO?”
CMO Club — Anything else?
Greg Welch — “I often encourage young marketers to create a personal Board of Directors. Gather a group of mentors that can help you in your career decisions, then drive that going forward. There are only going to be a couple of CMOs at Target, Coca-Cola, or Google. Many think they have what it takes to be there, yet the reality is that most don’t. Truly studying how successful people accomplished their goals, how they failed and how they responded to that failure, these are the sorts of people that can provide great advice to you along your personal journey.”
CMO Club — What’s the number one challenge facing CMOs right now?
Greg Welch — “I think the single biggest thing that CEOs are asking me to deliver is to find CMOs who can grow the business. If you’re not focused on growth, I would ask you to rethink your priorities. The best CMOs I know are the ones who say, “we’ve got six important things we need to get done in the next year, and I’d like to ensure that at least five of those are aligned to growing the business.”
“The transformation of the CMO job over the last decade has been remarkable. It’s tough to stay on top of all the emerging technologies. One of the things I value about the CMO Club is that it allows the group to say, “what can we do to share best-practices?” You need to have peers in the industry who can act as sounding boards for you, who can help in a safe zone to be authentic and transparent about the struggles you are having and to know others are facing the same issues. You’d be crazy to try and do all of this on your own.”
CMO Club — We spoke a few months back about the discrepancy in gender compensation and the statistics surrounding that important issue. Has anything changed recently? Has the industry started to turn this around?
Greg Welch — “The good news is that the industry is making strides. There’s new legislation called the Equal Fair Pay Legislation making its way around. We now value the “role” in the company, and our clients understand that they need to pay at that competitive market level regardless of what someone had been paid previously. We always look for the best person to fit that role, period. I believe this will be a great tool in evening out the playing field in terms of compensation.
CMO Club — I know that you’ve co-authored a book on corporate responsibility called, “Good for Business: The Rise of the Conscious Corporation.” What about your feelings on other aspects of corporate responsibility?
Greg Welch — “No Doubt. This is part of what has perpetuated the disruption in the marketing community, where you now have individual consumers with loud voices in the market. The people in the next generation will care far more about the kind of vehicle they put in their garage or the kind of appliance they use in their kitchen based on what that item’s carbon footprint is, where it was made, how that corporation treated their employees, and what the CEO makes. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that those kinds of decisions are entering into the buying process for all consumers, particularly young ones.”
CMO Club — So, what’s a CMO to do?
Greg Welch — “Trying to manage a brand today is really hard, I think of it as a lane in a swimming pool. I can’t stay just on the dotted line, but I’m still in a lane none-the-less, and I want my brand to represent and stand for a handful of specific commitments. You have to have those guardrails on and be authentic and transparent. In this day and age, consumers can sniff out a phony very quickly. It’s compounded the difficulty of the job, quite frankly, but it will become more and more important, not less, moving forward.”
CMO Club — What are you passionate about outside of work?
Greg Welch — I’m very much getting back into fitness. I’m a big golfer, too, and I am hopeful that my best days may still be ahead of me. I’m also learning how to fish. Recently, I had the chance to do some fishing in The Bahamas with some friends. I’m not sure that I personally caught these two beauties, but it was a great photo moment.”
Greg celebrating a good fishing day in The Bahamas.
CMO Club — What gets you angry?
Greg Welch — “I get more frustrated than I get angry. There are times when I see organizations and executives doing the same exact things over and over again, and yet they expect different outcomes. Some of my best friends are lawyers, and many don’t like what they do. That seems a bit crazy to me and reminds me of how blessed I am. Life’s too short. Find something that gets you fired up. Go do something different. I’m also incredibly frustrated with the state of affairs in America. I’ve got a son in the Army, Special Forces. I love this country. I love what we stand for, but, like I think every American, I’m frustrated by the unrest that exists and the divisions that are happening right now. I worry about the impact on our children going forward. It’s frustrating when I choose not to watch the news because of all the bad news. I don’t recall it ever being this way. That has me worried.”
Greg with his son, Austin, and his dad.
CMO Club — What’s something you can share with the club that most people don’t know about you?
Greg Welch — “I married my college sweetheart out of Indiana University. Unfortunately, she was killed in a car accident in 1983. She was with my then six-month-old son, en route to an appointment to do a television commercial addressing child safety for a local hospital in Atlanta. The brakes simply went out. She died, and he lived.”
“It was one of those life-changing moments when you take a long look in the mirror, and say, “who am I, and what’s going on here?” At the time, I found myself with a six-month-old son, alone in a brand-new city, but we endured. Austin proved to be my rock, which is kind of ironic. It was hard to determine who needed who more. Fortunately, sometime later, a former girlfriend re-entered my life, and we wound up getting married and having three wonderful daughters- Jackie, Lucy, and Wylie. It’s truly been happily-ever-after, a wonderful outcome to a horrible tragedy, for sure. Those who know my wife Sandy would agree with me when I say she fell out of heaven for me.”
Greg and his beautiful family.
CMO Club — What a compelling story. How has that experience changed your outlook on life?
Greg Welch — “As you might expect, It’s shaped me in every possible way. Those who know me best know what a family guy I am, and how incredibly proud I am of them. Despite my crazy travel schedule, I rarely miss that dance recital or that soccer game, ever. It now spills over into my world as a search guy as well, about that perspective of how people think about their job and the life balance they’re trying to strike. I’m keenly interested in how people talk to me about that perspective in their life, the struggles of mothers and fathers, young people with families, and how important that really is.”
CMO Club — What’s one thing you’d like people to remember about you?
Greg Welch — “I’d like them to say he cared deeply about the success of others and worked feverishly to help.”
CMO Club — Do you think CMOs can have a positive impact on society?
Greg Welch — “I absolutely do. I am doing a search right now for an amazing early childhood development company in Atlanta. I can tell you that this is a passionate group of incredible professionals who care deeply about the development of children at an early age. They are hugging, nurturing, training, and providing the best possible way to get these kids off to a successful start. To be not only happy, thriving children, but to later become productive adults. What a wonderful opportunity to make a positive impact on not only thousands and thousands of children but on the planet as a whole as well. There are so many ways to make an impact. Find something you care about. Work hard to make this a better planet. There are many ways to do that. It’s up to you.”