CMO ClubHouse Conversations with Mark Hanna, CMO at Richline Group, Inc.

The CMO Club chats with CMO Mark Hanna about rocket ships, corporate responsibility, and the one thing he’s most proud of achieving.

The CMO Club recently sat down with Mark Hanna, longtime Chief Marketing Officer at Richline Group Inc. Richline, a subsidiary of Berkshire-Hathaway, isa worldwide, vertically-integrated presence in both the manufacturing and marketing of precious materials throughout the whole supply chain. Mark has over 46-years of leadership experience in the jewelry industry, including management, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and compliance.

Mark started his career as an Aeronautical Engineer, one of about six individuals to have their name on the ATM flight guidance system that directed the NASA Apollo spacecraft to the moon in the late sixties. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including being named one of the Top 200 Chief Marketing Officers in the World in 2012 and 2015, the first male recipient of the prestigious Cindy Edelstein Mentorship Award by the Women’s Jewelry Association in 2019, and won The CMO Social Responsibility Award in 2018 by The CMO Club. He is a husband, father, coach, Board Member of the Special Olympics, and an avid hockey fan. Mark lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his family.

CMO Club — Wow and welcome. That’s quite a resume. Tell us a little bit about how it all started?

Mark Hanna — I grew up in a little town called Salamanca, New York. It’s the northern end of Appalachia, the only town in New York State fully sitting within an Indian Reservation. There were 44 kids in my graduating class, very rural, and mostly poor families. My dad managed a local furniture factory, and mom worked at the bank and also worked at a ski resort during the season. I was an aggressive kid, played every sport where I could participate.

CMO Club — Did you see yourself staying there?

Mark Hanna — Everyone growing up in that area aspires to get out. I was no different. The single biggest incentive for me was to be in a different world or at least see a different world from where I grew up.

CMO Club — What did you want to do?

Mark Hanna — It was pretty clear from my high school yearbook that I was going to be an aeronautical engineer. My first job out of college was with Bendix flight guidance systems. I was part of a team of approximately six that created the flight guidance systems for most of the NASA and the Apollo rockets in the late sixties. I worked on the moon landings, was part of the failure analysis team, all these important moments in NASA history. It was quite a period.

CMO Club — Wow. How did you go from that to marketing?

Mark Hanna — Well, I was working in a very NASA dominated engineering firm. After about a year, I found that the company continuously wanted me to make all the presentations to Congress for appropriations, and to all the Admirals and Generals. They wanted me out there because I was good at it. In doing those presentations, I got to see a different side that I hadn’t been exposed to up till then, out of the math and into the conversation, so to speak. Somewhere along the way, someone suggested I should be in marketing. I wound up attending NYU at night, earning my MBA in marketing. When I finished in’72, I met the son of the owner of a very large chain of jewelry stores, including Cartier, Marcus, Black Star & Frost. I was offered and accepted the position of being his assistant, which was way out of my wheel-house, but was a great job that paid twice as much as my engineering job, so I made the switch.

CMO Club —What was that like making the switch?

Mark Hanna — For a kid who grew up in a small town, rural area, it was great. I got to visit most of the major cities across the country, did a lot of hiring, gained experience on the retail side with all the new stores we were opening and all the big department stores we operated in.

CMO Club — What in your background made you fall in love with marketing?

Mark Hanna — I think it was my experience back at Bendix when I was first seen as the person that could tell that story of what it is we had and what we were trying to achieve. Even then, it was storytelling. I really liked putting together stories of what we were doing and why it was important. Now in 2020, our story will be focused around our ethical path documented by blockchains to tell the stories of our products, stories for our consumers to know who we are.

CMO Club — Going back to your experience at NASA and being part of a team almost exclusively men, do you think we’ve come far enough in welcoming women and minorities into these businesses and experiences?

Mark Hanna — It’s funny you ask that today. Later this afternoon, I’m flying to Washington D.C., to the State Department, to speak on a panel on women’s empowerment. There’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way and no doubt we still have a long way to go. From my real-world experience, from an early point in my business career being around retail and department stores, I have always had female peers and partners that I’ve respected, very capable and visionary women that were my equal and in some cases, superior. There’s never been anything in my genes other than this person in front of me is a peer. If you look back, the tradition, especially in my NASA engineering days, had been male-dominated. If memory serves me, we had one woman in about twenty-five engineers on my team. A lot of that was in the pursuit of jobs women felt were right for them, or society felt was right for them at that time. It’s very different now. I think it comes down to looking at those male-dominated occupations and trying to find the opportunities for women and minorities in those roles, and how do we do something about it, starting with education and encouragement.

CMO Club — Am I hearing you correctly that you think this is more a timing issue, that over time things change?

Mark Hanna — I think it’s a combination of both timing and tradition, at least in the retail-oriented environment I’m in. It’s an environment where tradition didn’t have that exclusivity. I get to see the best of CEOs and CFOs, all accomplished people, whether they’re male or female.

CMO Club — Do you believe corporations have a social responsibility to make things better?

Mark Hanna — Absolutely. I think the U.N sustainable development goals that were initiated a few years ago, seventeen goals that spell out various ways in which countries, governments, and businesses can be responsible to society, should be done proactively. Our company adopted that stance a while ago. Of the seventeen goals, there are four we are very good at, and some that we have a long way to go. We’ve focused on things like responsible sourcing, gender equality, and energy management. That’s the foundation of our CSR Program. I own that department. Everyone working on that reports directly to me. We continue to work on ways to better things and expand on our social responsibilities to meet those goals. I belong to the board of the Responsible Jewelry Council, which monitors the entire industry, from Tiffany to Cartier, with a vigorous code of conduct and ethics that is quite detailed and quite extensive. The organization is third-party audited every three years to live up to the high standards we set. Equally as important is the Berkshire-Hathaway Code of Ethics, which is quite extensive as well. We are also Fair-Labor certified. We are the first company that brings gold legitimately and legally out of the Congo. We’ve been quite diligent about our responsibility to society.

CMO Club — I hear you are a Board Member and Telethon Chairman for the Special Olympics. Tell us about that.

Mark Hanna — I actually started with them as a coach. One of our neighbors who helped me run the local Pop-Warner league way back in the eighties had a son that was special needs. We put together a Special Olympics flag football team for him and all those kids, which I coached. I’ve been with them ever since, on the board and working the telethon for a long, long time.

Mark with Michael Walter of the Special Olympics

CMO Club — Great, working with all those kids through the years. Speaking of younger people, if you could go back and give some heartfelt advice to yourself when you were, say, twenty-two, what would that advice be?

Mark Hanna — It would be the Wayne Gretzky quote that’s pinned to my Linked-in profile. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  I’ve believed in that ever since I made the switch from engineering to jewelry, a long time. I manage my people that way, I manage my business that way, always look for the opportunities, what I call the “Now-New-Next.” You need to live in the now, in the new, and in the next. It’s the best advice I can give.

CMO Club — What do you look for in hiring new talent?

Mark Hanna —Energy, intelligence, and experience, in that order.

CMO Club — What are you most proud of achieving?

Mark Hanna — How about if I told you coaching the Junior Olympic World Championship Hockey Team? (laughs)

Mark Hanna and Ocean State Hurricane hockey team.
Mark with his 1999 Champion Ocean State Hurricane hockey team.

CMO Club — What are you most passionate about right now?

Mark Hanna — I have to go back to what we discussed before. The integration of corporate social responsibility with our business and our business model, for our company and for the industry as a whole. Outside of that, I’m an avid reader of non-fiction, and I love to play racquetball.

CMO Club — Is there anything you can share with the club that not many people know about you?

Mark Hanna — Yes. I can think of two things. During most of my whole marketing career, my corporate office has been located in Midtown Manhattan. I live and have never relocated from Rhode Island, so, I’ve commuted weekly to work all that time. Also, for the first ten or eleven of those years, I was still coaching hockey in Rhode Island, so I would drive home every single Wednesday afternoon, coach Wednesday night, turn around, and drive back to work for the next day, three-and-a-half hours each way, every single Wednesday.

The other thing is as a youth, in my hometown, which sat directly on the Reservation, I was inducted into the Seneca Indian Nation, and given the name “Yukpa,” which means “Happy One.” Go figure. (laughs)