On the road to the success, Safeway Inc. Chairman, CEO and President Steven A. Burd didn’t miss a turn. Burd, who holds a master’s degree in economics, plotted his career as if he was using a map and rarely took a detour, becoming a CEO at 42.
“What allowed me to do that is that I carefully planned my work effort up to that point so that I had mastered the basic skills to be successful at being a CEO,” said Burd, who spoke Wednesday, Jan. 13, to a crowd of about 200 people in the Worrell Professional Center at Wake Forest University. “If you look at my job titles, I was a transportation analyst, my next job was an analyst for a lobbying group, my next title was manager of corporate planning. …I was a manager of finance, and my next job was president of Safeway. Six months later I was CEO.” Not a typical career path, he said.
Burd, who spoke of the need to work hard and to forge relationships, spent several years in the railroad industry before joining consulting firm Arthur D. Little. Already having developed a reputation as a fix-it person, Burd became a private consultant and worked to turn around troubled companies. For about eight years, Burd managed leveraged buyouts for Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co., a leading global alternative asset manager. One of those was Safeway, which showed $44 in debt for every dollar in equity.
Likely no successful company in the history of American business has been that highly leveraged, Burd said. He ran supermarket chain Fred Meyer, one of KKR’s portfolio companies, and doubled the value of that company. He ultimately gained experience working with 17 companies in 11 industries, including those associated with agriculture, consumer packaged goods, oil and gas exploration, food retail, printing and heavy manufacturing.
“My view is business is business is business. They’re all alike, and if you’re skilled in working in one, the skills should be transferable to other businesses.
“The KKR guys saw me as not just a hired gun, but as somebody who can manage a large enterprise,” said Burd, who was appointed Safeway CEO in 1993. The Fortune 500 company, based in California, operates 1,739 stores in the U.S. and Canada. During his tenure, Burd led a turnaround that produced industry-leading sales and cost savings while nurturing a reputation for superior customer service.
He also is considered a leader in advancing sound public policy on issues affecting the retail industry, and in 2007 he created the Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform, an alliance of more than 60 companies advocating state and federal health care reform.
Burd recounted a litany of part-time jobs he has held and encouraged the students to consider getting experience as hourly employees so they can learn to work with people from different backgrounds and different sets of skills.
“One of the things I learned was how to make every one of those jobs fun …If I were given a choice, and I were a freshman or sophomore, maybe even a junior in college, and I really wanted to prepare myself for business, I would be less concerned about an internship in a corporate office and I would be more concerned with getting an hourly job that would give me some grounding and just might help me some day in business.”
The overarching responsibility of everyone who works in business, no matter the job, is increasing the value of the enterprise. “It’s something you think about everyday when you get up.”
He implored the students to find their passion, which is key toward achieving success.
“If you end up in a job two years from now and you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, you’re in the wrong job. And you might be in the wrong company.”
The recipe for success, he said, includes three ingredients – courage, communication and attitude. “Attitude is everything. It’s almost like a tattoo; people wear it on their sleeve.
“What I enjoy more than anything else in business is doing something that everybody thinks is impossible. That’s why I’ve hung around for 17 years, and that’s why I got so engaged in health care. The minute somebody says that’s not possible, I’m challenged. If you can come to work with that kind of attitude, you’ve got a basic ingredient for success.”
Safeway has thousands of employees, Burd said, but the real innovation and creativity — the veritable heavy lifting — is performed by eight to 10 people, whom he calls corporate athletes.
“My dream is to have 15,” said Burd, who spoke of the need for inherent will to win, such as that of Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
“That kind of ability inside a company is enormously valuable. We have a market value of about $9 billion. If I had 15 people instead of eight, I think I’d have a market capital of $100 billion. That’s the difference people can make.”