Wednesday, March 7, 2018
The Transformational Leadership Series
Bedford is pleased to offer this unique series of profiles on business leaders who are making a positive impact on their organizations and industries. The goal is to provide a platform to share their stories so you can learn, be inspired and follow suit.
When Nelson Squires was a relatively unknown sales rep, he took a bold step that would alter the course of his career. “I knew there was no straight path to getting ahead in business, so I decided to lobby hard to be a global account manager,” Nelson says. “I went in there and said, ‘If I don’t work out, just fire me.’”
The former army captain did more than work out. He turned the account into the biggest and most profitable one in the company. From serving on the front lines of the Korean DMZ, to challenging his superiors to sack him, Squires’ bold career choices have armed him with invaluable lessons on how to lead courageously. We recently had the pleasure to sit down with Squires – The Group Vice President and General Manager, Wesco Canada – to discuss his compelling rise through the ranks.
Talk about your experiences growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut?
Waterbury is a middle class city halfway between New York and Boston. A huge part of my childhood was playing baseball and rooting for the Boston Red Sox. From the age of six right through to my first year of university – where I was a back-up catcher until I realized I wasn’t going to the Major Leagues – I played baseball just about every day after school. One of my most vivid and fondest childhood memories is sitting under my friend’s apple tree watching the Red Sox play in the 1967 World Series on an old TV with an extension cord running out from the house.
What kind of student were you?
I really enjoyed school and did not cause my teachers any grief, I did my homework, I asked questions and my favourite area of study was science, which I followed through to university, earning a degree in biology. I was blessed to have good teachers who really cared and the science came in handy later on in my professional life.
How did you end up in the military and discuss how the military prepared you for the corporate world?
Both my grandfather and father had been in the military but there was never any pressure for me to follow suit. My path was more a product of circumstance, as my parents did not have enough savings to pay for my college, so I applied for a scholarship through the Reserve Officer Training Corps and I was fortunate enough to get it. I decided to attend Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
While I was still very a young officer, the army temporarily made me an active operations leader for an infantry battalion. I did the job well enough to earn a meritorious service medal. After college, I stayed on to complete my required active duty requirements in the army and had some fascinating experiences in Asia, including spending a year in a rifle platoon in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. I also served in Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. Beyond being rich cultural experiences for a kid that had really never left the US, this probably shaped the beginning of a desire to challenge myself outside of my comfort zone.
One of the most important life lessons I learned in the army was from a commander, who said, “When you have a list of things to do, always work on the hardest one first.” In all roles and especially as a leader, I have always worked on the hardest tasks because as hard as they are, that’s how you move the needle and that is how the organization gets better.
Around the time I left the military, junior military officers like me were in high demand by large US corporations. Out of the eight interviews I did, I received seven job offers. I chose to work in sales at Crown Zellerbach, a family-owned pulp and paper conglomerate. The owner, Bill Zellerbach, made a point of personally meeting everyone who joined. He knew everybody. That made a huge impression on me and I have carried it with me throughout my leadership roles.
In my first six months with Crown Z, I made thousands of sales calls. This taught me how to sell, how to deal with rejection and how to outpunch the competition.
What were some of the key learnings from your early years with Air Products & Chemicals?
When I started at Air Products in the late 1980s, I quickly learned to think about outcomes and how you must bring value to the company and your clients. You need an internal compass that keeps you disciplined, focused and heading in the right direction. As a salesman, I was always interested in my customers – I knew about their jobs, their personal lives – and they saw that this was sincere; I really cared about them and worked hard to bring them value.
You advanced significantly on the sales team at Air Products. What were the keys to your advancement and how did these experiences shape your leadership style?
In the early 1990s, I became the global account manager for Intel. This was a great job. We had a customer that was growing and we were able to get a disproportionate share of that growth. Intel saw that we added value and they paid us well for the value add. I realized I had lightning in a bottle and was able to make it strike. When I left the role after six-and-a-half years, Intel had become the largest customer for the organization.
You made a rather unique move to a Director of Investor Relations role with Air Products & Chemicals. How did this help you become a better leader?
I sought out this role knowing it was really a success or failure situation. I had that tenacity because I believe you’ve got to take risks and prove to yourself and your peer group, what you are capable of. This role really required a high degree of continuous learning.
I learned first-hand that every time I made a business decision, it was viewed as either good or bad for shareholders. It was very enlightening. I had to become proficient in corporate level profit and loss and bring value from that perspective. And I learned to appreciate the importance of taking on greater levels of responsibility. If you want to be a leader, you can’t discount any opportunities to broaden yourself. There is no straight path to anywhere in business – the most successful people are those who have taken a very winding path and put themselves in challenging roles. I spent a lot of time in different roles at Air Products doing that.
After 25+ years with Air Products, you made the decision to seek a new challenge. Talk about why you left and why you chose to lead Wesco Canada?
Although there are great things about working at a company for a long time, it was clear I needed a bit of a refresh to expand my capabilities and to explore a new frontier with new challenges.
Wesco Canada is a $2 billion business that is geographically dispersed with a lean operating model and a strong foundation. That was very appealing to me. I liked the leadership team when I interviewed with them – they were engaging and passionate and I felt were aligned with my approach to business and life. Ultimately, I saw the opportunity to make a really good business better.
It can be difficult transitioning to a new industry with an organization like Wesco where there was a long-standing leader. How did you establish yourself as the new leader?
My approach was to spend a fair amount of time observing, meeting with customers, getting out in the field, and making sales calls. We have 130 locations across Canada and in a relatively short period of time, I have visited half of them.
As an outsider to a company, my advice to others is that you cannot rewire people who have been with a company for many years. Rather, I try to leverage everyone’s strengths. I’m a big fan of simplicity; that means lets finish something before we start something else. I would rather people be excellent at two or three things than mediocre at ten. I believe that if you provide focus and direction, you can truly tap into each individual’s unique abilities. This diversity is what makes the company strong.
You spoke about ‘making a very good business better.’ Discuss some of the actions you are taking with Wesco?
I want to build on the outstanding base of employees we have and make a successful business even stronger. The demographics are changing. There are 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day in North America, so a major focus is bringing in a broader and more diversified workforce. We are doing this by offering more internships and for example, sponsoring the Young Professional Networking Symposium. We are focused on extending our recruiting reach to the best and brightest across Canada. We are also bringing more value to our employees by offering more online courses and training as well as providing a strong mentoring program. And our industry association, Electro Federation Canada, has a young professional network which is bringing younger and newer people in the industry together so they can share common learnings. It’s a good way to keep people motivated, collegial and working in the industry.
I believe that I need to walk the walk and talk the talk. I need to be a visible leader and have a first hand pulse on the pressure points of the organization, so I know what’s going right, what isn’t and how to work with people directly to continuously improve.
Snapshot of Nelson
Born in Waterbury, Connecticut
Married with two sons (15) and (13).
B.Sc. from Wake Forest University.
-Group Vice President and General Manager, Wesco Canada since August 2015
-26 years at Air Products and Supplies in progressive roles including regional and general management positions, mergers and acquisitions and investor relations
-Former captain in the United States Army
Horseracing and Horse handicapping, an “aspiring” golfer, a diehard Boston Red Sox fan and passionate cook – makes a mean meatloaf!
About the Author
Darren Raycroft co-leads The Bedford Consulting Group’s Canadian Manufacturing/Distribution Practice. Darren has more than 10 years of experience working across the talent management spectrum to support and enhance his client’s talent agenda, partnering with them on their most critical senior leadership hires.