ASPIRE 2017 – Steven J. Demetriou

Success through empowerment

Steven J. Demetriou, chairman and CEO at Jacobs, is a keynote speaker at ASPIRE 2017

Steven J. Demetriou had quite the roller coaster ride in the early years of Aleris International Inc., a manufacturing company formed in December 2004 through the merger of Commonwealth Industries Inc. and IMCO Recycling Inc.

“For the next three years, we literally had the fastest increase in stock value on the New York Stock Exchange,” Demetriou says. “Twelve months later, we went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.”

After the rapid growth in stock value, the decision was made to take the company private. This proved very lucrative for Aleris shareholders, but it started a chain of events that would soon threaten the company’s future.

“Private equity came in and bought us and put several billion dollars of debt into the company that we didn’t have before,” Demetriou says. “However, during the financial crisis (in 2008), they got spooked and decided to walk away and not continue the equity injection we needed. So we had to go to Chapter 11.”

It was a precipitous fall for a company that so quickly after it formed doubled its revenue from $2.4 billion in 2005 to $4.8 billion in 2006. But Demetriou did not panic.

“We acknowledged there were factors out of our control,” Demetriou says. “We reminded our several thousand employees that we had a strong foundation and a great company and this was a financial issue, not a structural issue. We got inspired and rejuvenated by the fact that we got control of the company back when the private equity group left. We took those 12 months in Chapter 11 and showed the world that we could emerge quickly and successfully.”

Demetriou helped Aleris become a global leader in the sale and production of aluminum rolled products, with 14 production facilities around the world.

In August 2015, Demetriou took on a new challenge when he became CEO at Jacobs. In July 2016, he was given the additional title of chairman.

Over the years, he’s spent time in a wide range of industries, but he’s always approached leadership with the same philosophy.

“Empowerment is a big part of what I’m all about,” Demetriou says. “But another piece is inspirational leadership. I think they go hand in hand and I got that early on from my father, who at a young age is a person you look up to and want to emulate.

“He seemed to be successful because he excited people. He had strong interpersonal skills and he inspired people with his interactions. Everything I’ve done has always been built around the same questions: Am I inspiring as I’m leading? Are others that work for me inspiring as they lead?”

One of Demetriou’s first working experiences was in his father’s restaurant in Boston. In the early days, he peeled potatoes and washed dishes. His responsibilities grew as he got into high school and he took a more active role in restaurant operations.

At Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, Demetriou got his first taste of being the leader when he took over the school’s student-run dining service program, which comprised 2,000 student employees.

“At that age, I had an opportunity to run something fairly big and grow it,” he says. “Early on, I had this ability to multi-function and multi-task. Going to school, getting good grades, making money. Seeing all that gave me a lot of that entrepreneurial spirit once I got out.”

As he looks back on his time at Aleris, Demetriou says he learned that you need to apply the same leadership principles no matter how your company is performing.

“You have to make sure everybody understands where they fit, what the strategy is and how they can contribute,” he says. “Empower and hold everybody accountable to that, but do it in an inspiring way.”