Perception might not be reality in the world of business, but it
can sometimes precede reality. Steve Harman learned that lesson
when he became president of Shell Lubricants Americas in
As the president of Shell Lubricants’ Western Hemisphere operations, Harman oversees a roster of various products and brands.
Many of them are related to car care, but none of them really
crossed the line into car accessories or auto parts.
Then came Rain-X.
For years, Shell Lubricants manufactured Rain-X window treatment, which is a spray-on coating designed to make water bead on
a windshield, aiding a driver’s vision in rainy conditions.
The trouble is, market research showed most consumers didn’t
think of that when they thought of Rain-X.
“In the research that came back, many customers thought Rain-X was a wiper-blade product,” Harman says. “We weren’t even into
Harman and his management staff were faced with a choice:
They could either attempt to focus the public’s attention on the
Rain-X window treatment product, or they could take the Rain-X
brand in a new direction by making consumers’ perception of the
brand a reality.
After reviewing the research, Harman chose the second option.
Rain-X introduced a line of wiper blades, and they have become a
smash hit with car owners. He says Rain-X is now Shell Lubricants’
top brand in the car-care business.
Introducing a line of Rain-X wiper blades fits Harman’s philosophy
in leading Shell Lubricants: Take a strong company and make it even
stronger by relying on your big guns.
And in the case of Shell Lubricants, Harman says his big guns are
his brands — which also include Pennzoil and Quaker State — and
Harman has grown Shell Lubricants into a top performer under
the Shell Oil umbrella, with annual revenue of more than $3 billion
and more than 3,500 employees.
Here’s how he’s tackled some of the challenges of growth.
Maximize the odds
As a former college golf player and a horse-racing fan, Harman,
a native of Durham, England, says he is a competitor and a “betting man.”
Any time you place a bet, be it at the racetrack or in the world of
business, Harman says it is imperative to know where your
strengths lie and what factors are going to give you the best chance
It’s the reason why, upon being named president of Shell
Lubricants, Harman wanted to quickly ascertain the areas in which
his company performs the best, and then find ways to increase the
company’s presence in those spaces.
Walking around the streets of Houston during the first few weeks
of his new job, Harman says it quickly became apparent to him
that one of Shell Lubricants’ biggest strengths is its brand recognition.
“I was really impressed just walking around the streets and seeing how many good products and brands we have,” he says. “It’s a
nice problem to have.”
Harman spent the next few months traveling in the field, talking
to customers, distributors and stakeholders, and getting their
impressions of Shell Lubricants’ brands. The feedback he received
solidified his belief in the company’s brands.
“You have to get out and see how potentially strong your businesses are, talk to customers, talk to sales staff, and really understand how big these opportunities could be,” he says. “I still do that,
I spend a great deal of time in the field. I still value more than anything what our customers feel and what our prospects feel. To me,
that’s the most important thing in running any business.”
Harman says you need to look at the star performers when identifying what it is your company does the best, which are those
areas of your business that are strong with regard to research and
development, that have strong growth prospects, are well-backed
financially, are supported by a solid infrastructure and appear to
project as stable in the long term.
“You look at what already has an established track record,” he says.
“For example, with Quaker State and Pennzoil, we already had an
extremely strong distributorship throughout the U.S. So you look at
what is already strong and make it stronger.”
The best bet, he says, is believing that what is performing well
today can be performing even better tomorrow with the right
The flip side is business that doesn’t really match well with your
organizational strengths. If you don’t have the personnel to succeed within a certain space, Harman says don’t assume you’re
going to be able to quickly turn that around.
“If you have businesses that are struggling, where you might not
have the right skill set and putting that skill set in place might take
too long, those businesses are dying, and they might just need to
be tipped over the edge,” he says.
Stay in touch
Communication with customers is vital as you center your business on what it does best. At Shell Lubricants, Harman has built
lines of communication between customers and the company’s
Because face-to-face communication is generally the best kind of
communication, Harman frequently organizes customer focus
groups aimed at encouraging interaction between the people who
design the products and the people who sell the products. He has also
instituted an anonymous feedback system in which an employee can
submit his or her idea for review, and customers can anonymously
give their impressions.
Harman personally involves himself in the feedback process on
“Every three to four weeks, I personally hold sandwich lunches,”
he says. “We typically have groups of seven or eight staffers. We
look at what’s going well, what’s not going well. That’s an extremely useful way of getting feedback.”
Before anything else, Harman says communication with employees and customers alike needs to be highly personal. If you want to
harness the true strength of your business, you need people to buy
in to what you are saying, and if you want that, you need to be visible and genuine as a leader.
“I’ve always been taught that personal communication is huge,”
he says. “I’m not one of those people who spends a lot of time in
the office. So it’s being highly personal, highly visible and being in
front of people as much as possible. That has to be a top priority.”
If your business has many different locations, it might be nearly
impossible for you to travel around and gain personal input from
everyone in your company. That’s why, aside from a philosophy
centered on personal communication, Harman says you need a
structure to carry it out even when you can’t be there.
“You can’t just go on a plane or a train or bus and see everyone
in your business. You have to have good mechanisms in place, and
part of that is having good leaders in your organization who can
become effective communicators.”
Communication should flow downward through your managers
to your employees, he says. But making it candid and structured isn’t
the entire battle. You also need to make it interesting.
Few things will make employees tune out faster than dull, repetitive messages from headquarters. Though you might need to hammer away at the same points on many occasions, Harman says you
need to change up your means now and then.
“It’s not just sending out e-mails with ‘Here is the latest status of
the business,’” he says. “It’s about being imaginative with your
communication. We have sort of celebratory events; we use Web
casts. You need to find ways to be imaginative with your communication.”
Harman says he isn’t a cascade-style communicator, at least not
in the traditional sense. While he does promote his vision and a set
of core values throughout the company, he says he doesn’t believe
every aspect of his business needs to think and act alike.
If your business exists in different regions and different countries, he says you need to allow your managers in those field locations to tailor your company’s messages to that location’s circumstances
“I think it’s sort of a 1960s, hierarchical, ‘Here is what we believe,
now go do it,’ and I’m not like that,” he says. “We encourage our
leaders in whatever you are talking about, be it Colombia or
Venezuela or Seattle, to develop their own flavor of the message,
to conceptualize it for the businesses they are running in that area.
“I do encourage local leadership to make it very plausible for
their local situation.”
Attack in force
If you are going to pursue a growth opportunity, whether it’s in
your present space or in something totally different, Harman says
you must be willing to back it 100 percent with your company’s
If you haven’t given a growth opportunity the best chance to
succeed, he says there is no point to having pursued it in the first
He says it’s not a guarantee that the opportunity will ultimately
be a success, but if you have to kill the idea, at least you will
know your company gave it its best shot, didn’t bail prematurely,
and you won’t be left wondering about what might have been.
Harman calls it the “A-team” test. But this one has nothing to do
with ’80s prime time action show starring Mr. T.
By “A-team,” Harman means the best talent your company can
muster for the job. When Harman approaches a new opportunity,
or is trying to give a struggling venture one last chance for success,
he puts the best people he can find on the job and gives them whatever resources they need.
“You put the best people on it, and you give them unconstrained
pull, whether it be money or people,” he says. “It’s like a football
team that’s not doing very well. You put a new coach in, you
replace some of the players, and see if you can get them to win. If
you can’t, it’s possibly time to get out of the game.”
For every Rain-X growth opportunity that fits like a puzzle piece,
there are many others that simply don’t make the cut. If you’ve
tried and tried, and your best people and resources can’t turn a failure into a success, it might be time to cut your losses.
Harman says he has experienced both sides of the growth coin
firsthand at Shell. Many times, he says, failure is a matter of finding out that the opportunity didn’t match as perfectly with your
company’s strengths as you originally thought.
“Several times in my life at Shell, we’ve had a go at a business just
to see if we could do it,” Harman says. “We’ve given it the best people, the best teams, the best tools, and we found quickly it didn’t
The more quickly you can come to the conclusion that a growth
opportunity isn’t working, the better off your company will be.
That, he says, is why keeping lines of communication open with
customers and field employees is so vital. If anyone is going to see
the end of the road coming for a particular venture, the troops in
the trenches dealing with customers will probably see it first.
“You need to make sure there is clear understanding of what you
should move for and what you should not move for,” he says. “We
have an operations group here on a 24-hour basis, where if something comes in, they make the call as to whether we should move
on the matter or leave it where it is.
“Having a 24-hour operational response availability is very important to us, because having a nimble operating structure in place is
one of the most important things in a big organization.”
HOW TO REACH: Shell Lubricants Americas, www.shell.com/us/lubricants