Brand champion Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

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

January 2006.

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

wiper blades.”

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

his employees.

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

for success.

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,