The Campbell file Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

Born: Hudson, Ohio

Education: Economics degree from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. MBA from the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

Econometrician — economic forecasting models, the complex models with fancy equations, that’s what I did. I think I learned two things at that job: One was to be wary of projections. That’s what we did for a living. It was the first energy crisis and we rebuilt the entire model. It was a huge amount of work to predict the new energy industry emerging: solar and wind and this, that and the other thing — and of course, it failed totally, and we’re now having the same kind of discussions about the future of energy.

The other one was kind of a personal one, which is: Winning is not about me. There was a big internal debate at the company about who was going to get the ‘fun’ job. There were two jobs, and I ended up getting the job that everybody else wanted, which made me totally unable to ever progress at that company because everybody hated me for getting the job. So if you want to do well, it’s not about me; it’s about everybody else.

Whom do you admire most and why?

The people I admire most are the factory workers at Ormet (an aluminum manufacturing plant in Hannibal, Ohio, that Campbell helped turn around earlier in his career). These people have an incredibly difficult life but maintain an incredibly positive attitude. On a good day, they go to work in a plant standing over 1,200-degree ovens on a 90-degree day where people are sometimes fainting or even dying because of exposure. And they’re happy to have the job. They just were maintaining a positive attitude regardless of particularly tough lives. The strength of those people is something I can’t get over.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

The best business advice I ever received wasn’t business advice. It probably goes back to a teacher in high school who taught me not to accept conventional wisdom. It was a U.S. history professor who I think the school fired because he taught U.S. history in a very unconventional way and taught you to find out for yourself what really happened. It’s not that conventional wisdom is always wrong, although it often is. It’s often something that somebody spun to cover up something that’s really going on.

I remember it was a book about John F. Kennedy, which was about all the screw-ups: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs and the bravado that led to the construction of the Berlin Wall. All totally scary screw-ups but everybody liked John F. Kennedy so the conventional way of teaching U.S. history was John F. Kennedy was this great leader who took us to the moon, right? He also took us to Vietnam. Then you sort of challenged your parents with that, and the fact that he was sleeping with women in the White House while Jackie was there, which we all know now. But you could still go to people and throw out some facts at them and they can’t deal with it. I think it’s a good way to approach things.

On surviving tough times: Of course, sense of humor is a huge positive — and necessary. Maybe not totally necessary, but in my world, it is. Maintaining a sense of humor in an atmosphere like this, in an economy like we’re in, in the industry that we’re with is totally key to life being pleasant. You can’t be unhappy. You can be scared or nervous or whatever, but I think it’s always important — but even more important in a company that’s struggling — to maintain a sense of humor. If you ever listen to one of our conference calls, we’re joking [around].