Conversations with the CEO: A profile of Richard Thoman, F67, F69, F71
February 26, 2010
Imaduddin Ahmed, F11, talks with the Chairman of the Fletcher Master of International Business program and a former Fletcher alumnus about how he came to lead the world’s largest corporations
The former CEO of Xerox, CFO of IBM, President of Nabisco and co-CEO of American Express Travel Related Services, Professor Richard Thoman isn’t the least qualified person to converse with Fletcher students about ‘Managing the Global Corporation’, a class he offers in the fall semester.
Thoman came to Fletcher a McGill graduate intending on joining the diplomatic service. He passed his exams. But that’s when Thoman had his light-bulb moment. A person wanting to make things happen expeditiously, he decided instead upon a career in business, a career which was to be responsible for the launch of the IBM ThinkPad, American Express Traveler’s Check and American Express Platinum Card.
Unequipped with essential business courses now on offer at Fletcher, Thoman joined Citibank and then ExxonMobil’s treasury department upon graduating, to learn about financing companies. Exxon recruited (and still does) heavily from Fletcher, as one would expect of a company that tries to exert influence on US policy.
But after learning about corporate finance, Thoman got the itch to move again. “I realized the really fun part of corporate life was being a general manager . . . General managers all seemed to be 45 to 55 years old and it seemed to be an eternity to wait.” To learn general management faster, Thoman joined McKinsey, where he interviewed with a young partner called Louis Gerstner.
Perhaps it was meeting Gerstner at the right place (it was at McKinsey), right time, and impressing him that was the serendipity that Thoman refers to when he explains his ascension to the top of the corporate ladder. Gerstner was to remain friend, colleague and advocate throughout much of Thoman’s career. Thoman followed Gerstner to American Express in 1979, to Nabisco in 1992, where Gerstner served as CEO, and then finally to IBM in 1993, where Gerstner was credited with saving IBM from collapse as CEO.
What could have impressed Gerstner about Thoman? Thoman’s Fletcher-esque ability to add value in foreign lands wouldn’t have hurt. Thoman showed the intrepidness to leave the US and become the only American in the firm’s Paris office, working and writing reports in French. He also ran projects in Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland and in England, gaining experience of how European cultures operated. This proved useful later in his career, Thoman explains, including with countries outside of Europe because there were parts of those cultures which he could recognize.
Post-McKinsey, Thoman left his mark on the consumer world. “I tried to invent new products. IBM didn’t think of notebooks as being a consumer product. And yet the notebook was a very major extension of the consumer’s personality, in the same way that clothes and wrist watches are. And so I began to think about how you can make a notebook that is very noticeable, very special, and that lead to the very thin ThinkPads that we see today.”
He also put his Fletcher diplomacy skills to further use, expanding American Express operations as far as China and collecting the French government’s Legion of Honor for promoting American tourism in France. (He was also to collect awards on Xerox’ behalf from President Bill Clinton for quality manufacturing and from US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for Xerox’s corporate citizenship in Brazil.)
In 1999-2000, Thoman served as US head of the Transatlantic Dialogue to work with European corporate CEOs, the US Secretary of Commerce, the US Trade Representative and the EC Commissioner to standardize corporate regulations. His favorite meeting with a head of state was with French President Jacques Chirac. “It was a two-hour discussion,” he recalls, “about the world in a much broader context, but I remember he was really surprised because he said I was the only American CEO he had met with in French.”
Will the visiting professor be back to teach Managing the Global Corporation at Fletcher and does he have anything to say to current and prospective business students at Fletcher?
“I certainly will be teaching again next year. I enjoy the experience, I love the School, I always have. I think it brings something unique to the world. I started doing this course on the theory that schools like Fletcher contributed an incredibly important part of what you needed to be a successful business leader. But unfortunately business leadership doesn’t always know that. I don’t think that US business schools have done a particularly good job of inculcating some important values, and so I’m happy to do my part at Fletcher to do that.”