Honors
2017 Person of the Year: Doug Baker Jr.
Photo by Travis Anderson

2017 Person of the Year: Doug Baker Jr.

Ecolab's chariman and CEO is the Joe DiMaggio of CEOs.

To some, it might be enough of an achievement to grow a business from $3.8 billion to $13.2 billion in revenue, lead an enterprise that employs 48,000 people in more than 170 countries, and outrank all other Minnesota CEOs by coming in 39th on Harvard Business Review’s 2017 ranking of Best Performing CEOs in the World.

Not to Doug Baker Jr., chairman and CEO of St. Paul-based Ecolab Inc.

For him, the company’s financial success also needed to include improving its mission and culture. Ecolab now ranks 10th on Corporate Responsibility Magazine’s 100 Best Corporate Citizens list, and high on other similar lists due to its culture, benefits, success in increasing the number of women in high-ranking positions and helping to reduce water consumption globally.

During his 13 years as CEO and 11 as chairman, Baker has also leveraged his day job to become one of the pillars of corporate society that work to make the Twin Cities a better place in which to work, live and visit, with a particular focus on St. Paul. He recently chose to keep Ecolab’s headquarters—and its 1,550 jobs—in downtown even though the company has land in Eagan where it could expand. And he made sure that in moving Ecolab to another building, its former 19-story office tower would quickly be used for other purposes.

It’s also in St. Paul where, literally across the street, he recently co-chaired the $40 million capital campaign for a new, two-building Dorothy Day Place campus—a homeless shelter and social service nexus in the city. And after being tapped by Mayor Chris Coleman, he co-led a task force on the empty Macy’s department store, advocating for a solid redevelopment plan.

Why care so much about that city, especially when considering he lives in Edina? “I am a loyalist; this is Ecolab’s neighborhood,” Baker says. “I am also a realist; we need each other. St Paul is weaker without us, and we are weaker with an unhealthy St Paul.”

It’s this loyalty and realism that have served Baker, other organizations and the Twin Cities community so well, especially in the past 10 years. As a member of the Itasca Project, Baker helped launch and then became chairman of Greater MSP. He’s a member of the Minnesota Business Partnership and sits on the boards of two other major Minnesota businesses, U.S. Bancorp and Target. He and his wife, Julie, led United Way’s fundraising in 2012. He was part of a trio of local corporate leaders who quarterbacked the effort to land Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis this February. The list goes on.

It’s not clear when exactly he finds time to sleep, or how he balances everything so well. “I don’t always,” he says. “The secret is having strong people around you. It starts with my fantastic wife, Julie, and my great team at Ecolab. I have also had the great pleasure of partnering with many talented leaders in the community, particularly Richard Davis [chairman of U.S. Bank and TCB 2016 Person of the Year].

Baker in 2012 at the opening of a new building on Ecolab’s Schuman Campus in Eagan. The building includes a training center and research and development space (left).
Baker touring Ecolab’s European Innovation Center in Monheim, Germany (right).

Personable and quick-thinking

According to others, it’s Baker’s personality as well as his business abilities that make people want to work with him and help out when he asks.

He clearly has shown that he can get results, both for Ecolab and the community at large. But deeper than that, people are drawn to him and respect Baker because he’s down to earth and leads by example. He doesn’t brag about his resume. He rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.

Community is important to him because he grew up in the community: at the end of the day, he’s a guy who went to West High School in South Minneapolis.

“It’s unanimous: everybody who works with him says this is a strong, focused guy who gets things done. But he’s self-effacing and doesn’t take himself too seriously, which I think is part of his success,” says Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. “‘Grounded’ is a great word for Doug; he’s very grounded.”

Weaver says that Baker has a knack for tackling challenging issues without ruffling feathers in the process.

“He has a way of cutting through the B.S. and getting to the heart of the issue and dealing with it in a non-confrontational way. No one comes out of a meeting with Doug feeling bad or feeling that they’ve been run over,” says Weaver. “That’s an art.”

“Doug is the epitome of the authentic leader,” says Barbara Beck, CEO of the Michigan-based Learning Care Group Inc., a for-profit provider of early-childhood education and child care. Baker recruited her to join Ecolab’s board in 2008. “The Doug Baker that we see in the boardroom is the exact same Doug Baker that his employees see in the cafeteria. He is consistent, highly engaging and is also a risk-taker, and that has led to tremendous growth and innovation within Ecolab.”

Beck says that Baker’s commitment to diversity on the board has been an asset for the company because it brings a wider range of experience and ideas to the boardroom.

“He solicits input from his board members, he listens carefully, he adapts as appropriate and, quite frankly, he stands his ground when necessary,” says Beck. “Doug encourages the leaders of his organization to be risk-takers. [The risks] are data-driven risks and they are calculated risks, but they lead to significant growth because they are very innovative.”

Baker’s strengths show up in his community involvement as well, such as when he co-chaired the two-year, $40 million capital campaign for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis with Mary Brainerd, then CEO of Bloomington-based HealthPartners, and Andy Cecere, now CEO of U.S. Bancorp. The vision called for replacing the former Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul with the two-building Dorothy Day Place which will include the Higher Ground St. Paul homeless shelter and the St. Paul Opportunity Center and Dorothy Day Residence, which will offer services and permanent housing units. Higher Ground opened in January 2017; the second building will be complete in 2019.

“Doug’s role and affinity and tenacity was one of the key factors that helped launch the entire effort and helped make sure that the campaign was successful,” says Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities. “Not just the private campaign, which raised $40 million of private dollars from over 500 donors; but this was a public/private partnership—the largest in housing and social services in state history where an additional significant amount, about $60 million, was raised from the public sector.”

Marx says one of Baker’s strengths is that he does more than just give speeches. “He shows up. He shows up at Higher Ground. His team has volunteered there, Doug has volunteered there.”

Doug and Julie Baker with children Doug III, Will and Laura (left to right).

“He took this on as a personal issue, as something that he and his family invested in, as well as a business issue, because Doug understands and articulates well that a strong community, a strong region, needs a healthy and growing and vital economy. But if we’re really going to be successful we also need to pay attention to the needs of those most in need,” says Marx. “The prominence of Dorothy Day Place right in the shadow of Ecolab headquarters also means that Ecolab is a key partner of Dorothy Day Place under Doug’s leadership, to make sure that it’s successful for Ecolab and the business community, and also successful for the residents, guests and clients of Dorothy Day Place.”

Baker is the same person whether he’s at the office, volunteering at Dorothy Day Place or helping with major community initiatives. He’s approachable and fun to be around, but is also a fast thinker.

“He’s like my business brother,” says Richard Davis, the chairman and now-retired CEO of U.S. Bancorp. Baker is a long-term member of the U.S. Bank board and has worked with Davis on a range of projects including Greater MSP and the Super Bowl bid.

Davis says Baker has a gift for reading situations quickly and assessing how an issue or position will be seen by a wide range of interests: shareholders, board members, employees and government agencies, among others.

“He’s an expert on moving parts. He can identify and recognize all the constituents in a question or in an issue and quickly synthesize the right answer,” says Davis. “He can collect all the moving parts, move swiftly and come to a conclusion. He’s a very fast thinker; he’s quick on his feet, but he’s also very thoughtful.”

Baker recalls that his role in the Super Bowl bid began with a somewhat mysterious phone call to Baker's assistant, Di Marx.

“I think it was a Friday, and Di said, ‘Governor Dayton called. He’s going to call you at 10 o’clock on Monday.’ I just said, ‘I wonder what this is about?’” recalls Baker. “So I called Richard. I said, ‘Hey, did you get this call? ’”

Davis had gotten the same call. Dayton was drafting business leaders to make the pitch for landing a Super Bowl at the new U.S. Bank Stadium. Davis, Baker and Marilyn Carlson Nelson agreed to lead the effort.

“If we knew what we were saying yes to, we might have given a different answer,” says Baker with a laugh. “It’s a lot of work.”

Once again, the biggest part of the job is raising money: corporate contributions to pay for many game-related events and attractions. For companies, the pitch is not making a profit, but kicking in for the greater good of the region.

“We’re raising over $50 million,” says Baker. “Other states actually give state money. Here there’s no state money. There’s no government money at all. So all of the money is being raised by, basically, companies, donated if you will, to put on this event. And then all of the receipts go to restaurants, bars, hotels, venue owners and in turn municipalities, cities, counties and states. The 50 companies that end up donating, making the contribution, will be net in the hole; everybody else will be net ahead. There’s kind of a perverse economic model. We all understand it, we all agreed to it, we’re all in with our eyes wide open.”

Meanwhile, back in St. Paul

While St. Paul is not considered a prominent city for international business, it remains home to Ecolab, which began there in 1923 as the Evaporato Co., named for a carpet-cleaning product. The company was renamed Economics Laboratory in 1924.

Ecolab is St. Paul’s only Fortune 500 company. 3M Co. may list St. Paul as its headquarters on corporate filings, but locals know that the company’s campus is several miles east in Maplewood along Interstate 94. Other companies that were once important anchors in downtown St. Paul, such as the St. Paul Companies and Lawson Software, still have a presence there, but are now just outposts for companies with new names that are based elsewhere.

A few years ago, Ecolab executives began to weigh real estate options for its headquarters, then a three-building campus in downtown St. Paul. Did the company ever seriously consider leaving downtown St. Paul? “We’ve looked at it only because we have 90 acres and a half-million square feet in Eagan. It’s a site that was originally designed for a million square feet,” recalls Baker. But from his viewpoint, a company’s headquarters is about more than just the bottom line.

“Our bias was to make it work in St. Paul,” he recalls. “If we pull out, we do permanent damage to St. Paul. We may get temporary advantage as a company, but in the end, we rely on strong communities, and if you do things that are a detriment to the community, ultimately they’re going to come back to you. I’ve got to recruit people here. We need a healthy community.”

Ecolab purchased and moved to the Travelers North building, part of what was once the St. Paul Companies campus. The company paid $47 million in 2015 for the property. Bob Pounds, senior vice president with the Minneapolis office of Toronto-based Colliers International, says the price was good for both parties because it was cheaper than the cost of new construction for Ecolab and it’s unlikely that Travelers could have found someone else to pay as much for a building that they were vacating.

As Ecolab moved out of its space on Wabasha Street in downtown St. Paul, known as Ecolab Corporate Center, it left behind an empty 19-story office tower. Ecolab didn’t own the building, which it had occupied for 49 years. The property was owned by Florida-based Haddington Associates. But even though Ecolab did not own the property, Baker helped steer the building to a group of new local, entrepreneurial investors who are recasting the building as Osborn370. The name is a nod to Ecolab founder Merritt Osborn.

But how can you sell a building you don’t own?

Ecolab was able to control the fate of the property because it had an option to buy the building and an option, under certain conditions, to transfer that option. That allowed Ecolab to solicit offers for the property, according to real estate veteran Russ Nelson, whose firm, Minneapolis-based NTH Inc., represented Ecolab in the deal.

“It was complicated as hell,” says Nelson.

“I give first and foremost credit to our long-term client and friend Doug Baker who said, ‘I don’t want this to end up in the wrong hands. I want the legacy to be a good legacy for Ecolab,’ ” recalls Nelson. “You look at Ecolab, they didn’t need to do this. They could walk from it; they could say, ‘good luck.’ ”

The Short List of Ecolab CEOs since 1923

Baker has now served as Ecolab’s CEO for 13 years, a long tenure by modern public company standards. Yet he’s nowhere close to the company record—long-serving CEOs are something of a tradition at Ecolab. After 94 years in business, Baker is only the sixth CEO in company history. Ecolab had only two CEOs for its first 55 years, founder Merritt Osborn and his son, E.B. Osborn.

The new ownership group includes St. Paul-based PAK Properties, led by developer Rich Pakonen; Minneapolis-based Schafer Richardson; Bloomington-based Halverson and Blaiser Group; and investor trio Scott Burns, Tanya Bell and John Bergstrom. Burns is best known as co-founder and CEO of St. Paul-based GovDelivery, a government information technology firm that sold for $153 million in 2016.

“The way that project came about is actually a group of us starting to look at the paradox of real estate in St. Paul, where there’s a lot of vacancy but there’s also a lot of people looking and saying they can’t find space,” says Burns. “There’s a lack of innovative commercial space in town.”

Burns is now co-founder and CEO of Structural Inc., another startup tech company. He says that he and others were concerned that empty St. Paul office buildings are often converted into hotels or residential units, reducing options for businesses. Burns and partners brought some data to Baker about the lack of space for startups and emerging companies in St. Paul.

“To say I ‘worked with him’ on it is generous. We brought him a proposal and he acted very quickly and decisively,” says Burns. “He very quickly proposed that he would look into whether there was a way to take ownership of the former Ecolab tower.” Ultimately, Ecolab had several competing offers for the building.

Burns says that’s the way that Baker is wired, pointing to Baker’s leadership on the Macy’s task force. The renovated building, now Treasure Island Center, will include practice space for the Minnesota Wild, new retail tenants (Stacked Deck Brewing, Walgreens, Tim Hortons) and medical office space (TRIA Orthopedic).

“Doug was instrumental in putting the group together,” says Burns. “But for Doug Baker’s leadership, that would be a Burlington Coat Factory and a parking ramp in that building.”

Osborn370, with 170,000 square feet of office space, is already starting to fill up. Tenants who have signed on to lease space include Reeher, OppSource, Bridgewater Bank, Lighthouse Software, Structural, KLJ Engineering and Paul Davis Co. Bell, co-founder and partner with St. Paul-based Grand Real Estate Partners, who says that by Thanksgiving the building will be 40 percent leased.

“I did not want to leave behind a hole in downtown St. Paul,” says Baker. “This, to us, was the most impactful in terms of what it could mean for downtown St. Paul. We knew the folks, we were comfortable with them and that’s why we decided to award it to Rich [Pakonen] and team.”

Transforming Ecolab

The community’s faith in Baker stems from his leadership of Ecolab, where he began to shine back in 1995. The company purchased Kay Chemical, a maker of janitorial products aimed at the fast-food industry, based in Greensboro, N.C. While the $94 million deal price is small by today’s standards, it was an important acquisition for Ecolab and, as it turned out, Baker’s career.

Former Hormel Foods Corp. CEO Joel Johnson, who served from 1996 to 2016 on the Ecolab board, recalls that Baker’s leadership of the Kay division was a key factor when the board tapped Baker in 2004 to succeed Al Schuman as CEO.

“Doug had demonstrated great confidence in running the Kay acquisition, which was a major acquisition and which was run in a separate location from St. Paul. He not only generated excellent results, but he [ran] them with some more degree of autonomy than you’d have if you were operating or running a unit out of headquarters,” says Johnson. “That was a great opportunity for him to demonstrate his skill and aptitude.”

Johnson says that Baker could execute, posting strong results, but notes that “he also demonstrated a lot of strategic foresight.” That’s the combination that the best leaders need, says Johnson. “Not everybody can do that, and we were convinced Doug could.” The decision to promote Baker to CEO clearly paid off for Ecolab, as he led some major transforming acquisitions, Johnson says. “At the same time, we continued to grow the core business. Doug’s a very competitive guy,” Johnson says.

The company’s sales have more than tripled under Baker—growth that’s been driven in large part through more than 100 acquisitions since he took the helm. In 2003, the year before Baker moved into the corner office, Ecolab posted $3.76 billion in revenue and was known primarily as a producer of chemical supplies for industrial cleaning needs. By 2016, the company reported $13.15 billion in revenue from an extensive range of products and services that include water treatment, cleaning products and energy technologies.

The defining deal of Baker’s tenure as CEO was the 2011 acquisition of Illinois-based Nalco Holding Co. It was a big bet: Nalco had revenue of approximately $4 billion for 2010. The deal was valued at $8.1 billion, including assumed debt. Before the deal, Nalco was the world’s largest water treatment and management company serving industrial, energy and institutional clients. Looking to the future, Baker and other Ecolab leaders saw water management as a key future growth segment for the company. Given industry trends, the deal looks smart in retrospect.

Baker speaking to employees in China in 2016.

Bumps along the way, and the road forward

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, however. Baker made one acquisition that quickly turned out to be ill-timed. In 2013, Ecolab purchased Houston-based Champion Technologies for $2.3 billion, including debt. Champion was a specialty chemical company serving the oil and gas industries, further expanding Ecolab’s business into new markets. Immediately thereafter, oil prices plunged and, with them, sales related to Champion’s product line.

As a result, Ecolab’s revenue peaked at $14.28 billion for 2014, then dropped 5.1 percent to $13.55 billion in 2015 and declined another 2.9 percent in 2016 to $13.15 billion. If this is a growth company, how did it lose $1.1 billion in sales over two years? Baker says that the company’s core business remained solid, but was hit by two short-term economic headwinds.

“The biggest challenge that we had the last couple of years was foreign exchange. When you converted our sales in, say, Europe, in euro back into the dollar, the euro was declining in value. So even if you’re growing there, it looks like shrinking,” says Baker. “The other was the oil market. We do a lot of water remediation and other treatment work in oil and gas. The oil market itself was in free-fall, not our business. But that headwind has also abated. I would say we have a more normalized environment and we’re starting to see more normal, Ecolab-like results as a consequence.”

The company’s quarterly results so far in 2017 back up Baker’s point. First quarter sales were up 2.1 percent to $3.16 billion with net income up 9.8% to $253.5 million. For the second quarter, the top line climbed a more robust 4.4 percent to $3.46 billion with net income up 14.8% to $296.6 million. In late October, Ecolab reported its third quarter results with sales of $3.56 billion, up 5 percent, and net profit of $392.4 million, an increase of 5 percent.

Wall Street gives Baker high marks for his ongoing acquisition strategy. From the end of September 2010 to the end of the third quarter in 2017, Ecolab’s stock is up 153 percent from $50.74 per share to $128.61 per share.

“I think the Nalco acquisition actually proved successful. The chink in his armor, if you will, was the doubling down on it with the Champion acquisition. He wasn’t alone in thinking oil prices would be stable-high rather than massively volatile. But I think he’s managed through that and I characterized it more as a dent than a car accident,” says John Roberts, an executive director at Zurich-based UBS, who follows Ecolab as an analyst. “I think really, other than that, people still view this as one of the best-run companies in U.S. industry.”

Ecolab’s WellChem Technologies unit, which provides services for oil exploration, was stung by the downturn in oil prices. Roberts gives Baker credit for keeping the troubles isolated to that division, while deploying resources elsewhere.

Baker didn’t let the oil crash become a distraction from growing the rest of the businesses, says Roberts. “I believe [Ecolab] has minimized the investment in WellChem, directing investment to the rest of the company.”

Roberts also says that Baker was decisive in dealing with oil-related operations in South America, taking a charge against its earnings and moving on.

“[Ecolab] also reduced exposure to areas of collateral damage from lower oil prices. The investment in Venezuela was written down as the [country’s] oil-driven economy collapsed,” says Roberts. “Treatment chemicals for the utility water used by steel producers was deemphasized, as steel sales to the energy sector declined. I believe costs were tightly controlled in all of those affected areas. The company isn’t waiting for oil prices to turn around.”

There are other areas for possible growth. Roberts says that the company is talking about the Internet of things. How would that work?

“Having the dishwasher in the restaurant networked to Ecolab, the same way ADT services your alarm system. They can have that kind of intimacy with their cleaning customers by monitoring the operation of the cleaning systems,” says Roberts. “We don’t know how to scope it yet, but they’re talking about it as something that could be a game-changer for them.”

Ecolab’s fans include Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft Corp., who is Ecolab’s largest shareholder, with an 11.3 percent stake. Gates’ Cascade Investment Corp. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation started buying Ecolab stock in 2010. Roberts says that Ecolab is the type of company that appeals to Gates’ apparent investment philosophy.

“The trends that drive Ecolab—need for sanitation and cleanliness and doing it with less water—are probably consistent with the kinds of things you see Bill Gates and his wife doing in many other areas of their lives,” says Roberts. “I would say they are investing in companies that have very good, sustainable business models.”

Indeed, Baker isn’t slowing down. In February of this year, Ecolab closed on an $800 million deal to buy Laboratoires Anios, a French maker of hygiene and disinfection products for the health care industry.

As many business leaders know, it’s one thing to consummate an acquisition, and something else entirely to successfully merge two organizations’ cultures, systems and sales and marketing efforts. Part of Baker’s success on this front has been in bringing the cultures together without making the assumption that one has all the answers because it is the acquirer.

“When you buy a company, you’re buying know-how, talent, knowledge. To bring that on you’ve got to create an environment where people feel they’re wanted, they have a future, [they’re] treated with respect. You’ve got to get rid of this conqueror’s mentality which often kind of pervades deals. You know: ‘I buy you. I win. You lose.’ And then this whole mentality kind of infects the integration process…it gets really in the way of moving forward and creating an environment where you learn,” he says. “Our expectation when we buy a company is we’re going to learn as much from the company we buy as they’re going to learn from us, and we seek to find out what it is they do that’s better than us and how do we leverage that? It’s OK to teach, but be willing to be a student as well.”

Baker, in 2012, visitng one of Ecolab’s steel customers in India.

Secret sauce?

Today, Baker is widely regarded as one of the best in the business.

“Broadly, our view is that he’s obviously one of the top CEOs in our space that we cover, and he has a very solid team below him as well. I think from a leadership perspective they’re in good shape. It doesn’t sound like Doug is looking to leave anytime soon,” says Manav Patnaik, director of equity research in the New York office of London-based Barclays. “When you go around talking to the investment community about Ecolab, there is not a single person out there who wouldn’t at least put Doug as a top CEO.”

But what seems to set Baker apart from other leaders? Does he have a “secret sauce” as a CEO?

Patnaik speculates that part of the answer comes down to Baker’s down-to-earth personality and business fundamentals rather than flash. The analyst points to Baker’s consistency and discipline as a leader, but notes that he’s not an intimidating big-company CEO.

“He keeps it simple and he executes it well,” says Patnaik. “Even though he’s the CEO of a pretty sizable company, he’s still very easy to talk to. He’s still humble.”

Back in Minnesota, many feel the same way. “He’s the most extraordinary regular guy I think I’ve ever met,” says Norm Coleman, former St. Paul mayor who was serving in the U.S. Senate when Baker was tapped to lead Ecolab.

As a result, as busy as he may be, business, nonprofit and civic leaders keep turning to Baker for his ideas, energy and advice.

“He’s been pretty important to downtown St. Paul. He’s been very clear that our fates are intertwined,” says St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who has tapped Baker’s business expertise on many city issues and initiatives.

“He is the most level-headed, no-B.S. guy that I think I’ve ever worked with. He’s very straightforward, but not in any kind of a mean-spirited way,” says Coleman. “He’s extremely even-keeled. Just kind of the Joe DiMaggio of CEOs.”


Douglas M. Baker Jr.

Curriculum vitae

1981 - Graduated from College of the Holy Cross with a degree in English.

1982 - Joins Minneapolis office of Procter & Gamble in brand management.

1984 - Moves to Cincinnati, P&G’s corporate headquarters.

1989 - Hired by Ecolab. Starts as an institutional channel marketing manager in St. Paul.

1992 - Assigned to Germany to work with German joint-venture partner Henkel.

1995 - Assigned to run Kay Chemical, an Ecolab acquisition in Greensboro, N.C.

2001 - Returns to St. Paul as group vice president for Ecolab’s institutional sector.

2002 - Named president and chief operating officer.

2004 - Becomes CEO, succeeding Al Schuman.

2006 - Named chairman, succeeding Al Schuman.


Baker on Board: Business and Community Work Outside of Ecolab

Board member, U.S. Bancorp: 2008-present

Board member, Target Corp.: 2013-present

Board of trustees, College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Mass.): 2014-present

Campaign co-chair, Higher Ground St. Paul, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis: 2015-2017

Trustee emeritus, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (Washington, D.C.): Philanthropic foundation dedicated to improving industry training and education.

Member, CECP (New York): International forum of business leaders focused on corporate giving. Founded as the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy by actor/philanthropist Paul Newman.

 

Baker Off the Clock

Where the heck does he find time to do everything? What does he do in his spare time? What’s he reading? What did he learn playing college hockey?

TCB: What time do you get up in the morning?
Doug Baker: No set time, depends on schedule and jet lag . . . [I] would be guilty of not enough sleep, so I grab it when I can.

Favorite pastimes?
I love to ski (downhill), I love to read, I like to exercise (can’t believe I just [said] that), and I have been a wine guy for 25-plus years.

What are things about yourself that would surprise people?
I collect art. I still love and see the guys I hung with in high school, though only one lives here (he just moved back, yeah!). I love playing games, but hate to lose, which I am still learning to manage.

You mentioned that you love to read. Can you mention some favorites or what you are reading now?
A random sample: Team of Rivals, one of the great leadership books; Just Mercy, an eye-opening story of how the justice system too often works in the U.S.; Guns, Germs and Steel, fascinating read on human history; Undaunted Courage, fantastic story of a grand adventure. I’m currently reading Long Walk to Freedom. I’m a huge admirer of Nelson Mandela, and it will be the 100th anniversary of his birth next year, so: timely.

You’re a serious hockey fan. Did you play? Are there any business lessons from hockey?
I played hockey through sophomore year at [College of the] Holy Cross. Got mono and hepatitis and had to quit, but the timing was good anyway as I had no chance of playing beyond college. Lots of learning—how to play on a team, how to learn to both lead and follow, how to deal with ability limits. And, based on my grades while playing, how not to manage time well!

People describe you as even-keeled, approachable, down-to-earth. A few said that they have never seen you get rattled or raise your voice. Where does that come from?
Well . . . not sure all my teammates would say they have never heard me raise my voice. But my experience is mostly that what teams need in challenging moments is clarity and decisiveness. Occasionally, they need emotion, too, which I am happy to provide, but emotion runs deep at Ecolab, so it’s not a frequent need.

Humility comes from experience. I have certainly worked hard, made plenty of sacrifices and made a difference. But much of what I have can also be attributed to good luck: I was born in a great country. I had great parents and friends. I fell in love with [my wife] Julie and fortunately she fell in love with me. I am healthy, as is my family. I was also lucky to join Ecolab, and all CEOs who are honest with themselves know how much luck goes into their attainment of the position.

If you weren’t running Ecolab, what would you be doing instead?
I do not have any idea, but I will have to figure that out someday because nothing lasts forever.

Burl Gilyard is TCB’s senior writer.