These CEOs have spent their entire careers at one company. Here's some of the wisdom they've gleaned along the way.

By Erika Fry
May 6, 2013

Donald E. Washkewicz

Washkewicz started at Parker Hannifin back in 1972 in the grease pit, changing defective hoses on trucks. It was the middle of a recession, and the recent engineering graduate, a Cleveland boy, was happy just to have the job with the motion controls company in his hometown. He moved up quickly: One year in, Washkewicz was tapped to develop a line of thermoplastic products because no one else wanted the job. He went on to head the business division, then to manage the company’s hydraulics group worldwide.

He’s never had a job at Parker he didn’t like—including the top spot, which he took over in 2000. Washkewicz says his firm grip on Parker’s business and culture have been good for the company—too many times, he says he has seen “outside hires come in and ruin a company or a product line.” And it’s good for morale: “Our employees see anyone can get to the top. It sets an example for everyone.”


Ken Powell

A native Californian, Powell joined General Mills in 1979 as a marketing assistant on its granola account. Among his many roles since: president of the company’s yogurt and cereal lines, Yoplait USA and Big G (Cheerios, Chex and Kix are among its brands). But the turning point for Powell came when he was sent to Europe to help launch Cereal Partners Worldwide, a joint venture with Nestle that now distributes cereal to 140 countries. The experience gave Powell insight into international business as well as the workings of another company. In 1999, when he was made CPW CEO, Powell assumed the reins to a global cereal company at 45.

By the time Powell was elected CEO of General Mills in 2007, he really knew the company—the organization, its people, products, customers and culture. That was critical, but so was his time in Europe and his insistence on having a team with diverse backgrounds: “The downside [to being a lifer] is you have blind spots because you’ve always done it this way. The question becomes ‘what really needs to be changed?’ when you’ve been embedded in it so long.”


Doug Oberhelman

Oberhelman, the son of a John Deere salesman, had always liked heavy equipment, so in 1975 when Caterpillar offered him a job as a credit analyst straight out of college, he took it. He never imagined he’d be there for life or ever become CEO (“I’m not sure I knew what a CEO was then,” he says), but his outlook changed with each new interesting opportunity. Oberhelman was sent to South America, a stint that coincided with the Latin American debt crisis and involved re-possessing equipment; and later to run operations in Japan. “When things are challenging, experience is wildly helpful. You appreciate what’s going on in the business. And I know virtually all of the top 350 leaders here—I have my entire career,” he says. He makes sure to get out of the Caterpillar bubble, however: Oberhelman prioritizes time with peer CEOs to make sure he is pushing and changing the company as fast as he needs to be.


Debra Reed

When Reed joined Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), a subsidiary of Sempra, fresh out of engineering school in 1978, there were no female officers at the company. “My goal was to become a director,” says Reed, whose first assignment was helping customers with energy efficiency programs. She was a director by 26, and she kept climbing up the company ranks, becoming the company’s youngest ever officer at 32. Over the years, she managed areas from human resources to engineering. “I’ve worked in so many different functional areas that I can see the linkages across the company,” she says. “And I’ve worked with so many people in our company that I have a good appreciation for the talent we have and the best ways to leverage it.” The biggest challenge to being a lifer? “Mining new ideas.”


John R. Strangfeld, Jr.

Strangfeld became CEO in 2008, three decades after he began his career with Prudential as an investment analyst. While he’s proud of his 35 years with the financial giant, it’s not a fact he touts to staff: “I don’t want mid-career hires to think they are somehow less valued than those who join us earlier in their careers,” he says, adding that successful companies—Prudential included— tend to have a mix of internally developed and externally hired talent. He says he became a lifer by accident rather than design: “Evaluating my career, my criteria have always been: Do I like what I am doing? Am I learning? Do I like and respect my colleagues? I feel I have had a series of careers under the umbrella of a single company. And, I find that success in one area can give you the confidence to try another.”


Samuel Allen

Only the 9th CEO in the farm equipment company’s 176-year history, Allen is hardly the first ‘lifer’ to lead John Deere. He joined the company 37 years ago as an industrial engineer after being recruited from his college management class. Allen has worked in every division and almost every business unit at Deere—a diversity of experience that he credits for his success at the company and promotion to CEO in 2009. “You end up having many more insights into the business and what it takes for sustained high performance,” he says of being a lifer. Another plus: He’s developed career-long relationships with colleagues who are comfortable giving him candid feedback, even though he is the CEO.

Only the 9th CEO in the farm equipment company’s 176-year history, Allen is hardly the first ‘lifer’ to lead John Deere. He joined the company 37 years ago as an industrial engineer after being recruited from his college management class. Allen has worked in every division and almost every business unit at Deere—a diversity of experience that he credits for his success at the company and promotion to CEO in 2009. “You end up having many more insights into the business and what it takes for sustained high performance,” he says of being a lifer. Another plus: He’s developed career-long relationships with colleagues who are comfortable giving him candid feedback, even though he is the CEO.


Hugh Grant

The other Hugh Grant, a Glaswegian with an agricultural degree, got his first big break in 1981 when he came across a want ad for Monsanto. The seed company was looking for someone to show Scottish farmers how to apply Roundup to their barley fields, and 23-year-old Grant was their man. His role at Monsanto grew quickly from there — in the years since, he led the company’s marketing, sales, and technology operations and business units on four continents. He became COO in 2000, the time of Monsanto’s IPO, and CEO in 2003. Grant says being a ‘lifer’ has been personally rewarding. While Monsanto’s culture has remained consistently nurturing, the business has changed so much he “feels as if he’s worked at a wide range of different companies.” Key for lifers, he says, “is a willingness to challenge the status quo. Listening, learning and changing must be continuous.”


Ursula Burns

From summer intern to CEO, Burns became the first black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 2009, after 29 years at Xerox. A mechanical engineer by training, Burns, who proved herself a quick study and an outspoken colleague, blew through the ranks—taking on product development, business planning and a series of managerial roles that in 2000 put her at the center of Xerox’s restructuring efforts. She also developed a close working relationship with her predecessor Anne Mulcahy, a relationship that led to what has been called one of the smoothest, most thoughtful successions in recent business history. Mulcahy hand-picked Burns and the two worked out a power-sharing arrangement that made for a gradual torch-passing, from one Xerox lifer ‘to another. “We had a commonality that made my transition easy,” Burns said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Woman Summit last year. “We spent lives at this company. We loved it and loved the people in it.”


Virginia (Ginni) Rometty

IBM is a company known for long-term vision and long-term employees. Rometty is no exception: She came to Big Blue as a systems engineer in 1981 after graduating from Northwestern with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering at Northwestern and doing a two year stint at the General Motors Institute (a condition of her college scholarship). Though Rometty excelled at engineering, her rise to the managerial ranks was swift, and she is best known for her work transforming IBM from a technology company to a broader business solutions firm. She led IBM’s skillful integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting, a $3.5 billion acquisition. But as long as Rometty has been at Big Blue, she’s not afraid to change it. In fact she’s afraid not to: “Never love something so much that you can’t let go of it,” she said at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Woman Summit last year. “And you have to reinvent.”


Frederick W. Smith

One in a handful of CEO founders on the Fortune 500 lifer list, Smith famously conceptualized FedEx in a college term paper at Yale (he worked as a charter pilot on the weekends). He founded the company in 1971 after two tours of duty in Vietnam, with money borrowed from his sisters. While the express delivery company didn’t take off immediately—at one point, he resorted to saving the company with an emergency trip to Vegas and wiring money he made at Black Jack—by the late 1970s, Smith was on his way to building the $48 billion company he still runs today. Mum’s the word on Smith’s successor and when this lifer will call it quits.


Daniel Neary

Neary is an almost-lifer. The Midwesterner, who started at Mutual of Omaha in 1975 after collecting a Masters in Actuarial Science at the University of Iowa, left his company ever so briefly in the 1990s for a job in New York. He found this new gig to be a complete contrast—and not in a good way—to his old one, and in less than a year, he headed home to Omaha and resumed his rise through the ranks there.

Neary had already worked in various capacities at the insurance company and he was often asked to take up odd jobs for an actuary: he managed group sales and underwriting operations for a time. “I was always open to them,” he says. “There was no formal executive training, there was a need.” This attitude—”the most successful leaders here think of themselves third”, he says —fit well with Mutual’s culture, and he became CEO in 2005. He says more important to companies than whether or not their next leader is a ‘lifer’ is whether they’re the ‘right’ person for the company at the moment. But he adds lifers have an advantage in their institutional knowledge “If it’s a great culture you know how to perpetuate it; if it’s got problems, you know what thinks need to change.” The drawbacks? “You can become a little myopic.”

You May Like