Power couple: John and Tamara Lundgren’s merger of equals
It’s Friday, which means it’s date night in the Lundgren household. That would hardly be worth noting were it not for the fact that the couple in question, John and Tamara Lundgren, spend most weeks 3,000 miles away from each other — and that both are the chief executive officers of large public companies. He runs the $11 billion in revenues Stanley Black & Decker (SWK), and she helms the $2.6 billion Schnitzer Steel Industries (SCHN).
A recent, typically harried week includes (for her) a meeting with her board and time in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Ore.; Miami; and Boston. Her husband, ensconced in Stanley’s New Britain, Conn., headquarters that week, focuses on quarterly business unit reviews and succession planning.
But now it’s Friday, and their weekly ritual takes them to a favorite haunt, Boston’s Fenway Park. The two are sitting in the stands, decompressing, enjoying a Sam Adams (John) and a Grey Goose with lime (Tamara). Their moods are particularly buoyant since they’ve watched Red Sox star Dustin Pedroia hit a grand slam — his 100th career home run and 500th RBI.
The two banter. Tamara describes John’s mortification a few years back when his colleagues flashed a happy-birthday message on Fenway’s video-screen, not once but several times, during a game. John winces at the memory, then brightens when he spots Stanley’s logo on the scoreboard — that he doesn’t mind seeing — and points it out to Tamara. She smiles indulgently. The game ends perfectly as the Sox trounce the Athletics, 7-1.
Date night is always a treat, and given their schedules, it can take place anywhere in the world. Sometimes John, 62, will cook in the couple’s stately Georgian home in Farmington, Conn. Other times it’s golf or NASCAR or charity events. This, after all, is a couple that celebrated its first anniversary at … Denver’s airport (after a weekend with friends in Beaver Creek).
Not only are both Lundgrens chief executives, but both also run manufacturing businesses with long, rich histories. The 108-year-old Schnitzer is a steel and scrap-metal producer as well as a retailer, with its 61 Pick-n-Pull used-car-parts junkyards. Stanley Black & Decker, a giant created by the merger of 171-year-old Stanley Works with Black & Decker in 2010, makes security equipment as well as consumer and industrial tools under such brands as Stanley, DeWalt, and Black & Decker. The two companies aren’t competitors, but they do end up on opposite sides of steel prices. Schnitzer benefits when they are high, and Stanley when they are not. “We call it the Lundgren family hedge,” laughs Tamara, 56, an elegant, auburn-haired woman with a quiet but firm demeanor.
In the age of Bill and Hillary, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the existence of power couples is not exactly a news flash. Yet as the only CEOs married to each other in the Fortune 1,000 (Schnitzer is No. 803; Stanley is No. 255), the Lundgrens are unique. They have been married for nearly nine years (John was married once before) and CEOs for a total of 16 years (10 for John, six for Tamara). They are a formidable duo, responsible for a combined $14 billion in market capitalization and each active in powerful trade organizations and nonprofits. They are also a private pair who, despite their prominent roles, guard their relationship so closely that few of their peers realize they are together.
There are lessons in the Lundgrens’ experience for any prominent couple. They have an acute understanding of the stresses each faces in running a public company — as well as the stresses you find in any marriage. Says A.D. “Pete” Correll, a friend and former CEO at Georgia-Pacific, where he was once John’s boss: “Not many people could survive a marriage where he runs a company in Connecticut and she runs one in Portland. But they decided they are going to be together every weekend, and damn if they don’t make it work!”
Geography helped unite the Lundgrens. In 2000 both John and Tamara were working in London. John had spent several years as president of European consumer products at Georgia-Pacific. Tamara was a lawyer turned banker with a gleaming résumé that included positions at Goldman Sachs and Hogan & Hartson. By 2000 she was a managing director at Deutsche Bank, where she was one of the first to securitize pools of loans in Europe.
Both avid golfers — John was captain of the golf team at Dartmouth — they first crossed paths in 2000, on a rainy day at the Wentworth Club outside London, when mutual friend Mark Stegemoeller, a partner at Latham & Watkins, introduced them. No sparks flew. “I just wanted to get dry,” John, a voluble, outgoing sort, says with a laugh. Stegemoeller then decided to seat them together at a Thanksgiving dinner he organized for American expats. “It was semi-strategic,” he says.
This time the two found things to talk about. “She was a nice lady, smart and interesting and cute,” says John. Says Tamara: “It was very easy, very natural. No drama.” By the time Stegemoeller joined Tamara and John to see the Who at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of weeks later, they were clearly a pair.
From the start of the relationship, work came first. Tamara often had to be on a plane at a moment’s notice if a deal came up. They developed a routine that holds today. Work as hard as possible when you’re apart; be fully present when you’re together. They both loved London, bought a home in Belgravia, and planned to get married.
Then, in late 2003, John got a call from Stanley Works about becoming its chief executive. Lundgren was already a candidate to succeed Correll as chief of Georgia-Pacific, but Tamara encouraged him to take the Stanley interview to get some practice. It went so well that John was asked to meet with the board’s search committee immediately. He was soon offered the Stanley position. “We did a lot of soul searching,” says John. “Tamara said, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ ” He took the job.
John moved in early 2004, and rented an apartment in Connecticut. Tamara landed a position with J.P. Morgan in New York and joined him there some months later. “She’s such a trouper,” says John, noting their struggles to find a house that they adored. He remembers her wearing sunglasses in the car because she didn’t want him to see her crying: “I love her so dearly.” In August 2005 the two were married at the Berkeley Hotel in London. They kept their place there, and still plan to return someday.
John had made a big change. Now it was Tamara’s turn. She had already proved herself to be a creative problem-solver, adept with clients. Having changed jobs frequently, she wasn’t afraid of a new challenge. Suddenly an opportunity arose at Schnitzer. The steel company was exiting a troubled period, with a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violation in Korea in 2004. The CEO had stepped down, and the company was rebuilding its image under John Carter, an ex-Bechtel executive who Tamara had worked with as an investment banker. Carter admired her approach and invited her to join as head of strategy. “I had spent my career advising,” she says, “and when you give advice, sometimes people don’t take it. This was an opportunity to go in at a transformational time.”
Most new CEOs have a spouse accustomed to packing up the van and taking off. That wasn’t going to happen in this case, since the Lundgrens had just relocated to Connecticut and Tamara’s new job was based in Portland. When asked why she’s the one who has to do all the traveling, she says she’s confident that if she had gotten the top job first, they would have settled closer to her.
With Tamara as head of strategy and then, in 2006, as COO, Schnitzer Steel expanded dramatically. The company acquired competitors and expanded its foray into the retail business with its “Pick-n-Pull” outdoor lots, where “end of life” vehicles are displayed so that customers can pry off a hubcap or carburetor. Revenues nearly doubled between 2006 and 2008.
So when Carter decided he was ready to step down in 2008, he turned to Tamara. “What you’re supposed to say at a time like that is, ‘I’m flattered. I could never fill your shoes,’ ” she jokes. “I said, ‘What do you know that I don’t know?’ ” Despite those qualms, she took the job. Did she ask her husband his opinion first? Tamara looks at me as if I have two heads. “I knew he would be supportive,” she says. Adds John: “It wasn’t like she needed my approval. One, how do you pass up that opportunity? And No. 2, you’re the one who’s going to spend more time on the airplane.” Tamara had told John that he needed to live in Connecticut so that he wouldn’t be seen as a “carpetbagger.” Now she faced the same issue. She took an apartment in downtown Portland.
That turned out to be the least of her problems. As Tamara took over as CEO in November 2008, the stock market was cratering. Demand for steel — Schnitzer’s main product — plummeted. Its shares peaked at $118 that summer, and dropped to $16.45. Things weren’t much better over at Stanley Works, which also depends on the housing and building market.
It was a stressful period. Tamara had won her job because of her strategic thinking on how to expand the business. Now she had to use different skills as Schnitzer consolidated and shrank. The company lost nearly half its revenues in 2009, and then recovered slowly before being walloped again by the European financial crisis and the slowdown in emerging markets.
In some ways the strain improved the couple’s connection. Says John: “She’d come home and say, ‘I have a total new respect for what you’ve done every day of your life.’ ” Through it all, the two stuck to their routine, making sure to leave time for fun.
Today Schnitzer is a smaller but much more efficient player, though it’s still struggling to get back to profitability. “She’s concentrated on the things you can do,” says board member Wayland Hicks. “She has taken out layers and layers of overhead. I think she’s just done a yeoman’s job.”
As Tamara was cutting back, John was doubling down. In late 2009 he announced the acquisition of Black & Decker for $4.5 billion. A merger had been pondered before, but Lundgren made it happen, persuading Nolan Archibald, Black & Decker’s CEO and largest individual shareholder, to sign on. The deal has been a hit: The enterprise value of the combined company has more than doubled since the merger.
There are only two rules to the Lundgren relationship: First, find a way to be together, and second, the chief executive whose stock performed worse that week gets to choose the activity. (Lately that’s been Tamara more often than not.) “There’s an extraordinarily high degree of empathy,” she says, “because we understand the roles that we each have. When one has to cancel on a commitment and the other has to go alone, or if in the middle of dinner the phone rings, if you leave someone with a half-eaten dinner and half a bottle of wine, we don’t take it personally.”
The two serve as sounding boards for each other but insist they don’t spend their time together talking shop. “I don’t think either of us uses the other as a free consulting opportunity,” says Tamara. “It’s about sharing the day.” For starters, they’re legally barred from discussing inside information. During the Black & Decker negotiations, Tamara knew nothing — until their home phone rang one Saturday morning and she answered it. “This is Nolan Archibald,” a voice boomed. “Is John home?” After he got off the phone, Tamara arched an eyebrow. “Wow,” she said. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”
Still, John admits to one unexpected benefit of his marriage: He says that having a wife who is a CEO helps him recruit female executives; knowing he’s comfortable with a powerful woman makes them feel better about their potential trajectory in the company.
The two golf together often, but it’s one realm in which they don’t claim to be on equal footing. His handicap is 7; hers, 26.3. Asked if they ever compete directly, John says, “Mano a mano — it’s never going to happen in our lifetime. Also, by the time she gets through negotiating extra strokes, I don’t have a chance.” Does he try to coach her? “I’ve learned, like any husband, that she gets no advice unless she asks. That’s a low-return investment.”
Every Sunday night the Lundgrens, who don’t have children, sit down to compare calendars on their iPads. They learned to do this after one mix-up, when both left separately to attend a dinner sponsored by Accenture in New York City, only to show up and see each other across the room. They work closely with their assistants, who connect every few days and are quick to notify each other if the executives will be at the same conference, which happens about five times a year.
Long vacations are a challenge, because Schnitzer’s fiscal year ends in August, and Stanley’s in December. The only time they can truly align their free time is Christmas (last year they traveled to New Zealand and Australia).
The couple must also sort through the extracurricular responsibilities that accompany the corner office. Both are prominent members of industry groups: Tamara is the incoming chairwoman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, serves on the San Francisco Federal Reserve Board, and is a director at Ryder (R); John is on the executive committee of the National Association of Manufacturing and a director at Callaway Golf (ELY) and several nonprofits. They say it’s unlikely they’ll serve on the same board (although they do jointly own part of an Oregon winery, Dusky Goose). Maintaining some independence seems to have served them well. Why tamper with success?
It’s often said that a CEO’s job is isolating. It’s a truth that both Lundgrens grasp. “It is a lonely job,” says John, “but that is eased because we both experience it. She knows exactly what I’m talking about.” Merger of equals, indeed.
This story is from the June 16, 2014 issue of Fortune.