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Newell’s Ravi Saligram: Atlanta can be a national role model

Ravi Saligram at Newell's headquarters in June 2020. (Photo by Joann Vitelli.)

By Maria Saporta

Sometimes it takes a newcomer’s perspective to see Atlanta’s potential.

That’s the case with Ravi Saligram, the CEO of Newell Brands, a Fortune 500 company that brought back its headquarters to Atlanta in 2019 after moving to New Jersey for three years.

“If we can’t make Atlanta work in terms of a united America where race is not an issue, it’s going to be difficult to make it work anywhere,” Saligram said during an interview at Newell’s Sandy Springs headquarters on June 2. “Atlanta is a cosmopolitan city. We have to make it work. Atlanta has to be a role model on how you can create the utopian dream here, that you can grow and thrive in Atlanta.”

Saligram, who has been Newell’s CEO since October 2019, has led the company’s turnaround — financially, operationally and in employee satisfaction.

This was a follow-up interview to one we had two years ago, which resulted in a story published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That story follows below.

Ravi Saligram at Newell’s headquarters in June 2020. (Photo by Joann Vitelli.)

Newell was just named one of Fortune magazine’s world’s most admired companies. The last time the company made that list was in 1994 when it was called Rubbermaid. The national accolades have been pouring in.

“When I came in in October 2019, our employee engagement scores were at 45 percent,” Saligram said. “Consultants said it was one of the worst scores they had ever seen. And they said it would take 10 years to fix, or if we were lucky — seven years. We just did the survey in November. In two years, our employee engagement numbers improved to 75 percent — the level of world-class companies.”

While many people may not recognize Newell by name, they are well familiar with its products — Sharpie, Coleman, Oster, Sunbeam, Mr. Coffee, Rubbermaid, Graco and Calphalon to name a few. Managing all the various products under one entity can be an organizational challenge.

Companies struggle on whether to have a centralized model or a decentralized one — a tension that had been at play at Newell for years.

“We were acting like eight $1 billion to $2 billion companies rather than a $10 billion company,” Saligram said. “We needed centralization and decentralization to exist harmoniously. I banned the word division. That comes from divided. We went to business units — semi-autonomous, interdependent business units. Each unit would be front-facing to the consumer. We are unifying the back end.”

Saligram calls the integration plan the “boldest thing Newell has done since its inception.” Each business unit had its own warehouse and distribution system.

“We are taking 23 supply chains and combining them into one,” Saligram said of the reorganization that will start in July. “It is the biggest symbolic manifestation of “One Newell.”

Ravi Saligram talks about Newell’s vision and values in June 2022. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

So far, the company is going strong under Saligram’s leadership. Newell posted 12.5 percent organic growth last year, and in the first quarter of 2022, revenues grew by 6.9 percent. This is despite all the challenges of the past couple of years – Covid, George Floyd social justice issues, supply chain issues, inflation, Ukraine, rising old prices, etc.

“Our people have displayed and unlocked their resiliency,” Saligram said. “We were in a turnaround. Most companies would have capsized [under the pressure of all those factors.] Instead, we are thriving. I can confidently say the turnaround has reached its end. We are now becoming predictable, stable and sustainable. We are really contemplating what we want to be when we grow up.”

For Saligram, a major area of focus is international. Already, more than a third of the company’s revenues come from outside the United States, but he would like its international business to grow faster than Newell’s domestic business.

Another area of focus for him has been making sure diversity and inclusion are part of the company’s core. He has worked hard to make sure Newell’s employees feel a sense of belonging to the company — that they can bring their best selves and their true selves to work,

“Diversity is so important. You want different ideas. You need different skill sets,” Saligram said. “You want the harmonious collision of ideas.”

It is a lesson Saligram has had to learn both professionally and personally. When we spoke two years, his daughter was dating a Black man from the Ivory Coast, who she had met while attending Harvard. Saligram, an immigrant from India, candidly said it made him examine his own feelings about race.

Since then, his daughter got married in November with three separate wedding events — an Indian wedding, an African wedding and a celebratory party. Saligram described his daughter’s in-laws, who don’t speak English, as fun-loving and warm.

Ravi Saligram at Newell’s headquarters in June 2020. (Photo by Joann Vitelli.)

“I was really impressed about the blending of the families,” said Saligram, who is Hindu. Saligram is also is a vegetarian who doesn’t eat vegetables — a fact that had escaped me two years ago. When we met at Newell’s headquarters for lunch, he dined on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Saligram also has become more involved in the Atlanta community. He’s on the board of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, he’s on the executive committee of the Woodruff Arts Center and he wants to become more involved in the Atlanta community – especially working in the areas of race relations, equity and inclusion. His enthusiasm for Newell and Atlanta is infectious.

“I love this job. I’m having more fun than I’ve had since I was at SC Johnson when I was 32,” said Saligram, who is about to turn 66. “I don’t even think of this as a job. I can work all day and all night. I’m so in love with this company. It’s the greatest feeling of satisfaction for me to see my people accomplishing extraordinary things.”

Saligram took great pride in the fact that Laurel Hurd, who headed one of Newell’s business units until earlier this year, is now CEO of Atlanta-based Interface Inc. Though he hated losing her, he knew it was a wonderful opportunity for her to run a public company.

“We’ve gone from being an importer of talent to becoming an exporter of talent,” said Saligram, who then talked about the qualities of a leader — who should have humility and not think of people as ordinary.

Instead, a leader must ask: “How do you take people and bring out the extraordinary?” Saligram reflected. “A great leader brings out the extraordinary in people.”

Newell Brands in 2022 at a Glance:

  • #348 on the 2022 Fortune 500 list
  • 2021 revenues: $10.59 billion
  • 2021 profits: $572 million
  • Employees: 32,000

Newell Brands back in town with a new CEO

An estimated 90 percent of all U.S. households use Newell products

By Maria Saporta

For the AJC — July 12, 2020

Newell Brands, a Fortune 500 company that boomeranged its headquarters back to metro Atlanta last year, now has a CEO who lives in the city.

Ravi Saligram became the top executive of Newell — the maker of Sharpie pens, Calphalon cookware, Rubbermaid goods and a number of other household names — in October, shortly after the company moved its headquarters back to Sandy Springs. In 2016, Newell relocated its headquarters from that city to Hoboken, N.J., where former CEO Michael Polk lived. Polk retired a year ago.

Saligram and his wife, Nalini, have bought a place in Buckhead, and they are looking to establish deeper roots in the city. It’s their second time living here. From 2000 to 2002, Saligram was an executive with InterContinental Hotels Group, and his two daughters attended Westminster.

“I’ve lived here during another very trying time — during 9/11,” Saligram said in a recent interview. “Atlanta is a great city. I had no hesitation about buying a place here.”

For Saligram, moving to Atlanta during the coronavirus pandemic and a time of racial unrest has been especially meaningful. It’s given him an opportunity to dig deep into the company’s commitment to the community and inclusion.

“I very much want to get more involved in the community,” Saligram said. “Atlanta has an opportunity to become the model city for racial harmony — where Back lives truly matter.”

On June 2, following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, Saligram sent a letter to employees titled “Embracing our Humanity.”

He wrote: “I sincerely hope this tragedy will galvanize Americans — black, brown, white, Democrat, Independent, Republican, male, female or however one identifies — to come together to acknowledge and reject racism and discrimination of any kind. As Americans, we need to proactively address aspects of our society in which discrimination and racism are systemic and root them out. We need to open our hearts and truly believe that every one of us is equal, not succumb to tawdry stereotypes or allow the insidious hand of unconscious bias to seep deep into our souls.”

He also convened many of Newell’s Black employees to hear about their experiences.

“One of my managers had been pulled over 22 times by police for no good reason,” said Saligram, who is a native of India. “I’m ashamed I knew so little about their lives.”

The topic of race also has hit him personally. One of his daughters is dating a Black man from the Ivory Coast in Africa; they met when they were at Harvard University.

“I went through several months of self-examination,” Saligram said. “I saw the guy really cared for my daughter. We have been slowly getting to know him. It’s been a personal journey.”

In between his two stints in Atlanta, Saligram was CEO of Vancouver-based Ritchie Bros. for five years and CEO of OfficeMax for three years. He also served as a key executive for Aramark Corp. for eight years.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be CEO three times,” said Saligram, who just turned 64. “How can an immigrant do that, but people who were born in this country have been denied that?”

Saligram wants to work with other local business leaders to see how they can make a difference. “I want to commit to that in this phase of my life,” he said. “Are we creating a community of belonging, not just inclusion?”

When he was 20 years old, Saligram said, he moved to the United States with $9 in his pocket. He had studied engineering in India, but he hated the field. So, he got his MBA at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where an aunt and uncle lived.

That led him to a career in marketing, brand management, strategic development and company turnarounds.

Because of a changing retail environment and Newell’s limited investment in innovation, some of the company’s leading brands experienced lackluster sales. Also, turnover in leadership and Newell’s 2016 acquisition of Jarden, a company with a different culture, led to low employee morale.

Newell was a perfect challenge for Saligram, who at first resisted accepting the job because he had planned to retire. But his wife urged him to accept it, saying he was too young to stop working.

Saligram decided to take the job after reading reports from Newell employees, who were clearly demoralized.

“Sometimes, executive hubris creates problems,” he said. “A lot of our problems were self-inflicted. When I read their plight, that was the tipping point. How could any company have gone through this? So, I decided to come on board.”

Before the pandemic hit, Saligram was busy transforming Newell, investing in the company’s brands and focusing on its stakeholders — employees and customers, as well as shareholders.

“Pre-COVID, I knew the number one priority was to get the right leadership team,” Saligram said. “There’s no way you can drive sustainable shareholder value if your people are not with you.”

He described Chief Financial Officer Chris Peterson, who had served as the interim CEO, as a partner in running the company.
Saligram went on to say that, of Newell’s eight business units, four are headed by women and four by men.

Now his goal is to increase racial diversity throughout the company.

“At Newell, my focus now is on the lives and livelihood of our Black employees,” he said.

The pandemic impacted Newell’s brands differently.

For example, the appliance and cookware unit is doing well because more people are cooking at home. But the writing division —

Paper Mate and Sharpie — has taken a hit because of the closing of schools and offices. When annual bonuses were being discussed, the decision was made to spread them evenly across all business units.

“This year, we will go one for all and all for one,” Saligram said. “It was initiated by the business units that are doing really well. It was selfless. We are not in it for ourselves.”

Saligram is proud of Newell’s brands.

“Our brands touch lives,” he said. “We give small pleasures. We brighten everyday lives. We bring joyous moments and peace of mind. It’s very important when people are making purchases that we fulfill our promise.”

That’s why Saligram responds to nearly every complaint that he receives.

“If someone is so upset that they write to the CEO, I like to answer myself,” he said. “Our role is serving people.” It is estimated that 90 percent of all U.S. households use Newell products.

“We have 100 brands — and 25 of them are iconic brands with leading shares in their categories,” said Saligram, whose first love in business was marketing. “I love things to do with consumers.”

Saligram wants to “restore Newell to its former greatness.”

In 1994, Rubbermaid (now Newell) was Fortune magazine’s number one most admired company in the country.

“I have fallen in love with Newell. I feel I’m adding value,” Saligram said. “Not a single day, in the last nine months since I’ve joined, have I regretted the decision. Our best days are ahead of us.”

(As published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 12, 2020. Based on an interview on June 30, 2020.)

NEWELL BRANDS:
■ CEO: Ravi Saligram
■ CFO and former interim CEO: Chris Peterson
■ Fortune 500 rank: 243
■ Years on the Fortune 500 list: 31
■ Headquarters: 6655 Peachtree Dunwoody Road
■ Eight business units: Writing; outdoor and recreation; home fragrance; baby; connected home and security; appliances and cookware; food; commercial. The writing, baby and food units are based in Atlanta.
■ 30,000 employees globally; 1,172 in Atlanta
■ 2019 net sales: $9.7 billion
■ Originally moved its headquarters to Atlanta in 2003 from Freeport, Illinois.
■Moved its headquarters to Hoboken, New Jersey, in 2016.
■ Relocated its headquarters to Sandy Springs in 2019.
■ 90 percent of U.S. households buy Newell brands.

Familiar brands include:
■ Paper Mate
■ Sharpie
■ Dymo
■ EXPO
■ Parker
■ Elmer’s
■ Coleman
■ Marmot
■ Oster
■ Sunbeam
■ FoodSaver
■ Mr. Coffee
■ Rubbermaid Commercial Products
■ Graco
■ Baby Jogger
■ NUK
■ Calphalon
■ Rubbermaid
■ Contigo
■ Mapa
■ Spontex
■ Yankee Candle

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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2 Comments

  1. Kokila Ravi June 14, 2022 10:51 am

    Thank you for your inspiring leadership, Mr. Ravi Saligram! Fortunate to share the city of Atlanta with forward-thinking leaders like you. Atlanta used to be known as a city too busy to hate, I think we need to now be known as a city too engaged and educated to hate. Wish you the very best in your endeavors.Report

    Reply

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