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5 Things I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me Before Becoming CEO

An Interview With CEO Jeffrey Kambak

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeffrey Kambak, CEO of U.S. Operations for Trident Global Inc, the U.S. division of The Trident Group. Trident is a USD $1B Indian conglomerate, and a highly decorated world leader in the manufacturing of bath towels, bed sheets, and bath robes. Jeffrey opened the company’s U.S. operation in 2014.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a CEO?

Thank you for having me! My story is a little unusual, as I am still in the same industry I entered right out of college. In 1983 I was senior at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. I was walking down the mall on senior career day. The mall was lined with tables staffed with representatives from the largest accounting and CPG firms in the country. All the tables were mobbed. I saw a guy sitting alone at a table with a “WestPoint Pepperell” banner. I felt sorry for him because nobody was talking to him. I introduced myself and found out WPP was at the time one of the world’s largest textile manufacturers. He hooked up interviews for me in L.A. and NYC. I ended up getting the job and moved to NY. Back then if you were single and had half a brain you’d get promoted pretty quickly, as it was much less expensive to move single people than married ones. Since 1983 I’ve moved to NYC, LA, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, LA, Charlotte, Palm Springs, Napa Valley, LA, Billings, Dallas, and now Sparta NJ. I inherited wanderlust from my Dad. He told me “never be afraid to go where the grapes grow.” Funny thing about the guy from career day at LMU — we’re still friends — 35 years later!

What is your definition of success?

To me success isn’t judged based on where someone is, but how far they’ve come since they started. I know people that grew up very privileged, and financially are doing well now — but I wouldn’t consider them overly successful. On the other hand, I have friends that had a tough childhood, who now have a nice career and a great family. They are well respected and well liked. These people are highly successful in my mind. I had a bit of an epiphany a few years ago, when the Scout Master of my son’s Boy Scout Troop asked me to take on the role of Committee Chairman. Since being involved I’ve met some unbelievable people who donate tremendous amounts of time and energy to helping our youth become good citizens. This broadened my definition of “successful people” a great deal.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

A few years back we were developing a sheet program for a major retailer. The head of PD for this retailer sent me a swatch of a leopard print she wanted added to their sheet line. I sent the print to our designer, who promptly called me and told me to go back to the PD person and tell her that leopard print was passe’, out of style, and was “aged”. I called the PD person and requested a meeting. I walked into her office the next day and she was sitting at her desk wearing a blouse made of the exact same leopard print — needless to say I didn’t have the conversation! The next season that leopard print sheet was the top selling pattern in their line.

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

My failures are deeply personal to me, thus I don’t talk about them much. I think about them a lot, but with the exception of chats my wife Nathalie I really don’t discuss them with anyone. However, I’ve learned a ton from them. My 14-year-old son Kaden was frustrated with a 3D printing project he was working on a couple weeks ago. I told him I’ve never learned anything from something I did right, or anything I won. If I did it right I already knew whatever the skill was that was needed to succeed at that particular activity. Everything in my life I’ve ever learned came from failure and losing. Failure fuels a passion in me to figure things out, and learn how to succeed.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Trident is passionate about our CSR initiatives. Many organizations talk a good game — with Trident it’s a mission. We were one of the earliest supporters of “The Better Cotton Initiative.” BCI teaches farmers how to grow better quality cotton using less water, fewer pesticides, and fewer herbicides. We worked with over 17,000 farmers to educate them on better practices that save natural resources and limits the use of harsh chemicals. The economic impact helps them live better lives as well. A big win all the way around. Many of the largest and most socially responsible retailers in the world are moving toward BCI cotton.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

We are constantly working on innovative products and ideas. People are amazed when they walk through our NY showroom and realize there isn’t a single traditional bath towel or bed sheet on display. Everything is innovative. We are completely vertical — meaning from the time we take control of the cotton we are 100% responsible for the yarn spinning, weaving, and finishing. Almost all the innovation of home textiles comes during the yarn spinning and finishing stages. The fact that we do all of this in-house gives us a great advantage. It may be an Air Rich™ towel that stays soft after many, many washings, or a Quick Dry towel that has an average drying time 23% faster than comparable traditional towels, or an Air Rich™ temperature regulating sheet. We’re always working on something!

Is your company working to be more sustainable? If so, how?

Sustainability is a HUGE initiative for us. This year all our textile factories were awarded Oeko-Tex “Made In Green” Certification. This means the goods were made using materials that were tested for harmful substances, in environmentally friendly facilities, in safe and responsible work places. It’s becoming the “Gold Standard” in textile manufacturing. We’re protecting the consumers, the environment, and our employees. This certification is one of Trident’s accomplishments I’m most proud of. Another fun fact: we are one of the world’s largest manufacturers of paper made out of wheat straw. We save 1.8 million trees a year producing our paper using agro-waste. We use it in the NY office. It runs through the printer just like wood based paper.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Watch their work-life balance, and if you see it getting out of whack, talk to them about it. The most difficult thing I do is balance my career and my family. When I go into the office in NY my commute is 2.5 hours each way. That puts a lot of pressure on family time and doing the things I need to do to be supportive of Nathalie and my son Kaden. When I became an active Boy Scout leader it forced me to adjust my balance. I became a better father and husband. It also gave me perspective needed to be a better leader at the office.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I honestly can’t narrow it down to one. I’ll give you three though. My father was very hardworking and complex. He taught me that you don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Work hard — be a good soldier. My Mother taught me compassion. My Mom was kind to everyone. When she passed away, the owner of the local dry cleaner shut his store down for an hour so he could attend her funeral. She taught me a lot about how to treat people. Finally, my wife Nathalie. I know it’s cliché, but she’s truly my best friend and confidante. She’s always been supportive and gives me her perspective on issues I’m struggling with. We’re constantly laughing and enjoying time together. These are the three people who had the greatest impact on who I am today.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

On a personal front, what I’ve learned through the years has given me a unique perspective I can pass on to the Boy Scouts. I have a unique style in regards to the way I conduct Committee meetings and how we achieve our goals. On a macro-level, every time our Trident team is awarded a new program I think about the positive impact it will have on the employees in India and the villages surrounding the factories. A rising tide lifts all boats. If I have a little hand in the process leading up to being awarded the business it gives me a great feeling of satisfaction.

What are your “5 Things I WishSomeone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?

1. “Don’t believe your own press clippings.” Once I was hired away by a competitor — relocation, and undeserved hoopla given the level of the position. There were some articles in the local paper about what I’d done previously and what I was planning on doing. I let it go to my head. The job and the relocation came crashing down. Now I never get too caught up in the hype. (This is one of those failures I mention above that I don’t talk about).

2. “When hiring, go with your gut feeling.” If you have a developed EQ, your gut is going to tell you if a certain person is going to be the right fit. I got talked into hiring someone by a mutual friend. It didn’t turn out well for anyone. I blame myself. I knew in my heart it was the wrong move.

3. “The road is littered with flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.” There is a big career jump from leading a team to creating and leading a division. Sometimes I’d get paralysis of analysis when studying a situation I hadn’t encountered before. In reality, there’s more risk in doing nothing than in doing practically anything else.

4. “Become a self-actualized individual.” Know what you’re good at, accept what you aren’t good at, and surround yourself with people who excel at the things you aren’t good at. It makes life much less complicated when you abandoned the “hero” role.

5. “Be prepared for friends to approach you for jobs they aren’t suited for.” I’ve had people from my past call me to discuss job openings. Although these people are friends and have skills, avoid allowing your personal feelings cloud your judgement.

6.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’m concerned with the lack of civility in our society. People are so angry, and constantly looking to start conflicts. When I was in college I spent my summers as a Jungle Cruise Skipper at Disneyland. After four years of telling jokes to thousands of strangers, you become a little outgoing. When I moved to New York for my first “real” job, I had a roommate from Boston — Doug O’Donnell. He was much more familiar with the “big city” than this kid from Orange County, California. We’d be walking through NYC and some relatively tough looking guy would stare at me. I’d smile at him and say, ” hey, how’s it going?” I drove Doug crazy! He thought I was going to get knifed for making eye contact with the guy. I wish more people would smile and say, “how’s it going”… or maybe just smile at a stranger.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Cliché’ but “Stop to smell the roses”. In 1983 I was on a business trip to Carmel, California. There was a lovely British buyer at the little linen store I was calling on. She asked if I’d ever seen the 17 Mile Drive around Pebble Beach. I told her I hadn’t. She told me to take the afternoon off and do it, I wouldn’t regret it. I was feeling guilty about taking the afternoon, but decided to take the drive. It was absolutely spectacular. To this day, 34 years later — I can’t for the life of me remember what work project I blew off that afternoon, but I will never forget the 17 Mile Drive.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.

Bill Marriott Jr. In 1984 I was transferred from LA to Miami. I opened a checking account and got temporary checks. I went to check into a Marriott for what was going to be a two month stint waiting for my condo to open up. It was Friday night, and I had about $9.00 in my pocket. The front desk person refused to cash a $50 check for me because it didn’t have my name or address printed on the check. He had my credit card number, and my reservation for 2 months! I pleaded with him to cash the check. He said “rules are rules”. I said fine — check me out. I went down the street to Hyatt. They cashed my check and I stayed there for 2 months.

I sent a letter to Bill Marriott Jr. I never expected to hear back about it. A month later I received a personal letter from Bill. He apologized and said people need to realize that in certain circumstances, rules are not rules, but guidelines. I was a 24 year old kid and I got a personal letter from Bill Marriott! I was so excited about it I sent my Mom a copy of my letter (my first real “businessman” correspondence) and Bill’s letter.

Bill showed me the meaning of customer service with that one letter. Since then I have stayed over 1,780 nights (4.9 years) in Marriott properties, I’m “Platinum for Life”, and my wife and I bought two weeks a year in Marriott’s Vacation Club — just because Bill took the time to reach out to a disgruntled kid who needed $50. A few years ago my Mom passed away. When we were going through her keepsakes we found the copies of the two letters. She saved them all those years.

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