“Create a purpose for the company, a tie that binds. It must be something that connects with people emotionally and can resonate across every level of the organization. Importantly, the purpose should galvanize employees to make a difference. When I started as CEO of OfficeMax, we found the front line employees were not highly engaged given industry headwinds. So, we worked to define our purpose, and developed a platform that focused on adding value to small businesses — which unified employees and gave us drive. It was all about how when we help small businesses, we help America grow. It demonstrated that not only were we in this business to help customers, but we were in it to help the country. It created great pride across the organization with 80 percent of employees saying they were proud to be a part of the company and helped turn things around.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ravi Saligram, chief executive and director of the board of Ritchie Bros., based in Burnaby, B.C. in Canada. Previously, he was CEO of OfficeMax, and served in executive positions with global food services company Aramark as well as held various roles at InterContinental Hotels Group. He has an MBA from the University of Michigan and an electrical engineering degree from Bangalore University.
What is your “backstory”?
I was born in New Delhi but grew up in Bangalore. I was an avid reader, particularly of spy and mystery novels. My goal in life: be a best-selling novelist. I wrote a book, Why be a Sucker, when I was 15, which was promptly rejected by 15 publishers. Given my short and unsuccessful, career as a novelist, and at the urging of my family, I turned down an opportunity to go to school for an English degree and earned a degree in electrical engineering at Bangalore University instead. I then came to the U.S. My aunt took out a loan to pay for my MBA at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, my father passed away shortly after I came to the U.S., and as the eldest son, I felt pressure to return to India to take care of my family. My mother was strong. She told me that it was my destiny to stay in America. Without her strength and support, I would not be where I am today.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I first joined Ritchie Bros., I did not know the difference between a 1.4 million pound mining dump truck and an ordinary bulldozer! That changed shortly after I started when I was visiting Volvo’s North American headquarters. We were in a huge tech facility that imitated hills and rocky terrain, and I was given the keys to a 30 foot long articulated dump truck, which is used to haul very large loads through uneven ground. Having never driven anything larger than an SUV, I was terrified to get behind the wheel of this enormous, brand new and very expensive piece of equipment. I tried to look nonchalant, but I was shaking like an Aspen leaf while making it up and down the hill with the help of a very kind Volvo employee. It was an exhilarating experience. I’m happy to say we all made it back safely, and I showed a picture of the experience at our next employee town hall meeting. Everyone said, “OK Saligram, not bad!” It gave me some instant street cred.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
So much of Ritchie Bros.’ core DNA is centered on customer relationships. Our founder, Dave Ritchie said, “Make a customer a friend and they’ll be a customer for life.” But as a company that’s 60 years old, we also want to be on the leading edge. I mean that in the sense of technology, as well as our people and service. I am very proud that in a male-dominated industry, we are striving for and making huge advancements in gender diversity. You’ll see this progress when you meet our CFO, CIO and head of brand marketing — who are all women.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Create a purpose for the company, a tie that binds. It must be something that connects with people emotionally and can resonate across every level of the organization. Importantly, the purpose should galvanize employees to make a difference.
When I started as CEO of OfficeMax, we found the front line employees were not highly engaged given industry headwinds. So, we worked to define our purpose, and developed a platform that focused on adding value to small businesses — which unified employees and gave us drive. It was all about how when we help small businesses, we help America grow. It demonstrated that not only were we in this business to help customers, but we were in it to help the country. It created great pride across the organization with 80 percent of employees saying they were proud to be a part of the company and helped turn things around.
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?
I’m grateful for a supportive family. It really started with my grandfather who first encouraged me to come to the U.S. But it goes far beyond that. My aunt supported my education, and my mother encouraged me to stay in the U.S. when others were asking for me to come back home. But it’s my wife who is my backbone and has been my key success factor. She could have been a CEO, had we not moved and lived in five different countries over the past three decades. Now, I couldn’t be more proud of her as she is the founder of Argoya World, a successful non-profit changing lives in India.
Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?
Work is my passion, so I find that work and life merge together constantly. My family is very aware of this and supportive. But they also know that I fervently believe family comes first. I would any day chose having dinner with my daughters and give up a game of golf. When I have time off, I spend it with them. They help me recharge my batteries and stay grounded.
Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?
Compartmentalizing and having intense concentration at work is something I learned from Aramark CEO, Joe Neubauer. I try to maintain an intense focus and always be in the moment when I’m at work. I balance that by being intense about the things I truly enjoy in my personal life as well, such as being an audiophile, traveling with my family or going to the theater.
Who were some of your mentors that exemplified work/life balance?
I had the opportunity to work with Beth Pritchard, when she was a VP at SC Johnson, and later grew to lead many well-known companies, including Bath & Body Works. Beth never agreed to a meeting on the weekends because weekend time was for family. I found that to be a very focused and admirable distinction. When it comes to emergencies or sickness, it’s important for employees to know that they have compassionate leadership at the top who appreciate that health and family are always a priority.
What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride?
Professionally, I find it incredibly meaningful and satisfying to see employees with great potential — those who are creative and innovative — flourish, develop and get promoted. As part of that, I take great pride when the company on a whole is recognized. It’s a definitive reflection back to the team that the work they do matters. And the results are made external as in all of my past positions, in different parts of the world, my companies have been recognized for our employee efforts, including Office Max being recognized as one of the most Ethical Companies in the world.
On a personal basis, it’s when I see my children succeed in their passions. One of my daughters, Naina, is earning her PhD at Yale and anonymously publishing an anthology of essays, selflessly doing the work; while my other daughter, Sunita is taking a bold step away from her career to pursue her master’s degree at Harvard Kennedy School. They inspire me every day.
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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
Clint Eastwood. He epitomizes a sense of America that I truly appreciate and admire. He is incredibly talented and so different from who I am. It would be a novel experience to meet someone that accomplished and in such a different circle from the business world I know so well.
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Originally published at medium.com