Road Map to the CEO

Consulting is all about incredibly rational, logical people – really smart people who are driven and persuaded by the argument, by facts. The real world isn’t like that.

Gary Matthews, Managing Director and Operating Partner at Morgan Stanley Private Equity, should know. The real world is something he has learned to negotiate with remarkable success. He sat down with us to talk about his consulting experience at McKinsey, the pitfalls of moving into corporate management, and the keys to his post-consulting rise to CEO and beyond.

Gary Matthews knew early on in life that he wanted to be a management consultant, and he planned his career accordingly. After graduating from Princeton in 1980, he spent four years in an “academy” company – Procter & Gamble – where he honed his skills in their brand management development program. Procter & Gamble, like investment banking and management consulting firms, provided an excellent training ground for a future attendee of a top business school.

Matthews attended Harvard Business School, where he graduated with his MBA in 1986. He spent the next five years at McKinsey & Company, working with several consumer goods companies and doing strategy work for non-packaged goods clients. This strategy of diversification has served him well in his career after consulting, and he does not necessarily recommend developing a specialization as a consultant, “unless you love telecom, or oil and gas, or banking, and you see yourself going into that industry.”

“I probably had 10 or 11 clients in my five years at McKinsey. Now as a manager, I am less intrigued by somebody who specialized and stayed with the same client for a year to 18 months. If you’re in your first five years [in management consulting], you’re better off with a broad range of experience and clients. You may decide you want to become Partner, and then you’ll need to have that big client or two and stay with them, but up until then it’s like college. If you had to give a freshman advice, you’d say, ‘Take a bunch of courses and don’t worry about deciding on a major until you have to as a junior.’”

Matthews knew by his “junior year” (three years into his consulting career) that if he intended to become a CEO, he was not going to stay on the Partner track, so he began to look around for a company that could help him put the next solid building block of his career into place. “If you’re two, three, four years into consulting and you’re thinking about management, hook up at the end of your consulting career with a great company that hires consultants and therefore appreciates the value of consultants, and find a mentor within that situation. It doesn’t matter if you go into finance, marketing, or manufacturing – what matters is that it’s a great company that appreciates its employees.””

“I think you’re more likely to get these points satisfied at a large company,” he continues. “Large companies with great reputations are more likely to hire consultants, and you’re more likely to get good training and to find a great mentor. Could you find a small company that meets those requirements? It’s possible, but it’s a higher risk because there’s no steady career progression. Small companies deal with a whole different set of issues and require a very different skill set, which people should realize – it’s another step further removed from the McKinsey client.”

Matthews chose to take a role as Vice President of Marketing at Pepsi Cola International. When Pepsi sold off its Wine and Spirits Division, he moved into a Vice President of Corporate Strategic Planning role, which gave him an overview of the company and punched his ticket for a more meaningful role within it – Vice President of Marketing at Frito Lay, one of the company’s most successful businesses.

“One of the biggest challenges consulting people have,” he says, “is bridging the gap from being able to diagnose and develop a plan for a business to actually implementing it. One of the lessons I learned at Pepsi was that having a great plan is only half the battle – if you don’t implement it, it doesn’t make any difference. McKinsey teaches you to solve the problem and win the minds of people; what Pepsi taught me was how to win their hearts and bellies.”

With a foundation in marketing at P&G and problem-solving at McKinsey, Matthews gained additional marketing and planning experience at Pepsi, but had no specific operations, human resources, or large scale management background. He was able, however, to convert his exceptional functional experience into a line role, and was tapped to run Guinness Import Company in Stamford, CT. After a successful tenure there, he became CEO of Guinness U.K., the first American ever to hold the position.

Having made it to the top, Matthews found the challenges as CEO new and vast. “There was a lot of learning on the job,” he says. “But the successful general managers, by definition, can’t be good at everything. They have two or three significant strengths they can leverage – marketing, strategy, R&D, finance, operations – and then if they’re going to be really successful, they find business situations where those strengths are the key success makers. In my case, marketing and strategy skills were particularly useful at Pepsi, Guinness, Bristol-Myers, and Sleep Innovations. They might have been less visible if I was running a distributorship, or if these had been manufacturing or cost-driven organizations, so part of it is knowing your skills and matching them with industries or companies in need of those skills. Then you work on covering your blind spots by bringing in phenomenal people to shore up those positions. You create your team, because you can’t spend your life being someone you’re not.”

Another CEO position with major dot-com era incentives at the Derby Cycle Corporation, the world’s largest branded bicycle manufacturer, led to his next position at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where as President of Worldwide Consumer Medicines he drew from the range of skills he has honed throughout his career, from consulting to CEO. There are many factors that make up success, but “patience” and “people” were the two words that came up again and again throughout our conversation:

“It’s all about people,” he says. “It’s all about winning their bellies and collecting a great team. Coming out of McKinsey, you realize that not everybody’s brilliant, not everybody has a great skill set, and not everybody has a great attitude – so finding those people who share your values is incredibly important. As a manager, this becomes your greatest challenge, so it’s essential to find a recruiter who gets to know your standards and who can add value over the years.”