Matt Gonring

The light bulb went on for me when I was a sophomore in college at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. I was fortunate enough to have a Professor (we still connect today) who was deeply interested in the development of his students and was passionate about communications. He saw potential in me and thought I’d be good in public relations. He, along with the University Chancellor (a Communications doctorate who later became Wisconsin State governor) gave me confidence and insight and I decided to pursue an advanced degree. My goal early on was to be running the function at a large corporation as quickly as I possibly could.

At that time, there were a handful of graduate institutions offering advanced degrees in PR and I chose American University as I thought what better environment than the Nation’s Capital to learn about public relations. I quickly realized I was a traditional student in a non-traditional program and the youngest in a group of experienced professionals. Nonetheless, it was a challenge and a wonderful learning environment and I also gained substantial residency experiences at both the US-EPA and Carl Byior  Associates (a leading PR firm) while in Washington.

At the time I was entering the professional field it became clear that working for the news media was almost a prerequisite to break into PR. I guess it gave employers the confidence we could write but it was also a narrow view. I broke through that ceiling by working first in local government and quickly decided I’d much prefer the corporate surroundings. My first gig with The Metropolitan Waste Control Commission in St. Paul gave me wonderful experience quickly as I was running the department and dealing with hazardous waste and substantial environmental issues requiring grass roots community campaigns.

Northwest Airlines recruited me to the then 2 person PR shop and I quickly had to navigate the broad spectrum of PR from pasting up the employee newsletter “Passages” to speaking with Wall Street analysts, testifying before state senate taxation committees and of course, the news media. It was here where I cut my teeth in handling tough issues and learning the ropes in terms of relationships and messages and risk. As one can imagine, there are few businesses with as much robust interest in the press as the airline industry. I spent nearly 6 years growing up at NWA. While we never had a substantial accident, we had everything from labor stoppages to hijackings, etc. I remember coming into work through the IAM picket line and a brick landed on my lap through the side window! I gained other relevant experience during that strike as I filled in fixing ground equipment (I was a good welder and had mechanical instincts) and during the flight attendant strike I worked flights from NYC to MSP.

My positive working relationships with the press resulted in me being recruited to United Airlines as Northwest was beating up on United in its hometown media, The Chicago Tribune. I was recruited by Kurt Stocker, a progressive SVP with an eye toward seeing communications implications broadly and a wonderful rapport with CEO’s. During the brief two year stint at United we acquired Hertz, Westin, and Hilton International and tried to acquire Frontier. I was the head of external communications and the spokesperson and I ran hard and enjoyed it. It was a great baptism by fire, but then the Wall Street leverage mania came into play and first it was the pilots, then Coniston Partners and three CEO’s later I was recruited to USG who needed someone with my skills and was also fighting a hostile takeover. The chance to run the function at a Fortune 500 corporation at the then ripe age of 33 was too good to pass up.

I spent 10 years at USG taking the function from a director level to a VP and a member of USG’s senior management team with accountability for marketing and communications. We went through a highly leveraged period after successfully fending off the hostile takeover eventually resulting in a pre-packaged bankruptcy filing (one of the fastest – 37 days and largest $6 billion ever at the time). I worked for 3 CEO’s and they were all great but one in particular stood out, my best boss ever was Eugene B. Connolly. We had a wonderful rapport and I respected him more than any of the 15 CEO’s I’ve worked under. He was from an area in NYC called Hell’s Kitchen and he essentially trusted my judgment and listened to my advice. Hopefully everyone has the chance to work for someone like Gene during their career as he set the standard for what a great CEO can do.

After my 10 year run I was recruited to Arthur Andersen to run both marketing and communications for the global partnership and reported to the CEO and was a member of the 17 person leadership team. The challenges were real from earnings restatements to implementing a global integrated marketing function to building out a team and dealing with the debacle between Andersen Consulting and Arthur Andersen. I had nearly 4 years at Andersen and somewhat fortuitously left just prior to Enron! I was recruited by Baxter International to run Corporate and Marketing Communications. Baxter said they wanted a change agent and in spite of the short-lived tenure of the 3 executives preceding me, I did my due diligence and moved forward in accepting the gig. While I really enjoyed the company and the business, it wasn’t before too long that it became clear that it was hard to “break in” at Baxter and that its insular nature was going to make it tough to succeed over the longer term. A few other members of senior leadership and I that were recruited from the outside quickly bonded as we found similar challenges finding our way. I left after a year and 9/11 occurred at the same time so I decided to try my hand at consulting while kicking tires in the marketplace.

I was never an entrepreneur by choice, but the consulting experience confirmed for me that not only was I good at it; I could thrive and be successful. In a few short months I had 7 global corporate clients and a full time graduate student working for me (I’d been teaching on the graduate level as an adjunct professor at Northwestern since 1992).  It was gratifying but when I was recruited to run Marketing and Communications for now Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation I found the allure of building a team and running a global function too good to pass up. It was a special time at Rockwell and I had a nearly 5 year run and was really proud of my team accomplishments. We established a Customer Loyalty Index that lead to creation to a customer experience center and defined the brand and repositioned the marketing efforts. It was a great run (stock went from 15 when I joined to 73 when I left) and it became clear we had taken the role as far as we could and it was time to move on and try my hand at consulting.

I opted to join an old colleague Maril MacDonald in her boutique management consultancy specializing in strategy execution, change management and employee engagement. It’s an area of growth that I became passionate about throughout my career, even teaching it at NWU. I’ve been at it for over 2 years now and we have a great client roster of global clients. Consulting affords a degree of variety and while I miss building teams and some of the power, control and authority that comes from being on the inside, I’ve found that at this point in my career my ability to see interrelationships broadly and combine my considerable broad frame of reference uniquely positions me to bring value to clients. Maril enlisted me and others help in building out the team and the business and we’ve had great success. Gagen MacDonald has a great brand, a special and capable team to work with and it has been a great experience to date. (After serving in CCO roles at Pactiv Corporation and Jackson Insurance, Matt currently is a consultant and Graduate Professor at George Washington University).

I guess this wraps up my Culpwrit posting. I hope you’ve enjoyed my career musings. In summary after working for 15 CEO’s over a 30 year career probably one of the most important things I’ve learned is to “conduct myself in a manner in which others around me want me to succeed.” It’s a moniker I’ve learned to live by and I continue to gain my greatest satisfaction through seeing others grow and learn and do well. While it’s a challenge to become individually excellent, it’s a far greater achievement to see others do well as a consequence of your relationship. Whether it’s the corporate teams I’ve been fortunate to be a part of building or the students I’ve been fortunate enough to teach, it’s always most gratifying to see them realize their dreams. I’ve found that in doing so, I realize mine.

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