Bob Chapman

Bob Chapman (MBA ‘68) was recently named the #3 CEO in the world by Inc. and a Top Social Capital CEO by the International Business Times.  As Chairman and CEO of $3.5 billion global capital equipment and consulting firm Barry-Wehmiller, Chapman is showing what’s possible at the intersection of great business strategy and profound care for people.  It’s the message of his 2015 Wall Street Journal bestseller Everybody Matters, his “Truly Human Leadership” TEDxTalk and a Harvard Business School case study that is used by 70 universities around the world. We caught up with Bob around the end of August 2022 and asked him questions, not only about leadership, but navigating through tough times.

For our readers, can you describe generally what the Barry-Wehmiller companies are involved in.

Barry-Wehmiller is a $3.5 Billion global organization with 12,000 team members in our span of care. Our business is an intentional design of capital equipment and consulting with a healthy “balance” of products, markets and customers. I began my business journey with a tradition business education in accounting from IU and then my MBA from U-M and entered the business world with Price Waterhouse. I was asked by my father to join Barry-Wehmiller in 1969 after two years in public accounting, and I had the opportunity to work with my father in Barry-Wehmiller — a business he was President of and owned controlling interest — before he suddenly died in 1975. Our company had been around for almost 100 years at that time, and our business was concentrated in products with a limited future, and we were in a very fragile financial condition. The challenge to transform the business to one with a future had some real challenging moments over the first 15 years, but it survived my mistakes; those learnings shaped my skills and resulted in a vision of a business with a ‘balance’ of markets and products. After many challenging years, we had the opportunity in 1988, after spinning off 2/3’s of the company on a very successful London IPO, to begin again as a $20 million business, with our historic product lines struggling and therefore, not part of the IPO.

We are who we are today through disciplined acquisitions of 120 companies, combined with organic growth. While private, our market-simulated share price has risen 15% in compounded growth since executing our new business vision, far exceeding our original vision of $100 million. Today, Barry-Wehmiller is well positioned with talent, technology, and a proven robust business model to grow with less dependence on acquisitions and more confidence in focused, organic growth opportunities.

One might not expect a manufacturing company to be the source of a kinder, gentler leadership style. What was the spark that led you to move this company to a “truly human” approach to workers and your community at large?

The “spark,” or as I say the “revelation,” was at a wedding about 20 years ago. In the midst of the joy of a young couple’s wedding, I experienced a transformative vision that our global team were not functions for my success, but they were all someone’s precious child. I realized that the way we lead them would have a profound impact on their health, marriage and relationship with their kids. It was a complete reversal of the way my business education and experience had taught me.  When you see your people as your purpose rather than just as skills used to raise the share price or create your own wealth, it changes everything. Our people are our product. I will not leave this Earth proud of the equipment we built but proud of the people that designed and built it. Through this revelation and others, I realized that business could be the most powerful force for good in the world — given that we have people in our care for 40 hours a week — if we simply have the courage and skills to care for those we have the privilege to lead. I realized that my primary responsibility was to give those stakeholders in our span of care a grounded sense of hope for the future, so they could feel safe and valued. This transformation became the subject of my TedX talk at Scott Air Force Base and the message of my book, Everybody Matters. It also became a Harvard University case study that has become a best seller, used by 70 universities today around the world. If Truly Human Leadership can happen in an industrial manufacturing company, it can work in any company. 

What is your main purpose in writing the book Everybody Matters?

Well, we want to spread our message that business can be a powerful force for good if we simply learn the skills of caring for others. We want people to see that if Truly Human Leadership can happen in an industrial manufacturing company, it can work in any company. Several years ago, I had lunch with Simon Sinek (speaker, author of Start With Why, Leaders Eat Last) where I told him about what we were doing in our companies and he didn’t believe what he heard. I invited him to visit with our people and he was shocked. He then said he was no longer a “nutty idealist” because if it exists it must be possible. He stated it is the world ‘he imagines’.  He started bringing in powerful thought leaders to experience what he had experienced to further validate the principles of ‘truly human leadership.  Finally, one of our guests who had been a contributing editor to a major business magazine said to me that he had interviewed hundreds of CEOs but had never seen anything like what he experienced when he met with our people. He told me, “You have to share this with the world.” We were approached by Penguin/ Random House to write a book and I was fortunate that Raj Sisodia, the co-author of Conscious Capitalism, also said that this was a message the world needed to hear. Raj decided to co-author our book as well. A typical business book sells 5,000 to 10,000, but Everybody Matters has now sold over 80,000 copies sold around the world and has been translated into seven languages.

You have said that your business school education back in the 70s was all about shareholder value and personal career path. Where did you pick up your inventive leadership ideas? 

Upon reflection, I always thought it was about my success, which was defined as money, power and position. I didn’t feel the profound sense of commitment to the people that I would have the privilege to lead. And I don’t remember being taught the importance of a good and balanced business model design that could support and foster care for the people within the business. When I experienced the revelations described above and knew that my purpose was giving those in my care a future and sense of fulfillment, my head and heart were aligned. My transformation from management which is me-focused to leadership which is about a we-focus clearly has created a message that is resonating around the world. I have talked to groups in global business, education, nonprofits, health care and the military.  

What are the challenges your approach to people-centric leadership has faced during the Covid-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has not been as much of a test for our company as the 2008-2009 global economic crisis was, when traditional business models failed and resulted in layoffs and share price decline. Our business model performed with a 11% increase in share price without letting anyone go.

During this extended COVID pandemic, we were able to care for our stakeholders — physically and financially — and, in fact, we saw considerable organic growth because of the diverse markets we serve. Again, the foundation of Truly Human Leadership is a well-designed business model that gives your stakeholders a grounded sense of hope for the future. I always say it is not about getting the right people on the bus as it is to design a safe bus (which is the business model) and then having drivers (leaders) who know where they are going and how to drive the bus safely. Then anyone who gets on the bus will be safe!

Your company’s Guiding Principles of Leadership took lean leadership and moved it from some of its negative connotations toward an affirmative approach. What was the key difference in thinking?

I met with a number of the early Lean adopters, and it quickly became evident that for many the application of Lean tools was primarily about the “elimination of waste” or profit improvement and not about human flourishing, as we had been told. We quickly adjusted and adapted the purpose of Lean to something that empowered our people, with the hope of reducing frustration in their day to day. The foundation of that was to simply listen to our team members. We asked our people to contribute their ideas and gave them the ability to affect their everyday experience and go home at night feeling valued or heard. Then when we asked them how it made them feel. They told us it was the first time anyone had ever asked them what they thought. And the amazing response was that they said it improved their family life, as they felt respected and valued for the first time rather than used for financial or organizational purposes. I suggested at my talks to Lean audiences that they should have named it LISTEN, for the cultural impact of asking our team members to embrace continuous improvement to create a better future for their colleagues.  

Listening seems to be an important component in what you’ve done at Barry-Wehmiller.

Listening to understand and validate, not to judge and argue. This is the greatest of all leadership skills in our business, home and communities. Think about most educational curricula. They teach speech and debate, but the most important of all communication skills is empathetic listening. This is very rarely taught or even considered. Therefore, we have a society where we debate, argue and judge, but we don’t know how to understand or validate others’ views. Listening isn’t doing nothing; it’s doing something — and it’s something very active and specific — in service to others.

Many years ago, we instituted a communications skills class we call “Listen Like a Leader” in our company’s internal university. It is a human skill that that is critically needed in all aspects of leadership. And in our experience at Barry-Wehmiller, it is the one skill that has truly changed the lives of the people within our span of care. Everyone wants to know that who they are and what they do matters, and empathetic listening helps to validate that.

The evolution of our thinking that created what we now call “Truly Human Leadership” was also shaped by my wife Cynthia and me, raising our six children. We learned that you need to compliment your kids five times more than you suggest things they could do better. So, in addition to the foundational skills of empathetic listening, we also place emphasis on teaching the skills of recognition and celebration throughout Barry-Wehmiller, which are skills that let people know they matter in timely and appropriate ways. We found that adults are exactly the same as our youth —  they simply want to know they matter — and that when thoughtful recognition is part of your leadership DNA, you dramatically impact caring in the organization, and we have found that caring is contagious. 95% of the feedback we get from our internal university teaching is how it improves our team members’ marriages and relationships with their children. On the other hand, if we send people home feeling used, then it is hard for them to put those feelings aside and be loving spouses and parents.

Do you see potential ideological connections between your Chapman Leadership Institute and the Center for Positive Organizations, founded at Ross?

The Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute was created to share our message to help companies understand and incorporate Truly Human Leadership in their own businesses. We want to create a movement to heal the poverty of dignity that is created when the vast majority of people working feel they work for an organization that does not care about them. But you can’t just tell leaders to care, you have to teach them the skills of caring.  Chapman & Co. is focused on going into organizations that believe what we believe,  to help them embrace these leadership lessons. Our hope is that educational institutions like the Center for Positive Organizations help teach leaders to care before they enter the workplace. We are currently involved in an initiative with Fordham University to establish an educational certification process for caring, or humanistic, leaders. So, students go into the workplace already having been taught the skills to care for those they will have the privilege to lead. The nonprofit my wife and I started, Chapman Foundation for Caring Communities, is working in community organizations — fire and police departments, primary education — to teach these same skills.

You’ve used the phrase “poverty of dignity” in your recent speeches and writings. What do you mean by that?

That was a phrase that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times once used in an editorial. He said, “Humiliation, in my view, is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations. The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money. People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you make people feel humiliated, they will respond with a ferocity unlike any other emotion, or just refuse to lift a finger for you.” As I have grown increasingly aware of the issues we face in all parts of our society, it has become apparent to me that Tom’s ‘poverty of dignity’ is what I am seeing, and the vaccine for this issue is teaching our future and current leaders the skills and courage to care for those they have the privilege to lead.

In 2016, you won Industry Week‘s Industry Excellence Award for leadership. What did that award signify to you?

The external recognitions we have received from an award such as that and other recognitions from publications such as Inc., CEO Magazine, Forbes and other magazines as well as the HBR case study, show that what we are doing is not the norm and there is a hunger for our message. We have been on this journey and the validation of our message of ‘caring’ in the views of the TedX talk, the 80,000 book sales and the engagements of Chapman & CO have transformed this into a ‘calling’ to address this ‘poverty of dignity’ that we see in every part of the world where we share our message.

Do you have any advice for current students aiming to make a career in business management? 

First, let’s call it “business leadership.” Name one person in your life that wants to be managed.  People want leaders, coaches and mentors that genuinely care for them.  When I have had the opportunity to present our message to business students, it has been extremely well received. It brings a higher calling to today’s students who came from homes and parents, came home from their jobs, not feeling valued. What our business schools need is to refresh their vision for the time they have these students in their care. They should look at the transformation journey they are inviting these students to experience, and share with them a curriculum that weaves human skills with professional skills to create tomorrow’s leaders.  

The way in which we lead impacts that way people live. Moving from “management” to “leadership” is the key to bring about a world where people feel valued, cared for, and therefore care for others. As I said earlier, when we use people for our organizational goals, we are destroying their dignity and sending them home broken. Yet, most organizations feel that by giving people good wages or a good salary and benefits, we are meeting the goals of society, which seems to have a foundation of wealth equals happiness. Until our leaders are taught how to care for those they have the privilege to lead, we are going to continue to see the brokenness in our families, communities and country caused not by the poverty of money, but the poverty of dignity!