Leaders in Business Summit probes hot topics for today’s top managers

Slow economic recovery requires patience and leadership

Black swans, green coal and a blueprint to reduce uncertainty were just a few of the topics discussed during the second annual Leaders in Business Summit Sept. 28 hosted by Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis and Deloitte & Touche.

Over 100 executives participated in the daylong dialogue at the Charles F. Knight Center on the campus of Washington University with CEOs and top officials from industry leaders such as Ameren, AT&T, Edward Jones, Energizer Holdings, Monsanto, Peabody Energy and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Panel discussions moderated by Olin Business School faculty covered topics from corporate social responsibility and sustainability to strategies used by companies to navigate the volatile economy of the past two years.

James Bullard, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, shared recent data and insights on the continued United States economic recovery. Each panel presentation was followed by a lively exchange with audience members.

James Bullard, PhD, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, presented historical and current data to compare recent recessions and demonstrate his point that recoveries are not always smooth.

“We are very pleased to see so many business leaders participating in our second annual summit,” said Mahendra R. Gupta, PhD, dean and the Geraldine J. and Robert L. Virgil Professor of Accounting and Management. “There is a wealth of knowledge and experience that top managers and our faculty can share, debate and discuss with each other here in the spirit of learning and responding to the challenges businesses face today. It also creates an invigorating learning experience to our students, the business leaders of tomorrow.”

Bullard, an international leader in monetary policy research, shared a cautiously optimistic outlook for the economy. Bullard emphasized that while the outlook for the U.S. economy has been downgraded, it is still positive and the international sector continues to be very strong. Bullard called for an expedited blueprint of how financial reform will be implemented. He said this would help reduce uncertainty in the economy and the financial industry, which is holding back investment in the U.S.

Dealing with the uncertainty and the unknowns in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 was the topic of a lively discussion led by James Little, PhD, the Donald Danforth, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Business, with Ward Klein, CEO Energizer Holdings; Mike McCarthy, interim CEO of St. Louis Blues Enterprises; and James Weddle, managing partner of Edward Jones. The leaders shared how their consumer-driven companies responded to the financial crisis and the lessons learned from managing through such a rare and unexpected event referred to as a “black swan”.

“Deloitte is proud to co-sponsor this summit and the candid exchange of ideas and data from our region’s business leaders and policy makers,” said Rodney Kinzinger, managing partner of St. Louis Deloitte & Touche. “The summit allows us to pause and take stock. While we all recognize the economic recovery has a long way to go, I sensed a great deal of optimism among the participants. Good managers are looking ahead, they aren’t hunkering down in recession mode, they’re figuring out what the new normal is going to be and recalibrating.”

Ward Klein, CEO of Energizer Holdings, said his company made cuts to its advertising and marketing budget in response to the financial crisis in 2008, but left its research and development budget intact.

Frederick Palmer, senior vice president of government relations at Peabody Energy and Thomas Voss, chairman, president and CEO of Ameren, discussed the need for a national energy policy and continued research in the area of green coal. Both companies are heavily invested in finding methods of converting coal to energy in a cleaner and more efficient process. Jackson Nickerson, PhD, the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy, was the moderator.

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton also addressed the gathering on the topic of sustainable, green energy and the university’s role in the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. The consortium’s mission is to be a resource to industry for the advancement of technologies that foster clean utilization of coal by creating an international partnership between universities, industries, foundations, and government organizations.

Olin MBA students were invited to attend the summit and pose questions to the panelists. When discussion turned to sustainable practices, Javier de Trinidad, MBA ’11, asked if corporations were in danger of leveraging the “sustainability” trend in marketing and messages to the public without actually being committed to the practice. Jeffry Quinn, chairman and CEO of Solutia, said there is not a conflict between sustainable practices and growth and many advantages to adopting environmental, economic and social sustainability policies.

Jon Furst

Members of the Olin MBA class of 2011 attended the Summit to participate in the exchange of ideas and strategies with company executives.

Charlene Lake, senior vice president public affairs and chief sustainability officer at AT&T, echoed other panelists when she said, “We don’t have to choose between sustainability and growth. We can profit from sustainable efforts like introducing more fuel efficient vehicles into our fleet.”

James Kavanaugh, CEO of World Wide Technology, and Ralph Scozzafava, chairman and CEO of Furniture Brands International, also participated on the “Sustainability in a Global Environment” panel moderated by Judi McLean Parks, PhD, the Reuben C. and Anne Carpenter Taylor Professor of Organizational Behavior.

Carl Casale, executive vice president and CFO of Monsanto, told the gathering that, “you can do well while doing good,” in a presentation on corporate social responsibility. Monsanto initiatives in India and Africa were described as an alignment of economic interests where collaboration on applying new technologies to traditional agricultural practices benefits all parties in the end. Jeffry Black, senior partner and board member at Deloitte, moderated this session.

The St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association sponsored the lunch, which featured an address by renowned pollster John Zogby, founder, chairman and chief insights officer of Zogby International. Zogby provided the latest poll results on the midterm elections. Like the economy, he admitted that this year’s elections carry a great deal of uncertainty and that he would not venture to predict the outcome.