HBM Holdings CEO to UVA Darden Students: Learn Leadership From Those You Meet Along the Way
By Dave Hendrick
HBM Holdings CEO Michael DeCola (MBA ’77) has a keen memory for the people who helped him ascend to the top levels of American business.
The Italian immigrant grandparents who largely raised him in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. The golf course manager who let him go after a single month into his first job at the age of 14, and the restauranteur who took him under his wing shortly thereafter.
The 13 bosses he worked for over the course of his career, some excellent, some lousy — each valuable.
“If you have a bad boss, it’s still a learning opportunity,” DeCola told Darden students 6 October at a Leadership Speaker Series event. “Take away the things that you will never do as leader.”
Each person or persons, through their actions, influenced DeCola and helped shape his leadership philosophy as he rose into positions of increasing stature in the corporate world.
Today, as the head of a diversified holding company with interests in a variety of industries, DeCola deemed himself “the luckiest person in the world” to be afforded the opportunity to put his accumulated skills and knowledge into service for his shareholders and stakeholders.
Following his time at Darden, DeCola joined the chemical company FMC Corp., holding various planning and marketing positions while rising to the position of general manager of the company’s pharmaceutical division.
DeCola left FMC in 1999 to take the CEO position at Mississippi Lime, a family-held industrial company focused on the extraction, refinement and sale of calcium-based products.
Upon taking the new position, DeCola said he realized quickly he had stepped into a company with serious deficiencies. Equipment was outdated, revenue and sales per employee had flatlined, and profits were headed in the wrong direction.
Despite being relatively new in the top spot, DeCola drew up a plan — dubbed Project Phoenix — intended to modernize the company and jumpstart momentum.
With buy-in from his board, DeCola and his team invested heavily in the company to bring equipment and technology up to date. They repositioned themselves and their products in the market, and let some of their worst customers defect to competitors.
The team put a strong focus on talent acquisition, and began changing a top-down leadership culture to one where employees felt empowered to act and managers who had been acting like “cops” began acting like “coaches.”
The company also put a laser-like focus on safety in what can be a dangerous line of work.
Slowly but steadily, the company regained its footing. Then it climbed higher.
Although DeCola was righting a specific company under unique circumstances, he took away some universal lessons, including:
- Identify critical issues and prioritize them, both for the short and long term.
- Shore up the foundation and then look for growth.
- Listen to customers and employees.
- Communicate with shareholders and stakeholders frequently and honestly.
- Understand your limitations, but sometimes ignore them.
DeCola made clear that these tactics were not executed overnight, but along a measured and deliberate timetable.
Despite the successes, DeCola and his leadership team in 2011 began planning for a potentially less rosy future, as new environmental regulations, customers moving overseas and a generally slow-growth industry suggested the need to diversify.
HBM Holdings was formed as a risk-management and diversification strategy, maintaining Mississippi Lime but also strategically acquiring additional industrial companies and investing in others.
DeCola, now the CEO of HBM as well as Mississippi Lime, attributed his successes in large part to the people who helped shaped him, instilling a work ethic and a desire to make organizations and teams better.
Although an accomplished leader, DeCola said he is not a perfect one, and critically, recognizes that distinction and seeks to surround himself with people to complement his weaknesses.
“It’s really important that you know who you are,” DeCola said. “People who are effective leaders usually have a refined understanding of who they are. I know what my idiosyncrasies are, and I tell people.”
Demonstrating his longstanding commitment to Darden, the HBM CEO, who recently received the 2015 Raven Award from UVA’s Raven Society for contributions to his community and UVA, also had one very specific piece of advice for current students.
“Every one of you here is given the opportunity to get a degree from a great institution because you’re standing on the shoulders of those who went before you,” DeCola said. “The fact that alumni have donated funds to this school to support the infrastructure, to support faculty salaries and support the great things this University does is really important. So, when you leave here, I want all of you to participate in the Annual Fund, and when you are rich and successful I want you to give big gifts back to the School.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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