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Cerius Journeys: Meet Chuck DuBois

Denise Montgomery: Welcome to Cerius Journeys, where we discuss stories, circumstances and career paths that have led executives to careers in which they help organizations on a part-time fractional interim basis with challenges and circumstances that require sharpshooters.  I’m Denise Montgomery. Today’s guest is Chuck DuBois, and he is a CEO who works in scientific instrumentation and medical fields. Hi, Chuck.

Chuck DuBois: Hey, Denise, how are you today? 

Denise Montgomery: I’m great. If we could get a quick hi, who are you, where are you from? You in your own words, we’d appreciate that. 

Chuck DuBois: Sure, I’m a senior-level executive that works with companies and helps them grow in really short order. Currently, I’m working with a private equity group, looking to build a business in industrial technologies.

My background includes leading companies around the world [00:01:00] for a British trading company. I think I’ve chaired 22 different companies in the course of my career. 

Denise Montgomery: 22 different companies in the course of your career is how many years? 

Chuck DuBois: I’ve worked for a long period of time. For the last organization, I started in 1999 and left them toward the end of 2018.

Denise Montgomery: So 22 organizations in 20 years sounds to me as if you’ve been essentially functioning as a fractional leader for the majority of your career already. 

Chuck DuBois: Yeah. Because when I say that I chaired these companies, it’s really as an executive chairman, and that was really over the last 10 years of that career, from 2008 to 2018 so, basically helping CEOs grow their businesses and leading groups of businesses for anywhere from 6 to 15 businesses at a time. 

Denise Montgomery: Wow. So what that immediately [00:02:00] puts into my head – people younger than me may not remember variety shows – in the 1970s they had people who ran around stages, spinning plates. And so I picture you at the highest level of organizations keeping all the plates spinning, trying to make sure they don’t crash to the floor.

Chuck DuBois: Yup. That’s pretty fair. But it’s a lot of fun and it’s really making sure that you’ve got the right people in place and that at each one of the businesses, you’ve got a proper strategy that they’re trying to execute. 

Denise Montgomery: I completely understand. I want to first ask you, which kinds of organizations, industries, and projects specifically have you really caught fire with in the past couple of decades? 

Chuck DuBois: The types of industries and markets that I’ve worked in have mainly been scientific [00:03:00] instrumentation, science components that go into scientific instrumentation, medical diagnostics.

I’ve done a water test, water treatment, environmental monitoring, so a whole variety of different fields. And basically working with small manufacturing-based businesses, globally. I’ve led companies or chaired companies in Europe and France, in the Netherlands, in the UK, obviously in the US, and I’ve also done work in China, India and Japan.

I actually did an acquisition of a company in China at one point, which was a pretty interesting deal that I did in 2010. So a lot of different areas. So, the types of projects that I’ve worked on acquisitions and integrations of businesses have been in a lot of different areas: mergers of companies, turnarounds, creating and developing management teams, helping lead management teams, leadership change, growth initiatives, setting up new companies, closing companies, you name it. 

I’ve probably had a piece of every type of the business cycle. [00:04:00] I’ve managed through a couple of different crises. So, as we’re talking about the times that we’re sitting in today with the coronavirus, I’ve managed through, first of all, the financial crisis in 2008, 2009, when I was sitting on the executive board of my previous organization in London and then chairing six different businesses for them. And then I was on a management team during the dot-com and 9/11 crisis back at the beginning of the century. So I’ve seen a lot, done a lot. And I’ve got the battle wounds to prove it.

Denise Montgomery: It definitely sounds like it. And as you did mention, we’re recording this in about week three of the now more or less global shutdown because of an outbreak of a virus that is working its way around the globe. So we’re not in normal times. 

There are a couple of kinds of leaders. There are leaders for [00:05:00] normal times when everything’s at a steady state. And then there are leaders for times when things are not normal. And for times when we need to operate according to slightly different rule sets. And those are the kinds of leaders who take us on serious journeys. So, I did want to chat with you a bit about that, but we have to acknowledge what’s going on and we’re all stuck in one spot geographically.

So where are you right now? How are you holding up?

Chuck DuBois: Fine. Currently, I’m in Fairfield County in Connecticut. I have a home here. I have a home in Florida. Unfortunately, I can’t fly between here and there right now. Can’t even drive there without quarantining myself in Florida for a while.

So, I’ve been in this area for over the last 15 years. But I’ve spent most of my life in and around the Northeast of the US, although, while I have had this as my home base, I’ve pretty much been around the world or worked around the world. As I said, I sat on an executive board in London for 10 [00:06:00] years. I’ve chaired companies in Europe. So, I’ve spent a significant amount of time there as well as China, Japan, India, just about everywhere. 

Denise Montgomery: It’s gotta be quite an interesting shift in your point of view from all over to hear right now. But leadership can happen anywhere and under many different circumstances, right?

Chuck DuBois: That is correct. 

Denise Montgomery: Speaking of leadership, one of the other prepared questions that we had for our Cerius Journies question list is: how do you help business owners? In the C suite specifically, what are some of the approaches that you take when you work with organizations? What is the structure and what are some of the insights and deliverables and just general approaches [00:07:00] that you bring to these assignments that you’ve had for the past couple of decades? 

Chuck DuBois: The first thing that I think I can help a company with is really getting a 20,000-foot view of what’s going on around them.

So, we all know when we’re running a business, and particularly when you’re running a business in a crisis, period, you get very focused on exactly what’s in front of you. And it’s not just a crisis, like a Coronavirus. The crisis could be a quality crisis within an organization. Could be a customer crisis, could be a supply crisis, could be an employee crisis.

You get very focused on “how do I resolve that issue now,” and with my background, I can really help take somebody in and take a group and say, “Okay, I understand that we’ve got to deal with that. That’s a very important piece of the business, but now let’s lift ourselves up. What actually is going on around this and what are the types of things that we should be really looking at around this business rather than [00:08:00] just what’s in this business?” and particularly for smaller businesses and clearly businesses under $50 million in revenue, but even businesses under a hundred million dollars.

Oftentimes the CEO is very much put in the position to be as much of a firefighter as a strategist. What I can really do is help them, figure out what the 20,000-foot view is, and therefore what the bigger picture is for investments. The second way that I can help a company is really by helping them do deep dives in different areas.

I’ve worked inside businesses in a variety of different roles, whether it be leading a sales and marketing team, really leading manufacturing operations, plant lean manufacturing, et cetera. I have an MBA in finance. I’ve worked very closely with R&D teams, so really working with the different functions and helping them get a better sense of how they can operate better, how they can improve.

The whole idea of continuous improvement is getting organizations to just [00:09:00] do what they’re doing, but maybe doing it a little bit better. In a lot of cases, it’s stopped doing some of the things they’re doing and focus on the right things. And then the third thing that I can really help them with is making sure that they’ve got the right people in the boat and that the people in the boat are all pulling the oars in the same direction at the same time.

So really helping them figure out what their personnel strategy should be. What people they need, what roles they have to have these people playing, but then fundamentally making sure that they’ve got a very simple strategy that they and their team can execute. And I find that a lot of businesses end up having a much too complex strategy.

So they have a strategy that they think is wonderful and it does all of these different things, and it’s going to get them from here to there. And when they finish this strategy document, they put it on the shelf and they don’t really look at it again. [00:10:00] I find that those documents and that all that effort is wasted because what you’re doing is you’re spending time that ends up being non-value-added.

What I like to do with a business is to ensure that they’ve got a really simple, easy to understand strategy. And one of the things I do with companies when I first start working with them is I ask them to describe to me what their strategy is in three bullet points. And a lot of people can’t do it.

Some can, some don’t. To start, it’s working with them in a lot of cases to figure out what exactly is their strategy in three bullet points. What are they trying to accomplish? How would they try to accomplish it and why are they trying to accomplish it?

Getting that down onto a really simple document is a critical piece for me. And then from that, making sure that they’ve got the [00:11:00] team on the boat that can actually execute that strategy. So 20,000-foot view, deep-dive, simple strategy and personnel to execute the strategy.

Denise Montgomery: I can see that very clearly, and that’s going to lead me very logically right into the next question, which is, can you tell us specifically about one to six companies with whom you have gone through this process from start to finish? What the details in there look like as you went through it and what the outcome was?

Chuck DuBois: I’ll give you a couple of different examples. The first one is the first company that I ever took over and ran as the president of the company. The company manufactured components that went into in-vitro diagnostic equipment. These are clinical chemistry units that are used for blood and bodily fluid analyzing. [00:12:00] So they’re very prevalent in big hospitals or quest diagnostics or places like that. 

We did all of the plumbing for that, whether it was all the tubes and all of the probes and all the different components. When the company I was working for had just acquired the business, the way the organizational structure was when I got there was there were 60 employees: the president and 60 direct reports. There was an organizational structure, but there was no professionalism in the organizational structure. Everybody just ended up working directly with the president. The president was directing every single person in the organization. 

Denise Montgomery: So it was an org chart with one guy at the top and 60 direct reports. 

Chuck DuBois: That’s right. That was the functional organizational chart, right? They had an organizational chart that was different than from that, but it didn’t work.

[00:13:00] So the first thing I had to do was really help develop an organizational structure for that business and figure out what types of roles do they have, what are the types of things they needed to do, and really help them professionalize. And that was hiring and bringing in talent, but it was also looking at the people.

They have some great, great people in the organization and figuring out what they were best at and moving them into the roles where they could best help the company. And sometimes it was completely different roles from what they were in previously. And so it was just really figuring out their talent set and what the company needed.

They had product development in a lot of different areas and they were going after these projects because the owner thought of great ideas, but there was no marketing behind them whatsoever. And so I remember sitting in a meeting and we were developing this one product, and the engineer gives his presentation as to what the [00:14:00] product is.

Cause I said, “look, before we spend any more money on this, I want to figure out what this is.” I remember saying, “okay, so let me get this straight. We’re building a product that’s not quite as good as the competition. That’s not nearly as accurate as the competition. Not quite as precise, a little bit slower, but it’s twice as expensive.”

I said, “so who is going to buy this? You’d forgotten the customer.” So long story short, you know, in that case, it was all about how you make sure that you’re focused and working on the right things. It was a really simple thing at that point, just, “okay, we’re not going to work on that project anymore. I know we’ve spent a lot of money on it. I know we’ve got a lot of inventory on that particular product range.” 

The previous owner had bought a full trailer worth of components, two that could go into this product. Nobody in the organization would dare part with these components. I literally had to be on the back of a trailer throwing things into a dumpster in [00:15:00] order to get these out the door because I’m like, “we’re not going to use this. We’ve got to get out of this product line and move on to things that are going to be more focused on our strategy.”

Denise Montgomery: That’s a great anecdote. You personally throwing things into a dumpster to get over something that everyone was like, “Oh my gosh, we cannot possibly undo what the boss did last.”

Chuck DuBois: I one time had a discussion with the entire organization – and at that point, we were about 75 people – on mistakes that I’ve made in my career because people were afraid of making a mistake because the old boss with the former owner would castigate anyone who made a mistake in front of the entire organization.

So I stood up and talked about all of the mistakes and how expensive they were, [00:16:00] just to make the point that we’re all gonna make mistakes and that’s okay. The key point is figuring out what went wrong and, and moving on from there.

Denise Montgomery: I want to lead from there into another question and then come back to your story because this is a perfect segue into another question. Could you please share with us one of your best mentors and teachers in life?

And I suspect that what you just shared with us came from that mentor. 

Chuck DuBois: Yeah, it did. So, one of my greatest mentors is my father. My dad ran a textile mill, and we dyed yarns. We had about 75 employees. He was just a great guy. He figured out he had a nice business, that did very well for a long [00:17:00] period of time until textiles could no longer make it in the US. 

What I particularly admire about him was that he could manage this business and really get this business going at the same time as he was a leader in the community. And at the same time as he helped raise my family. And that was no mean feat. I am the 9th out of 11 children. So there was a lot of leadership that needed to happen at the dinner table. 

Denise Montgomery: It sounds like he managed to do that in a way that did not leave everybody around him feeling smaller, even though he was such a huge presence in your life.

Chuck DuBois: Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. He had a way to lift everybody up and he had a way of talking to people, throughout an organization, throughout any sort of a group, that made everybody feel special. And it was just a really unique gift that he had. [00:18:00] 

Denise Montgomery: And I know that when we were chatting earlier, we talked about the lessons you learned at the dinner table.

Chuck DuBois: Yeah. Because it was a family business, my dad would talk about what was going on in the business. Maybe not every single night, but many nights he would talk about a problem that they were having in operations or a problem they were having with a customer or a problem with a supplier.

Denise Montgomery: So it sounds to me as if your formal education in business may have begun later in life, but your informal education and business started when you were knee-high.

Chuck DuBois: Yeah, it started fairly early and even when I was in high school, and then in college, I worked in the textile mill.

In my senior year of high school and then in college, I’d manage one department of production regularly. And then my brother, who actually was the COO and ran the place [00:19:00] fully, would go on vacation for two weeks and I’d take over and run the entire operation: three shifts dealing with customers, dealing with suppliers, scheduling all of the production, dealing with all of the employees, for two weeks at a time.

And it was a great, great learning experience.

Denise Montgomery: So you’ve been rehearsing for the fractional interim: sharp-shooting takeover, make-it-work work for most of your life. 

Chuck DuBois: That’s a good way to put it. Yes. 

Denise Montgomery: No wonder you were a natural at it. Thanks, dad. 

Chuck DuBois: Thanks, dad. 

Denise Montgomery: It sounds like he also taught you to lead collaboratively. 

Chuck DuBois: Yeah. So I mentioned one of the things I really liked about my dad was that he made an organization feel special. [00:20:00] And so, as you can imagine, you have people in an organization that are making minimum wage. In fact, a lot of people, making minimum wage, and getting those people and people of all levels behind a strategy, behind a plan and getting them motivated is not always an easy thing.

And he had the ability to do that. 

Denise Montgomery: Thank you.  I wanted to make sure that we got that in there. Back to, the story we were working with, a bunch of opportunities. 

Chuck DuBois: Yes. So, back to the story of when I first was running a business and trying to effectively professionalize the organization, figure out a strategy, get the right people on the bus in order to deliver on that strategy and start growing the business.

And I remember that there were a couple of times when people within the organization would say, “Oh, we can’t do X because we’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work.” [00:21:00] My view when I hear that is we need to try that and we’re going to make it work. 

There’s this one customer in our industry that we were never able to do business with. I fairly quickly realized that that could be critical to our overall growth plans. And so I made that a really important part of our strategy was we were going to figure out how to win this customer. And in fact, we did. I think even today, and this is now 14 years later, they’re either the company’s second or third largest customer.

The way we did that was: we brought them in, we showed them what type of organization we were, we showed them how important they could be to our entire organization. 

Everybody at that organization wore a white lab coat and the manufacturing plant, the people that came to inspect us and [00:22:00] detour with our company, I gave them lab coats with their names on them. And I said, “no, you’re part of our team if you’re going to be our customer forums, so you have every right to be on the floors as my employees do.” And so it really made an impact on them. In the end, we were able to win the business. 

Denise Montgomery: And that goes right back to your dad’s lesson about making people feel special.

Chuck DuBois: Yes. 

Denise Montgomery: I can see where you got your secret sauce. And that actually leads to my next question, where you may have a completely different answer. What is your personal secret sauce? Because everybody does their stuff somewhat differently. Everybody has their secret sauce.

Chuck DuBois: I think I’m a fairly collaborative leader. I don’t have all the answers. I may have a lot of questions. I may have a lot of experience, but I don’t have all the answers. [00:23:00] So I think my secret sauce is really trying to figure out what the correct answers are for any business.

And it’s really about working with people and making sure that we cook collectively, come up with the right answer. And I want to make sure that whatever answer we come up with is something that the people that are in the team can get behind so that they can execute it.

So that’s a really critical piece for me. I used to say when I chaired companies that I had two basic functions. One was to ensure that a company had a cogent strategy that was simple, easy to understand, and something that you could share with your employees, your customers, et cetera.

And the second thing, and very critical was making sure that they had the team that could execute that strategy. And effectively, if they have those two pieces, then my work is done. [00:24:00] Now I can go on and play someplace else, 

Denise Montgomery: Which leads us into our final question almost perfectly. And thank you. You have been outstanding to talk to.

Our final question we borrow from the amazing interviewer James Lipton from Inside the Actor’s Studio. It is probably familiar to some folks watching, which is: If heaven exists when you arrive at the pearly Gates, what would you like to hear? 

Chuck DuBois: That is an interesting question.

So there are two answers that I’d give. And the first is, I would love to hear St. Peter saying, “welcome home.” And the other thing that I would love to hear is “Job well done.”

Denise Montgomery: Thank you [00:25:00] so much for taking the time to talk with us and for sharing how you work and for letting us know how we’re reshaping the world for new circumstances. Flexibility is something we’re all going to need and working together rather than competing is the way we’re moving now. So. You’re at the leading edge with that.

Chuck DuBois: This has been great. 

Denise Montgomery: Thank you for joining us on serious journeys. For more information, join us at ceriusexecutives.com

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