THOMAS Falk, chairman of paper products giant Kimberly-Clark, seemed set for a promising career in the company's finance division.
A self-professed bean counter, he started in internal audit, rising through the ranks to become director of corporate strategic analysis after just about four years. He was 31.
Hence, the offer to become operations manager of a diaper plant in South Carolina was a risk. It was not something he was familiar with and on paper, it was a demotion. But with characteristic determination and optimism, he jumped at the opportunity.
"I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to get a great experience. I was a corporate finance guy and never led a large team of people. At the plant, I had 150 hourly employees, 30 engineers. It was a big operation and a great experience to learn to lead in an area I wasn't comfortable in. I didn't know anything about making diapers."
That stint at the plant turned out to be fortuitous. While it was brief at just one year, he sees it as one of his most pivotal experiences at Kimberly-Clark, thanks in part to a close mentor relationship then with Darwin Smith, the group's chief executive between 1971 and 1991. Mr Smith is credited with the group's transformation from a stodgy paper company into a consumer products giant.
Today, Mr Falk watches over a multinational powerhouse, whose stable of brands includes household names such as Kleenex, Huggies and Kotex. Kimberly-Clark employs 43,000 people and has operations in 35 countries. Under Mr Falk's watch, sales grew from US$13.6 billion in 2002 to US$20 billion in 2014. Mr Falk was appointed chief executive in 2002.
"I was travelling on a plane with Darwin in 1991, I was around 32 or 33. He told me - and it was the first time anyone said anything like this - that I had the potential to become CEO some day. It had never occurred to me before then that I would even want or be qualified for the job. I hadn't run a business yet. I don't really know what Darwin saw in me, but he certainly inspired me in a way that I hope I have the chance to inspire other people."
Thanks to his happy early experience with mentorship, he has made talent spotting and development a priority at Kimberly-Clark, and the exercise has to be as diverse as possible.
"I regularly ask my leadership team - we do this exercise - Who took a chance on you? Who gave you an opportunity that maybe you weren't quite ready for? Write their names on piece of paper. Those are the people you should thank, and remember that they took a chance on you.
"Then I ask them - who would write your name? Who are the people you took a chance on that you are stretching, developing? And make sure it's a diverse list, people who have a different background from you or a different gender, so you are really developing talent in all parts of the organisation."
Kimberly-Clark has development plans for its leaders at various levels. Leaders in turn have to train those below them as part of succession planning. He personally reviews 100 individual objectives and development plans. "I send the (individual employees) my comments, things they can do to be clear on their objectives, or things they've done exceptionally well. Given the jobs they say they want, are the things they're doing to prepare themselves going to get them where they want to go? It helps me to see how good we are at developing people. It's way better than it ever was; I hope we get better in the future."
He adds: "I've had a lot of opportunities at KC. Every time I thought maybe I was in a good place, they come up with something even more challenging for me to do."
Even at a young age, he was determined and smart. The eldest of nine children, he was born to a family of relatively modest means. At age 12, he worked as a caddy at a local golf course, and was mentored by many of the golfers. He was encouraged to apply for the Evans Scholarship for a university degree, which was awarded to caddies. He won the scholarship and studied for an accounting degree at the University of Wisconsin.
"At age 12, I just wanted to make some money . . . If you asked me then what was my goal, it would probably be to have my own room." He excelled in school. "There used to be a rumour that I had a photographic memory, which I don't think is true. I studied hard and got good grades. Someone had to get an A and it might as well be me."
His first job was with accounting firm Alexander Grant & Co. He was offered a job at Kimberly-Clark but wanted to complete three years at the firm to get his public accountant certification. When the three years were up, Kimberly-Clark called again, and he accepted.
"Sometimes I wonder if my career would have been different if I had said yes the first time. Maybe I would have been exposed to different opportunities and gone a different direction. But I was in the right place at the right time, and got exposed to senior management very young. They gave me all kinds of challenging projects and I got to know Darwin Smith.
"He moved me into jobs that I probably wasn't ready for. He threw me in the pool and I learned how to swim."
With company sponsorship, he obtained a master of science degree in management as a Sloan Fellow at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. It was then that the offer of a stint at the diaper plant came up.
"(Darwin) called me at Stanford to see what I wanted to do next. I said I wanted to be developed to be a general manager. He said: 'Perfect, you will hear from me soon.'"
His year at the diaper plant was "very formative", he says.
"What I learned was that most people come to work every day and want to do the right thing. It's up to us as leaders to be clear what it is you want them to do . . . Make sure they have the right resources, remove the obstacles that may slow them down and cheer loudly when they're successful.
"Prior to that, I probably emphasised more the analytical - if I could prove to you through numbers what we should do, that would be persuasive. With the diaper plant experience, I found that all the machines, businesses and processes are run by people and they have to understand what it is you try to get them to do. It's more than just numbers."
While he says he is goal-oriented, his management style appears to be tempered with an astute personal touch, a happy combination that is likely to firm up a collective ethos and inspire loyalty. "I'm competitive, goal-oriented. I want to win . . . I want the team to feel they're on the winning team. At the same time I want them to feel that the time they spend with the organisation is among the best times they've had."
Four to five years ago, the group conducted an on-line "culture jam", a company-wide group chat on the six major leadership qualities it seeks to cultivate. These are trust building; decision making to drive results; winning consistently in the near and long term; understanding customer needs; improving continuously; and building talent.
The exercise, he says, generated "rich" feedback. "We found out things we didn't know. For example, in the US, we found that some of our sites had dress codes for women, such as open-toed shoes. It was probably put in place 20 years ago . . . So we made the decision - why do we need dress codes? We haven't needed to be told how to dress since we were children. Why not just dress appropriately for the day?"
He also maintains a weekly personal blog on the company's intranet, where subjects range from business to personal. He has written, for instance, about his 35th wedding anniversary earlier this year, and about the death of his pet dog, Buckley, two years ago.
He issues, for instance, his own recommended reading list, which he has done every year for the past 13 years. This year's summer reading list includes The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone. He also recommends The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. The book, he says, is inspirational and "shows what is possible when working as a team with great leadership".
His blog is open to comments from employees, even part-timers. "I like to write. It gives me a creative outlet. Wherever I go in the company, someone starts a conversation with me on something on my blog. It's a safe subject that they know I care about . . . It makes you less of a picture on a bulletin board and more of a human being, that we're imperfect but trying to do the best job we can. If people look at their leaders that way, I think they are happy to be with the company over time."
What has stood Mr Falk in good stead appears to be his can-do stance towards anything the company has thrown at him. "One of the nicest compliments that any leader said about me was that I was a student of the business. I was always really curious about the company. I moved seven times in the first 10 years.
"I was in Wisconsin three times, Texas three times, South Carolina once, and California once. My wife was very understanding and was willing to interrupt her career so my career could advance.
"I never had a situation where I said - gosh I don't want to do that. Usually it was an opportunity for something I never thought I'd have a chance to do at that stage of my career. There were some people who didn't want to work for Darwin in those days. He was a very senior guy, very scary, but it was a great opportunity. If you approach those things with a great attitude, you can have a great experience in lots of different places."
Thomas Falk THOMAS J FALK
Kimberly-Clark chairman and chief executive officer
1980 : Graduated from University of Wisconsin, accounting degree
1980: Joined Alexander Grant & Co
1983: Joined Kimberly-Clark
1984: Senior auditor
1986: Senior financial analyst
1987: Director of Corporate Strategic Analysis
1989: Earned Master of Science degree in Management as a Sloan Fellow at Stanford University Graduate School of Business
1989: Operations manager for infant care at South Carolina diaper plant
1990: Vice-President of operations analysis and control. Negotiated divestiture of Spruce Falls Power and Paper, a newsprint subsidiary
1991: Senior vice-president of analysis and administration
1993: Group president of infant and child care, responsible for Huggies diapers and Pull-Ups training pants
1995: Group president of North American consumer products
1998: Group president - global tissue and paper
1999: President and chief operating officer and member of board of directors
Since 2002: Chief executive officer
Since 2003: Chairman of the board