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Business Management

The Full Measure Of Leadership

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July 25, 2013
As president and CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Larry Culp ’85 talks about what drives success—in the global marketplace and on the small college campus where he studied economics and philosophy.

Larry Culp ’85 is a man on the move. Since stepping into the role of CEO of Danaher in 2001, Culp has been committed to helping the global corporation continue to grow and thrive, and he’s racking up the miles. Between the business trips and conference calls, the vice chair of the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors managed to squeeze in a phone interview—a rare event for the media-shy executive. He was in his car, on his way from a meeting at IBM headquarters in Armonk, NY, to Manhattan for a series of investor meetings, where he would quell anxieties about the economic climate by explaining how Danaher finds opportunities in each new challenge. 

“I don’t think of it as work,” Culp says, deflecting any hint that his taxing schedule may be burdensome. “We just have a tremendous number of interesting things going on in the business that take place all over the world. It’s that combination of interesting topics and an ever-shrinking world that I find compelling.”

Culp is leading the science and technology company through the most productive period in its 25-year history. This year, Danaher is expected to achieve $20 billion in sales, with a $2 billion business in China alone. When the newly minted Harvard MBA joined the company in 1990, Danaher was not yet a billion-dollar business. 

During the past 12 years, with Culp at the helm, Danaher has quintupled in size, primarily by globalizing business in high-growth markets—China, Brazil, India and the Gulf—that now represent a quarter of its revenues. “Our emphasis,” he says, “is on sustainable growth, which is why we have invested so heavily in talent and resources on the ground, to make sure that we are as Chinese or as Brazilian or as Indian as we can be in those markets.” 

Danaher’s portfolio reads like a Who’s Who of manufacturers of tools and instrumentation: AB SCIEX and Leica Microsystems in life sciences and diagnostics; Hach and Trojan Technologies in environmental testing; Fluke and Tektronix in test and measurement; and Videojet and Pantone in industrial technologies. “These companies are industry standards, the brands known to clinicians the world over,” notes Culp.

He attributes Danaher’s growth as a global enterprise, in part, to the caliber of its human capital. So what leadership traits does Culp look for among Danaher’s workforce? In recent years, a lucky few Washington College graduates have passed the test, and Culp continues to facilitate introductions for recent graduates. 

“I’d say first we’re looking for smart people,” he says. “With the way globalization and the web are changing business so rapidly, we need people who are quick and sharp intellectually. We also look for folks who are highly motivated, people who like to compete and win. We look for folks who are humble and introspective, because we don’t win all the time. Our culture requires taking stock of where we have fallen short, so we do better next time. We need that humility in order to tackle problems in an honest way. We absolutely abhor political behavior. We have strong antibodies against bureaucracy. Those are just a few critical traits that we think are important when we’re looking to bring people onto our team or promote people into positions of leadership.”

In May, Culp heard from Andrew Antonio ’12 and Peter Stewart ’12, two young men whom he had introduced to Danaher business executives last year, about their recent promotions. “It’s one thing to give somebody an opportunity,” says Culp. “It’s another what they make of it. I suspect the leadership traits they demonstrated very early in their careers have helped them stand out.” 

Another part of the formula for success is articulated within the Danaher Business System (DBS), a business model that emphasizes integrity, innovation and constant improvement. Earlier this year, Culp returned to Harvard Business School to discuss the business philosophy that has fueled Danaher’s phenomenal growth. 

“When we talk about DBS, we’re really talking about our core values—who we are, and how we do what we do. What that means for a company as large and diverse as ours—$20 billion in revenue, 60,000 employees around the world—is that we can come together as one company, despite our diversity. Most days of the week, our businesses operate independently. To have a shared set of tools, best practices and processes that everyone can draw on really enables them to serve their customers better than the competition and, in turn, to build their businesses. It’s really that simple. It’s that shared culture and that world-class operating model that has resulted in Danaher’s outstanding performance over time.” 

Successful business models are of keen interest not just to Larry Culp, but also to College President Mitchell Reiss and other members of the Board who want to create more opportunities for students to develop their leadership potential. One way to do that is to bring America’s top leaders to campus. Since its launch in 2011, the George Washington Leadership Series has hosted five high-profile executives who have shared their insights about the challenges they’ve faced and innovative solutions they’ve adopted as they’ve led their companies through the minefields of emerging global markets and new technologies. 

In February 2013, at Culp’s invitation, DuPont’s CEO Ellen Kullman visited campus to discuss how she repositioned the 210-year-old science company. Forbes named her the fifth most powerful businesswoman in the world, praising her for setting “aggressive goals at DuPont to help improve global food security by 2020, including a $10-billion investment in the R&D of products that help agriculture sustainability and food availability, provide educational opportunities to two million young people and improve the livelihoods of three million farmers.” 

“Ellen was thrilled to visit Washington College, and the students were over the moon to meet her,” Culp says. “Bert Rein, who is one of the top guns in Washington’s legal circles, visited campus in April. The more leaders we can bring to campus, the better our students can develop a picture of what real leadership looks like. George Washington is a wonderful role model, but students need to see and understand how contemporary leaders tackle situations. We need to prepare students for the world in which they will work and live.”

Culp believes Washington College has a significant role to play in educating the leaders of tomorrow, particularly given its historic relationship with Washington and a crisis of leadership in America today. “I would say authenticity is not something that’s in abundance. I would argue that intense listening skills are not commonplace. I would argue that bravery and courage are in high demand and short supply,” Culp attests.

These attributes are at the heart of the Washington College experience, he says. Just as Danaher businesses are informed by DBS, Washington College students are informed by Washington’s core values: integrity, determination, curiosity, civility, leadership and moral courage. Washington College gave Culp the tools to succeed, and the confidence to take risks. He wants future generations to have similar opportunities.

“I went to Washington College thinking I would go to law school and become a lawyer,” Culp recalls. “I had some professors, notably Mike Bailey and Mike Malone in the economics department, and Bob Anderson and Peter Tapke in philosophy, who taught me to think critically. And I had an interest in business, but this [leading a global enterprise] was the furthest thing from my mind.” 

After graduating from Washington College, Culp spent three years with Arthur Anderson, a “Big Five” accounting firm, in the division now known as Accenture. He had been focusing on software development and implementation, but Culp wanted to move into a position that involved more broad-based leadership. He was accepted into Harvard Business School and graduated in 1990, just as the country was in the throes of a deep industrial recession.

Instead of relying on corporate recruiters visiting the Harvard campus, Culp wrote directly to the new CEO at Danaher and visited him a week later. “He hired me, and I eventually succeeded him. I took a risk, but I happened to be in the right place at the right time. As the newly appointed CEO, he wasn’t getting a lot of those letters.”

Former College President John Toll and College Trustee Jay Griswald showed similar moxy when they invited Larry Culp to serve on the Board. It was 2001, and Culp had recently been named Danaher’s CEO. 

“Let’s just say that they came to my office and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Culp says. “In my role, I say no to a lot of accomplished people, but they made a pitch that was hard to deny. Their hook was a simple one: ‘You can serve any number of organizations but, you probably won’t have the impact you can have at Washington College.’ I took that message hook, line and sinker. And they were right. It’s been great to have been part of recruiting a new president, and it’s been good fun to share some of what we do in the corporate world, in terms of strategy and governance, with Mitchell and his team.”

As chair of the Trustees Committee, Culp has been involved in some behind-the-scenes work, helping redefine the governance model and recruiting new board members. “This is a board ready to help Mitchell and the senior team prepare the College for the challenges and the opportunities of the next ten or twenty years,” he says.

Small private liberal arts colleges around the country are dealing with the dynamics of the marketplace, but Culp is “bullish” on the College. “Our challenge is to tackle all that’s out there, change where we need to, but not lose sight of how we have withstood the test of time since General Washington gave us his word and his name. That’s what outstanding organizations do over time: they evolve, but they don’t lose sight of their history and their foundations.”

By Marcia C. Landskroener M’02


Last modified on Aug. 30th, 2013 at 10:38pm by Michael Harvey.