Ravi Saligram, former President and CEO of OfficeMax, sat down for an interview with Dean Gilligan as part of the Undergraduate Business Council’s VIP Distinguished Speaker Series.
Saligram began his 35-year career at Leo Burnett Chicago, the best advertising agency at the time. It was at Leo Burnett that he began to understand brands and become a marketer. Only 21 years old at the time, Saligram also learned the importance of having courage of your convictions to defend yourself.
“I was working on the Keebler Company and we had the campaign of elves in the hollowed trees,” said Saligram. “The client got tired of the elves because it was an umbrella ad campaign and they kept pushing for individual brand campaigns and we had to tell them they just didn’t have the money. You have champagne taste, but beer money and it just doesn’t work.” Saligram was later thrown out of a campaign pitch when he repitched the elves campaign instead of a new approach. Ultimately Saligram’s team convinced the company that the elves were the best equity they had.
When asked what it is about himself that allowed for his career to advance so quickly, Saligram attributed his success to a mindset centered on teamwork. “I never looked at it as a competition versus my peers, because I think when you get into that sort of a thing it gets to be a rat race,” said Saligram. “Something I’ve subscribed to all throughout my career is making your team look good rather than making it all about yourself.”
Ethical responsibilities of a company are also very important to Saligram. OfficeMax is regarded as having one of the most progressive ethical and compliance policies in the U.S. and Saligram believes this should be of value to companies across the world, “Having spent five years working in different countries, I feel it’s very important to do business in an ethical way and that has nothing to do with being American or being Chinese. I just have always felt that if you’re an associate of a company, you always feel better if you can sleep well at night,” said Saligram.
When asked about the motivation behind the merger between OfficeMax and Office Depot, Saligram explained that it was a decision that had been talked about for 20 years and was ultimately the best decision for the company. “To me it was a simple economic argument. Even though OfficeMax was at $7 billion, Depot was at $11 billion. Together that was $18 billion in revenues,” said Saligram. “The synergies alone were double to triple that of what we were making. So, I felt for the long-term viability of the companies, that the only thing that made sense was to merge.”
As Saligram offered an overarching piece of advice to students, he recalled a critique of himself from a Korean direct report that had stuck with him, “He said, ‘Saligram, you always single out the super stars. You’re running a company and in a company most of the people are average. Your job is to take the people that are average and make them above average,’” said Saligram. He has carried this with him throughout his career and made a point to inspire his employees at all level so that they feel they are serving a purpose and contributing towards company goals creating a powerful company culture.
Saligram offered McCombs students many valuable pieces of advice to be applied to their own future careers. The Undergraduate Business Council will host Thomas Horton, Chairman of American Airlines, for the next VIP Speaker Series on Tuesday, March 25.