The Container Store

Leaders We Love: Paul O’Neill

Leaders We Love: Paul O’Neill

*This is part of our “Leaders We Love” series. Learn more about it.

I’m inspired by Paul O’Neil and how he fundamentally transformed the culture of the Aluminum Company of America – also known as Alcoa – during his time as CEO and Chairman. O’Neill had the ability to connect, build trust, consensus and increase productivity at every level of the organization. O’Neill’s leadership made every single employee feel that they were a part of something more than a manufacturing company.

When he was introduced to shareholders at Alcoa in 1987, he didn’t sprinkle in buzzwords like “synergy,” “rightsizing” or “co-opetition” to his speech. Instead, he announced that Alcoa would focus on safety habits and achieve zero employee injuries. Shareholders were confused and couldn’t get out of the room fast enough! But O’Neill knew this renewed focus would ultimately bring employees together. Unions had complained about worker safety for years and management agreed that employee injuries lowered both productivity and morale – but both sides were at odds because they were asked to drive metrics important to shareholders at the expense of employee safety. By bringing the employees at Alcoa together under his vision, better communication and more productive partnerships developed, employees demonstrated initiative at all levels, employee injuries plummeted, productivity skyrocketed and ultimately net income increased five-fold by his retirement as CEO in 1999.

At The Container Store, putting our employees first has always been our #1 focus. We know that our employees want more than anything to be successful in their career with us. Therefore, we focus on the support, development and training each person needs to nurture his or her career growth. The 263 hours of training a full-time employee receives in the first year sets them up to be able to help customers find that perfect solution every time, that will ultimately improve their lives through organization. Happy customers loyally return to our stores…which means we need more stores. More stores provide more opportunities for advancement and career growth. A bit of an over simplified view, maybe, but our company’s success shows that by putting our employees first, everybody wins; employees, customers, vendors, the community and shareholders.

In 1987, a shareholder asked O’Neill how his focused vision would bring about success at Alcoa; his reply, “It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become a part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence.” For this same reason, after taking a part-time job during the holidays, I chose to embark on a 20-year career to be a part of something truly important at The Container Store.

If you’re interested in learning more about Paul O’Neill, I’d recommend reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

– John N., Regional Director