‘Virtual exec’ Holbrook runs $1 billion company from his phone

September 21, 2017

St. Louis Business Journal | September 11, 2017 – Jim Holbrook, CEO of Daymon Worldwide, manages the $1.3 billion international retail consultancy from the sun porch overlooking his backyard in Ladue. When he took the post in September 2015, Holbrook chose to remain in St. Louis rather than move to Daymon’s headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.

“I call my iPhone (6) my office because, traveling a lot, I can get ahold of people by text, email or phone,” he said. On the road 10-15 nights a month, or about half his time, he said the only real travel perk he enjoys is his Southwest Airlines A-List Preferred status, which earns him enough points for his wife, Meredith, to fly with him for free.

Daymon provides professional services such as strategy, packaging and brand design, and merchandising programs to retailers and private-label manufacturers around the world. Holbrook said he travels so much that being Daymon’s CEO “is kind of a virtual role.” Holbrook said he’s not really “an office guy,” and his value to the company involves getting out and talking to customers and potential customers, not sitting in an office “approving people’s expense reports.” He talks to his 15 direct reports almost daily, and holds a monthly call for executives and a quarterly teleconference for all employees.

Holbrook, who grew up in Pittsburgh, left a job at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati in 1984 to move to St. Louis and join what was then Ralston Purina. He later moved up to CEO of its Beech-Nut baby food unit and assistant to CEO Bill Stiritz. He subsequently earned an MBA from Washington University, and held top roles at St. Louis-based ad agency Zipatoni and its later parent, Interpublic Group; marketing company EMAK Worldwide; and Post Holdings, which he left in 2015.

Holbrook has joined a roster of C-level employees who have decided not to relocate to their companies’ headquarters cities. Mark Throdahl, who spent 13 years at Mallinckrodt Group, grew up in St. Louis and lives here now as president and CEO of OrthoPediatrics Corp., a Warsaw, Indiana-based medical device company preparing to go public. Jeffry Quinn, chairman and CEO of Town & Country-based investment group Quinpario Partners, remained in St. Louis when he served as CEO of one of its investments, Milwaukee-based Jason Industries, for a year ending in December 2016.

David Feldman, who led Maryland Heights-based Katy Industries, now American Plastics, for eight years as CEO until he was fired in October 2016, lived in Atlanta. Robert Guerra, who succeeded Feldman as CEO of Katy and now runs American Plastics, is based in Dallas/Fort Worth. Bevil Hogg, former CEO of St. Louis-based medical device company EndoStim, led the company from his home in Soquel, California.

While it’s difficult to quantify the number of CEOs who don’t move to their company’s headquarters city, Mitch Ellis, managing director of executive search firm Sanford Rose Associates-St. Louis, said it’s not uncommon. “Most CEOs will relocate, but there is a growing number that don’t and they can afford not to,” he said. “They’re making enough money.”

However, Peter Crist of search firm Crist Kolder Associates in Chicago, said, “Historically, there has been a very high demand for the CEO, CFO and top two or three people in an enterprise to be physically located in the same city” as the company, particularly in public companies. But private equity owners are much more open to hiring top executives who live elsewhere “because there’s going to be a transaction at some time, a sale or they’ll go public.”

A VIRTUAL ROLE

Bain Capital Private Equity took a majority stake in Holbrook’s Daymon in January, with members of management still holding an interest in the company. Holbrook said that he wants to continue to “scale up” the company, and in three to five years go public. Daymon has operations in every time zone across the globe.

“When I first took the job, I worked hard at trying to move the headquarters to St. Louis… The labor force was there, the cost of living was there, the travel was fine,” he said. But with 42,000 employees, of whom 38,000 are part time and 200 are at headquarters, Daymon “is a people business,” he said. “The disruption to the business just wouldn’t let me make that call unfortunately.”

Holbrook, 58, is looking to grow Daymon from $1.3 billion in revenue to closer to $1.5 billion next year. “We’re growing it through more penetration in North America and Europe with our current services, and through expansion to Asia, especially China,” Holbrook said. He declined to disclose the company’s client roster, except for Schnuck Markets and Post Foods. Holbrook takes commercial flights: “People are critical of St. Louis’ air travel, but it works for me,’ he said.

Throdahl, of OrthoPediatrics, was compensated $15,158 in 2016 for lodging and travel expenses in connection with travel between his home in St. Louis and the company’s headquarters in Warsaw, Indiana, outside Chicago, according to a company regulatory filing. That also includes membership in the private Union League Club in Chicago, where a nonresident membership runs about $1,500 annually. Throdahl, 66, declined to be interviewed, citing the company’s pending stock offering.

Holbrook said of handling a virtual role and managing long distance, “It’s just time management and it’s technology enabled.” He uses Skype or FaceTime for business “all the time,” and uses Mac desktops, an iPad Pro, Mac Air or Mac Book, depending on where he is. “I have a basement full of power cords, which i think are obsolete but can’t throw away,” he said.

He has an assistant, Susi Malen, based at Daymon’s Connecticut headquarters.

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