Entrepreneurial Lessons from Billion Dollar CEOs

Some years ago I had the pleasure of attending the CEO2CEO Leadership Summit at the New York Stock Exchange.  It was a terrific opportunity to gain insights from leading CEOs, including Leslie Wexner, founder of The Limited and Victoria’s Secret and Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical among others.  The common themes, very much on the minds of leaders of both multi-billion dollar companies and mid-market firms, were innovation and entrepreneurship.  (Yes, the “E” word is very much alive and well in the C suite of multinational companies).  Here are some lessons from these luminary CEOs:


Great entrepreneurs move quickly and make bold decisions.   Les Wexner personifies bold decision making.  He’s a retailing legend and the current longest-serving CEO of a FORTUNE 500 company.  He started the Limited in 1963 with a $5000 loan from his aunt and grew that investment into a $12 billion company whose brands include Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel and others.  Mr. Wexner talked about how jumping on opportunities can pay off in spades.

“I read The Wall Street Journal on a Friday about Lane Bryant going private…called them the same day about a possible acquisition.  They said ‘no’ because their board meeting was on Monday.  So on Saturday I got a loan for $125MM and we closed the acquisition of Lane Bryant on Monday.   We paid off the debt in 120 days.”

 — Leslie Wexner, Chairman and Chief Executive, L Brands

A sense of urgency doesn’t always mean fast, game changing decisions.  It can come from long term strategies that cultivate broad scale change motivated by a healthy sense of paranoia.

You’ve got to innovate faster than the disruptive companies can commoditize you.  There’s where partnerships come in.   At Dow, we lead and join associations that are at the center of change.  We foster innovation hubs in partnership with federal and state governments and universities.  They take time but we gain a research edge… one result is the development of ‘smart paint’ that can absorb emissions.  In the future we’ll have paint that can absorb viruses.

We get criticized for investing in R&D to create future earnings…things like self healing materials and smart batteries.  Everything (on Wall Street) is so short term focused.  We partner with entrepreneurs and learn from them.

— Andrew Liveris, CEO, Dow Chemical


We’re inspired by entrepreneurs who seek out and spot emerging trends and then jump on them with extreme focus.

In thinking about new business ideas I look for patterns. I spend 20-30 days a year visiting small independent stores around the world looking for patterns.  Like kids putting fragrances in their lockers etc.   So we came up with portable scents…

–Leslie Wexner


As we’ve written before, innovation doesn’t have to imply a lack of quantification.   The leaders of Omnicom and Dow Chemical, for example, are quick to point out the measurement they’ve put on innovation efforts.

“$250MM in revenue has been created from ideas that came from bringing together very diverse groups of people— solving challenges for customers.”

–Tom Harrison, Chairman Emeretus, The Omnicom Group

“One KPI we use:  the % of margin coming from new product launches.”

–Andrew Liveris

But beyond measuring the results of innovation, the innovation process itself can, in part, be driven by the numbers.

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