Leadership Q&A: Tom Schmitt

The CEO of Purolator Courier on transparency, the economy and things that have to be true.


Photo supplied by Purolator.

Tom Schmitt always had a dream to live and work in North America. After attending college in England and Germany, where he was born and raised, his first job on the other side of the Atlantic was managing a fleet of gas stations in Cleveland, OH. After attending graduate school at Harvard, Schmitt moved into consulting, where he slowly became embedded in the transportation industry. From there, he moved on to FedEx where he eventually landed as the CEO of FedEx Supply Chain Services. Recently, he’s brought all of that experience north as CEO of Purolator, Canada’s largest shipping company. Since starting the job in September 2010, he’s doubled the shipper’s presence south of the border while inspiring a team of 11,500 employees. He spoke to Canadian Business about his personal brand of leadership, brain physiology and kimonos.

CB: I’ve heard someone describe your management style as unique. Tell me a little about that.

TS: In my mind, the one thing I look hard to do is to truly put people first. Leadership for me is the ability to inspire others.  It’s not about being able to do math better or articulate strategy. All these things are necessary, but not sufficient. Ultimately, it comes to inspiring others.

CB: You’ve developed some key leadership values. Let’s talk about some of them. You say you like to ask the question, “What would have to be true?” Tell me a little bit about that.

TS: It’s a very powerful example to use analytics in a step-change way, in a breakthrough way. What would have to be true for you to double your presence? What would have to be true to connect with every Canadian company that ships something?

CB: Kind of like taking away the superfluous material and developing something like tunnel vision towards a goal?

TS: There’s more to it. You’re talking about specificity. That is correct. The other thing is step-change, or breakthrough. We did this in a whole bunch of areas, where you just get to a very different way of thinking and a very different answer when you ask this question.

CB: Sounds very analytical. You’ve said that an aspect of your personality is stereotypically German. Highly analytical, perhaps a bit nerdy. You say this has to do with right/left-brained thinking. As a self-described “natural analytical nerd,” what do you do to develop the right-side of your brain?

TS: I spend time with people who are naturally at home on the right-hand side. I go to ballet performances, I spend time with people who run non-profits, with people who are extremely passionate about what they do, but they naturally take the long-winding road to get from here to there. I learn from them. I learn from their passion.

CB: So it must be the right-side of your brain that has developed this principle you call “leading open kimono.” Tell me a little about it.

TS: It has to do with transparency.  It has to do with never using that sentence, “I know but I can’t tell you.” It has to do with, “If I have a staff meeting, and it accidently got broadcasted to all 11,500 teammates across Canada and the United States, would I have a problem with that?” I shouldn’t.  It has to do with telling people like it is. It’s really about a transparency level that really wows people.

CB: You talk a lot about leaving a place better then you found it. What’s that all about?

TS:  It’s a personal philosophy, but as a company, it permeates across our entire team. We connect businesses and people across Canada. We do it with 11,500 plus people, 5,000 vehicles, 20 planes. We enable trade. But we are also very much aware that all these trucks and planes probably put out a lot of carbon, so this whole notion of sustainability and being a great citizen of the community might be challenged by that. So what we do is we say we have a commitment to leave a place better then we found it. So, no, we’re not going to have all these diesel trucks all over the road, we’re going to replace them with hybrid electric vehicles. Today, we have 405 hybrid electric service vehicles in Canada. That’s more than any other transportation company has in service anywhere in the world, and we’re not the largest transportation company. We are also testing an all-electric vehicle, so that might be a possibility down the road. We have a responsibility to do what we do, connect businesses and people, but doing it also in a very responsible way so that we leave communities better then we found them.

CB: Sounds like you have achieved much success using these management values. How do you handle failure?

TS: What I expect from myself and from others is not perfection. What I expect is good intention and competence. When you have those things, you get things right more often then not. When you fail and it doesn’t work, you acknowledge that.  We’re not perfect. You wouldn’t be able to learn and grow if you don’t recognize failure.

CB: What mistake has taught you the most in life?

TS: There’s one that stands out, and it has to do with ambition. In my mind, there is good ambition and bad ambition. Good ambition is being ambitious for the people you work with, that they get ahead, that they look good, that they shine, and to be ambitious for a specific cause. Bad ambition is how do you get ahead the fastest.

When I started consulting, my goal was how can I become a project manager the fastest way possible. I was pretty vocal about it, so I became a project manager quickly. But it was for a team that nobody wanted to be part of, a team that, frankly, was the leper colony. Ultimately, I was much worse off by being ambitious in a bad way, which was for my own purposes.

CB: For a final question, let’s chat about the economy. Being in the shipping industry, you’re able to see some economic trends play out before the rest of us take notice. What do you see happening?

TS: Some sectors, retailing, e-tailing, are showing some lack of confidence, people putting off some discretionary purchases. We see some of that. But we feel good about our position and the fact that we are in control of our own destiny, probably more than anybody else in Canada in our business. I do still believe there’s quite a bit of confidence. If you look around Toronto, Alberta, Montreal, confidence by far outweighs the opposite.