Q&A: Reynolds American CEO Susan Cameron

Reynolds American CEO Susan Cameron

Reynolds American CEO Susan Cameron

UNC Kenan-Flagler will welcome Reynolds American CEO Susan Cameron for the first Dean’s Speaker Series event of the academic year on Tues., Sept. 29.

Cameron will speak on the public policy issues and challenges she faces in leading the second largest tobacco company in the U.S. In advance of her speech, Cameron answered a few questions about her career and leadership philosophies.

You’ve said that becoming a CEO wasn’t one of your career aspirations – but in 2001, you signed on as CEO of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp (B&W). What changed your mind?

Two things, really: loyalty to the company and a belief that my colleagues and I could really make a difference in getting the company on a more successful path.

I joined B&W in 1981, and after working more than a decade there, I accepted a series of positions with B&W’s parent company, British American Tobacco (BAT), which took me overseas for nine years. I loved the global marketplace and loved consumer marketing. So I’d set my sights on a position as the head of global marketing for BAT.

But in 1999, my management approached me about taking on the challenge of heading up marketing at B&W, back in the U.S. The company’s brands weren’t performing well at the time, and I believed I could assemble a great team and get the brands back on track. I wasn’t there too long before I was asked to take on the CEO role. By then, I was committed to re-energizing the organization and getting it on a more successful path, so I accepted the challenge.

The experience underscored one of my basic beliefs about business: You need to set high goals for yourself, but you also need to take a leap of faith when an opportunity presents itself.

Stay tuned for details on these upcoming speakers:

Tues., Nov. 10
Sherron Watkins, former vice president of Enron Corporation

Tues., Feb. 2
The Weatherspoon Lecture ft. former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe

Unlike many big tobacco executives, you haven’t shied away from acknowledging the dangers of smoking. Why do you feel it’s important for leaders to be candid and address issues that impact their business head-on?

Actually, I think what our companies do is more important than what I – or any one executive – may say. It’s not about comments; it’s about commitment.

Reynolds American’s operating companies have been researching and developing products that may have the potential to reduce risk for decades. We’ve invested billions of dollars into R&D, product development and acquisitions that would provide alternatives for smokers interested in reducing their health risks from smoking. Tobacco harm reduction is a core tenet of our overall mission to transform the tobacco industry.

As a general rule, I’m more interested in what a company or industry does about addressing a challenge than what they say about it, and I’m proud of the RAI companies’ track record on this front.

Before retiring from Reynolds American in 2011, you and the firm’s board had discussed wanting to acquire Lorillard but hadn’t acted on it. Before you came out of retirement to assume the CEO role, Reynolds American had been trying to buy Lorillard for more than a year but its attempts were unsuccessful. Having led the biggest acquisition led by a female CEO, what insights or advice can you share about turning a “no” into a “yes” and leading a successful negotiation?

This was a very complex transaction. There were four companies involved – two of them, as it happened, led by female CEOs. For example, the timing had to be exactly right, the level of the various companies’ interest in competing in the U.S. market, the availability of financing for the transaction, and a very complex regulatory framework under which the transaction would be reviewed. In addition, a lot of good work and analysis had already been done by the time I returned as CEO. So ascribing credit solely to my negotiating skills would not be doing justice to the entirety of the transaction by any means.

That said, I do believe that relationships matter in business as much as they do in other realms. I have always enjoyed strong relationships and mutual respect for my peers in the industry and believe they would say the same of me. Therefore, there was a level of trust and respect among the CEOs and their colleagues at the various companies that allowed us to analyze the benefits of making the transaction successful and making it work for all of the companies’ varied stakeholders.

Earlier in your career, you had worked with British American Tobacco (BAT) CEO Nicandro Durante, whose firm provided a portion of the financing for Reynolds American to acquire Lorillard. What advice can you share about the importance of developing and maintaining relationships with people in your professional network?

Businesses do not run themselves; people run them. Working to build relationships that are built on trust in and respect for others’ opinions and talents is key to building a high-performing culture within any organization. At Reynolds American, every employee is assessed annually – not just on whether they accomplish their goals, but on how they perform against six leadership dimensions:  influencing, credibility, driving execution, leading change, strategy development and talent development. These behaviors essentially stand as proxies for the nature of the relationships that an employee is building within the organization.

I believe that the same principles apply with your professional network. It’s not just about getting the work done – it’s also about how the work gets done. Whether it’s interactions with customers, suppliers or community leaders, at a fundamental level, most people prefer to work with someone who respects their opinions and values their contributions.

The contract you signed with Reynolds American in 2014 includes an incentive for finding a successor to lead the firm when you retire. What qualities do you feel are most important for CEOs to be successful in leading a company into the future?

The ability to inspire and motivate is critical. Most CEOs are smart, hard-working, business-savvy people. The best CEOs are also inspirational. They can paint a picture for the future that employees, investors, customers and other stakeholders can see, can understand and can believe is achievable. They surround themselves with people whose talents are complementary – not duplicative – to their own. They take their greatest pride in giving direction to talented employees, then getting out of their way. In my experience, people will absolutely astound you with what they can achieve when they’re given the direction, the tools and the freedom to execute against a shared objective. Every CEO should leave the organization in better shape than when they arrived. That is, and always has been, my goal. I’m very confident that the years ahead for Reynolds American will live up to that expectation.


Dean's Speaker Series: Susan Cameron

Tues., Sept. 29 at 5:30pm