It was after 2:00 in the morning in a conference room in downtown Boston, a few months before the NFL season was set to kick off. Ed Shirley '78 was holed up in a conference room with Jonathan Kraft, son of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and two teams of intractable lawyers.
Shirley, then Senior VP of Global Marketing Resources for Gillette, was frustrated with the lawyers’ inability to come to a compromise on a contract for the naming rights for the Patriots' new stadium. The Rolling Stones were going to open the stadium with their Licks World Tour on September 5th. Time was of the essence if Gillette’s name was going to appear on the stadium in time. So he took Jonathan aside and decided to settle the issue right then and there.
“We both want to do this, it’s no longer about the money, it’s just about normal contractual terms required to protect both firms’ brands,” he told Kraft. “We need to go back in that room and tell both our teams to stop with all the acrimony… Not getting the deal done is not an option.”
Jonathan’s response? “That’s something my father would say.” Robert was known for taking very practical, often compromising approaches to making business decisions to achieve the greater good. He would demonstrate this once again in breaking a highly publicized deadlock in the 2011 NFL/NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement. Jonathan took the lead from his father and agreed.
A few months later, Shirley watched the Patriots unveil their Super Bowl XXXVI championship banner under the bright lights of the newly branded Gillette Stadium.
A CAREER FULL OF SMART PLAYS
The same pragmatic determination that led Shirley to that franchise-defining conversation with Kraft originally attracted him to studying business at UMass. “They create students who are very practical in their decision making.”
Shirley majored in Accounting, but it wasn’t knowledge of taxes and spreadsheets that got him ahead. “I wouldn't be in the position and had the career that I had unless I had the rock solid foundational skills that [Isenberg] gave me.” As he transitioned from accounting to sales and marketing, Shirley used that deep-seated analytical thinking, combined with his natural curiosity, to make the risky but rational decisions that catapulted his career.
At Oral-B, he leveraged the company’s nimbleness to outthink and outwork the competition. Despite having a fraction of the marketing budgets of industry competitors, including Procter & Gamble, Colgate, Warner Lambert, SmithKline Beecham and Johnson & Johnson, Oral-B dominated them with a fierce competitive spirit led by Shirley.
This, along with a series of highly improbable successes, eventually led him to the top of the competition that he had previously outpaced: Procter & Gamble. As President of North America for P&G, he focused on restructuring the company's culture. “I was driven to see if I could change and influence the culture and create more of a team,” says Shirley. He would soon be promoted to Vice Chairman of P&G’s Global Beauty & Grooming business. He was the first outsider to ever reach this executive level in P&G. Taking a $38-billion business unit in a new direction earned Shirley some pushback, but he relied on the same single-minded focus as he did at Oral-B. “I wasn’t daunted. I was driven.”
“I wasn’t daunted. I was driven.”
Shirley took on a different kind of challenge as CEO of Bacardi, where he spearheaded a worldwide marketing campaign that grounded the $5-billion company in the history of the Bacardi family. The campaign helped Bacardi appeal to a new generation of consumers who believe in the authenticity and perseverance personified by the Bacardi family and the then 150 year-old brand.
TEAM IS EVERYTHING
In using sports metaphors to explain his business philosophy, Shirley believes that they define what it takes to build a successful career. In fact, despite all of his business achievements, he still considers playing for the UMass JV basketball team as a freshman to be one of his top accomplishments.
His advice to current Isenberg students: “Play to win. Don’t play not to lose.” In his own experience, the companies and people who fully committed themselves to winning and evolving are the ones who have succeeded.
It’s an attitude Shirley considers crucial to Isenberg’s vision for its own future, which has convinced him to make a $1 million pledge to an institution he says has “stepped up its game.” He’s following his own advice: “Don’t sit on the sidelines. Get involved, get engaged. Be all in.”
“Be all in.”
Back in that boardroom full of lawyers, Shirley didn’t sit on the sidelines. Which is why the Patriots now play in Gillette Stadium. Those actions -- to be smart, practical, and intentional -- not only helped build a successful business career, but also a successful Isenberg education.
“You get out of it what you put into it,” says Shirley. He invested in himself while at Isenberg, and he’s still seeing a return on the experience nearly four decades later.