TopVet: Sam Duncan, OfficeMax

Sam Duncan

For OfficeMax CEO Sam Duncan, reaching the corner office fulfilled a lifelong dream, overcoming the economic and personal adversities he endured as a child. The road he traveled was a hard one, but he managed to achieve great success in the business world, thanks in part to his talent and work ethic, but also to the influence of the two most important people in his life -- his mother and his wife of 40 years -- and to his service in the United States Army.

"It was the best thing that happened to me and my wife. I loved my time in the military," he told Veterans Advantage in an exclusive interview. "It set the foundation for us for all of those years after that."

Sylvia Duncan Sam gives a big part of the credit to his wife, Sylvia, for helping his rise to the top. The first years for newlyweds Sam and Sylvia Duncan instilled a sense of discipline in their personal lives, a sense of value with respect to their money, and a sense of community with fellow military families in far-off lands. "You are in a different country. You have no family. Your family is the Army," he said. "It teaches you real quick to learn how to appreciate the smallest things in life and that's what it taught us."

Duncan, born in modest circumstances on a farm in Blytheville, Arkansas, was drafted at 18, and entered the Army in May of 1971, bound for Cold War Europe. His wife was three months pregnant as he checked into Ft. Ord in California for basic training. He didn't see her again until the next October, a few weeks before the birth of their first child, as the young couple relocated on assignment to Germany, where he was to patrol alongside the Berlin Wall. Ever-faithful in his appreciation of the little things in life, Duncan also learned to respect our military's role around the globe.

"'I am one of the luckiest people in the military'," he recalled thinking at the time, describing life as an MP 110 miles into communist territory. "Patrolling the Berlin Wall -- how many people can say that?"

Duncan's experience is a primer on how to work your way from the proverbial bottom to the very top. After his parents separated when he was 14, he and his mom set out for California on a Greyhound bus. Struggling to make ends meet, young Duncan began his career as a bagboy at a local Albertson's supermarket. He has been moving up in the retail industry ever since.

"I lived on a farm. We were very poor," he said about his first family memories, as the youngest of six. But, he believed in "working hard, not bragging about it and letting my actions speak for themselves."

Sam is especially proud of his three daughters and his four grandsons.

"I knew what life was like being poor and I did not want to live that way," he added.

That first job bagging groceries turned out to be a good luck charm. There, he met his wife, whose mom ran a nearby dry cleaner. The Albertson's store manager became his mentor and helped him dream; one day he could run his own company. Through the subsequent support of his mother and wife, that dream steadily became reality.

Lessons On Leadership
After a long and successful 22-year run at Albertson, Duncan's subsequent career included stints as President of Ralph's Supermarkets from 1998 to 2001 and President of Fred Meyer, Inc from 2001 to 2002. From 2002 to 2005, he served as the President and CEO of Shopko Stores with retail operations at more than 360 stores in the Midwest, Mountain and Pacific Northwest regions of the U.S., departing after agreeing to a private equity purchase of the company. He joined OfficeMax as CEO in 2005.

1.  Be yourself.“To make sure you’re living your values, surround yourself with people who share those values.”

2.  Listen to learn. “I always listen first. This helps me to learn about the business and the leadership style of the executives. People sometimes ask why I am so quiet. I tell them that I learn by listening.”

3.  Know your audience.

4.  It’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. “When it comes to doing what’s right for your company, or your customer, act with a sense of urgency. I can’t think of a single instance when I regretted taking action. But I have regretted NOT taking action.”

5.  Know your numbers.“I’ve always expected my people to know their numbers. It’s our culture. I expected them to keep a 3x5 card with their prior day, quarter to date, and YTD sales on it. It drives me nuts when managers don’t know the state of their business. Treat it like it’s your own business.”

6.  You pay for a training program whether you have one or not. “Invest in the time and money it takes to train your people. You’ll get that money back in lower turnover and lower shrink.”

7.  Just be honest, no matter how much it hurts. “Sometimes it’s not in your best interest to admit to something you did or failed to do. But if you want to have integrity — if you want to be known as a person who can be trusted — you have to do it.”

8. Encourage constructive criticism. “Encourage constructive criticism in meetings. Most poor performers avoid confrontation.”

9.  Remember that a leader’s job is to serve. “I have a motto: Help other people every day. HOPE. My role models: MLK and Mother Theresa. They weren’t leaders so much as servants. They were also great innovators in life. Every day, try to make a positive impact on one person.”

10.  “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up” – Jim Valvano.

A firm believer that payoffs come with hard work, Duncan believes that military service should be encouraged more in communities. Without a college degree, Duncan attributes much of his extraordinary business success to his military experience.

"Education does not make the person. It is integrity and accountability and discipline that make the person. What I achieved in the military was the foundation that if 'I kept that same work habit and ethic – anything could be achieved.'"

"Don't be afraid of the military," is a message he wants to send to kids today. "We need to talk about the military as much as we do going to college. It is a great stepping stone for people." Duncan's passion for inspiring the youth of today is embodied in many discussions and speaking events he has for children, with his "10 Lessons on Leadership" usually the subject [See related sidebar].

Looking Forward
With one eye on retirement, Duncan is ending a five-year CEO run next February. He has a lot to be proud of. Today, OfficeMax is the go-to place for the well equipped and effective office. With some 1,025 superstores in the US, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, OfficeMax offers 10,500 name-brand and OfficeMax-branded products, including paper, pens, forms, and organizers, as well as office furniture and a wide range of technology products.

"We built this company from the ground up," he said. "We took an organization that was the laughingstock of the office supply industry, to one that is admired for what we have done as a team. I am incredibly proud of that. I am looking forward to being back with my family, but not looking forward to my last day at OfficeMax."

Mr. Duncan plans to earn a college degree following his departure from OfficeMax.

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