CEOs are cut from a different cloth. We admire them for their driven attitudes that feed the business and the inspiring origin stories that earned their seat, but at the same time, they also remain an enigma wrapped in a cloak of questions. Suffice it to say, even the most approachable execs can make one wonder what they’re like off the clock.
When our CEO, John Ganem, hit his 16th anniversary with Kloeckner this year in January, the Marketing Team decided it’d be fun to find out more about the man behind the metal. He’s worn several hats during his tenure. In addition to his turn as the Americas CEO, he serves on the Global Management Board; but what do we know about John’s passions outside of the company? Head of Marketing and Communications, Steven Nghe, joined me to get some of those burning questions answered! Here’s a look back on John’s 16 years with Kloeckner, plus a few things you might not know about him.
Lauren Wiggins: “I figured we’d start at the beginning with an easy one. What was your very first job?”
John Ganem: “My first job out of college was in a sales management training program for what used to be LTV Steel in Detroit. It was a year-long intensive sales management training program. It was a good opportunity for somebody coming out of college – in the real world for the first time. For a kid who graduated from Key West High School to pack up a U-haul and drive to Detroit, it was a leap of faith to work in the steel industry, knowing nothing about it. It worked out alright.”
LW: “It sure did! What’s something you loved about it? Did you learn anything from it that you still use today?”
JG: “I really loved the experience I shared with my group. We became friends! We just naturally spent a lot of time together learning so much about the steelmaking process and the technical side. The other neat thing, as someone who had never seen the inside of a major manufacturing business before, the first time I walked into a steel mill was somewhat awesome. You get the steel bug! Most people in the industry will tell you that once you’re a steel person, you’re always a steel person.”
Steven Nghe: “I have a follow-up, John. Did you know that would be your sentiment, or were you taking any job you could get as a kid fresh out of college?”
JG: “When I graduated, it was 1991, and we had just come through a recession. They called that time a ‘Jobless Recovery.’ My dad ran a small oil distribution business that included a chain of gas stations and convenience stores. With his help, I initially got a job with Frito Lay in their management training program out of Tampa. At the time, they were a hot company, and I was pretty intent on going to work for them. I was even trying to figure out which of my buddies from high school I could room with. Then, my dad sat me down and talked about the difference between short-term and long-term. At the end of the conversation, he asked, ‘do you really want to sell potato chips to guys like me, or do you want to sell steel to General Motors?’ That was all it took to change my mind.”
LW: “Well, I was going to ask how you got into the metal industry, but that answers that question.”
JG: “Yeah, I’m a lifer!”
LW: “What brought you to Kloeckner?”
JG: “They bought the company I was working for.”
SN: “That seems like it would bring some nervousness and stress. What made you decide to stay with Kloeckner through the mergers and acquisitions?”
JG: “Yeah, it was a stressful time. I was part of the Macsteel Service Center based out of Newport Beach, CA, which was acquired in 2011. It was a nice gig living out in California in the steel business, and it was a surprise to all of us when it happened. They walked in one day on what we thought was a simple integration meeting and handed us an org chart. I just thought, ‘please let my name be on it.’ It was, and I maintained the same role with Kloeckner, except it was double the responsibility, and the job was no longer in Newport Beach. I had to pack the family up and move across the country, but again, it worked out.”
LW: “You’ve served other roles here, but what’s your favorite thing about being CEO of Kloeckner?”
JG: “That’s a loaded question! I think anyone who assumes this role you don’t really understand the awesome responsibility that comes with it. Nobody can prepare you for that, but it’s humbling when you show up the day after you’re announced as CEO. Every company is different, and it takes time to acclimate yourself. Coming from the business and procurement side, I was deeply involved in the day-to-day, and I had to shift my focus to not micromanage on an hour-to-hour basis.”
LW: “So it’s learned along the way?”
JG: “Yes. What I figured out was that my job is to be the voice of the company, right? It’s on me and the rest of the executive team to define what we want this company to be. That was never a key initiative on my radar when I took the job. But, you get into it and find you don’t have an identity or corporate culture. We hadn’t defined our values and principles, so you go through that process. Seeing where we were and where we are today is special to me.”
LW: “Right on! I’ve almost hit my 90 days, but I somehow knew you would mention culture. It’s something that comes through as being paramount to you.”
JG: “For me, it’s about making this a place people want to be, a place they want to grow a career. Seeing our people become passionate about the organization and knowing that’s the kind of impact you can have as a CEO…I think that’s been the most rewarding part of this.”
LW: “Alright, where’s the coolest place you’ve traveled for business? Would you live there if you could?”
JG: “I’ve traveled the world, seeing more steel mills than you could possibly imagine. I loved South Africa! I had the chance to go to a big game park out in the bush, and it was certainly a bucket list item.”
LW: “Cool, I’m actually headed to Africa next January. I’m looking forward to having breakfast with the giraffes.”
JG: “Watch the lions, Lauren, watch the lions. But beware that the true king of the jungle is the elephant. To answer the rest of your question, the neat thing about traveling is experiencing the cultures. From Istanbul to Japan – I always enjoy it, but I can tell you when the plane wheels touchdown back in good ol’ USA, it feels good to be home, so I’d say there’s no other place for me.”
LW: “Fair enough! The next question is about hidden talents. For instance, I’m a yo-yo master. Do you have a hidden talent that most people don’t know about? If not, what’s your greatest passion or hobby when you’re off the clock?”
JG: “I have zero hidden talents. I used to love to play golf but don’t get to do enough of it anymore. You go through life assuming more and more levels of responsibility, and it becomes difficult to squeeze in pastimes. I try to spend as much time as I can with my family. I’ve got two boys in college, so I’m just hanging out with my wife and trying to stay in shape.”
LW: “You graduated from Brown University – if you were giving a speech to their graduating class today, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give them?”
JG: “That’s a tough one. Based on where we are as a society today, I think, as a country, we’ve become too divided, and it’s unfortunate because that’s not who we are. I want to believe there’s more acceptance out there, but I would still encourage younger generations to be open-minded. I’d tell them to always find compassion and respect for others. I might be the CEO of a business, but that’s what I try to do every day with the influence I’ve got – unite people and embrace inclusivity.”
LW: “Oh yeah, we’re living in some divisive times, for sure. That’s a good use of influence.”
JG: “Right, it’s about being human.”
LW: “We’ve got another tough one: what’s the biggest, most important change you’ve been part of in your 16 years at Kloeckner, and why?”
JG: “Well, we’ve always been good at buying and selling, servicing our customers – all that stuff. That makes us successful, but I think we’ve been better at recognizing that it’s our people who make us successful over the last few years. We’ve shifted focus to elevating those employee relationships with training and development, mentoring, and more impactful talent recruitment strategies. That’s the big shift for me.”
SN: “I have a follow-up! So what’s it like from your seat? You know we’re so focused on people. What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve seen from making that shift from your 10,000-foot view? “
JG: “I think it’s defining what is most important to our employees, right? What makes them passionate? What makes them excited about coming to work for Kloeckner Metals? Is it about office aesthetics? Are we training managers to be effective leaders? Is it a work-life balance thing? Is it the benefits we’re offering, or are they competitive enough? Is there something we don’t have? Then there’s trying to keep our finger on that pulse and make changes. It’s foundational. You must have a culture with a high degree of trust, so people feel comfortable engaging and giving you feedback, even if it’s uncomfortable. It’s tough to do it all, but you have to keep working at it.”
LW: “It’s definitely an everyday discipline. Alright, tell us about your hero, a leader, or a public figure you admire – is there a principle they stand for that you’ve adopted as your own, or something in their work that inspires yours at Kloeckner?
JG: “I thought there’d be some easy questions in this interview. We just kicked off our mentoring program, and I think I had a unique experience in that area. I worked for two very different CEOs of two large service centers. They were recognized as winning leaders in our industry, and I learned a lot from both. Total opposites, though. One guy knew every detail, every number there was to know. There was absolutely nobody who knew more than he did about the day-to-day business in real-time, and I took that from him. I’m quantitative by nature, and I appreciate the power of knowledge. My other mentor taught me how the culture starts with the CEO and that they must ultimately set the tone for the entire organization. Thanks to them, I think I am a more balanced and stronger leader.”
LW: “Yeah, it’s about balance! Okay, how about your family – what are your responsibilities at home? Is there a fun activity/tradition you enjoy together? As you know, Steven’s a new daddy, and I’m getting married in April, so we need all the good advice we can get.”
JG: (With a big grin on his face) “I do what I’m told at home, and that’s the best advice I can give you, Lauren.”
JG: “No, we don’t have a big family, but our family is close. When my boys were younger, I was involved in all their sports. I coached football and spent countless weekends on the road with my son, who played Lacrosse. Now, we just try to vacation together and get to the beach or the mountains. But it’s just amazing how fast all of it goes. So, the advice I’d give to Steven is to cherish every moment. One minute they’re in college, then, next thing you know, it’s grad school and getting married. And it’s like you can clearly remember their first steps in your head, but where did the time go?”
SN: “Yeah, somebody told me that as your kids get older, you’ve already worried about them for so long, but it just evolves. You don’t worry less. You just worry about different things.”
JG: “You just worry about bigger things.”
LW: “Do you have twins, John? You mentioned they’re both in college.”
JG: “No, they’re 22 and 19.”
LW: “Okay, they looked so similar in the pictures on your desk. Strong genes!”
JG: “What can I say, I married well.”
LW: “Here’s our final question – if you could turn back the hands of time and do one thing differently at any point in your life, what would it be, and why would you change it?”
JG: “My mind goes to that movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ What happens if I make one different decision, and everything changes from there? I took a lot of chances along the way that paid off, from a professional standpoint, at least. I’ll always wish I talked to my boys more. You can never get enough time to address the important feelings instead of just being Dad. You can be present, and you’ll still feel like you missed opportunities, but I ended up with a great family. I have a job that allows me to feel purpose at a company that’s at the forefront of big changes that will affect the entire industry I’ve grown in. At the end of the day, I can’t say I’d change any of those things.”
LW: “Yeah, that one is kind of a trick question, but after briefly hearing about your climb, it’s the perfect answer.”
We want to thank John for carving out this time for a personal interview and for being so candid. It’s always humbling to hear the journey that successful people trekked to get where they are; this story certainly hit the mark, and there’s more to be told.
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