Get To Know Chris Kowalewski, The CGO of Compass Group
Compass Group is the 6th largest global employer and the leader in food and support services management, with it's North American headquarters here in Charlotte, NC. Operating in 50 countries, employing over 550,000 people, and serving 10 million meals a day, Compass Group's annual revenue exceeded $18 billion in 2018.
Where did you grow up?
Lock Haven, PA. It’s population is around 5,000 and is home of Piper Aircraft and Hammermill Paper. It sits at the base of the Allegheny mountains, with a river that runs right through town. A beautiful place, very rural and simple. The big news there was when McDonalds got a drive-through! A lot of my friends from school are still there today…I was one of the few that left. If you go back today it’s like going back in time. My mom and dad still live there and probably always will, as it will always be home.
What were you like as a child?
I was fairly introverted, shy…an only child. I played a lot of sports and did well in school. Since we didn’t have any of the distractions of today we spent our daylight hours outside riding bikes and playing basketball and baseball. My father was an executive at one of the banks and mother was in economic development, so after school, a lot of my time was spent hanging out at the bus station that my, what I call my “pseudo parents”, owned where I helped with running tickets. On the weekends I’d go with my parents up to Pinecreek and cookout and hangout by the lake and swim. So a pretty typical childhood.
Graduating with a degree in Economics, then later completing the Advanced Management Program at Duke University, did you have your heart set on the type of career you have now?
I started college studying aerospace engineering because I wanted to fly rockets! That was my thing. I was mesmerized by aeronautics and aerospace. However, my freshman year I couldn’t pass physics or chemistry, so my advisor suggested I may want to rethink my plan, so I switched to economics and finance. I always took the “writing emphasis” options of my classes, because I thought it was important to be able to write well.
My intent through my junior year of college was that I was actually going to stay in Lock Haven. My senior year I got 4 job offers and I wound up doing an internship with a land development company. We began a project 30 minutes north of Manhattan at the Sing Sing Prison, a former maximum security prison. We bought 9 acres on the Hudson River, including the warden’s mansion (which I lived in while it was renovated to become the clubhouse), and we built 93 condominiums on that property.
I was the managing partner for the development at 22yrs old, and had no idea what I was doing! Fortunately, I had some really good mentors and people around me! (one of the partners was George Oswald, who owned an advertising firm on Madison Ave that he sold for $400+ million in the 80’s). You had to grow up quickly. You learned a lot about how to and how not to do business. Even though we sold out almost immediately, I was burned out, exhausted, and not happy. It was a great learning experience and prepared me for life, but it was time to move on. Thankfully my parents wouldn’t allow me to move back home to “reevaluate” my life, and said I wasn’t allowed to come home unless I had another job…which forced me to figure it out with no fallback plan! So in the summer of 1988, it ended up being between selling adhesives (the sticky stuff on the back of bandaids and stickers) verses selling vending at Compass, and I chose Compass and the rest is history!
Did you ever imagine you’d be such an integral part of a global organization, beginning in sales, becoming promoted to Vice President of Sales in 1997, then Senior Vice President in 1999, and ultimately the Chief Growth Officer in 2015
I don’t think you can ever plan the timing. I don’t think you can every say I’m going to be the VP by ’97, Senior VP by ’99, and Head of Sales/CGO in 2015. You don’t find the job, the job finds you. Every role that I’ve been afforded, I never expected the timing. I always thought I could get there, but I never expected it on the time table that it happened. If you don’t take the opportunity when it presents itself, you may never get the chance again.
What do you feel is the key to sales and company growth?
The key to being successful in sales, you’ve got to be really good at making friends and building coalitions. If you don’t overcomplicate it, it’s an easy game. When people hear your name, how do you want them to react? Do you want them smiling and thinking good things, or do you wanting them hitting the decline button on their phone? It’s reality. For myself, I’ve always just tried to look after the people and try to do the right thing. The tactical stuff you can figure out, but the people part is the most important, because you need to hold on to your talent, and keep bringing new talent in. My view has always been, if I can do that, this thing will be sustainable for 10, 20, 30 years. The present is important, but you’ve got to stay focused on sustainability. That’s got to be the mindset, and if you do that, things will work themselves out. You’ve also got to put people in good spots to be successful. They’ve got to be encouraged and feel good about asking for help. They’ve got to know that you’re going to be there when they need help, and that you’ll get them what they need.
What do you enjoy most about your role of CGO?
The people, and all the relationships you foster with one another over 30 years is huge. Now, their kids are getting married, they’re having grandkids, and there’s all these crucible moments that you go through together. That’s so important. Creating opportunities and seeing the people progress and grow.
As the very first team member of Compass to graduate Excellence In Speaking Institute (ESI) in 1999, what initially connected you with Ty Boyd Inc., and made you want to take the course?
I was at a dinner one night with some friends, colleagues and consultants, and somehow we got on the topic of what some team members needed to work on, which was public speaking, doing presentations, being in front of a group and one-on-ones. And I said one thing I struggle with when I get in front of people is trying to figure out what to do. I’m a mess. And one of my friends said to me, “You really ought to check out Ty Boyd and his Institute”.
What was your experience like attending the ESI as a student?
I was a nervous wreck! I almost backed out the night before it started, and thought about flying back to NY. I obviously went through with it, but it was a big-time challenge. But also eye-opening and really valuable. I even still remember almost all of my classmates this many years later; it made that much of an impression on me.
How do you think it's helped you the most in your career and reaching the high level of success that you have?
I couldn’t even do what we’re doing right now, having this one-one-one, before ESI. At least not comfortably. Not confidently. Even for example, yesterday I had to speak to our group of new hires for 60-90 minutes, and before ESI I would’ve been sweating trying to script out some notes, whereas now I don’t have to use note cards anymore.
After you graduated and progressed in your career, what made you want to continue your connection with Ty Boyd Inc., now as a corporate partner?
It’s a 20 year relationship that has progressed and has been fostered over time. Starting with me going through ESI in ’99, then doing a good bit of one-on-one work with Anne over the years to make sure my skills stayed sharp. She and I always talked about the plan going forward, and us continuing our partnership by sending our people through your course over the years. You all work really well together and the chemistry is fantastic…it’s been an absolutely terrific 20 year run, and I trust that it’ll go for another 20+ years.
Out of the thousands of your employees that have been through our Excellence In Speaking Institute, what changes do you see in them after they've taken the course?
I think the most important reason is you see the impact and you see the reaction from the graduates. They all see the value. Most walk away feeling it’s the best personal and professional development they’ve ever taken. You see the productivity gained from it. How much better we prepare. Molly has helped a number of the people in the field take on bigger opportunities and be able to prepare to have those discussions with potential clients. You see the value in real life. It’s very tangible. I’m not sure how you’d measure it other than by the fact that we’re a lot better because of you, than the other way around.
Do you feel ESI has been a key component in increasing your company's overall productivity and revenue?
The continual feedback that I get about what you all do and the impact you have…it’s pretty special. You have to be able to listen well, speak well, and write well, and that’s become a lost art. In the current time we live, where we’re so used to using our phones to communicate by text and email, it just makes what you all do that much more important.
From a team-building aspect, in what way do you feel the Ty Boyd Inc training strengthens your company culture?
I think it’s much more disarming for them to go through the course with their colleagues. I encourage them to keep the connections, but you’ve got to let that happen organically. I honestly care more about how they elevate their own personal and professional skills. If you go all in and embrace the experience, the stronger culture and camaraderie will be a by-product naturally.
What would you say to other corporations that are considering bringing ESI in-house for employee training?
It was the best professional and personal development in my life. A lot of my colleagues have said the same thing. I even had my son Matt go through it when he was 19. Look at the impact it has on someone’s life and career. It’s worth the investment.