Ken Marlin on “The Marine Corps Way”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

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Ken Marlin is Managing Partner and Founder of Marlin & Associates. For more than 30 years, He has advised scores of U.S. and international middle-market technology enabled firms on the best ways to buy, sell, grow and thrive.

Between 1970 and 1981, Ken arose from the enlisted ranks to become a Marine captain and infantry commander. He deployed twice to the Far East. Since then, he’s been an entrepreneur, a tech company CEO, a senior corporate executive and, for the past twenty-plus years, an investment banker on Wall Street. Throughout all these endeavors, he has applied Marine Corps principles to leading successful businesses. Today as the founder and managing partner of the award-winning investment bank Marlin & Associates, he is a member of the Market Data Hall of Fame, twice named one of Institutional Investor’s “Tech 50,” and has appeared in publications ranging from BusinessWeek, Fortune and Forbes to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New York Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Associated Press. He has appeared on CNBC, CBS MarketWatch, Yahoo TV, The Street.com TV, and Fox Business Channel.

His book, The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street: 11 Key Principles from Battlefield to Boardroom, was published by St. Martin’s Press (August 2016). One reviewer called it a book that “…lays out a compelling vision to improve Wall Street and Main Street by returning to solid core values like taking the long view, behaving with honor, delivering excellence and working for a cause greater than money…” As Ken says, he’s no socialist and has no issue with making money or helping others to do so – as long as it is done with honor.

Ken earned a BA from the University of California (Irvine), an MBA from UCLA, and a post-MBA Advanced Professional Certificate in Corporate Strategy from New York University. He lives in Manhattan

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Morris: Before discussing The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Marlin: I’ve had many great mentors and leadership examples over time, but I would have to credit my parents as having the most influence: They both are descended from Eastern Europeans who fled oppression to make a new life – they both are in the first generation in their families to go to college. They both believe in hard work and in education. And they instilled both in me.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?

Marlin: As you know, before I moved to New York City, I spent ten years on active duty in the Marines. There were several Marine Corps officers that demonstrated every day what it takes to be a true leader – and not a politician. One example was Col Chuck Barstow and another was Col Joe O’Brien. They both lived a credo of doing the right things, for the right reasons, every time – no excuses. I’ve tried to live by their example. They taught me about courage, commitment, and the discipline of planning, preparing, leading with excellence. There are others, of course. In my first job outside the Marines I worked for two senior executives both of whom had been consultants at McKinsey – Dick Schmidt and David McBride. They showed the same sorts of leadership skills and discipline and added a sense of how to get things accomplished in the civilian world.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Marlin: The career course I took was a bit serendipitous. As I was leaving the Marines, I looked for a good job and got several offers. The one I accepted was from Dun & Bradstreet and it turned out to be a great choice. The company was in the early phases of a Berkshire Hathaway-like strategy – using the D&B core to acquire more than 60 companies and forming units around 23 separate businesses of which the D&B business information unit was but one. We owned companies such as Moody’s the bond rating firm and AC Nielsen the media measurement firm. Dick Schmidt and Dave McBride, whom I mentioned a minute ago, mentored me and eventually let me lead global strategy and lead transactions in a dozen countries. I joined D&B as a trainee and left as a senior VP. The epiphany came not long after I joined D&B, when I realized that the principles I learned as a Marine were totally applicable to leading businesses. And that I should embrace them. That realization has stood me in good stead ever since.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Marlin
: My undergraduate degree is in political science. The best thing it did for me was force me to be a better writer. Communicating clearly in the English language is an art that is lost to many. As a side benefit, that education helped me to be more aware and sympathetic to people of different experiences and cultures – I now lead an international practice. My MBA has been more directly useful. In that program I learned about disciplines such as economics, accounting, finance, business law, and marketing – and it helped me to understand the way that business people think. Having said that, I do not believe that an MBA is required for the work that we do. What’s required is intelligence, a strong work ethic, a willingness to take initiative and accept responsibility, strong financial skills, strong communication skills, and strong people skills. The rest can be learned on the job.

Morris: Do you have any favorite quotations?

Marlin: I often quote George Bernard Shaw who said something to the affect that: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I firmly believe that this is one big difference between managers and leaders. Managers recognize the constraints and adapt themselves. Leaders are unreasonable people who refuse to accept those constraints and break down barriers.

I also love a quote by Marine General Chesty Puller. In the winter of 1950 with temperatures 30 degrees below zero, he was chasing North Koreans when unbeknownst to him the Chinese Army entered the war. Several US Army Divisions were overrun and Puller found his 1st Marine Division at a place called the Chosin Reservoir completely surrounded by something like 13 Divisions of Chinese and North Korean soldiers. It was 30 degrees below zero. There was no hope of reinforcement. But Marines don’t quit. Puller is reported to have said something like: “All right, they are on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front of us, they’re behind us…they can’t get away.” And then he fought his way to the sea – decimating at least seven enemy divisions and arriving safely with all his equipment, carrying all his wounded and dead. I greatly admire that optimism and determination. Puller did not know the word “surrender.”

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Marlin: Dick Schmidt, who was one of my mentors and bosses at D&B, once said to me: “Strategic Planning is not about what you will do in five years, it’s about the actions that you will take today and tomorrow in order to get the organization to where you want it to be in five years. That’s the essence of strategy.” But I’ll agree with Mr. Porter that a lot of strategy is about focus and focus is not about what you do, it’s about what you don’t do. During World War II Admiral Nimitz led US forces in the eastern Pacific and was renowned not only for the battles we won in places like Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima but also for the islands and battles he skipped. To win on the battlefield and in corporate America — and on Wall Street — you need to maintain focus on achieving the long-term strategic objective and not getting sidetracked by battles that don’t need to be fought. That seems logical but it always surprises me to see companies introduce products, open offices, and acquire businesses that they don’t really need just because they can.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Marlin: It’s so true – and also I would add that execution of tactics without clearly knowing where you are heading strategically is a recipe for a waste of time, energy, and money at the least – and can lead to disaster. You need both the vision to know where it is you want to go and the discipline of executing on that strategy with excellence.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Marlin: That one goes with my response to the Edison quote. And, I’ll add one of my favorite quotes from Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Morris: Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be closely associated for an extended weekend of one-on-one conversation? Why?

Marlin: Lee Iacocca who first led Ford and then transformed Chrysler would be fascinating to be with for a weekend – perhaps in part because I love both his business leadership and his cars. I am a car lover. Golda Meir the prime minister of Israel who saw that nation from its birth through its many struggles to survive and shepherded it through prosperity would be totally fascinating. Geoffrey Canada would be another. He started Harlem Children’s Zone here in New York City and is trying to make success a self-reinforcing phenomenon, as children and their families see success all around them and recalibrate their expectations. General Chesty Puller — mentioned a few minutes ago — and fought in every war from the Chinese Boxer Rebellion through both World Wars and the Korean War, and along the way, was awarded five (count them five!) Navy Crosses. That’s one small notch below the Medal of Honor. Admiral Nimitz, General MacArthur; Lou Gehrig who led the New York Yankees to so many world titles; Warren Buffet – whose down to earth fundamentalist approach to business has not only led to great success but has avoided so many traps that others have succumbed to.

The Dali Lama would certainly be one, as would Winston Churchill – I would love to talk to him about his ability to bounce back from defeat. But I’m not sure I could keep up with his drinking for an entire weekend. Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi has been such an amazing leader even when under house arrest for years and would be great. Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs both changed the world as we know it – but I hear Jobs wasn’t the greatest person for an informal chat and a full weekend might be too much. Henry Ford and Elon Musk are both amazingly successful entrepreneurs that would be fun to be with.

I was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was still in jail and apartheid was in full force. A weekend with him would be huge. Lyndon Johnson completely reshaped America in the 1960s, civil rights, voting rights, the war on poverty and Vietnam. We would have a ton to talk about. Franklin Roosevelt brought the country back from the Great Depression and led us through most of World War II. We could talk for a month. Harry Truman would be great too. So would Henry Kissinger. I would love to hear the inside story of negotiating the Paris Peace Accords. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be a phenomenal person to spend a weekend with.

But if I must pick only one, I’ll take Mahatma Gandhi. He was a lawyer and a writer and an activist who not only changed the world but he did so with an approach that forever changed the way in which many people have since attempted to change the world.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Marlin: Ahh, now you are getting to the premise of my book – an attempt to change an entrenched culture is never easy and I would like to change the culture on Wall Street, in Boardrooms, and maybe in a few Washington DC caucus rooms. So, I’ll fall back on a few quotes: One is from Buddha: “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.” I want to start. Another quote is from the Chinese philosopher Laozi who famously said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (He said it not Confucius). You have to start someplace.

But I like most to paraphrase Ronald Regan around 1981 when he was talking about cutting the Federal budget. I’ll probably mangle his quotation but essentially he said: “We have to ask ourselves if we do nothing, where does all of this end? Can anyone here say that if we can’t do it, someone down the road can do it, and if no one does it, what happens to the country?” All of us know the economy would face an eventual collapse. I know it’s a hell of a challenge, but ask yourselves if not us, who, if not now, when?

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Marlin: I suppose there are at least two great challenges:

The first is fighting against a culture that rewards individuals over teams, respects people in accordance with their net worth, condones and sometimes encourages and rewards people who take advantage of gray areas and of the unsophisticated, unwary or weak. A prime example is the recent fiasco at Wells Fargo bank where they put in place a reward system that put pressure on employees to open deposit accounts and sign up for credit cards – and punished those who did not meet objectives the result was that more than 5,000 Wells employees including supervisors at every level participated in the opening of accounts and setting up credit cards for millions of customers – without their knowledge or permission. We need to fight this culture.

But we also need to fight the tendency to devalue domain expertise in favor of generalists. There are far too few domain experts in leadership positions and too many generalist bankers, business leaders and politicians. And it’s killing us

My father, who has his master’s degree in mechanical engineering and thermodynamics, is retired now. He is 92. He used to work at the Cummins engine company where he was one of those who led the development of the small diesel engines that are now found in Ram pickup trucks.

He used to come home and bemoan senior managers who were very smart, got MBAs from top schools, and knew all about finance, marketing, negotiating, labor relations and more – but did not know the difference between a crankshaft and a piston rod. How can they lead an engine company? How can they be sure to avoid the next pitfall? They can’t. They are generalists.

We used to have bankers on Wall Street who were domain experts in the areas in which they advised. We need CEOs in boardrooms who are domain experts in the areas in which their firms operate; and we need true experts leading committees in Congress. We have far too many politicians who honestly believe that they are qualified to guide trade policy one day, healthcare policy the next day, energy, defense and welfare policy the next day, budget priorities etc. But are masters of none. We have far too many bankers who believe that they can advise a telephone company one day, a newspaper company and software company the next. After all, it’s all “TMT.” We need leaders and advisers with true domain expertise. Not generalists.

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Ken invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Slide share about the book link

Amazon reviews link

Forbes review link

Link to Ken’s perspectives in an article in the New York Times

Link to Maria Bartiromo’s interview of Ken on Fox

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