Troy native named to top spot at Sara Lee

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Features Editor

March 7, 2000 11 PM

Troy native Steven McMillan will take over a $20 billion conglomerate powerhouse of more than 160 labels from Hanes and Champion to Ball Park hot dogs, Coach leather goods and Sara Lee baked foods.

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McMillan, 54, president and chief operating officer of Sara Lee Corp. will succeed John H. Bryan as president and chief executive officer, effective, July 1, 2000.

"Steve has achieved an outstanding record of performance and demonstrated exceptional leadership capability during his 24 years of managing various business operations at Sara Lee," Bryan was quoted in the Chicago Sun Times. "His promotion ensures a strong continuity of management and strategy for our company."

According to Crain’s Chicago Business, McMillan’s blunt manner presents a striking contrast to the courtly style of fellow Southerner, Bryan

Even though the styles of the two are very different, McMillan is dedicated to the strong continuity of management and strategy at the helm of Sara Lee.

"I think John and I have had very similar philosophies on the business," McMillan was quoted in the Chicago Tribune. "I’ve worked with him for 24 years, so you might say John has been training me for 24 years. Everybody has a slightly different style and a different approach. People tend to focus on what the differences will be. I think what’s more important is what is similar and will stay the same."

McMillan has an undergraduate degree from Auburn University and an M.B.A. from Harvard. He began his career at McKinsey & Company in Chicago. He joined Sara Lee in 1976 and has run nearly every division in his 24 years with the company.

In 1979, McMillan was named president and CEO of Elecrolux/Canada and, in 1982, was named president and CEO of Electrolux Corp.

During his time at the helm of the former Sara Lee subsidiary that made vacuum cleaners, McMillan firmly established his reputation as an innovative motivator.

He made good use of the Electrolux mascot by learning to put his head in the mouth of a tiger. He performed that stunt many times to get his staff’s attention and motivate them to take risks.

McMillan will have the tiger by the tail as CEO of the Chicago-based consumer products giant, Sara Lee.

His success as one of the country’s top executives started at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder – or perhaps even below. A coal helmet was his first corporate attire as he spent the first 12 months after receiving his M.B.A. from Harvard,with Peabody Coal Company.

"Working underground in a coal mine must be the hardest job on earth," McMillan said. "The second hardest is a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman."

McMillan said those tough job experiences taught him much about human nature, perseverance, rejection and himself.

Working deep in a dark coal mine and knocking on door after door, McMillan realized early in his career that a positive attitude is the single most important attribute a person can have.

During his career, he has had many experiences – some good, some not so good. But he has managed to keep a positive attitude and a tiger’s eye on the goals he set for himself.

But when he does start to feel the stresses of being an executive of a Fortune 100 corporation, McMillan remembers a photograph in The New York Times.

The photograph was of a young boy who had lost his feet and hands to tribal warfare in an African country,

McMillan was so moved by that photograph that he carried it in his briefcase as a reminded that his problems weren’t the real problems of the world. That reminder help him keep a positive attitude and to pass it on to those who depend of him for leadership.

"If people feel good about what they are doing, their attitude will have a positive impact on their jobs and on their communities," McMillan said.

As McMillan prepares to take over as president and CEO of Sara Lee, the world’s largest packaged meats company and the U.S. market leader in breakfast sausage, frozen baked goods, underwear and intimate apparel, he will carry with him the same positive attitude that has carried him to the top. And, he will not forget what it was like deep in the coal mine where he started his climb up the corporate ladder. He will not forget the hot breath of the tiger on his neck. He will not forget that he is a country boy from Pike County, Alabama who found an exciting world and dared to embrace it.