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Trubeck '68 shares business insights with senior-level class

Barry McNamara
10/25/2011
Bill Trubeck '68 makes a point during his visit to an MC classroom on Oct. 20
Does Duke the Bush Beans spokesdog eat Iams pet food?

Are Waste Management trucks made with AK Steel?

Those weren’t questions asked of 1968 Monmouth College graduate Bill Trubeck on his return to campus last week, but Trubeck would be uniquely qualified to answer them, having been employed by or having served on the board of directors of all four companies.

“It’s a lot of fun to see a business grow and succeed,” he told MC students in a senior-level capstone business course that is taught by political economy and commerce faculty member Don Capener. “It’s a tremendous experience.”

Trubeck encouraged students to actively engage in internships while sharing his insights on the struggles and ultimate successes at the four different companies, telling the students how:

• AK Steel, formerly Armco, survived during the unanticipated bust of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s;

• Waste Management overcame a huge debt burden that left it “near death’s door” with a revised strategic plan, good execution and good fortune;

• Bush Beans moved from a regional food processor with $75 million in sales 15 years ago to a national brand powerhouse with close to $1 billion today; and

• the former CEO of Iams spent two years raising the $2 million necessary to buy the company from its founder, Paul Iams, before eventually selling it for $2.2 billion.

Among other topics, Trubeck discussed diversification, product research and development and sticking hard and fast to well-conceived strategic plans and mission statements. He said, “All four companies are good examples of how critical strategy is to financial success.”

Bush Beans provided the best example, Trubeck said, reporting that the company set out to be “the premier provider of bean products for consumption … with an unchallenged reputation as the best in its class.”

Among its key decisions were sprucing up its label and adding copper lids, discontinuing production of poor-selling food items and adding various product extensions such as grilling beans and products that appeal to the Hispanic market. Increased awareness through advertising featuring the company’s loquacious golden retriever helped tremendously, too.

Trubeck said that Iams had a similar success story, with the company really taking off after Clay Mathile purchased it. Iams began to focus on manufacturing “good food that would prolong the lives of animals.”

“I can’t describe all the science, but it was endorsed by most veterinarians,” said Trubeck. “Iams spent a lot of money on research. … It was a highly ethical proposition. They proved you can do it right and win.”

Doing things right didn’t necessarily happen at Armco, which, like its competitors – including Bethlehem Steel – had thought its profit arrow was going to continue upward and to the right “into infinity.”

Seeking to fill the profit gaps that were created when there was a decrease in demand for its base product, Armco initially drew praise from Wall Street for diversifying into such ventures as oil and insurance.

But, said Trubeck, “Both new ventures took uncharacteristic downturns. Everything that could go wrong, did.”

Armco experienced better fortune with its next major decision, partnering with the Japanese company Kawasaki, a leader in the new electro-galvanized steel market.

“Kawasaki had proprietary technology that was needed to make state-of-the-art products for the auto industry,” Trubeck said. “Soon, Bethlehem’s stock price was cut in half, and Armco’s doubled when it launched electrified steel manufacturing that prevented premature rusting. Ultimately, Bethlehem Steel had to file, and it no longer exists. Armco survived.”

Waste Management nearly filed, too, crippled by an “almost fradulent” $1.7 billion overstatement of its earnings.

“Its strategic direction had gone completely afoul,” said Trubeck.

But a new slogan of “From everyday collection to environmental protection” and extensive work by more than 1,000 accountants were keys to the company’s recovery.

“We also fixed it by taking elements of the company that didn’t fit the strategic direction and selling them off to help with the debt,” he said.

While board-room decisions might seem far in the future to students, Trubeck offered advice on what they could be doing right now.

“When you leave here, you’ve got to have some math background. Probability and statistics is one of the most important classes you’ll take in college.”

Trubeck also told the students, “I read a lot of books. You never stop learning. Those who have taken it upon themselves to do more are going to experience more success than those who just have a base level of understanding.”

Asked about conveying some of his business ideas to his alma mater, Trubeck, who is a member of the college’s board of trustees, replied, “I love this place. I got a great education, and I’m investing to make sure that type of education is still available at an ever-increasing level of value. … We need to make sure we don’t try to move too far, too fast, and that we have the funds available for the improvements we have planned, as well as quality instruction.”