Client Perspective: CEO Ravi Saligram of Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers

October 2, 2018
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Designed to help CEOs and senior executives grow in their leadership, this occasional series offers insights on leadership seldom seen in textbooks. This is the first of a two-part interview. 

Ravi Saligram, CEO and director of the board of Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers, is a visionary leader with a proven track record of growing businesses, building brands, developing customer-centric teams, embracing digital, focusing on cash flow, and driving shareholder value. Throughout his career he has inspired employees to challenge the status quo, created cultures driven toward innovation, and built industry-leading, diverse, and inclusive leadership teams.

Ravi was appointed CEO of Ritchie Bros. in 2014 and since then has been transforming the company by evolving the world’s largest onsite heavy-equipment auctioneer into a relationship-based, technology-enabled, and data-driven multichannel asset management and disposition platform. In 2017 Ravi led the acquisition of online leader IronPlanet, making Ritchie Bros. one of the top 50 B2B e-commerce players in the world, with over $3 billion in online gross transaction value.

In addition, Ravi is also a board director of Church & Dwight, a major American manufacturer of household products best known for its Arm & Hammer line.

Prior to joining Ritchie Bros., Ravi was CEO of OfficeMax. He also has more than 20 years of senior management experience at Aramark, InterContinental Hotels Group, and SC Johnson. Ravi has lived in six countries and worked in many more across five continents over his 38-year career, starting at Leo Burnett in Chicago. He earned an MBA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an electrical engineering degree from Bangalore University, India.

Ravi spoke with RHR Senior Partner David Astorino about his leadership skills, business philosophies, and views on building diverse cultures that have enabled him to effectively lead in very different industries. (Click here to read Ravi’s article in Chief Executive magazine: “Want to Spice Up Innovation? Solve Your Gender Diversity Gap.”)

David: You adapt and lead effectively in very different industries. What is it about your leadership that enables you to be so effective in such unique and challenging environments?

Ravi: While I have lacked domain expertise in many of the new industries, I have relied on my strong general management training and focused on the fundamentals. I’m like an outsider who’s an insider, bringing an insatiable curiosity to what I do. What has made me effective:

Number one: I have unlimited reservoirs of energy and passion for brands. This was critical at Leo Burnett, and this is where I learned the importance of having a point of view. And that point of view had to be based on facts and the ability to defend yourself. That has shaped my style, and I expect it from my team as well.

Number two: I appreciate the importance of culture. Moving on to SC Johnson, I noted that the company was famous for its culture of being people oriented yet performance driven. It also had a very strong global mindset.

Number three: A service business is very different from packaged goods and consumer businesses, which is something I learned at the InterContinental Hotels Group. Here I learned the importance of the front line—your brand ambassadors whom you need to galvanize to deliver the value proposition.

Number four: The nitty-gritty details of operations are important. I learned this at Aramark, where there were thousands of associates under my remit. In a heavily operational business, such as food service, it is important to be both strategic and tactical several times in one day. Details matter!

Number five: Cash is king, which I learned at Aramark but applied at OfficeMax when I did my first real turnaround as a CEO. It is the core of the Ritchie Bros. model as well, which is focused on heavy equipment—the farthest from anything I’ve done.

Ritchie Bros. is a cash engine, and driving this is the key. In the last four years since I’ve taken over, we’ve doubled the cumulative operating free cash flow and grown the market capitalization of the company to USD $4.1 billion, an increase of $1.5 billion over the previous four years.

My guideposts at Ritchie Bros. and at all these companies have been driving stakeholder value, which includes three components: shareholder value, customer value, and employee value. You’ve got to keep all three in harmonious balance because they are interdependent.

Focusing on all employees, not just the superstars, is really important too. It is how you create pride and passion. Companies are actually made up of seemingly ordinary people who, in reality, have extraordinary potential; your job is to unleash the exponential power of those people and bring out the best in them.

And, coming back to your original question, industry expertise matters less at the CEO level if the industry is mature and being disrupted. Focus on customers, investors, and employees and watch out for disruptive forces. Find the drivers; use common sense. Listen — and listen very hard — because the people have the answers. Your job is to unlock them.

David: You were born and raised in India, became an American citizen, have worked in many geographies, and now lead a Canadian company and have been named British Columbia’s CEO of the year. How has your global perspective shaped your leadership? 

Ravi: I chose advertising, consumer packaged goods, and marketing in the heartland of America. This was different from people who came from India to be doctors or scientists. (And, truth be told, I was an immigrant who came to this country with nine dollars in my pocket, all of which were borrowed.)

I was one of the very first Indians to be hired by Leo Burnett. During the interview they asked, “Why should we hire an Indian engineer with an MBA who doesn’t have a green card? What can you bring us?” I spontaneously said, “I’ll be objective, not have personal biases, and only be guided by the customer.” Interestingly, this has become my mantra throughout the rest of my career.

First and foremost, I’d say I have developed into a good general manager because of my international training. In fact, I’ve lived in six countries and worked in 50. At 32, I joined SC Johnson, Korea, as the only foreigner. While my executives spoke okay English, much of the company didn’t speak English. I had to learn enough Korean to communicate. This taught me not to judge my executives’ business acumen based on their English-speaking abilities. Another key learning for me was the importance of being authentic and genuine—you cannot be fake because people see through that. Rather than the spoken word, people look more at your facial expressions, your body language, and how you treat others.

My philosophy is that human beings across the planet are about 80 percent the same, and the remaining 20 percent is cultural differences. (Click here to read Ravi’s article in Chief Executive magazine: “The Best of Both Worlds – How to Brew a Blended Culture.”) Too many executives lead with just their head. But to be successful in different cultures, you have to appeal to the heart as well. What people look for in a leader is caring, compassion, and someone who’s going to guide them to some level of prosperity. They want to know that you’re not selfish and that you worry more about others than about yourself. When you show consideration for people, they are willing to tolerate any cultural gaps you might have because they know you have a heart.

Lastly, I’d say that when leading in different geographies and cultures, you need to have clear values and integrity. I’ve put a lot of emphasis on how you do business, and integrity is at the center. I don’t compromise here because there are many situations where, as a leader, you can rationalize an action as adapting to a different culture, when in reality it is a compromise of your values.

Read part 2 of the interview

David Astorino is a senior partner and member of RHR International’s operating committee. For more than 20 years, he has been applying his expertise to complex client engagements, helping CEOs and boards of directors successfully drive the human side of transformational change within their organizations.