CEOs Who Started on the Ground Floor

Monique Nelson, CEO, UniWorld Group (2012-present)

Tales of climbing the ladder from clerk to CEO aren’t reserved for the plots of Hollywood movies such as 9 to 5, Jerry Maguire or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The real world is filled with leaders who worked their way up from obscurity to earn millions running huge corporations.

How did they do it? Their stories, inspiring and instructive, reveal a drive to succeed, a willingness to buck convention and, of course, an unshakable work ethic.

If you start at the bottom, can you really make it to the top? As actress Audrey Hepburn said, “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says, ‘I’m possible!'”

Here’s an excerpt highlighting 2 executives (out of 15) who have proved it.

Monique Nelson

Age: 43

Started: Sales and marketing job at International Paper, age 21

Finished: CEO, UniWorld Group (2012-present)

Quote: “Be fearless in taking opportunities that you don’t know about.”

“I started in sales and marketing at International Paper’s plant in a small town near Green Bay, Wis.–a remote and ridiculously cold environment, a stinky paper mill in minus-20-degree weather.

“In my first few months, I was hitting a lot of walls. I wasn’t getting up to speed as fast as I would’ve liked. So I wrote a new employee manual with processes on how to enter an order into the system, acronyms people used, types of pulp, etc. I thought it would help with on-boarding people like me who came into the paper mill blind.

“Two years later, they transferred me to Arlington Heights, Ill. That employee manual was still being used after I left.

“Six months after I moved to Illinois, I was offered a marketing job at Motorola. I liked marketing, but one day my brand manager at Motorola asked me, ‘How much do you know about P&L?’ I replied, ‘Not much.’ So she suggested I spend time deepening my understanding of the product.”

“That led me to become an executive assistant to the head of Motorola’s product line management. I learned so much from him, working on client management, strategy, supply chain management. The job gave me a more visible role and led to promotions, including a stint in Milan and returning to the U.S. to lead big marketing campaigns.”

(Nelson is a 2011 Network Journal 40 Under Forty honoree.)

Ronald E. Daly

Age: 71

Started: Proofreader at RR Donnelley, age 17

Finished: CEO, Oce-USA Holding (2002-2004)

Quote: “I kept improving myself and investing in myself.”

“In 38 years at RR Donnelley, I went from apprentice proofreader to president of its largest unit, Print Solutions, a $3.7 billion business. The number-one thing I learned is you have to market yourself like a product and differentiate yourself. I got my education–an associate degree, undergrad degree in business and MBA–as a differentiator.

“I was a proofreader for four years, starting at $1.92 an hour. It was boring, so I applied for production coordinator and got it–the first African-American in that job. Few managers were educated (they were craftsmen), so I saw an opportunity.

“In 1979, I was 32 and a manager job opened up in a money-losing unit. I took it, and within two years we were profitable–in part because I applied root cause analysis that I learned in college. A few years later, I was a long shot to be general manager at a Pennsylvania plant, but I dazzled the senior VP in the interview and got the job. In 20 months, I made radical changes.

“I always stayed on the cutting edge of management. I’m a risk taker, and I don’t mind taking on tough assignments.”

(Article written by?Morey Stettner)