Power and Responsibility from the top ranks of corporate America telecoms vet Bruce Gordon propels civil rights change
We are in a sun-lit conference room that shows off the magnificent mid-Manhattan panorama as only the upper floors of a corporate headquarters can.
The public relations officer has just finished explaining that she has worked with Bruce S. Gordon only once before, so he probably won't remember her, when Gordon walks into the room, shakes her hand and says: "You changed your hair."
Then comes the "hey, bro" hand grip, grunt and shoulder-to-shoulder embrace with the photographer, whom he has also met before.
So this is the man who, as president of Verizon's Retail Markets unit, runs the biggest business of the biggest phone company in the country. With his quick, lopsided smile, die-hard 'fro and time to notice "the little people," he is, indisputedly, one of the most powerful Blacks in corporate America,
"I think he still amazes people how he can walk up to folks and call them by name. It's that personal style that I have tried to pattern my own leadership in," says Eric Cevis, vice president of business and wholesale marketing on Gordon's Retail Markets team. Cevis has known Gordon for 17 years. "People are more productive and more willing to follow leadership where you care enough to personalize the experience, to have a rapport with them to the point of saying hello to them."
Gordon has consistently demonstrated that style of leadership, says Cevis, citing a letter he received from Gordon in 1989 as his most memorable and most inspiring experience of that leadership. The letter came a day after Cevis's presentation as representative of the graduating class of Verizon's prized "Top Gun" training program. Gordon had delivered the "senior officer" speech to the class the same day. "I got a note on his personal stationery that said �I am more than looking forward to watching your career progress in Verizon,'" says Cevis. "Not on Verizon letterhead. On his personal stationery. I'm way down on the totem pole, in my third year, and this senior officer takes the time to drop me a note like that."
When you're responsible for 32,000 employees spread across 29 states and the District of Columbia, 28.9 million residential customers and 2.4 million small-business customers, not to mention the $25 billion or so your unit brings in every year, leadership is a serious affair. "There's no question that leadership technique has an immeasurable impact on a business," Gordon said once while describing his participation in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Alfred P. Sloan Fellows Program in 1988. "You have to lead yourself first. If you're not connected to yourself, you're hard-pressed to relate to others," he said.
Choosing the Corporate Route
At 57, Gordon is at the top of a game he chose to play. "When I was a young person, I didn't have a clue what I would do. I come from a family of educators, so I thought I would end up in the field of education," says the Camden, N.J., native. But his parents, both very active in the civil rights movement, saw opportunities elsewhere. "They believed the world would look a lot different than it did in their generation," Gordon says. Their guidance, plus his own assessment that corporate America had opened up to Blacks, steered him away from education but not from his own commitment to the civil rights struggle. "My view was that corporate America, if properly navigated, could be another platform for civil rights change," he says.
His career in telecommunications began when he joined Bell of Pennsylvania as a management trainee in 1968. "The path I chose turned out to be the most dynamic in the world," he says.
He worked his way up with assignments in personnel, operations, and sales and marketing. In 1985, he was appointed vice president of sales at Bell Atlantic. By the time Bell Atlantic merged with GTE in June 2000, creating Verizon, Gordon had been group president for Bell Atlantic's Enterprise business unit, with responsibility for all of that unit's activities, including Enterprise Customer Services Delivery, Federal Systems, the Data Solutions group and the Telecom Systems group, had directed the company's retail marketing for all consumer and business customers, with responsibilities for product and market management, advertising and brand management, and had been accountable for quality initiatives across the entire corporation. He had also directed enterprise marketing for the corporation formed when Verizon acquired NYNEX.
Gordon accomplished all of this without a career game plan but with strong support on the home front, tons of energy and abundant skill in navigating corporate America. "I don't have a game plan. I like my work. I am energized by what I do. I like getting up and I get engaged," he says. "I'm married to a wonderful woman who is my best friend, my partner in life, my support system."
Today Gordon reports to Verizon Vice Chairman and President Lawrence T. Babbio Jr., who, in turn, reports to CEO Ivan G. Seidenberg. The Retail Markets group, with 2002 revenues of $23 billion, more than half the $40 billion Verizon Domestic Telecom earned for the year, is where customers begin when they need to establish new residential service, expand capabilities for a small business, surf the Web using a broadband connection, or even complete a directory-assistance call. Gordon also directs corporate advertising and brand management.
Taking Charge at Verizon
Named president of the Retail Markets group, Gordon set about turning the Verizon brand into the number-one brand in the industry and on growing the unit's $25 billion annual revenue stream. The first step was to wipe out the Bell Atlantic and GTE brands, transferring the equity of those brands to the new Verizon brand. That meant changing the look of everything, from the trucks to customers' monthly bills, Gordon says. "After that, we had to communicate what that new brand was," he says.
To succeed, he knew he had to put the right team in place within his own unit and partner strategically across the company. "This business is too big and the challenges too great for me to think I have any chance of achieving my goals without fantastic people on my side," Gordon says.
Cevis, whom he recruited from the Enterprise Solutions Group that he himself once headed, is one of his fantastic people. The group serves Fortune 500 companies and state and local entities that use Verizon's products, and Gordon has made it a strategic partner. Observes Cevis: "It's interesting to see how he continues to partner with the Enterprise Solutions Group, relative to what he is doing with his business customers, to help benefit the larger corporation. We have a large network organization. For Bruce to deliver what he needs from a network perspective, he has to work across functional peers of the corporation. It has been very interesting to watch how he navigates with others in helping to push forward the initiatives of the corporation."
Are his strategies working? "We're the number-one brand. Our brand is one of the top 20 in the world," Gordon responds.
Those who track the telecommunications industry give the company high marks, particularly for its performance in Gordon's domain. "Verizon being a large company in an extraordinarily difficult industry to operate, it has managed to do very well in particular with the retail markets. They probably are one of the most highly regarded companies from a consumer perspective in an industry that generally doesn't get high marks from customers," says David Hamerly, telecommunications industry editor and senior writer at Hoover's Inc., the business information specialists in Austin, Texas.
While not singling out Gordon, Hamerly says Verizon's management clearly is doing the right things. "If you consider it's got perhaps one of the best-recognized wireless brands and has managed pretty successfully to grow outside its traditional regional base, you'd have to say management has been pulling the right triggers," he says.
Coping With Hostile Regulations
Passionate about the telecommunications industry after serving it for 35 years, Gordon argues that those who shape its policies are pulling the wrong triggers. "The fact that we have not maintained our superiority in the world is a factor of regulation," he contends, citing European and Asian countries that either match or surpass the U.S. telecom's sophistication largely as a result of less burdensome regulation. "Regulations have done more to hurt the industry and the country than they have to help." Not that the policymakers set out to hurt America's capabilities, he says, "but the policies they put in place have done that," he complains. "We have a world-class infrastructure. I am very proud of what we deliver to homes. But we can do so much more for our customers if we were not burdened by irrational regulations that discourage us from investing in services that I know our customers want."
Without the "right" regulatory policies, for example, "we would have been deploying fiber optics to households. We even are limited in our ability to use information about our customers to help them make informed decisions about what we can offer," Gordon says.
In an industry where labor disgruntlement, customer contempt and rabid competition are standard fare, by no means is a drawn-out fight with regulators welcome. Still, "we have to keep up the fight. We don't have a choice. It's a requirement of the business to continue to negotiate regulatory policy," Gordon insists. It's a fight he monitors closely, but leaves to those "whose full-time job it is to work in the federal and state environments to forge policies that incentivize us to be as good as we can be," he says.
Carrying Forward the Civil Rights Struggle
Acting on his contention that corporate America could be a platform for civil rights change, Gordon has taken on the fight to move African-Americans up the corporate ranks with gusto. He is a member of the Executive Leadership Council, a national organization of senior level African-American executives that trains high school and college students for corporate careers.
Within Verizon, he is active in resource programs and organizations, such as the Accelerated Leadership Diversity program; the Consortium of Information Technology Executives, an African-American group committed to helping African-American employees succeed professionally; One Hundred Plus, a group of African-Americans at the director level and above that he is nurturing to articulate the ideals of the corporation; and the Developmental Roundtable for Upward Mobility (DRUM), a self-help, self-mentoring group of African-American men. At DRUM's annual Martin Luther King breakfast, the Bruce S. Gordon legacy award is presented to a Verizon employee who has furthered diversity in the context of good business sense for the corporation.
"It has been amazing for me to watch Bruce's active involvement and engagement," says Cevis. "Verizon is a much more powerful and stronger corporation because of things one individual has done."
Serving on the boards of corporate heavy-hitters Office Depot, the Southern Co., Tyco International Ltd. and Bartech Personnel Services, Gordon continues to push the diversity agenda. Corporate America, he says, has not disappointed him. "In terms of going forward into the next phase of civil rights, it has proven an excellent platform," he says.
Seldom do individuals who discharge their professional and community duties with such passion, energy and commitment go quietly into the good night. True to the profile, Gordon has big plans for post-corporate life. A pescatarian (he eats neither meat nor poultry, just fish), he gets a charge out of cooking. "One of the things I envision doing when I retire is going to culinary school," he says. He's also an avid collector of wines, as well as works by African-American artists, and he loves music, particularly jazz. Nagging him, however, is the love affair with education that runs in the Gordon family. "I've got some unfinished business in terms of making a contribution in the education field," he says. Just what that contribution will be he does not know yet. For sure, however, it will include the furtherance of the civil rights legacy.
By Rosalind McLymont