William “Bill” Perez graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in government. From 1970 to 2004, he worked at S.C. Johnson, which sells familiar products such as Off, Ziploc, and Pledge. After starting off in sales and becoming the youngest GM in Spain, he ran Latin America, became COO, and then spent eight years as CEO. He went on to serve as CEO of both Nike and then Wrigley. Bill has served on several boards, including Whirlpool, Johnson & Johnson, Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg, Hallmark, and Nike. He is also an emeritus trustee of Cornell. His son, David, graduated from Cornell University in 1995 and was also a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, having served as eminent archon one term.
You pledged ΣΑΕ with 50 other brothers? Can you discuss what that was like and why everyone wanted to join ΣΑΕ? Are you still close with your pledge brothers? People wanted to join ΣΑΕ because it was probably considered the best house on the hill. It had a lot of great people, several very visible athletes, and a unique little-sisters program. While there were 51 of us in total, I was not allowed to formally pledge until the beginning of my sophomore year. I think about eight pledged in the fall (43 spring and eight the following year). Your social life was somewhat guided by your fraternity affiliation, and ΣΑΕ had a wonderful reputation.
I am still close to a number of ΣΑΕ brothers. I had dinner with Hank South and his wife recently. We organized a Chicago mini reunion last summer and had nine brothers show up. I believe, at our last reunion, we had the largest contingent at the reunion. Will be getting together with a couple more brothers and a little sister in Naples in March. Two brothers with whom I went to high school remain close today: Cle Austin and Russ Trier. Without their endorsement, I’m not sure I would have made the ΣΑΕ cut.
You have been CEO of one private and two publicly traded companies. What advice would you give to those who want to advance their careers in large organizations? The fact that I was on academic probation after my freshman year (the reason I could not pledge in the spring) should serve as evidence that there is not a direct correlation between academic achievement and career progression. The biggest strength I had was probably that I cared about people and the people knew, I cared about them. I tried to learn everybody’s name and visited all factory shifts (2:00 am in a factory is not quite as resting as 2:00 am in your bed!). Went to employee weddings (when invited!). Not sure I ever gave a direct order. My preference was to persuade folks to move in a certain direction. I used humor as often as relevant; it was about having fun.
I was also driven to make the numbers, whether I was selling Raid to a supermarket or pitching a multimillion-dollar plan at Wal-Mart. I always used to say you can’t argue with feelings, you have to argue with facts, and you had to be prepared, do your homework to gather those facts. Set clear objectives and define and rate potential outcomes while setting objectives. Data drives correct answers.
I probably felt the greatest pressure to perform in the family-owned company. In a public company, you are working for a large number of anonymous share owners. In a private company, you are working for a family, and a large portion of the family’s wealth is tied up in the company. If you don’t perform well and the company does not perform well, the results can be devastating. Think about the family betting the bulk of their net worth on a single non-family member.
Did you ever hold any officer positions while in ΣΑΕ? Has your affiliation with ΣΑΕ influenced your career in any ways? I never ran for office—not that I would have necessarily won—but I now view this as a missed opportunity. Gus Noojin is a great example of person who put his ΣΑΕ leadership experience to good use in the business world. As an undergraduate, you want to build a resume that makes you attractive to potential hiring companies. I was fortunate to have the fact that I had been raised in Colombia and was fluent in Spanish, That was a point of difference that I tried to leverage in my job search. I used that Spanish during my sales pitches in the inner city of Cleveland; most of the sales people could not communicate in Spanish.
The greatest influence ΣΑΕ has had on my career is that it allowed me to form lifelong friendships. Let me give you an example; after being fired by Phil Knight at Nike, I was hustling to find a job. I was invited to interview for the CEO position at one of the world’s largest hotel chains but didn’t know much about hotels. Spent an hour on the phone with Russ Trier and another hotelie, cramming for the interview, and the interview went well. I had a good shot at the job but decided to take the Wrigley position. Not sure how far I would have gone in the hotel process without Trier’s shared wisdom.
What advice would you give to the young men who are restarting NY Alpha? Leverage the fact that you are part of a start-up in your job search. You have a spirit of adventure and a willingness to create a path rather than traveling along the old highway. Restarting ΣΑΕ is like starting a company, launching a new product. You are helping create something pretty much from scrap. A lot of hard work will go into the restart, there will be disappointments along the way, but at the end of the day, you will have a great sense of accomplishment and a new set of lifelong friends.
What are some favorite memories as an ΣΑΕ? My favorite memory was a pledge party my sophomore year where I met my wife. We used to bus in girls from other schools, and in this case, there was a busload of Elmira College students, where she went to school. But, there were so many other great memories: parties, dinners with Buster our cook, (unsuccessfully) trying to pay off the new wing, cheering on the ΣΑΕ jocks, winning in intramural sports, big pool games, bridge in the library, and trying to build the best pledge class on the hill every year. As I look back at my Cornell years, without a doubt, ΣΑΕ was at the forefront of my memories.