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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Susan Saideman

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-11-30

Susan Saideman likens herself to an orchestra conductor.

"When you are a CEO as I am, you play a visionary role," she said yesterday. "You show them the realm of the possible. You need to motivate your team; you need to direct your players to deliver their best performance."

Ms. Saideman is the New York-born CEO of Arc International, North America, a 180-year-old company of French origin that's among the leading global manufacturers of tableware. To emphasize her notion of leadership, she often shows videos of Benjamin Zander to her colleagues.

Mr. Zander, of course, is the celebrated conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. He's also a noted motivational speaker, who famously said: "The conductor is the last bastion of totalitarianism in the world - the one person whose authority never gets questioned."

When Ms. Saideman speaks of soundless leadership, she's also echoing another memorable statement by Mr. Zander: "The conductor doesn't make a sound. The conductor's power depends on his ability to make other people powerful."

While Ms. Saideman fully endorses the maestro's second statement, she doesn't see herself quite in the totalitarian mold. In a career that has involved working at some of America's best known corporations - Bain & Company, Chase Manhattan Bank, PepsiCo, Campbell Soup Company, and Newell Rubbermaid's Parker Division - she developed a special reputation for collegiality.

"I work through persuasion, through developing teamwork," she said. "And while I can be an impatient person, I like to empower my colleagues, and increase their self confidence. After all, as a CEO their accomplishments are also my accomplishments."

Barely a year after being tapped to run Arc International's North America division - which accounts for 40% of the privately-held company's global sales of $1.2 billion - Ms. Saideman increased profits by $20 million. That figure may seem modest in a business that generated billions, according to the NPD Group, a research organization, but it is significant.

Equally significantly, she has succeeded in achieving an objective that had long eluded the company's bosses in France: integration of various units such as Mikasa, Arc International North America, and Durand Glass Manufacturing Company. (Arc's properties also include famous brands such as Studio Nova, Luminarc, Salviati and Cristal d'Arques, the latter two being makers of Venetian glass and cut crystal collections.)

Under the rubric of a corporate strategy that she dubbed "Power of One," Ms. Saideman guided various corporate satraps - some of whom hadn't even been in the same room despite working for the same umbrella group - toward transforming their units into a single organization.

"It used to be that we couldn't even properly communicate with one another within the company because everyone had different e-mail systems," Ms. Saideman said. "While the corporation had grown considerably, it hadn't changed from being an entrepreneurial organization to one that was professionally managed. I went about breaking down the cultural differences between various companies, and put in place a structure marked by cross-functional cooperation."

She frequently peppers her sentences with phrases like "cross-functional cooperation," "empowerment of staff," and "brand leveraging." That immediately suggests an education in business administration -Ms. Saideman obtained an MBA at Harvard Business School after graduating summa cum laude from Dartmouth College.

But employing those phrases doesn't mean taking a didactic approach to business administration. Ms. Saideman had been studying business realpolitik well before she went to Harvard.

"It really began at home," Ms. Saideman said, noting that her father, Reuben, worked for the Internal Revenue Service, and her mother Beulah, after bearing two boys and two girls, went back to school to get a master's degree in public policy.

"My parents were role models - they taught us to take school seriously, to adhere to strong personal values, and to always care about doing good," Ms. Saideman said.

Her mother's knowledge of French led to Ms. Saideman learning that language at an early age - an irony in view of the fact that years later she was to become CEO of a French company's American operation.

Ms. Saideman also discovered early in life that she had a facility for numbers.

"I was instinctively analytical," she said. "I was a problem solver."

Those qualities were put to use during summer jobs where Ms. Saideman learned about finance and capital markets. The erstwhile Chase Manhattan Bank - now JPMorgan Chase - hired her after Dartmouth with the understanding that she would obtain an MBA after two years.

"But I was promoted within a year-and-a-half - and my supervisors told me to forget about business school," Ms. Saideman said.

That advice didn't deter her.

"I'm glad I went to business school," Ms. Saideman said. "Harvard taught me was that I could do anything I wanted in the world of commerce. It gave me great confidence in my abilities."

Business school also offered her a breakthrough from her specialty of finance to the wider arena of corporate management. A job with the consulting group, Bain & Company, followed, and then came a stint with a Vermont company.

She turned it around by converting an empty barn of 15,000 square feet into a flourishing antiques center. She also turned around the languishing fortunes of a restaurant called Rosalita's that the company owned.

"I learned to get my hands dirty," Ms. Saideman said. "I learned the ropes of management."

She also discovered that she was hooked on the idea of running her own enterprise. And although subsequent jobs at PepsiCo and Campbell Soup afforded opportunities to enhance her leadership skills, it wasn't until she was recruited last year to become CEO of Arc International that Ms. Saideman felt she'd come fully into her own.

"It's been a somewhat of a marathon," she said.

Like her earlier metaphor about conducting orchestras, Ms. Saideman's reference to a marathon was also a metaphor. She is indeed a marathon runner, training diligently much of the year - at least partly, she said, to counter the effect of the food she often cooks and serves to friends.

"I like to entertain," Ms. Saideman, who is single, said. "It gives me a respite from the pressures of work."

Those pressures are likely to grow as she embarks on an effort to transform a tabletop company into a larger one that emphasizes lifestyles.

As she spoke enthusiastically yesterday about her plans for the company, her comments seemed occasionally dappled by a distant sadness.

What was it?

"My dog Rudy died three weeks ago," Ms. Saideman said. "He was 15 years old - and he had been with me on this journey since I was very young. It's hard to imagine that I'll be traveling without him."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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