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Want to be CEO?

During his visit to Cal State East Bay in February, alumnus Jim Hannan toured the Hayward Campus and checked out the renovations to Pioneer Stadium, where he competed in track and field as a student.


‘Contribute to success’ in every job you hold, advises Georgia-Pacific’s Jim Hannan ’89


Being a CEO isn’t something Jim Hannan ’89 necessarily set out to do — but then again, that’s true for much of his career. Mostly, he wanted to be in a role where he could make a difference, where his contributions would matter to his company and create value in society. 

“If you try to contribute to success, people will notice,” he says, and in business, that kind of track record naturally leads to more responsibilities. In his case, it led to the top job at Georgia-Pacific (GP), one of the world’s largest manufacturers of lumber, building materials, packaging, and — most familiarly — consumer paper goods such as Dixie cups, Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern bath tissue. 

Hannan, youthful and affable with a deep voice and quick smile, earned a B.S. in business administration from then-Cal State Hayward. In February, he made a stop at the Hayward Campus while in Northern California touring GP facilities, and spoke at length with a group of business students about his experiences, business culture, and the philosophies that guide him as a CEO.

A Connecticut native, Hannan moved to the Bay Area with his family before starting high school. He came to the University as part of the Pioneer track and field team, competing in shotput, discus, hammer, and javelin — which might surprise anyone seeing him today. “I was a lot bigger then,” he says.

The first in his family to attend college, he knew the value of a college degree, but he wasn’t sure what he would study. “I came in undecided,” he told the students, adding “I had a strong belief in ‘undecided’ at the time.” 

He came around to accounting; its logic and balances of inputs and outputs fit with how his mind worked. He realized “a lot of things work that way.” 

When he wasn’t in class or at the gym, he was working at the restaurant in Danville where he’d worked since high school. Like most his age, his first duties included washing dishes, waiting tables, and cooking. He continued working there through college, logging 20 to 30 hours a week and eventually managing the restaurant — all valuable experiences to a budding business leader. Some people might question the relevance of food service work to running a multi-billion dollar company, but he told students those early lessons in interacting with customers and employees, particularly unhappy ones, were “surprisingly useful” throughout his career. 

After graduating, Hannan worked several years as an audit manager with a large San Francisco accounting firm but determined that pursuing a career as a partner in an accounting firm wasn’t a good fit for him. He decided to switch gears and took a job as an assistant controller for a former audit client, Pegasus Gold. Although the transition from being an up and comer in a “big 8” accounting firm to the controller of a gold mining firm wasn’t planned, Hannan says he always thrived on being flexible and prepared for new opportunities, even while others had more fixed plans and goals.

Hannan continued his career in the mining industry before joining Koch Mineral Services, a unit of Koch Industries, as chief financial officer. He was adapting to a new role again in 2004 when he was named president of  INVISTA Intermediates, a Koch unit that makes chemical building blocks for nylon, polyester, and spandex. 

When Koch purchased publicly-owned GP in late 2005, Hannan joined that company. Although he knew little about the forest and consumer products industries, he was eager to learn and apply his experiences and leadership skills to help the 85-year-old company transition from public to private, and to help instill Koch’s market-based principles and culture. He was named company CEO and president in 2007.

Moving between industries never fazed him, he says, since he knows he can’t be an expert in every area but can learn the basics quickly — for example, he received a crash course in organic chemistry on a flight to see a newly acquired intermediate chemicals facility. 

As CEO, Hannan feels it’s important to meet as many of GP’s 40,000 employees face-to-face as he can. Today, he’s been to most of the 150 manufacturing sites worldwide at least once. He says his role is to do everything he can to make the people he works with directly successful, meeting regularly with the 11 GP executives who report to him, and taking an active role in planning and project updates on manufacturing operations, business investments, health and safety, and research and development.

Being flexible and ready for new challenges comes with tradeoffs, he cautioned the students, pointing out that he and his family moved six times in 10 years. His demanding schedule hasn’t always been easy for his wife, Susan, or their three school-aged daughters, all of whom were born in different states. And while he can attend most of his daughters' activities, Hannan acknowledges that he has missed some, like gymnastics meets, a ballet or music recital, and some sports events. He also jokes that he doesn’t play as much golf as he’d like. Ultimately, he says, you have to find the balance that works for you and your family.

This is just as true at work as it is at home, Hannan added. “It’s hard for anyone who becomes a leader to give up more of the doing, and to transition instead to delegating, managing, and mentoring.” After all, in many cases, you are giving up some of the things that you did well to earn the opportunity to do more, and that can be uncomfortable.   

At the end of his visit, one student asked a question about how, as a leader, Hannan deals with the inevitable — failure. 

Hannan told the group that it’s never easy or fun to fail, but we have to learn from our mistakes. “Hopefully it starts with not overreacting. The real value of the failure is the time spent investigating the causes and addressing the problems that factored in and then doing what is necessary not to repeat them,” he said. “And then, get over it.”

Whether as an entry-level dishwasher or the leader of one of the world’s largest companies, Hannan insists that people must maintain their beliefs and principles — at home and at work. For him, this includes a strong belief in having integrity, creating real long-term value, honestly and frankly evaluating past performance, and supporting the principles that make free societies successful.

He works hard to model those values, too.  As he told the students, “companies cannot afford even the perception that leaders don’t play by the same rules or adhere to the same principles as other employees.”

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