2017 CXO of the Year
They are the top tech gurus, the financial wizards, the marketing geniuses—they are the chief officers who combine subject-matter expertise with a leadership philosophy that lifts up those around them. Our 2017 CXO of the Year honorees are instrumental members of the leadership team in their companies, helping drive growth and success for their co-workers and their organizations alike. Join us in celebrating these exceptional leaders.
When Sue Armstrong joined Nature’s Sunshine Products in 2013, she brought a focus on Lean operations strategy that has helped the company improve quality control compliance, operational effectiveness and even worker safety. With 30 years of experience in global supply chain and manufacturing, Armstrong now helps oversee an organization that distributes in 40 countries and manufactures most of its products in its own state-of-the-art facilities.
Armstrong spearheaded a Lean University training program for Nature’s Sunshine employees, and so far more than 100 people have attended a 24-week training, with nearly three dozen earning Bronze-level accreditation. Others are currently working to achieve Silver-level accreditation.
“It’s fundamental to me as a leader to stay connected to people in my teams, to work alongside them, getting to know them, to understand their perspectives. It’s important to stay humble, to continually learn and create an environment for people that is safe and collaborative,” she says. “It’s critically important to set direction and constantly communicate that direction, while remaining flexible and nimble to change as needed. The leader’s role is to make the tough decisions, acquiring input from experts along the way, and ultimately, failing fast … realize the failure and adjust quickly.”
Blake Borgeson had a strong educational pedigree, international teaching experience and a successful startup under his belt when he decided to leap into co-founding Recursion Pharmaceuticals. It didn’t remotely prepare him for what was to come, he says.
“I knew nothing of biology except what I could glean from surface-level reading before deciding that it seemed the best field for me to have the biggest impact given my background,” Borgeson says. “I went from the technology leader and respected co-founder at that startup back to the life of a graduate student for several years, wondering if I’d thrown away my big chance, but trusting in my ability to do something completely different.”
That gamble has paid off. Over the last year, the company has seen tremendous growth and found compelling potential treatments for more than a dozen diseases. Borgeson says the challenge has been significant, but rewarding.
“Building a drug discovery platform capable of scaling across hundreds of diseases has been a mathematical and engineering challenge, but the early success of our platform in the past year indicates we’ve done great and useful work,” he says. “If I can measurably help make humanity thrive more, as much more as I can, even if that’s just a bit more—that’s my chief aspiration.”
Everett Crane joined Young Automotive Group in the fall of 2015, and since that time, he has played a key role in the company’s acquisition of two dealerships, Young Ford of Brigham City and Young Mazda. Crane helped complete the due diligence necessary for the acquisitions, and he also led the integration of the acquired stores’ accounting offices into Young Automotive’s existing accounting operations.
Crane also launched the process of centralizing the accounting functions of five individual offices into one larger accounting office. “There was a considerable amount of planning and communication that took place to pull off this significant organizational change for our company,” he says. “We’re still iterating from our original plan, but we’ve made a good amount of progress toward our goals.”
As a leader, Crane believes it is important to communicate effectively, be engaging and be approachable. “Developing people means you sometimes have to take chances on them. You have to let them make mistakes in a semi-controlled environment and allow them to learn from those mistakes. People are our most important resource and are a crucial component to our company’s future growth.”
In her role, Sue Fellows oversees all the post-sale functions at Workfront, ensuring that customers are successful with the software so they continue to renew. In fact, her customer experience team improved Workfront’s renewal rate by 3 percent last year. “I’ve had the opportunity to drive revenue and build successful customers that are raving fans who continue to renew and grow,” she says. ”I’ve also had the opportunity to focus on the customer’s end-to-end experience with Workfront, which resulted in a formal customer journey that the company uses to deliver a great experience.”
The customer experience model is something that Fellows pioneered while working for a tech firmed called RightNow Technologies. “At the time, customer success was a very new concept so there were few success stories from which to model the program,” she recalls. It was a risky move that involved creating a new cost center for the firm. “I learned how to be OK with failing along the way. Creating a new program without many peers to model, I made my fair share of mistakes, but I learned to beat myself up for a minute, then pick myself up and learn for the next time. This was an invaluable lesson.”
Jim Granat has sailed through some tricky times in the financial industry, including post-9/11 and the 2008 economic downturn. At the time of the latter, Granat was working on Wall Street and had a large concentration of assets in the fund he was working with. Despite a belief in himself and his company, the downturn was, like with so many others, crippling for his firm.
“It was a sobering moment in time, but it made me stronger and hungrier for success. It humbled me and in the long term made me a better person, albeit through a painful lesson,” he says.
That hunger ultimately led to the creation and growth of Lendio, where Granat says he finds satisfaction in helping give small businesses a kick-start and seeing the professional development of those who work for him. The company has grown nearly 100 percent year over year.
“Lendio has worked tirelessly on getting ready for scale, execution on our partnerships, and being on the forefront of technology in the fintech market. Our entire C-team plays a large role in these accomplishments,” he says. “We need all of our team or else no one individual would’ve been as successful. Lendio is a special place to work, and the work is very cool too.”
Nate Heward first became involved with Acima Credit as its outside accountant. In that role, he successfully helped the company pass its first audit. Then he helped Acima develop a forecasting model and prospective financials in order to attract private equity investment.
Since Heward officially joined Acima Credit in October 2015, he says, “we closed a $10 million equity round, we increased our debt line from $10 million to $70 million, we went from operating losses to operating income, we increased revenues over four-fold, we made major improvements in our internally developed software and we’ve enjoyed operating efficiencies.”
Heward has high expectations for himself—and his team members. “At a high level, Acima’s successes are my successes. If what I am doing contributes meaningfully to its success, that is fulfilling to me. I see this attitude in our entire team, and I love it,” he says. “At a personal level, whatever I do, I want to get it right the first time. And then do it better the next time. A sliding measuring stick is sometimes a tough way to go, but we can celebrate each little success along the way.”
About 18 months ago, RizePoint got a whole new leadership team, including John Knotwell, whose charge is to lead the company’s most critical customer-facing departments. “I take care of the customer, basically, from start to finish,” he says.
Over the past 18 months, Knotwell has helped transition RizePoint into a SaaS company that is more focused on recurring revenue. The strategy is paying off, as the company’s bookings grew more than 300 percent in 2016. And prior to Knotwell joining the team, the average time to onboard a customer was six months. Now that timeframe has fallen to 10 weeks, with customer satisfaction scores topping 96 percent.
Knotwell says that many people think leadership is about being a boss—someone who gives instructions and directions. But he says, “Leadership is always about teaching and about service. We give up our own ambitions and our own goals to help those people around us achieve theirs, because we see that that’s really the win-win.” His own success has come from leaders pushing him to take risks, he says. “Almost every step I’ve taken in my career has been because somebody who has been my boss or my mentor … has been really excited about pushing me to take that step, to get me out of the nest.”
Almost 17 years ago, Carter Lee started at Overstock.com as a systems administrator. Through the years, Lee has made a habit of taking on responsibilities no one else has—and it’s paid off.
“I ended up accumulating a unique and valuable set of skills. This made me an ideal candidate as new opportunities came up within the company,” he says. “I also think that I have people skills that allow me to strategic alliances with other parts of the business. This reputation for working well across department lines has always been a key to my success.”
Most lately, Lee is most proud of his key role in Overstock.com’s new 19-acre headquarter campus, which includes state-of-the-art offices, as well as a greenhouse and facilities for exercise, daycare and healthcare. He’s also proud of the leaps he’s taken to improve performance and efficiency, such as pushing for Overstock.com to adopt a SaaS solution to run the company’s call center years before it became common practice.
“Being highly successful isn’t extremely complicated, but also doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “With a steady dose of patience, hard work, determination, consistency and smart decisions, success is always within your reach.”
Jeremy Lindsey is an entrepreneur at heart—a handy trait for entering a fledgling Alpha Warranty Services as one of the first hires. His experience and attitude were a perfect fit for the company, which stood out early as a different kind of warranty company, which now boasts the best online F&I sales platform available in the industry today.
“I had a chance to help build the company from the ground up. I did anything from customer service phone calls to adjudicating mechanical breakdown claims to building partnerships with large corporations,” he says.
Ten years into the venture, Lindsey has found the same kinds of lessons he learned running his own businesses hold true to the scaling of a startup.
“When the business was young, it was easy to hold tight to responsibilities. The business was my ‘baby’ and I wanted to make sure it progressed as expected. If you surround yourself with the right people, though, you realize how much more is accomplished by relying on their strengths and their personal preferences and knowledge despite it sometimes being in contrast to my own preferences,” he says. “It’s a strength our CEO has that I try to emulate. Learning to let go and trust more in my colleagues has directly impacted our success as a company.”
Dan Macuga has always wanted to exceed expectations, even from the beginning of his career. These days, as the chief communications officer at USANA, Macuga tries to imbue that passion into those he works with.
“[I had] a strong desire to advance, but more importantly to show that the work I did meant something to me personally, and that I took pride in what I was doing,” says Macuga. “As I’ve moved forward in my career, that passion to exceed is still there, but it has shifted to providing that inspiration to others around me so that they too can feel that excitement and desire to exceed expectations.”
As CCO, Macuga is responsible for communications, marketing, customer service, social media and creative services for USANA. The company reached a billion dollars in sales last year and reached over half a million active customers. Macuga has also been instrumental in broadening USANA’s athlete program, establishing partnerships with athletes such as the National Sports Training Group in China and the Women’s Tennis Association.
“At work, success always has metrics you can follow, but for me success is watching the people you work with celebrate their successes,” says Macuga. “As you move on in your career, success is defined by the legacy you leave behind.”
While many brands—especially those in the sleep and comfort industries—prefer to play it safe, Alex McArthur and his marketing team skew in the exact opposite direction. McArthur, whose career trajectory took him from tech to mattresses, says that building Purple’s brand has been on the back of entertaining marketing and their unique products. The company’s marketing—and hilarious Kickstarter video that McArthur helped create—has generated over 100 million views and helped the company set a record for the most funded project in Utah history. In the course of the last year, Purple has scaled from 54 employees to over 550.
“The average company has one face or spokesperson, maybe two if they are aggressive. Purple decided to take a very different approach by using a variety of characters for different products and different situations. At first, every brand expert and consultant we came in contact with called is crazy and that it would result in disaster,” says McArthur. “Fast forward a year—Google and YouTube and Facebook consider Purple to have some of the highest converting social channels and industry-leading engagement due to unique and unexpected storytelling methods.”
From Coors to an MBA program to the Army to Uber, Dan Might had climbed higher up the corporate ladder in his 20s than most people do in their entire careers. When he left Uber at 30 to move closer to his family in Utah, it felt a little like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. But when he met the co-founders of Homie, he found an invigorating place to land.
“I knew I wanted to become a part of this venture. I joined the co-founders and now I’m integral to one of Utah’s fastest growing companies and helping disrupt a dinosaur of an industry. Following my gut and living my passion has paid off. I work with amazing peers, I live close to my family and I’m serving my country,” he says. “Life couldn’t be better.”
In the first year of business, Homie saved customers more than $5 million in commissions and drastically lowered the cost to homeowners for selling homes, as well as developed a platform to help make the process as easy as possible for users. No matter where he’s worked, Might says he tries to leave organizations better than they were before and collects the lessons he’s learned from each to become a better asset to them.
“I’ve brought these experiences together and have evolved into a well-rounded leader that can adapt to a wide range of situations, engage employees, execute on challenging tasks, get the most out of my teams and help them grow into valuable assets,” he says.
If you want an example of coolness in the face of pressure, look no further than Wolfgang Muelleck. Muelleck gave up a successful consulting practice to become People’s Utah Bancorp’s CFO in 2007—and then had to weather the storm the Great Recession created for banks. Not only was Mueller a vital part of the loan workout team that helped People’s Utah Bancorp recover, the bank was also used as a success case study by national auditors.
“I learned it takes a team effort, good luck and lots of hard work to accomplish great things in the midst of turmoil and challenging times,” says Muelleck. “I am grateful to be associated with such a talented and successful management team.”
Muelleck’s hard work didn’t end there. He helped People’s Utah Bancorp through a transition to become a public company in 2015, raising $35 million in capital. During Muelleck’s tenure, the bank has grown from $500 million to $1.7 billion in assets and accomplished a successful merger with Lewiston State Bank. Although Muelleck hopes to retire soon, he continues to collaborate with his team and evaluate merger and acquisition deals, meet with institutional investors and review business strategy.
As the head of Vivint Smart Home’s sales operation, Todd Santiago has helped drive revenue growth for the company, which logged $455 million in annual revenue in 2012—the year Santiago joined the company—a number that grew to $785 million by the close of 2016.
In addition to spurring continued growth in Vivint’s direct-to-home selling channel, Santiago also helped the company achieve significant growth in its inside sales channel. The inside sales team acquired more than 100,000 customers in 2015, more than double the 49,000 customers it attained in 2014.
Santiago says his definition of success has evolved from crossing personal milestones to fostering the success of his team members. “For me, leadership is about achieving success together and working alongside each other to meet the goals of our organization,” he says.
“We all want to hit a home run every time, but it’s important to remember that even the best players strike out. I never thought that after graduating from business school that I’d be dealing with a lot of failure—but two of the companies I was involved with failed miserably. Now I know that every experience, good or bad, helps you become a better leader.”
Jeff Selander started out as the CFO at Health Catalyst before he became the chief people officer—or, what he calls “the owner and steward of the Health Catalyst workforce.” The majority of his career up until this point had been spent in strategic financial roles at small, high-growth startups, he says, but he began to see the strategic necessity of an engaged, determined workforce. When the chance came for him to lead initiatives to create that workforce, Selander leapt at the opportunity.
At the end of 2016, Health Catalyst had over 500 team members, with a mere 7 percent turnover rate and an 88 percent acceptance rate for those offered a job.
“There is a big difference between leadership and authority. Authority is something one is given from above, by way of assignment, tenure, title or any number of other ways,” says Selander. “Leadership is something else entirely. A leader must earn his/her following, and subordinates are free to choose whom they will follow, or not follow. Leaders who consistently earn the right to lead are much more effective than managers who direct by virtue of their authority.”
Fate, says Trish Stromberg, led her to working at iSolved HCM. Stromberg had recently accepted a job at another company—only to be laid off before spending even one day on the job. A chance viewing of a listing by Qqest, a time and attendance business, brought Stromberg to that company instead. Twenty years later, she’s become the chief marketing officer of the company that acquired Qqest.
In addition to her duties as CMO, Stomberg is also the site manager for the company’s Salt Lake City office, responsible for over 160 employees. In the last 18 months, she was instrumental in launching iSolved University, a training resource for service bureau partners, customers and employees. Stromberg led the execution of the initiative, which now is a full learning system with hundreds of courses, gamification and forums.
“My aspiration has always been to be a part of the C-suite and be driving the marketing for a fast-paced company,” she says. “Well, now that I’m here, I know that just reaching that title is only the start. I am thriving on seeing my team grow, develop and turn this brand into something very special.”
Six years ago, Matt Thomas was on a successful track at a Fortune 500 company, but he wanted the opportunity to play a meaningful strategic role elsewhere. Leaving the safety netting of his previous job, he leapt into his role as the CFO and COO of software development company Centeva.
Centeva recently passed $10 million in annual revenue and has nearly 100 employees. Last year, the company experienced 60 percent revenue growth and doubled its bottom line. “I have truly enjoyed the opportunity to actively participate in creating a bold vision for our future and building the team capable of executing that vision. We have a world-class leadership team and I am thrilled to be a part of it,” says Thomas.
In his role as COO, Thomas makes a point to meet every employee and believes that leadership means focusing on individual relationships and empowering others to find success. “The most important thing to me is the caliber of my personal relationships and surrounding myself with inspiring people,” he says. “If I can strengthen those relationships and friendships and find ways to help others achieve success, then it almost always translates into personal satisfaction and happiness.”
When Josh Weiner first joined the board of directors for Solutionreach, he was happy to lend his expertise to the flourishing company. But as he learned more and more about the business, he felt a pull to become more involved.
“I fell in love with the company and its mission. I also felt a calling to leave the comfort of a diverse portfolio of investments and re-enter the world of operations,” he says. “I was lucky enough to be able to join the leadership team at Solutionreach, which is already full of incredibly talented individuals.”
The double-sided risk—for Weiner, leaving a comfortable job and relocating from San Francisco, and for Solutionreach, hiring a member of senior leadership who had little experience in the industry—paid off. Weiner has built high-performing teams that are using technology to streamline communications between healthcare organizations, and he finds Solutionreach’s strides to revolutionize the way healthcare works inspirational and exciting.
“So much is broken about the way patients experience healthcare in our country and around the world,” he says. “There will be many leaders in the coming years to make a real dent, and I want to be one of them.”