The Student of History

By Geoffrey Precourt '70

The letter didn't mince words. Alan ("A.G.") Lafley '69 was mad. Ripping mad.

Mad-that-makes-you-pay-attention-because-it's-mad-backed- up-with-a-title mad. The object of his affliction was a piece of the physical plant, a building, as Lafley wrote, that was "an eyesore from the outside and a catastrophe on the inside."

Thirty-four years after he left Hamilton, A.G. Lafley has turned around one of the world's most respected companies.

No doubt, Digger Graves would be surprised . . . and pleased.

And architecture wasn't the only problem. Morale was at issue as well: The structure, the letter continued, was so bad that it engendered discontent and poor performance from its inhabitants -- the kind of corporate eyesore that not only diminished an institution but also compromised quality of work.

For seven months, Lafley and his colleagues had lived with the indignity of this facility. And now it was time for action. Lafley had the title of president. He had the vision. He had the pen: "We urge those with responsibility to take immediate steps to improve Dunham's interior," Lafley wrote, "by at least renovating the unhappy lounges and the useless basements as well as improving the looks of the building's exterior by dressing up the bare walls."

It was May 1966 -- the last time that A.G. Lafley was the titular head of anything that wasn't headquartered in Cincinnati. As president of the Class of '69, he also held the title of secretary to the Student Senate. And, as part of that office, it was Lafley's duty to put to paper an endorsement of a Spectator editorial the previous week that had called for a reconsideration of Dunham, the freshman dormitory.

So, he put pen to paper.

And nothing happened.

So much for the clout of office.

Of course, there was a whole lot more going on that week in May: Alex Cruden '68 wanted a reduction in bowling fees for the lanes in the basement of Bristol, and Mike Seitzinger '69 was asking the Faculty Committee on Student Affairs to allow sophomores to have cars on campus. The record is foggy on the lane fee, but it wasn't long before second-year students could drive on the Hill. It was only A.G. Lafley's petition that would go down to ignominious defeat.

During the three-plus years of Lafley leadership, P&G's stock price has climbed by 68 percent, while the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fell by 32 percent . . . Now, Wall Street observers compare A.G. Lafley -- very favorably -- with such CEO icons as Southwest Air's Herb Kelleher or General Electric's legendary Jack Welch.

Still, he insists, "I knew what I was talking about. I lived on the third floor of Dunham dormitory -- on the back side, with a beautiful view of the asphalt."

In recent years, Lafley has been more successful translating experience and passion into results. Presumably the place where Lafley now toils over his work is more conducive to productivity than Dunham dorm. For the last three-and-a-half years, he has been president/chief executive officer of The Procter & Gamble Company and, in early 2002, added chairman to those titles. P&G is the largest U.S. consumer-products company, employing 112,000 people to market more than 350 branded products to more than five billion consumers in 130 countries.

During his tenure, Business Week observed, "Lafley has led a turnaround that has defied expectations." Indeed, three-and-a-half years ago, the task seemed daunting. The company he took over had suffered from a series of buck-shot new-product introductions -- an operating style that reasoned that one big success could atone for any number of failures. Lafley's vision was to refocus on big brands. The company's immediate task, he declared, was to rebuild its four core businesses (laundry, baby care, hair care and feminine care), all of which had been losing market share. The company's biggest brands -- Tide, Pampers, Bounty paper towels and Crest -- were the future. Products that didn't measure up to the core-business or big-brand standard -- Jiff peanut butter and Crisco cooking oils, to name two -- were sold off as relics of the past.

Changing the direction of a multi-national consumer-products company is every bit as difficult as getting consensus on a new design for Dunham. And Wall Street took an instantly skeptical view of Lafley's new direction. P&G stock dropped $4 on the news of his appointment and continued to tumble the next three weeks before bottoming out at $53. ("I wasn't exactly greeted with cheers," Lafley since has observed.) But Wall Street was wrong. During the three-plus years of Lafley leadership, P&G's stock price has climbed by 68 percent, while the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fell by 32 percent.

Now, Wall Street observers compare A.G. Lafley -- very favorably -- with such CEO icons as Southwest Air's Herb Kelleher or General Electric's legendary Jack Welch. While Lafley insists, "I am not by any stretch of the imagination the celebrity CEO," the press insists just the opposite. In recent months, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes and Business Week have taken lengthy looks at the Lafley style.

The Journal decreed, "Mr. Lafley is an executive who isn't afraid to make tough decisions, but is far more politic and personable than [his predecessor.]" Business Week wrote that the "mild-mannered chief executive has worked to revive both urgency and hope . . . Lafley is leading the most sweeping transformation of the company since it was founded by William Procter and James Gamble in 1837." Fortune described the man it calls the "un-CEO:" "He's a listener, not a story-teller. He's likeable but not awe-inspiring . . . He has rallied his troops not with big speeches and dazzling promises, but by hearing them out (practically) one at a time. It's a little dull, perhaps, workaday dull."

It's a "dull" style that's been effective for Lafley since his days on the Hamilton Student Senate: "I was a member of Psi U, but I didn't go with the herd. When we wanted to know how a certain issue might play out in different parts of the College community -- when the Senate was worried about what others would do and think -- I volunteered to go out and find out. Because I had a lot of good friends at different houses and among independents, it was easy enough for me to come back with an answer."

Lafley brought the same incipient management style to intra-fraternity affairs. "We had a number of heated issues. I've always been a pretty good listener, and my role was to try to get to some sort of resolution, to take action, to get something done. A lot of people wanted to sit and debate. But I was more of a get-something-done person. We'd all listen to people sound off. When the energy started to ebb, I'd speak up. "If I hear this correctly, this is the choice, either A or B. Let's decide and move on.'"

From the halls of Psi U to a P&G board of directors meeting, Lafley is consistent in style, confident in the process of debate and discussion. When different groups within the company wanted to take different approaches to outsourcing, Lafley brought representatives from the opposing groups before the board. Again, when the energy ebbed, the president/ceo stepped in, summed up choices A and B, and asked for a decision.

"I was a General Electric brat and our family moved every three to five years," Lafley recalls. "I went to high school in Oak Park, outside of Chicago, at a big Dominican all-male Catholic school. When I came to Hamilton, I brought with me a real classic educational background: Greek, Latin and the Bible. Coming to a liberal-arts school was a real eye-opener for me."

It was also a bit of a surprise.

In the summer of 1964, the Lafley family took a bit of a detour on the way back to Chicago from a visit to New Hampshire. It was time for the oldest sibling to scout colleges. The priests back at Fenwick High School had presumed that the basketball letterman/National Honor Society honoree naturally would want to further his education at a Notre Dame or a University of Michigan, or maybe some remote place such as Georgetown or Boston College.

On the road back to the Midwest from New England, the Lafleys visited Harvard, Dartmouth, Williams, Cornell. And Hamilton.

"It was a beautiful June day. It was sunny and the Hill looked great. [Dean of Admissions] Sidney Bennett walked me around the campus. He took a real interest in me -- that made an enormous difference. Moreover, Hamilton looked like college was supposed to look.

"I went back to school and told them I had made up my mind and I wanted to attend Hamilton. I think they were genuinely annoyed, but they only had two questions: What was Hamilton and how had I ever heard of it?"

When he arrived in Clinton, he found life almost as alien as the priests had expected it would be. "I came from Chicago. I missed noise, the street life. I had a tough freshman year because I didn't think there was anything to do."

And there were not a lot of people like him -- graduates of large, urban parochial high schools. Instead he found himself surrounded by students who came, by and large, from New York state, "with a bunch of guys from New England prep schools and a couple of people from places like Colorado Springs and Denver.

"It was all very new to me. But I quickly came to appreciate it. I was in a lot of small classes -- there were 12 of us in a first-year English class. Eight in math. I was in a three-person rhetoric course where there was real, practical emphasis on argumentation, discussion and debate. Every week there was an oral presentation. You simply couldn't blow through any of it. And the smallness forced us to get to know each other. You had an assignment, you had to think about it. I found I was doing better work because I had the time to reflect. It was really good for me to be forced to do that sort of thing. The low teacher/student ratio worked to my strengths. I honestly believed the professors cared about us.

"Freshman year, I remember the card games with Bill Kinner '69, Tom Kondrk '69 and Mac Abbey '69. Playing cards was mostly about having fun and socializing with friends . . . Having said that, I'm sure that I loved the competition. I used to race down the Hill to get in front of the Psi U television set at noon and compete in the daily Jeopardy game. And, who knows, I may have even learned something about strategy or tactics or human nature while I played."

Not Just Business

As you'd guess, serving as chairman/president/ceo of the country's largest packaged-goods company takes a whack out of A.G. Lafley's free time. Add to it his responsibilities as a board member of a number of Cincinnati civic organizations, as well as General Motors and General Electric, and you'll see why he guards his family time very carefully.

On the night he learned he was to be the next president/ceo of Procter & Gamble, Lafley cut short a planning meeting. It was his 30th anniversary, and the two dozen roses he'd sent earlier in the day were not enough. He told his new chairman that if he didn't make it home for dinner that evening, they couldn't count on him for many other late nights.

His hobbies include swimming, biking, running and playing the guitar with his youngest son. (Those musical days may be soon over, as Alex Lafley, 17, is about to move into the recording studio to cut his first CD.) In addition to his work in and around the Cincinnati community, A.G. also has found time for other non-for-profit institutions, among them Hamilton.

A.G. Lafley became a charter trustee of Hamilton in 1998, having served as an alumni trustee from 1991-95. He has participated in several capital campaigns, as well as the Edwin B. Lee Challenge Fund. In 1989-90, he served as chair of the College's Annual Fund.

For the past 50 years, the Advertising Council (think "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires," "Take A Bite Out of Crime," "A Mind is a Terrible Thing To Waste" and "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk") has singled out one U.S. executive each year for meritorious service. In December, Lafley will join a list of executives that includes Henry Ford, Katharine Graham, Lee Iacocca and David Sarnoff when he becomes the 50th recipient of the council's annual Public Service Award.

That first year also was about snow "and the incredible storm that covered the first floor of Dunham. We had Olympic diving contests from the second floor of the dorm. Some guys went up to the third and some even figured out how to climb up and jump from the roof. Down below, we had catchers who helped pull us out of the snow.

"Sophomore year, I remember houseparty weekends and defending the honor of the houseparty tradition against [Associate Dean of Students] Hadley DePuy. Junior year was one of the best of my life; I made a snap decision to join the Hamilton Junior Year in France program. I learned a lot, traveled a lot and grew up a lot. Every weekend I was in Les Halles, the big market, getting on a truck going somewhere. Chartres. Chateaus. The Louvre. I saw it for free. I went to a film festival and saw 16 dubbed Paul Newman movies in 16 days.

"Senior year I spent with close friends, with women on the campus for the first time. It was a completely different place than the one I had entered as a freshman. The war in Vietnam brought an intensity to everything that went on. On the positive side, coeducation made Hamilton a stronger college and a saner place to spend four years.

"For me, to go to Hamilton was a big deal. I loved it."

A Student of History

The Bibliography of English History to 1485: Based on the Sources and Literature of English History from the Earliest Times to About 1485 was published 28 years ago by Oxford University Press. It is still the standard today and will likely remain so as long as Medieval England intrigues historians. Its author was Edgar B. Graves. Graves, much like his work, remains the standard today for many of his former students.

"Digger" Graves came to Hamilton in 1927. "England and the British Empire" was his primer course. For those who were engaged by both Digger and the subject matter, there were "European Civilization from the 11th to the 14th Century" and "European Civilization from the 14th to the 16th Century." In his 42 years on the faculty, Digger was a campus favorite, not just for his lessons but also for the enjoyment he clearly took in teaching at this particular small liberal arts college.

You could see his joy in his wide smile, hear it in his deep laughter and almost touch it as he listened attentively to every student query. It seemed he had had white hair for almost forever, and his Brooks-Brothers box suits reinforced the perception of his authority. He had a big, full face atop a small body. There was a casual dignity in just about everything he did. You could spot him at most hockey games, posed by one of the doors to the rink -- always standing, never sitting while there was action on the ice. In fact, this world-renowned Medieval historian loved his sports. You could sense his athletic grace as -- even in his later years -- he'd pop from his office chair to retrieve a book from across the room.

Digger wasn't all classroom. He liked to get away from the books, the lectures and the seminars. Often he'd head for the basketball court in the old, often-dank Alumni Gymnasium. Whether it was a break between classes or just the chance to get a little bit of exercise, Professor Graves would take the floor around noon. He'd take off his sports coat, fold it in half, neatly place it on a chair, loosen his tie, pick up a ball and look for a partner.

A.G. Lafley, coincidentally, also used the gym as a kind of escape. Hamilton College -- especially Hamilton College in winter -- was like nothing he'd ever known. To get away from the rural life, he'd exercise. Long before jogging had become popular, Lafley would go out and run the loop, up College Hill Road, across Griffin Road, over the top by the reservoir and back down to the campus. "It was my way of getting away," he says. "Of escaping -- at least in my mind -- back to the energy of the city."

On days when it was too raw to run, Lafley would go to the gym and pick up a basketball. And there, around lunchtime, he'd find a partner.

"Digger liked to shoot freethrows," Lafley says. "I would rebound and run the ball back to him. He'd shoot again. I'd rebound again and get him the ball back. Sometimes, we'd take turns shooting. I recall at least a couple of times when Digger had his grandson with him and the three of us would shoot together."

It wasn't an every-day meeting. It was, however, the kind of time-to-time coincidence that helped define college life in the late '60s. Just like Sidney Wertimer greeting every first-day student by name. Just like Dean Winton Tolles "chaperoning" fraternities on houseparty weekends. It was life on College Hill -- a student and a teacher sharing a way to relax. At the time, Graves was just 70. "He came to shoot hoops. And I was there. I'm sure we talked about stuff, but I'm also relatively sure we didn't talk about anything serious -- no academics. It's the kind of thing that just doesn't happen very often."

When Lafley came to Hamilton, he thought he'd probably be a math major. Then he signed on for Graves' "England and the British Empire" course. "The most vivid memory I have is of Digger Graves teaching history," Lafley wrote in his 25th reunion yearbook. "I was fascinated by his lectures. Because of him, I am likely to pick up a history book for enjoyment and relaxation. And, to my family's dismay, I still want to visit castles and churches as we travel around the world."

Professor Graves' lecture tour of Florence ("street by street, Medici home by Medici home,") was one of Lafley's two favorite Hamilton lectures. (The other: Professor Charles Adler's lecture about how difficult it was to kill Rasputin.) When Lafley graduated from Hamilton, he fully intended to pursue his doctorate in European Medieval and Renaissance history. "Digger pointed me to the University of Virginia. He taught me to go for the professor, not the school. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program as a Presidential Scholar with a 'full ride' that covered all college costs, plus $250 a month in spending money -- a virtual fortune in those days."

A career in business was not part of his plan. "I read economics only for history," he recalls. At the time, so passionate was he in his studies that it seemed certain that Lafley would spend his adult life in scholarship rather than business.

An Honorable Obsession

Listen to A.G. Lafley talk about Hamilton and you'll hear about his confidence in the current generation of leadership; his endorsement of the vision of a college that teaches students how to sit down and write, as well as how to stand on their feet and speak; his full support for student life that doesn't rely on the fraternities that seemed so important 30 or 40 years ago.

He'll tell you about his friends -- the ones who graduated with him and the ones who "underachieved" their way out after a year or two. He'll reminisce about sports -- including his year on the freshman basketball team and his brief encounter with the soccer team. And he'll crisply remember lecture after lecture in course after course.

But ask him what meant the most to him during his undergraduate education, and he doesn't need to think before providing the simple answer: "the honor code."

"I came from a high school with an honor code. And at Hamilton, it brought a kind of intensity to our effort. There's a kind of social justice that comes with being tried and judged by your peers. And it makes a great deal of sense in a setting such as Hamilton. In fact, I've urged that we have both a social -- as well as an academic -- honor code."

The public perception of integrity in business leadership is as low as it's been in decades, so much so that the emphasis Lafley places on the concept of the honor code almost seems refreshing. Last spring, in a graduation-day address to the Class of 2003 at the Harvard Business School, the P&G chairman/president/ceo further articulated his business philosophy.
It's no surprise that this redirected Medieval history scholar began by counseling his audience, "Life will take you in directions you cannot anticipate. Don't get too comfortable with where you think your life is headed. There are surprises ahead!"

But, by December, Lafley had left graduate school. "I drew the winning number," he says, in the November 1969 Selective Service draft lottery. By March he had enlisted in the Navy's OCS Program and reported for duty at U.S. Navy bootcamp in Great Lakes, Ill. By June, he was married to Sarah Margaret Gavin and, as a Navy supply officer, soon was picking up his first experience in merchandising.

After five years of service to his country and two years at Harvard Business School, A.G. and Margaret Lafley moved to Cincinnati where, at the age of 30, he began working as a brand assistant on Joy dishwashing detergent. Between 1977 and 1992, he delivered what the company calls "record sales and profits through the introduction of major product innovations, including Liquid Tide and Tide with Bleach."

In 1995, Lafley's good work earned him an appointment in Japan as P&G's executive vice president with responsibility for Asia. "Whenever anyone sent me a dream sheet and asked me what I wanted to do, I told them that I wanted to work abroad." Hamilton's Junior Year in France had sent him to Paris for 1967-68 and whetted his appetite for international living. And he had mixed his practical business education in the Navy with further language lessons. By the time he'd finished business school, he could speak French fluently, read and communicate in Spanish, and, after 47 weeks of Navy-sponsored seven-hours-a-day study, was conversant in Hebrew. "I was sent to Japan, where I could speak only a kind of pigeon Japanese, but I loved it."

The experience seems to have been reciprocal, and, when he returned to Cincinnati in 1999, it was as president of P&G's global beauty care business and the North American development organization. A year later, he became president/ceo and, in 2002, added the chairman's title as well.

The student of history was beginning to make a bit of business history.

A Student of History

A. G. Lafley's senior thesis at Hamilton was on the trial of the Templars. He explains: "In the 14th century, Philip the Fair of France basically emasculated and expropriated the Templars -- the order of knights who had fought throughout the Crusades and become, more importantly, the bankers for kings in Europe.

"It was tough to get primary sources. I used the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress in Washington to get eyewitness accounts of the trial and testimony in either Latin or French. (This was not the kind of research project one could do in the stacks of the James Library.) As I recall, Digger rewarded me with an 'A' or 'A-' on the thesis, but regretted that I didn't run down sources from Paris libraries."

Thirty-four years later, the yarn of the Templars still engages Lafley. No, he's not about to circle back to la Sorbonne to polish up his research, but the story of "expropriated" financiers seems particularly relevant in 2003.

Besides, you never can tell when a practical knowledge of history can come in handy. Fortune told the story of a Lafley evening in Athens. The scene is simple: P&G's Greece operation has just closed out a strong year. And businesspeople are doing what they do when they have good news -- they're celebrating. They're drinking retsina; they're eating grilled octopus. The general manager of the company's Greek unit stands to offer a toast and present a gift -- a biography of Alexander the Great. "We thought this would be appropriate," the executive announced. "As you know, Alexander was a great general who built a great empire."

Some of A.G. Lafley's other "Things I Wish I Had Known at Graduation"

  • Be clear about your values: "People will watch and judge what you do. To succeed in life and in business, it's essential that you earn -- every day -- the trust of those around you."
  • Understand that change is inevitable, pervasive, accelerating and increasingly unpredictable: "Change is the only constant in life. Those who embrace change will win decisively and disproportionately."
  • Balance management and mastery: "When I joined P&G, I decided I was going to become a master marketer, and be the best damn 'brand man' I could be. Later in my career, I became a student of leadership."
  • Let your leadership make a difference: "Your success and legacy will not be determined by what you do. It will be reflected in what the leaders you develop go on to do."

Fortune picked up the narrative: "The speech is a big hit. The group is laughing, and then Lafley asks a question: 'What happened to Alexander's empire after he died?' The Greek manager tells him happily that it 'lasted for many hundreds of years.' Lafley smiles, thanks him for the gift, and says nothing more. Later, Lafley -- reveals the real story: After Alexander's death, his generals fought among themselves and tore up the empire. 'That's not what I want to happen here,' he says quietly. 'What I'm trying to build into this organization is something that will last long after I'm gone. This is a company that aspires to be around for 1,000 years.' "

Return to Top

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
Back to Top