"You can have fun when you surf on top of the wave, but you can't really take credit for that, because who knows if it's you or the market or your predecessor. You can take credit for navigating through the storm though."
Marc Jourlait is a CEO based in New York City. In May 2021, he became the Chairman and CEO of LifeSafer and SCRAM Systems. Prior to this position and at the time of our interview, Jourlait worked at Kodak Alaris, where he served as CEO for nearly four years. He has also served as Deputy CEO at Navico and Vice President and General Manager of Bose Europe. Jourlait is a dual French and American citizen and received his MBA from ESCP Paris.
In this interview, Marc Jourlait opens up about his French and American upbringing, his leadership style, and the challenges he faced as a CEO during the COVID-19 pandemic.
TGL: How was your childhood?
MJ: We talk about third culture kids today, where the parents are from different cultures and the kids are brought up in third culture, I was one of those, but back in the '70s. I was born in Toronto, Canada, but my mother was American from Manhattan, and my dad is French from Paris. I grew up in a completely bilingual, bi-cultural, multinational household. At age 10, I moved from Toronto to Aix-en-Provence in the south of France and went through junior high and high school all the way to the baccalaureate exam in Aix-en-Provence. I moved up to Versailles for prep school, and then to Paris for business school, which was a rather traditional French trajectory once we moved to France. I got to enjoy both sides of the Atlantic, and that's one of the most defining elements of my childhood, this multicultural, multilingual world that at the time was unique.
TGL: You also lived in Tokyo for a period. When was that?
MJ: That was during my business school. I studied Japanese for two years and then did an exchange program my third year about two hours south of Tokyo by bullet train on the outskirts of Mt. Fuji. I could open the curtains of my dorm room and see Mt. Fuji. My view was a Hokusai woodblock print. There's a sensitivity to culture, to tradition, to aesthetics, that is stunning in Japan, and I've been back there many times on business, but even more often actually on vacation with my family.
TGL: You dreamt of working at Apple as a child and then you actually did work there. Why did working for Apple intrigue you as a child?
MJ: I turned ten when Apple was one year old. I was fascinated by computers. I started playing on these big PDP 11 terminals, VAX systems. They had games. They were ASCII character games, but I thought it was fascinating that you could program these things. I saved up a lot of money from my summer jobs and paper route, and I bought myself my first computer. It was a TRS 80, a Tandy Radio Shack 80, which had 16K of memory and it would take you four minutes to load a program, via audio tape. Then, I saved more money to buy myself an Apple II, and I decided at that moment I was going to work for Apple. My childhood dream came true 11 years later.
TGL: Your first job was at Apple. How was your experience?
MJ: Business school in France at the time was three years, and I did two of my three internships at Apple France, just south of Paris. They hired me the day after I graduated as a product manager, so I got my diploma, and I got a job offer to work at Apple France, which at the time, was the largest subsidiary for Apple outside the United States. As a product manager you're a mini general manager or mini CEO of your product. It’s the best job in the world. I was on high end desktop Macintoshes to start. Then, when I moved to Apple Europe in the early ‘90s, I was on the Powerbook line, which was Apple's first line of real laptops. When I moved to Cupertino I was still working for Europe on Powerbooks then became Chief of Staff for the Chief Operating Officer, the number two guy at Apple, an Italian gentleman named Marco Landi. I was still young in my career, but I got to live through interesting and turbulent times at Apple. I saw four CEOs: John Sculley, Michael Spindler, Gil Amelio, and Steve Jobs in eight years.
TGL: What was a takeaway from working at Apple?
MJ: What I learned in eight years at Apple is the love of the product. There's a passion about the product and a lot of my career decisions have been informed by that passion for the product. The product can be hardware, software, services. It could be a consumer product or a B2B product. That doesn't matter. When you're a product manager, you live and breathe and die with your product. That's my key takeaway: do something you're passionate about. Life is pretty short, so do something you really enjoy doing.
TGL: What did you do after Apple?
MJ: I spent eight years at Apple, then I went eight years at HP. HP taught me the love of operations and the P&L, and what led me eventually to want to be a general manager. I never aspired to be CEO, but I did enjoy running a business. Then I was at Seagate, also in Silicon Valley, then at Technicolor, which brought me back to France. Just over a year later, I was asked to lead Bose, the sound system and headphone company, in Europe. Bose was my first true general manager, full P&L job. It was the largest team I had ever led: about 1500 people across 35 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. That was a fun ride for six years.
TGL: How would you describe leadership in tech?
MJ: Leadership in tech has an energy, an optimism, a decisiveness and approachability. HP was the grandmother of Silicon Valley, and the values that HP imprinted onto the Silicon Valley are still alive today. There's something that is without boundaries, without limits in terms of optimism and aspirations, and failure is not a negative thing. You dust yourself off, pick yourself up, and you try at it again. It’s a willingness to accept failure as an education process and not a reflection on one's own worth. I've had my ups and downs in my career and turnarounds, that's the resilience and optimism I learned in Silicon Valley.
TGL: How would you describe yourself as a leader?
MJ: When I join a new team, I do a little introduction. I tell people, "Here are what I think my qualities are as a leader," with everything from Myers Briggs tests to feedback I've gotten from my bosses and my teams. I also tell them, "Here are my faults. Here are my weak points." The first word I use to describe myself is “fun," which surprises people. What do you mean fun? You're supposed to be here to turn the business around, save it from bankruptcy or grow it or whatever the issue is. But my intention going into any situation is to have fun. It doesn't mean I don't take it seriously. Business is serious, because you're talking about real money, real people's livelihoods...right now, with COVID, real people's lives. For me fun means: Do you enjoy fixing things? Do you enjoy transforming things? Do you enjoy seeing people grow? That as a leader, is probably the most gratifying part: seeing what you've put in place culturally and talent wise autonomously do its thing, and you can almost sit back and enjoy it.
TGL: What does the job title CEO mean to you?
MJ: I never set out to be CEO. I would've been perfectly happy being a product manager. I never lose sight of the fact that the CEO title does not entitle me to anything. It's a different job description. Yes, I get paid more. Yes, I have potential upside rewards and bonuses, but that's just the nature of capitalism. I also have the risk that I could lose my job a lot faster, if I make a mistake, it's a huge mistake and there are consequences to my huge mistakes. I have an outstanding group of leaders in my direct reports. I can't replace my CFO. I can't replace my general counsel. I can’t replace the presidents of my business units, because I'm not as good as they are at their job. What I can do is make sure I have the best CFO, the best head of HR, the best general counsel, the best business unit presidents that I can find and then point them all in the same direction, and unleash their talent.
TGL: You became CEO of Kodak Alaris after original Eastman Kodak declared bankruptcy. What was it like to arrive during this period?
MJ: It started with the day the recruiter called me and said, "Would you be interested in leading Kodak Alaris?" I didn't hear the word Alaris, I just heard the word Kodak. And, I immediately said, "Absolutely. Sign me up." The reason had to do with the iconic nature and history of the brand, the 130 year old venerable industrial leader and icon that was Kodak. The word is actually in the Oxford dictionary: Kodak Moment. I'm so fortunate to have worked for so many incredible brands and to have an opportunity to get my fingerprints on Kodak, bring it on.
TGL: What is Kodak Alaris specifically?
MJ: Eastman Kodak went chapter 11 in 2012 for a whole host of reasons. Eastman Kodak owed a lot of money to a lot of people - typical in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy - and they owed about three billion dollars to the Kodak UK employee pension fund. They were going to wipe out this pension money of about 12,000 former employees, so the UK government had to step in. They negotiated with the UK government and carved out three businesses in lieu of payment. They had no cash, but they spun off three businesses, about 4000 employees, a bunch of intellectual property, perpetual rights to the Kodak brand, and they said, "Good luck." That's what I'm CEO of: good luck.
So we are a company privately held by the Kodak UK employee pension fund. Our goal is to generate profit so we can pay the dividends and the pension obligations. We have four businesses: we still produce film for photography, we do photo kiosks called Kodak Moments, we have a high end scanner business, and we have a little fintech startup that is using AI and machine learning applied to the mortgage industry.
TGL: What has been your biggest challenge as CEO of Kodak Alaris?
MJ: The biggest challenge for me as CEO was the cultural challenge. I spent a lot of my time understanding the culture and working on transforming that culture. That's a tough thing to do, but you have to lead from the top and by example. I’m trying to change thick historical DNA from the Eastman Kodak culture and the traumatic Chapter 11 process, which is something I never wish on any company or any group of employees. How do you survive through that kind of trauma? That was my number one priority: fix the leadership where I needed to. When you have the right people and the right culture, it doesn't matter what the challenge is. You will get it done and the team has proven that. I've been there now for over three years, and we just finished our fiscal year yesterday, and the team has delivered. We are now 27 months in a row of beating our revenue, our EBITDA, and our cash margins, and that has never happened in the history of the company.
TGL: What is business culture to you?
MJ: You walk into the building and you feel the culture. It should be thick. It’s how people decide without their boss looking over their shoulder, it's how people respond to a customer situation or to an HR situation without having to ask for permission or ask for what the answer is. That's culture. It's part of the DNA. It's part of the reflex. It's part of the muscle memory. That takes a lot to reprogram, but once you do, it's almost unstoppable. If you can change a culture, you can turn any business around.
TGL: How do you view your responsibility in society as a CEO during COVID-19?
MJ: I think my number one responsibility is to my employees first and foremost. They put their trust in me to take care of them, to keep them safe, to keep them informed and to be transparent. If I take care of my employees, they will take care of our customers, our partners, our suppliers, and the communities they live in. We're in 35 countries around the world, so if I take care of my employees, then I'm taking care of their households, their families, their communities, people that depend on them. That's where my mind and my heart goes first of all.
TGL: How has COVID-19 tested your leadership skills?
MJ: I'm old enough that I've been through a few of these: the dot com bust, 9/11, the 2008 meltdown, now it’s COVID. These things will happen. They're inevitable. And actually, I wish upon any leader to go through a crisis, because you learn. It tests the foundations of your company and how quickly you react, how decisively you react. You can have fun when you surf on top of the wave, but you can't really take credit for that, because who knows if it's you or the market or your predecessor. You can take credit for navigating through the storm though and navigating through a storm can be fun - usually at the end of the storm, not during it.
I'm incredibly proud of my leadership team: the maturity, the decisiveness, the solidarity, doing what's right for the employees first, doing what's right for the business short term, particularly around cash conservation. And then doing everything mid and long term for the business, there's not even an ounce of hesitation with my leadership team.
TGL: How has your business been affected by COVID-19?
MJ: Pro photographers are not taking pictures of weddings and graduations and sports events, and all of a sudden, most pro photo shops across the country are shut down. Most people are not going to CVS to print pictures and calendars and mugs. They're going to CVS to get masks and hand sanitizers. For our scanner business, most businesses are postponing the deployment of high end scanners. There's no question demand is going to soften. Like everybody, we're asking for help, and I think collectively, if people play the partner card, we can weather this storm.
Our priorities have been three things in order: first off, make sure our employees are safe. Secondly, protect our business structure, and that's primarily about day to day operations and cash. And thirdly, do the right thing for the mid and long term to steer the ship out of this storm, so that we can come out of this a stronger company in three years at most.
TGL: What is something you have learned about yourself in quarantine?
MJ: I try not to consume too much of the media because you get depressed pretty quickly. There's situations that are desperate, particularly here in New York, and I have family and friends in France dealing with the full quarantine confinement which isn’t easy. I'm fortunate to be able to weather the storm in the conditions that I'm weathering it and to lead and to have internet access and opportunity to video conference and do all this stuff, which a couple generations ago would've been impossible. Part of my civic duty is to try and help and participate and keep your local coffee shop or favorite little restaurant alive by contributing to virtual tip jars or buy gift cards to help them with their own cash flow. So, whatever I can do to give back is what I'm learning. Who knows how long it'll last, but I feel fortunate, and therefore my role is to give back.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
MJ: Fortunately as an early career professional, I got to meet some of my childhood icons. I got to meet Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates. I even fixed Bill Gates’ computer once which is a funny anecdote. Candidly, the name that comes to mind is Jesus Christ. Whether you're a believer or not, and I happen to be a strong Christian believer, I think it would be fascinating. Of all the people, he has had one of the biggest repercussions on humanity.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
MJ: I come back to the word fun. I don't wish a crisis on anybody, and I certainly don't want to belittle the human toll that coronavirus is taking right now. But, take these challenges, take setbacks, whether it's a lay off or a crisis, take it as accumulated wisdom. It's an accelerated learning curve. It's not the end of the world. If you yourself aren't sick or don't have a loved one who's sick and suffering, then the best thing you can do is extract the wisdom from this experience. The coronavirus crisis is an incredible opportunity for humanity to learn, for me to continue to learn, and hopefully to inspire in my company and accumulate wisdom that we can apply to the next crisis so we don’t make these mistakes again.