Conrad Winkler

Chief Executive Officer, EVRAZ North America (a producer of engineered steel products for rail, energy, and industrial end-markets)

What were your early years like?
I grew up in Buffalo, New York. My father was a doctor, and my mother worked in marketing and advertising. In high school, I worked as a truck driver and an auto parts salesman (in addition to flipping burgers). I always liked cars and making things, so I thought one day maybe I’d like to run an auto company.

What was the first car you bought?
A Datsun 210. Andy Ray and I bought it for $60 before realizing that we couldn’t afford to insure it or really fix it up (due to a cracked frame). Our second was a 1971 AMC Matador, and we spent a lot more money on that. I think it cost $400.

How did you go from cars to consulting?
When I was younger, I had no idea what management consulting was. I studied mechanical engineering at MIT. Then I joined the U.S. Navy, because I thought it would be a good way to learn about operations and serve my country when the need was greatest. For about five years, I was a submariner — mostly on the USS Providence (SSN 719), a Los Angeles–class fast attack nuclear-powered sub with vertical launch tubes to boot. After that, I did my master’s in management of manufacturing at Kellogg/McCormick School of Management at Northwestern University. That’s where I found out about consulting. I did my summer internship at a brass mill, Chicago Extruded Metals. I accepted a full-time job offer in the operations practice of Strategy& (then Booz Allen Hamilton) in Chicago. That turned into a nearly 16-year career with the firm, all in the operations group.

What kept you at Strategy& for more than 15 years?
From the start, I loved the fast pace of the work, and being able to touch so many companies with different problems and issues. I hoped the experience would give me the ability to ultimately run a business myself. And luckily, it worked out for me that way. The main thing that kept me there was the team. We had a great team that worked together and had fun, even when times were stressful — and they were.

Any lasting lessons that still apply to your work today as CEO?
When I think about the success of a business, it comes down to problem solving, decision making, and winning over a wide range of people — your team, your organization, your board, and investors. As a consultant, I got to watch some of the best in the business do those things. I got to see a whole bunch of different styles that work. And I’d like to think that I picked up a few of them along the way. I know that learning how to make the right decisions and problem solve was the part of my Strategy& education that I use every day.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to ask the right questions and empower the management teams to come up with their own headlines. What are the key issues? What analysis do we need to do to find the answers? My goal is to work together, rather than get too far ahead of people. I think that I end up grabbing the bull by the horns often on our major issues, but I am working on turning it over to the team. We have a great team here, with four former Strategy& team members (Steve Eldam, Christian Messmacher, Mustafa Alshawaf, and Julian Diaz), making us perhaps the best strategy team that I have seen in a large company.

What’s the best part of your job now?
It’s really satisfying to see our strategy come to fruition, and to see a whole team of people succeed as the business succeeds. In a few years, we’ve transformed EVRAZ’s rail business. We set out to become the technical partner to our main customers, improving our innovation and on-time delivery capabilities. Now we’re viewed as the technological leader in the industry.

What do you look for when you hire?
I always listen for people who talk about their team’s development and how they, as a team, solved a problem. That’s my number one indicator of whether someone could be a part of a team that’s trying to drive solutions, versus someone more concerned with their own success. It always comes through. I also still give something akin to a case interview. I think people would say I’m a pretty tough grader in general, but in particular around people having the logic for what they’re doing and being able to explain their decision-making process. So I definitely test for that.

Besides being a tough grader, how would the people closest to you describe you?
I think they’d say I’m driven, hardworking, willing to roll up my sleeves, very interested in the operations, and engaged. I’m never afraid to ask questions. But I also think people would say that I can be a bit too forceful sometimes. I’m not always easy to argue with. My team here actually didn’t believe that in one of my appraisals at Strategy&, the feedback said that I was shy, quiet, and unwilling to express my ideas. Now I have to stop talking and listen more. I’ve learned a lot, but I’m still learning.

Outside work, when and where are you happiest?
My passion is being with my family, just trying to be a good husband and dad. My daughters are 11 and 15, and I love spending time with them — whether it’s playing board games and ping-pong, or going swimming and skiing together. I’ve coached my younger daughter’s soccer team for the past six years, and I go to as many of my older daughter’s gymnastics meets as possible. I love hiking in the mountains with my wife Julia.

What’s next for you?
In a way, I really feel like I’m just getting going. I know that probably sounds odd for a 51-year-old who has been the CEO of a company for four years with more than 15 years of management consulting. But one of the things I loved about consulting is the real openness to learning. I’d like to think that I’ve still got that.

I feel like I just finished my Phase One of learning the CEO gig. And I already feel like Phase Two is going to be even better. That’s not criticism of Phase One. It’s just to say that I’m not getting lazy or resting on any laurels. But the opposite. I’m thinking about what I can do better next and how to have my team succeed. This next round is focused more on team development and culture.

What’s the best career advice you can offer?
Follow your passion. You’re always going to do better at something that energizes and excites you. Of course, early in one’s career, it’s hard to figure that out. But in the meantime, never underestimate the value of working with your team. For better or worse, if I could do it all over again, I think I’d get my decks a little less perfect and spend a little more time working through problems and issues and opportunities with my team. The wisdom of others always drives you to a better solution.

This interview was conducted and edited by Jen Swetzoff, founder of CLOSEUP, a creative content studio in Brooklyn. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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