David S. Pottruck, C’70, WG’72 Former CEO, Charles Schwab 2020 Joseph Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award
09 August, 2021
category: Finance, Joseph Wharton Dinner
Dave Pottruck, C’70, WG’72, played Penn football, captained the Penn wrestling team and helped run Charles Schwab for 20 years. He did all of this operating on the same principle — that he did not have enough talent to get by on talent, and that he had to work very hard. That hard work determines how far your talent will take you.
What was your background before attending Penn?
I grew up in Levittown, New York, in a blue-collar neighborhood. I never knew a white-collar worker. My dad worked on the lunar module that put a man on the moon, not as a scientist but as a factory worker. It was my pleasure to grow up in a neighborhood of factory workers, policemen, bus drivers and garage mechanics. All the fathers were veterans, and they were the greatest people.
What did you learn from them?
That nothing comes easy. My father worked two or three jobs his whole life to support his family. My mother, who married at 17, had four children. She got her high school equivalency degree and then her associate degree in nursing, her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and eventually became an instructor of nurses. Yet, with all the things they had going on in their lives, they never missed watching me compete at a Penn football game or Penn wrestling match.
What led you from this environment into a career on Wall Street?
In my own undergraduate days, my academic performance was pretty lackluster. I had no intellectual curiosity. I had no role models of what one could do with a college degree. I had no idea of what I wanted to do.
Then I met a woman whose dad was a businessman. He became a role model for me. I learned that business is like sports. There is competition. There is winning and losing. Hard work pays off. There is preparation, and a combination of intellectual achievement with the physical demands of working long hours.
I decided to pursue a graduate degree at Wharton, where the subject matter — accounting and finance — interested me. I excelled, becoming an honors student. Wharton changed my life. My career was the product of my academic training there. I credit the combination of my character-building experiences on the athletic field and academic experiences for the success I was able to achieve in my business career.
You founded the Penn Athletics Wharton Leadership Academy. What do you want to impart to athletes so they can leverage what they’re experiencing on the field?
College athletes, especially those at big-name schools, think that they are going to play professionally. But if they are playing for an Ivy League school, they have made the decision to put themselves through hell, training like they are at these big-name schools, but also committing to so much more.
They are competing hard, but they also have significant academic responsibilities. Most serious athletes at Penn spend the same amount or even more time in their athletic pursuits as in academics. Why do they do that? What is the point?
The point must be to make that athletic experience part of their overall learning experience. How do you bounce back from disappointments? How do you face fear of failure? How do you inspire your teammates to think big, commit to succeed, pull together, support one another and shoot for big wins over favored opponents?
These are the skills and perspectives of leadership. These are hard to learn in the classroom, but they must be learned to succeed on the athletic field. That was all implicit to me. I thought to myself, “What if we make it more ‘explicit’? What if we took that leadership that we teach at Wharton and combine it with the character-building experiences that come with athletics? Wouldn’t that prepare our athletes to be leaders in their lives after Penn?”
My Wharton faculty colleagues believed we could combine the athletic experience with academic training to produce something very special. So, I wrote to the Penn Athletic Department and proposed that we make the best athletic leadership program in the country. We are building that now.
What kind of character is built through athletics?
Here is what I learned. No matter how much talent you have, your hard work will decide how far your talent will take you.
Very few athletes or businesspeople get to where they are, only on talent. In sports, I learned that I had to outwork my opponents. I had to outwork the guys on my team. I didn’t have enough talent to win on talent! I had to succeed based on hard work. I was a blue-collar athlete, and I worked very, very hard!
I learned that I had to outwork my opponents. I had to outwork the guys on my team. I didn’t have enough talent to win on talent! I had to succeed based on hard work. I was a blue-collar athlete, and I worked very, very hard!
I also learned that success and, in fact, leadership are all about teamwork. Very few people succeed on their own. They succeed because the team pulls together, in one direction, supporting one another. The same lessons hold in business, in my experience.
I won the Senior Award for the football team in my last year at Penn. The award signified the most valuable player, not the best player. I was in shock. But I suspect the coaches thought I brought something to the field each day to make our team better. Since then, I have always tried to do that for every team that I’m on.
And you were an assistant varsity wrestling coach?
Yes. We were Ivy League champions. My team got the message that their talent needed to be combined with enormous hard work to succeed. And they sure did.
What is your advice for young alumni coming into the workforce?
I have three children and a son-in-law who graduated from Penn. Yes, if you cut me, I bleed red and blue. I’ve talked to hundreds of graduating Penn students over the past decades. And I’ve seen the perspective that, if your first job is not perfect, your life is over. Someone got the perfect job, you didn’t. Your career is now kaput. I’ve seen people think that way over and over, and it is just not true. Life takes mysterious twists and turns. My career is a testimony to that.
The thing that always seems to matter, 100% of the time, is your wiliness to work harder than the people around you. If you are one of 10 people in a training program at Morgan Stanley, how much effort do you make?
There are other ways to sacrifice. There is the promotion opportunity to move to a city that you don’t want to live in. It’s in Cleveland, Ohio, which, by the way, is a really nice place. But you want to live in New York City or Washington, D.C.! But the promotion opportunity is in Cleveland. I didn’t want to live in Albany or Binghamton, New York, but I did live in those cities, and I really enjoyed them. And in each city, I got a job that helped my career move forward.
What was your role when you joined Charles Schwab?
Charles Schwab was a small company and, in fact, had just been sold to Bank of America. I was hired as head of marketing. My goal was to make it an attractive brand that investors of all stripes could have confidence in.
You studied finance at Wharton and worked in various finance firms. How did you come into marketing?
My previous job was at American Express in the Shearson brokerage division. At one point, they had fired the head of marketing. Even though I had never had a marketing job, my boss trusted that, whatever he put me in charge of, I would work hard at and be able to handle it.
I was actually reading textbooks on marketing! I hired marketing agencies and learned from them. Chuck Schwab saw what I was doing and hired me to be head of marketing. It had been his position. My job was to build the company, Charles Schwab, into an iconic brand. Three years later, we reacquired it from the Bank of America, went public and then figured out how to make the internet our friend.
What were the key elements to growing the company into such an industry behemoth?
Well, I’ve always believed that overwhelming “unsolvable problems” can lead to amazing solutions. Our success came from trying to deliver great value for our customers. We weren’t trying to just build a brand — we believed we had to serve customers better than anyone else. We built a culture of intense customer focus.
In the 1990s, when the internet became this big monster challenge and opportunity, we had to cut our prices by 50%, which, of course, also meant a reduction in our profits. We had to convince our board that great technology, great service and great pricing would restore our profitability and lead to substantial success. It worked out even better than any of us had dreamed. Within a year, our stock price doubled and redoubled after initially going down by 40%. Wall Street was clearly short-sighted.
In trying to build a culture of customer focus, how did that affect the kind of people you brought in?
What you learn is that character matters. It’s not just smarts, but also how employees treat others they work with. Do they treat others with generosity of spirit? A lot of companies are reluctant to talk about things like this.
We put in policies to enhance our culture. For example, you could donate sick days to fellow employees. Then we created a week every year where employees could take a day off to volunteer. We didn’t have senior executives leaving to grab jobs in another company with a bit higher pay. Culture becomes the glue that holds people together.
What was one of the overwhelming unsolvable problems that you helped Charles Schwab to break through?
Well, the internet story I just recounted was probably the biggest. But another was the question of changing our local branch offices from service centers to a combination of sales and service centers. I learned that getting folks to sell who don’t want to sell, and who are afraid of selling, is darned near impossible. I thought we just had to retrain and incentivize people. It turned out we had to replace 80% of our local managers, as only 20% were willing to learn a new skill as challenging as learning to sell. But we were determined to go in that direction, and it ultimately led to enormous success.
You wrote a book, Stacking the Deck. Is that related to the course you teach at Wharton?
Yes. My course in the Wharton Executive MBA program is officially called “Leading Organizational Change,” but I have subtitled it “Leading Breakthrough Change.” The real challenge isn’t in leading incremental change — it’s in leading disruptive, huge breakthrough changes that truly challenge the status quo.
Researchers say that these kinds of changes fail or underperform 70% to 80% of the time. So, what does it take to succeed? My answer is that you must “stack the deck” to succeed, since at the start, the deck is stacked against you. What is the step-by-step approach that is necessary to do this? That’s what my book is all about. I wrote it as a textbook for my course at Wharton and for the lectures I give to various companies.