Christopher Connor

Ohio State ’78

Chairman and CEO, The Sherwin-Williams Co. – “Covering the Earth” with ethical actions

By Erick Trickey
Chris Connor understands the power of a single gesture. When Nike yanked the Godzilla-sized image of LeBron James off Sherwin-Williams’ Landmark Building this summer, an old idea popped back into Connor’s mind.

“It was very clear to me that we needed very quickly to respond,” says Connor, Sherwin-Williams’ CEO. “LeBron left a gaping hole in our heart. We didn’t want a hole on the side of our building either.”

Connor had long thought about using the company headquarters’ façade to raise Sherwin-Williams’ profile here. So this October, on the day of the Cavaliers’ home opener, Sherwin-Williams hung its 210-foot-wide banner of the glowing nighttime Cleveland skyline in the Mega-LeBron’s place.

“Our home since 1866,” it reads. “Our pride forever.”

That simple statement reaches beyond civic loyalty to symbolize Connor’s civic action.

In an era when many CEOs are retreating from community involvement, heeding boards of directors’ calls to focus on the company alone, Connor and Sherwin-Williams are an exception. He’s working to improve Northeast Ohio’s business climate as a Greater Cleveland Partnership vice chair and to attract new business as chairman of Team NEO.

His power is in gestures both big and small. Thomas Humphries, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, came to a Team NEO event this fall with a guest: Carrie Chan of Genius Electronic Optical, a Taiwanese manufacturer of LED lights and cell-phone camera lenses that may locate its North American operations in the Mahoning Valley.

As Connor introduced himself to Chan, he bowed his head slightly and presented his business card with two hands, as businesspeople do in Taiwan and China.

“I saw other people of prominence almost fling their business card to her,” Humphries says. “He’s the one person she remembers up there.”

Connor gets personally involved in Team NEO’s business-attraction efforts. “On short notice, he has cleared his calendar to meet with CEOs of large companies that have come to town,” says Tom Waltermire, the group’s CEO. Connor has also made Sherwin-Williams’ Cavaliers tickets, in a box near courtside, available to visiting executives.

“He likes having the opportunity to promote the region,” Waltermire says. “He’s frustrated we don’t give him even more chances than we do.”

Connor grew up in Akron, where his father, Michael, a Firestone vice president, often volunteered for civic efforts. “[If something] was important in Akron, if the business community needed to be represented, he was involved,” he recalls. Connor says he learned a lot by observing his dad’s business skills and values: his poise and presence, his ease at a podium, his strong sense of ethics and his loyalty to his company.

Ethics have also been important to Connor as he’s led Sherwin-Williams’ ultimate realization of its logo’s “Cover the Earth” slogan, its global expansion. Sherwin-Williams had no facilities in Asia and only one in Europe when Connor became CEO in 1999. Today, it has 13 factories in Europe and 13 facilities in Asia.

With that expansion comes the need to take the company’s values overseas, Connor says. Speaking to the Cleveland Council on World Affairs in June, he told the story of touring a Brazilian paint plant before Sherwin-Williams acquired it. He discovered that a single, cigarette-smoking man was performing the work of adding pressurized, flammable propellant to aerosol paint cans without safety protection. Sherwin-Williams changed the process once it took ownership of the plant.

“Safety and respect for human life doesn’t mean a government entity insists on it,” Connor says. “It’s part of the culture of who
we are.”

Connor, 54, joined Sherwin-Williams in 1983 as advertising director for its paint stores. His 28 years with the company aren’t unusual; Sherwin-Williams is known for its remarkable skill at retaining and promoting employees.

The president and COO, John Morikis, started as a floor-sweeper. Turnover among its retail employees is only about 5 percent annually. “When we share that number with people — Wall Street analysts, others who follow retail chains — that number always blows them away,” Connor says.

Connor does his part to let employees know they’re valued, says Tom Hopkins, Sherwin-Williams’ senior vice president for human resources. Connor calls a sampling of the company’s 36,000 worldwide employees on their birthdays and anniversaries. He and Hopkins took three winners of a pride-in-Cleveland slogan contest to the Cavs-Heat game in December. They’ve also led the company’s teams in charity bike races such as Pedal to the Point.

“The guy doesn’t have to do that,” Hopkins says, “but he’s there in front, wearing riding togs and eating Hostess Twinkies.”

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