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May 01, 2011

Exclusive Interviews

Executive Connection with Henry Bedford, CEO, Southwestern


Henry BedfordIn this month’s Executive Connection, Direct Selling News Publisher and Editor in Chief John Fleming speaks with Henry Bedford, CEO of Southwestern, about embracing a new generation, having purpose and the challenges facing direct selling companies.

DSN: What is your vision for Southwestern?

HB: I believe Southwestern is poised to bridge the gap between the educational system in America and students’ ability to achieve their potential. Southwestern’s new integrated learning system, Southwestern Advantage—to be released to our customers for the first time this summer—is based on the same learning principles that have caused alumni of our selling program to rise to the top of their professions and for Southwestern to succeed for over 155 years. Southwestern Advantage provides the tools necessary to be prepared for life for students of all ages. We have committed ourselves to the mission of reaching out to every family in the U.S. and Canada with this system over the course of the next 10 years. I am excited too that starting this summer we will give away a system for each one we sell, so this mission can reach into extreme lower-income areas through partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

DSN: What is the one thing you enjoy most about being the CEO of Southwestern?

HB: It is such a privilege to be working with and around the energy and promise of Southwestern’s young people. I think about it every day. Most days I feel like a proud alumnus of this wonderful student program that has been transported back to his youth. I work shoulder to shoulder with them as they solve the problems we face, and I love that I can play the role of enabler, and to remove obstacles

DSN: What has been your proudest accomplishment?

HB: Southwestern has always been known for its student training program and its premier entrepreneurial experience that leads to success in later life. I am proud to have played a part in moving the mission of Southwestern outward to our customers so these same success principles can be taught to students of all ages through Southwestern Advantage.

DSN: What do you tell Southwestern’s student salesforce to lead and inspire them?

HB: I use names. I tell them that they are forming the same habits in this program as did distinguished Southwestern Alumni before them, such as Rick Perry, the governor of Texas; and Jeff Sessions, U.S. Senator from Alabama; and Chinh Chu, Senior Managing Director of The Blackstone Group; and Donna Keene, Chief of Staff for the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush Administration; Bruce Henderson, the Founder of The Boston Consulting Group, and on and on. I researched the Southwestern database the other day and found four pages of “C-level executives,” and I use those names. I also remind them that, as they face challenges, the answer is always behind the next door. It’s amazing the inner strength and confidence that comes from knowing that.

DSN: If you could relive one period of time—a year, a week, whatever—since you’ve been at the Southwestern, what would it be? You could choose a great time to relive or a period where you’d change something.

HB: It’s been a terrific journey. Actually, the time would be now. These are the good times. I love the change that I see around me and the way that Southwestern students are embracing the future. I appreciate being a part of it.

DSN: What’s been the most fun?

HB: Our company is constantly evolving, with new divisions, new startups, and now with Southwestern Advantage… the core company feels like a startup. I have had fun helping create and being in an environment where I never stop learning.

DSN: Is there one basic principle that has governed your leadership at Southwestern?

HB: Yes, every problem can be solved within 5 feet of where it starts (i.e., ask those near the problem, and do what they say), and the best ideas and opportunities come from the frontline.

DSN: What do you see as our industry’s greatest challenge?

HB: I don’t focus on that so much, to think that we have one greatest challenge. The fun of business is problem-solving and enabling in a team setting. The challenges are there every day and that is what gives us purpose.

DSN: You started your career at Southwestern as a student dealer. Was there a lesson you learned that first summer that still shapes your life today?

HB: I draw from my experience in the field as a student every day, even though that was 38 years ago. Mostly, the lesson of persistence and having faith that good things will happen if you have the right attitude, focus on the details and never quit.

DSN: What do you like to do when you just want to relax?

HB: Long motorcycle rides, solo hot air balloon flights early in the morning with Leonard Cohen in my iPod, and hanging out and fishing with friends dreaming about the future.