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Co-CEO leadership rare, but local business leaders show it can be done

Working together: Sam Latone, left, and David Birnbrey are co-CEOs of The Shopping Center Group. It’s a business model that doesn’t work for every company, but both men say they work with each other’s strengths, and keep the lines of communication open.</p>

Joann Vitelli

Working together: Sam Latone, left, and David Birnbrey are co-CEOs of The Shopping Center Group. It’s a business model that doesn’t work for every company, but both men say they work with each other’s strengths, and keep the lines of communication open.

 H.M. Cauley, Contributing Writer


Marriage isn’t for everybody. And neither is operating a business with two CEOs.

As opposite as those two concepts may at first appear, the fact is that having two equal partners at the head of the organization means following some of the basic rules that can make or break a marriage.

“It is a lot like being married,” said Sam Latone, co-CEO of The Shopping Center Group. “You’ve got to like each other, like to travel together, like spending time together.”

Latone and his co-CEO, David Birnbrey, took over joint control of the Atlanta-based retail real estate service company in 2000 after working together for a few years.

“We had developed a great relationship, both working and personal,” Birnbrey said. “We complemented each other in very positive ways and felt the proper way to lead was as co-CEOs.”

Their relationship and leadership are based on a clear division of labor that was decided by each CEO’s individual strengths, Birnbrey said. “Sam is the landlord side, handling investment property sales, leasing and property management, while mine is the tenant side. Sam is also the analytical, legal and financial accounting person, and I’m the advertising, training and public relations person. And because we are complementary and nonconflicting, we can eliminate redundant activities and function more effectively.”

But, just like with a marriage, it took some work to establish that balance.

“For the first couple of years, we learned each others’ nuances and idiosyncrasies,” Birnbrey said. “We recognized that we got along well and that our skill sets were complementary, but we still had to create a road map based on the idea that the sum of the whole is better than the sum of the parts. We also recognized that we share similar and consistent ambitions, and we are both aligned in our ambition to grow this company.”

Both Birnbrey and Latone agree it’s been “smooth sailing” because employees are equally clear about the CEOs’ commitment to the company.

“One issue we had early on was a person going to one of us, not getting the answer they liked, then going to the other,” Latone said. “We learned quickly to talk to each other first before we give an answer. Our employees have found that we are very aligned, and our approach and responses to them are pretty consistent.”

Rick Williams and John Addison Jr., of the financial service firm Primerica Inc. (NYSE: PRI) are another example of co-CEOs at the helm. The two were named to the shared post in 1999 after having established what Addison calls a “close battlefield relationship.”

“Rick and I go back to the early 1990s, when the company had a pretty significant stream of CEOs coming through,” Addison said. “We knew being co-CEOs doesn’t typically work; one of the two is usually trying to be the ‘big’ CEO. What works for us is that it’s more a business partnership than a title-sharing. It’s like working at Addison-Williams. In most instances, without that business relationship, it would be a disaster.”

As partners, each CEO brings different assets to the table.

“We have complementary skill sets: John is the intuitive marketing guy who can stand in front of a room and move masses of people; I’m the analytical one behind the scenes who can get things done,” Williams said. “But it starts with a common vision. Once you have that, it can work very well. It also works because even though we’re very different people, we’re good friends.”

Primerica’s management team reports jointly to both CEOs, a decision explicitly made to reinforce the idea of co-leadership.

“The team needs to understand that we are both running the company, even though we have distinct competencies,” Williams said.

Tom Conklin, clinical associate professor of managerial sciences at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business, can tick off more reasons for co-CEO failure than success.

“The potential for trouble is high,” he said. “Blackberry does it and is suffering, but then Samsung has three. There has to be clarity among the responsibilities. And if they have different ways of thinking, it could be cumbersome. Co-CEOs do happen, but they don’t seem to be very common.”

Conklin takes the marriage analogy a step further, comparing co-CEOs to families who own a company.

“I can imagine how much of the dynamics are like a family-run business,” he said. “If the CEOs are socializing and hanging out together, that’s a great sign. Otherwise, it might be a case of starting out with great intentions, and then people wind up just tolerating each other.”

Co-CEOs: Top tips to a working marriage

Tom Conklin, clinical associate professor of managerial sciences at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business, offered these suggestions to companies considering having co-CEOs:

  1. Think about it in depth. Have a good deal of dialogue with all of the stakeholders. Talk about what culture you want to create and the type of community you want to establish. I’d suggest having intense conversations about how you’ll handle things. Intentionality and clarity are important.
  2. Establish clear responsibilities. What issues in the organization or business can be handled by one person? What needs both voices? If co-CEOs have to talk about every issue that comes up, they‘re not going to be responsive. Figure out which parts can be decided on individually and which need both voices — and that may need to be readdressed as the organization evolves so there’s no miscommunication.
  3. The CEOs should sit down and craft their vision of the organization, which means they’ll have to communicate to each other very well.
  4. Establish a massive commitment to trust. No breaches will be tolerated. Both have to operate in the best interest of the organization, not egos.

Original story appeared here

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