In his 30-plus years in corporate human resources, Brian Cook (MGT '79, MBA '81) has grappled with quite a few thorny decisions concerning employee careers and futures. None was tougher than facing up to the staffing realities imposed by the recent recession.
“Our business is heavily dependent on residential and commercial building,” says Cook, senior vice president of HR at USG Corp., a Chicago-based manufacturer and distributor of building materials, including Sheetrock brand drywall. The 110-year-old, $3.5 billion publicly traded company employs 9,000 people worldwide.
“With new home construction declining by 75 percent over the past five years, we had to take aggressive action to size the company to the market demand,” Cook says. “The leadership team had to make some very difficult decisions regarding staffing, compensation and benefits, and other programs impacting the workforce.”
A culture of integrity
The actions were aimed at preserving the company's core values and critical resources of people, technology, and operations, so that it would not only survive the recession, but be ready to take advantage of the recovery when it came, he recalls. “The key was making these difficult decisions consistent with our value system and communicating them openly and honestly.”
That value system, he says, was what drew him to a company he knew little about in 1981 as a newly minted MBA. “USG has a culture of integrity that governs how we deal with employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Its approach to employee relations and safety was evident during the interview process. I could see right away that it would be a great work environment — and that turned out to be the case.”
Raised in Wantagh on Long Island, N.Y., Cook lived there until he came to Virginia Tech for his business degrees. He also received a law degree from DePaul University in 1990 (and is licensed to practice law in Illinois) and completed a six-week executive program at the University of Chicago.
Rising through the ranks
At USG, Cook started his HR career in field assignments at various manufacturing plants. He rose through the ranks, working in four states and in the distribution business and holding leadership roles in labor relations, safety, and HR planning units.
He has been senior VP since 2000, responsible for all facets of HR: labor and employee relations; leadership development and succession planning; compensation and benefits; recruiting, staffing, and training; workforce diversity; occupational safety; and business continuity. He is a member of the company's executive and pension investment committees and the USG Foundation.
The company's philosophy of promoting from within and providing career opportunities for employees willing to work hard, Cook says, has kept him there. “I always felt that if I wanted a bigger role and was willing to prepare myself for it, the company would make it happen.”
Legal training brings new perspective
Indeed, USG encouraged him to go to law school, when Cook, while working in its labor relations department, saw that many of the issues he dealt with — including labor negotiations, equal employment opportunity, and affirmative action — were legal as well as HR issues.
He earned the J.D. after four and a half years of night school, during which he also got married and had three children, including a daughter who is currently a Pamplin student. (His brother, William Cook, and sister-in-law, Elizabeth Harper Cook, are also Pamplin alumni.) His success at law school would not have been possible, Cook says, without the support of his wife, an engineer who worked at USG at the time.
The degree, he says, made him more effective on the job and ultimately enabled him to become head of the labor relations department. “My legal education has been helpful throughout my career. Beyond gaining specific knowledge of labor and employment law, I also developed critical thinking, problem solving, and writing skills that have been valuable no matter what issue I was facing. Acquiring those skills may have been the biggest benefit of legal training.”
Looking ahead, Cook sees three central challenges for HR executives: “helping the organization be cost efficient in an increasingly competitive global marketplace; competing effectively to attract and retain the best talent for high-impact positions; and, most importantly, putting succession plans in place to ensure the organization has the leadership talent to continue to be successful.”
USG Corp. USG (U.S.: NYSE)
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USG stock prices took a dip during the recent recession, coinciding with the slump in residential and commercial construction. But the company's stock rebounded impressively last year and Cook is optimistic about continued growth. "We are seeing some positive signs in the market," he says, "and we are confident our efforts will pay off for our employees, customers, and shareholders."
Of the lingering economic uncertainty, Cook says that few manufacturers will boost their production capacity or their payrolls “until they have a higher comfort level that a sustainable recovery is underway — no one wants to hire people, invest in their training and development, and then release them because the increase in business they anticipated did not materialize.”
Still, the worst seems to be over. “We are seeing some positive signs in the market,” he says, “and we are confident our efforts will payoff for our employees, customers, and shareholders.”
Economic recovery would allow him to fully focus on what he loves most about his job: developing programs that support both USG's business goals and employees' career objectives. “Whether it be designing an incentive program to motivate employees to achieve key goals or preparing the next generation of leaders through our talent management activities,” Cook says, “using HR tools to contribute to the company's achievement of its strategic priorities is the most gratifying part of the job.”
HR today, he notes, is more about skills or talent management than administrative activities. “Much of the routine transactional and record keeping work that HR departments used to spend a lot of time on is now accomplished by employees using self-service tools, through other technology solutions, or is outsourced.” Companies are increasingly focusing on the “true value-added aspect of HR,” he says, “in particular, recruiting, developing, and motivating the key people resources the business needs to be successful.”
An accomplishment that gives him particular pride is USG's track record on safety, one of its core values. “Safety is less about regulatory compliance than about our relationship with our employees,” Cook says. “We operate factories, quarries, mines, ships, trains, and trucks, so our employees face many hazards. During the past few years, our business challenges have created many distractions, but our safety performance has been extraordinary — by far the best in our industry.”
He notes that USG has won the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Sentinels of Safety Award “a record 10 times,” and that 10 of its manufacturing and distribution locations have achieved the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Star status, recognizing the highest level of excellence.
“Most importantly,” Cook says, “our employees go home to their families each night uninjured.”