John Pepper ’60, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, spoke with the News about his career at Yale and his rise to the top of the Fortune 500 company. Currently chairman of the board for The Walt Disney Company, Pepper recounted the impact his education in history and economics had on his performance in the business world.
Q: You started as a reporter at the News in 1956, but during your sophomore year you became involved with the business side of the paper. What drove you to get involved in that section?
A: I really liked the idea of going out and selling ads. I liked working with the people I was talking to in the different places I went. It was fun to talk to them about their business and how we could help their business. It was kind of a surprise to me that I went that direction because I liked to write.
Q: Was that your first experience in business?
A: Yes, that was the first time I did anything in business.
Q: After you graduated from Yale as a history and economics major, were you planning on pursuing a graduate degree?
A: I was an NROTC scholarship student, so after Yale I went into the Navy for three years. I was certain during that period of time that I’d go to law school. I applied to Harvard and was admitted there, yet I decided to defer for a year. I loved school and I loved studies and writing papers, but I wasn’t quite ready to go back to the stacks. I decided to go work for what turned out to be Procter & Gamble. In the middle of that year I called up Harvard and told them I wasn’t coming. It became clear to me that I was really excited by what I was experiencing at Procter & Gamble. I was very worried about business — that it wouldn’t be intellectually challenging as certainly Yale had been. But I found it to be very intellectually challenging and stimulating. It was also action oriented.
Q: Were you seeking a position at Procter & Gamble, or was it a company upon which you just stumbled?
A: No, I reached out here and got a job offer. It was actually through the Yale Daily News that I found them. I could remember back in my junior year at Yale going out to try to get money from recruiters. The recruiting companies ran ads in the paper. I was in my second or third year in the Navy, and I remembered these two guys from Procter & Gamble who had come to Yale to take an ad. I remembered them being very, very excited about what they were doing. I started with them in 1963 and was there for 39 years.
Q: Did anything in your experience at Yale and your experience as a history major help you particularly in business?
A: History has taught me — in a way that I see mirrored in business and that you encourage in business — that personal leadership makes everything happen. It also teaches that it isn’t always a victory; there are inevitable setbacks. History shows how major victories are never easily won, that everything significant has required enormous courage and persistence. That’s really true in business. And one more angle about Yale that has been important was the writing I did there. The writing I did in history and English has led me to appreciate and have a lot of affection for deep, meticulous research and the pursuit of truth, even when it leads you in a direction that you may not like. The commitment to truth that I think pervades good scholarship — certainly pervades the character of Yale — and is something that I’ve drawn on many, many times in trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do in business and in life in general.
Q: What is your current role at Disney?
A: Well, I’ve been the chairman of the board for a year now. I work with the CEO to make sure we have the right agenda. I ensure that we have the right board committees and that we are working on the right things. Certainly, it’s important to ensure that we have a good climate in the board. I try to provide ideas that I’ve developed over the years in business — ideas about developing a brand or increasing the diversity of the company. I also get to see a lot of good movies.
Q: You were very much ahead of the curve in China, getting Procter & Gamble to invest early over there. What are your thoughts on the current direction of the Chinese economy?
A: They are growing fast. One observation that I’ve made: Underpinning the growth is a remarkable culture committed to learning and education. The government leaders I’ve met at every level of government were the strongest, in the sense of being ready to do business. They were smart and had extraordinary energy.
Q: What advice would you give to Yale students?
A: Find something you really love and get great at it. Don’t try to do more than two things really well. Also, get to know at least two, maybe three professors really well, because you learn so much from that. I still regard professor Howard Roberts Lamar, after all these years, as a close associate. Professor David Brion Davis is a really good friend. And these friendships, while I was there, meant everything. Howard Roberts Lamar made me really love history. He cared about me while I was on campus. But that didn’t just happen — it’s a two-way street. So I would really encourage you to find a course you love and try to develop a relationship with the professor.