From Steel Yards to HR Stewardship

By Apr 1, 2007
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A summer job at a Chicago steel plant gave John Murabito insight on employee relations and inspired him to forge a career path to HR's upper ranks.

John Murabito’s resume could double as a checklist for human resource professionals aiming for the executive suite.​

HR generalist and specialist assignments for Fortune 500 companies? Check.

Experience at an entrepreneurial firm preparing to go public? Check.

Leadership of major efforts in compensation plan redesign, organizational development, global expansion and corporate turnaround? All checked off.

Murabito, executive vice president for human resources and services at Cigna, a health coverage provider headquartered in Philadelphia, is a man whose achievements reflect a commitment to straightforward HR principles. These no-nonsense principles seem fitting for the son of a Midwestern steelworker:

  • Know the business first.

  • Apply HR tools to meet a business need.

  • Take career risks.

  • Seek out good people to work for and with.

  • Step out of your comfort zone.

  • Give back to the HR function.

HR “has experienced some trouble in establishing itself as a business partner,” says Kenneth Carrig, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Houston-based food services supplier Sysco Corp., “but a number of individuals have been very effective in doing just that.” Carrig worked with Murabito at Frito-Lay 20 years ago and says, “John is one of those individuals. He is a steward of his organization’s culture, people and brand.”

Murabito’s stewardship most recently played a central role in Cigna’s impressive turnaround. H. Edward Hanway, Cigna’s chairman and CEO, hired Murabito in August 2003 to be part of a new executive team responsible for putting the company back on a growth track. Since then, the health care giant’s stock price has nearly tripled.

“John played an important role in positioning Cigna for success,” Hanway says. “He helped move the company forward by personally contributing to the company’s overall strategy and then ensuring human resources was an enabler to business success.” Murabito contributed, Hanway continues, “by focusing on improvement to critical people processes that attracted, retained and motivated better talent across the enterprise, at the same time reducing overall operating costs. Under John’s direction, I’m sure HR will continue to be a significant contributor to Cigna’s growth strategy.”

Says Murabito: “To one degree or another, we’ve changed nearly every critical people process and foundational people element that exists at Cigna.”

Summers in the Steel Yards

Murabito’s ability to help drive such change drew upon nearly two decades of work in HR, a profession that first struck a chord in Murabito during a summer job in Chicago’s steel yards. 

After Murabito’s freshman year at Augustana College, where he was studying economics, his father, who worked for U.S. Steel for 40 years, brought him to work as a machine operator in a mill that produced steel strapping. By his third summer in the steel yards, Murabito says, “I noticed that there clearly was an opportunity for a more effective relationship between management and labor, one that could produce better outcomes for the company and the employees. 

“It struck me that the relationship between the parties really did matter. And I thought that I had a knack for affecting that relationship because I felt that I could relate to both levels of the organization.” 

His ability to relate goes back to his roots. “I grew up in a part of Chicago that was very middle class and had plenty of people who wore ties to work and plenty who didn’t,” he says. “My parents raised me to respect every person, regardless of whether they make a living working in a factory or in an office. I’d like to think that showed up those summers at U.S. Steel—and I hope still today.”

The Courage To Say No

After earning a master’s degree in industrial relations from the University of Iowa, Murabito headed west to Utah. There, Trane, the heating and air-conditioning company that is now part of American Standard, put the 23-year-old Murabito into the thick of labor relations at its manufacturing facilities. “Right out of school, I was sitting at bargaining tables with seasoned union vets and management people,” he says. 

Two years later, Trane made Murabito the labor relationship manager of its Salt Lake City plant. 

When Trane decided to close its Salt Lake City manufacturing facilities, it offered Murabito a job on the East Coast. At that point in his career, he wasn’t ready to make the move, he says, so he invoked a quality that he considers vital in an HR professional’s development: career courage. 

“Being good in the HR function requires courage,” Murabito says. “I like to think that demonstrating career courage helps season HR professionals.”

I thought it was a unique opportunity to get in something at the ground floor, Murabito recalls. I thought it might turn out to be something big, or maybe not. As it turned out, it was maybe not. 

Before Symbion was acquired in a hostile takeover, the company provided Murabito with a rich variety of HR experiences - and some that were outside HR. 

Murabito flexed his professional courage by accepting an offer from a Utah-based startup, Symbion Inc., founded by physician Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart. Murabito served as the HR director for the venture-capital–backed company, which manufactured artificial hearts and other medical devices. 

“I thought it was a unique opportunity to get in something at the ground floor,” Murabito recalls. “I thought it might turn out to be something big, or maybe not. As it turned out, it was ‘maybe not.’ ” 

Before Symbion was acquired in a hostile takeover, the company provided Murabito with a rich variety of HR experiences—and some that were outside HR. 

Murabito was responsible for compensation, benefits, recruiting and all other HR processes at Symbion, but the company’s startup mode had forced him to think and act more entrepreneurially, he says. Less than a year after joining the company, he was asked to venture outside HR to take on a marketing role. He served as a product manager for an artificial hearing device—a cochlear implant—that the company was developing. Murabito spent over a year outside the HR function in that role, which delivered a dose of career clarity. 

“Gaining experience in the finance function, the IT function, marketing or line management can do nothing but help make a better HR leader in the future from a credibility and knowledge standpoint,” Murabito says. “I felt that it was healthy to gain experience outside the function, and I also realized that I really missed HR. I knew I wanted to get back into HR and make a career out of it.” 

Exiting the Comfort Zone

Murabito’s return to HR occurred at Frito-Lay, the PepsiCo division, where he spent 11 years. He joined the company as an HR generalist for part of Frito-Lay’s Los Angeles region. When he departed, he was overseeing HR generalist responsibilities for field operations throughout most of the United States. In between, Murabito served in a number of different generalist and specialist roles in the field and at corporate headquarters. “I probably had 10 different jobs during that period,” he says. “Each role gave me a chance to grow by working with and for really good people.” 

Figuring prominently among those people were Sysco’s Carrig and Peter Leddy, now senior vice president, human resources, for San Diego-based Invitrogen Corp. 

Leddy transferred from Pizza Hut, another PepsiCo division, to Frito-Lay to be a field HR generalist; he reported to Murabito. “He didn’t want to see me for my first month and a half on the job,” Leddy recalls. Instead, Murabito suggested that his new manager learn the business firsthand. So Leddy rode routes with the sales staff, worked the manufacturing line in the plant where Doritos are produced, rubbed shoulders with union and nonunion employees, and, in doing so, cultivated a hands-on understanding of the business. 

“That has left an indelible imprint on me,” Leddy says. “John’s emphasis on the importance of knowing the business continued throughout our time together” at Frito-Lay. 

In addition to nudging his reports outside of their comfort zone, Murabito also ventured there himself. He took on a nine-month organizational development project that significantly redesigned the way the sales force operated. 

At another point during his time at Frito-Lay, the company’s senior vice president of HR asked Murabito to head the company’s compensation and benefits program. “I never looked at myself and said, ‘You’re going to be a comp guy,’ ” Murabito explains. “But I took on the role because [my boss] felt it was an opportunity to help the company while giving me some really important and specialized functional knowledge. 

“Given the challenges surrounding executive compensation today, that experience and background has really helped me. … It was critical in my long-term development to step outside the comfort zone of my own skills.” 

Murabito’s compensation work, which included a redesign of the rewards systems for front-line employees, also proved extremely helpful to the company. Says Carrig of his colleague at that time: “He led and facilitated a cross-functional task force to come up with a new model of how Frito-Lay would pay its front-line sales associates. John’s work established a new way that the company could go to market, a way in which the customer benefits, the employee benefits, the shareholder benefits, and the organization as a whole benefits.”

A Global View

Carrig believes that the compensation redesign at Frito-Lay and a similarly complex succession planning overhaul that Murabito later guided at Monsanto Corp. at the company’s St. Louis headquarters qualify Murabito as an HR “thought leader.” 

Although the much-used phrase is often attached to consultants and other management gurus who churn out white papers and business books, Carrig bestows the title on Murabito because many of the HR initiatives he has managed still serve as models for other organizations and other HR executives. “John has shown leadership in the trenches,” Carrig says. 

At Monsanto, which lured Murabito away from Frito-Lay in 1997 by offering him the company’s No. 2 HR executive position, one of Murabito’s initiatives produced a highly integrated succession planning model that identified the competencies the business needed to fuel and sustain its growth and global expansion. 

Murabito says that Monsanto’s global footprint—about half of the agricultural and biotech company’s business takes place outside the United States—further cultivated his HR abilities. He was promoted to the function’s top spot in March 2000. 

“The opportunity to work in other cultures, with other ways of doing business, gave me a deep appreciation for the positive impact of diversity on a company,” he explains. “It also showed me in a very real sense the opportunities for business growth that are available outside the United States.” 

Murabito also credits the experience with broadening his perspectives on managing people. “I think it taught me to be more open to different ways of thinking,” he says, “and more assertive and inquisitive with those who are less inclined to accept difference and change.” 

During Murabito’s tenure, the company also experienced major changes, including a merger, a partial spin-off and an initial public offering. “I helped lead the organization through all of that change from a people standpoint,” he says.

A Turn to the East

In 2003, Cigna—then about four times larger than Monsanto—extended Murabito an offer at its Philadelphia headquarters and a challenge that would require him to marshal nearly all of his HR skills and experience. “It was an opportunity for me to put everything together,” he says. “From a people standpoint the challenge was: How do we execute a business turnaround in a company whose people processes have been in place and remained relatively unchanged for a long time? 

“Our mission was to redevelop and revamp people processes that would enable the company to achieve successful turnaround.” 

By all accounts, Murabito’s work and the efforts of his colleagues and the rest of the organization qualify as a mission accomplished. Murabito introduced wholesale changes to the HR function, outsourcing the vast majority of administrative work and refocusing a more streamlined function on areas where it could provide the most value to the business. 

While Murabito emphasizes that the evolution of Cigna’s HR function remains a work in progress, he takes pride in the fact that the company is well into a successful turnaround. “We feel very bullish about the future,” he says.

Looking Forward

Much as he views his own function at Cigna, Murabito views the HR profession’s evolution as a work in progress. While his view might seem revolutionary to some who hold more traditional opinions of HR’s role, Murabito emphasizes that his view is an optimistic one. 

As companies continue to strive to operate as efficiently as possible in the face of ever-increasing competition, every corporate function will face greater pressure to deliver services with greater efficiency and effectiveness, he says. 

“Ultimately, I believe the company-owned HR function, which will be the nonoutsourced part of the function, will get smaller and smaller,” Murabito says. “And I think that’s actually OK for HR people, who will become valued commodities within a company as they expertly advise their senior-level clients. That model will replace the approach of having one HR person for every 200 employees, responsible for solving relatively small issues that can now be performed mainly through managers, employee self-service and outsourced arrangements.” 

For that reason, Murabito says, he believes that HR professionals on the way up might take a courageous and valuable step outside their comfort zone by considering working for a few years at an HR consulting and/or outsourcing firm. There, he says, they might learn some of the fundamentals of HR delivery and better understand the important role that technology plays in providing HR services. 

That sort of evolution, Murabito continues, would require future HR professionals and leaders to be much more than ombudsmen or conduits of information. “In HR, we need to learn to bring real value to the business through serious and important business matters,” he says. “That includes real expertise in talent management, compensation design, and health care and benefits design and delivery.” 

Delivering value to the business also requires avoiding a common approach that Murabito dislikes. “You still see a lot of HR people who try to take what they think is the interesting trend in HR and force it on the business,” he says. “Whereas the skilled HR people understand the business first and what’s needed, whether you’re in a warehouse or plant or the head of HR for a big company. They diagnose what’s needed and then apply the HR tools that are most appropriate to the business in that situation.” 

Understanding what’s needed is the crucial piece, he believes. “I think it’s absolutely critical for senior HR people—for senior businesspeople, period—to know what’s going on in their world and to cultivate strong external perspectives on what’s working for their particular parts of the business,” Murabito asserts. “It enables you to stay connected to other senior leaders, maintain an edge on the competition and provide the best answers to your company as possible. … The other part of it involves giving back to the function in the hope that we can become a more critical function to business in the years ahead.”

Eric Krell is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers HR and finance issues.

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