“Systems don’t win, players do.” “Adversity is an opportunity for heroism.” “What it takes to win is simple, it’s not easy.”
If you had asked me which Defining Moments speaker would present his or her leadership philosophy through quotes from former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Lewis, my first guess would not have been Major Brands CEO Sue McCollum. But Sue McCollum brought her true self to the Defining Moments classroom, and Sue’s true self is a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan.
Sue McCollum holds two advanced degrees, an MBA from American University and a JD from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a force in the St. Louis community, sitting on countless boards, including Forest Park Forever, the Contemporary Art Museum, and the Regional Business Council. She is the mother of two accomplished young men.
But what specifically brought Sue to our Defining Moments classroom in February was Sue’s role as Chair and CEO of Missouri-based Major Brands. Sue is the only female CEO of a national wholesale liquor distributor posting more than $500 million in yearly revenue, and her story of how she came to hold that position is humbling and inspirational.
Major Brands CEO Sue McCollum presents to Olin’s Defining Moments course.
In 2010, McCollum was living in St. Louis, starting her first year of law school and raising two sons with her husband Todd Epsten, then-CEO of Major Brands, a company that had been in his family for three generations. But when Todd passed away after a short and unexpected illness, McCollum took over as the company’s CEO. Shortly after, several of Major Brands’ biggest customers attempted to break their contracts with the company, the legality of which was questionable.
At this point, McCollum had to make a decision: should she fight and lose the lawsuits, fight and win the lawsuits, or give up? McCollum decided to fight, and stressed the importance of decisiveness in leadership. There was no turning back; she had made a commitment not only to herself, but also to Todd’s legacy, to her employees, and to the community. To flinch or back down would not only guarantee a loss, but also would be a betrayal of the trust and belief that these various stakeholders had in her.
This recognition of the importance of relationships in leadership was a theme McCollum echoed throughout her speech. She pinpointed Major Brands employees as the key to the company’s success, noting that strong communication and common values were essential to keeping spirits high during the court trials.
McCollum also credited clarity of purpose and “embracing your inner badass” for her success, encouraging listeners to push forward toward the things they are afraid of, and reminding the audience to embrace discomfort, because those are the moments that change you. McCollum zeroed in on the power of adversity to help people grow, and mentioned how she challenges herself to not shy away from these types of situations, because there is always some good that comes of them. The idea that the hardest situations we face are also those that most deeply shape our character resonated strongly with me.
As McCollum finished relaying her remarkable story to the class, we were all left promising ourselves that we would face our own defining moments with the same integrity, grace, and courage as McCollum.
Written by Cassie Galante for the Bauer Leadership Center