[at the helm]
O Captain! My Captain!
Kindness is key when it comes to the successful leadership of Milan-based CEO Ali Reza Arabnia
by Carol Cujec

A native of Iran, Ali Reza Arabnia was already a successful businessman at an Italian company when he applied to a number of MBA programs. Though he was accepted at all of them, he liked the fact that USD was the only school emphasizing social responsibility. Once he visited the campus, the decision became very simple.

“When you see the university, you can’t think anymore,” he says via video conference from his sun-drenched office near Milan, Italy. “I fell in love and decided to come to San Diego instead of one of those maybe more famous universities.” His company sponsored his studies, but gave him a near-impossible goal: to complete the 2-year program in just one year, which he did in 1987.

Upon his return to Italy, Arabnia was given charge of a failing automotive paint company (now called Fast and Fluid Management). “I hated the idea,” he admits. “It was far away from my home, an ugly workshop, and the company was almost bankrupt.”

However, the small company proved to be his first real challenge as a CEO. “My big head started to become smaller and smaller as I realized that a small company doesn’t always mean less difficulty in handling the business.” After three years of hard work, the business turned around and today is the biggest company in the world in its field.

“Strangely enough,” says Arabnia, “the company that I hated is my lost love.”

Arabnia’s values were severely tested after Sept. 11, 2001, when his company’s Chicago branch suddenly lost profitability. At a corporate meeting in December 2001, he was pressured to lay off 60 people. “I couldn’t believe my ears, because the country was in mourning. Just think about sacking people 12 days before Christmas.” He refused and instead gave up his own salary, bonus and stock options. By February, the business was back on track.

Today, Arabnia is group president and CEO of Geico S.p.A., whose innovations in automobile and industrial painting have revolutionized the industry. But even from his lofty perch, he still fondly recalls USD’s caring environment.

“How can I express my love for these people?” he says. “They’re beautiful people, such open people. When I arrived everybody was assisting me. I didn’t even have to ask.”

It is this environment that he tries to create in his own company. “We have every year an award for the nicest smile,” he says. “Of course, it doesn’t mean the smile physically, but the person helping the environment to be healthy and kind. This is very much based on the environment I had in San Diego.”

That sort of we’re-all-in-this-together philosophy prompted Arabnia to design a meeting room in the shape of a boat. “It’s not very beautiful,” he laughs, “but it brings the message that we’re all in the same boat. Don’t look for who has made a mistake, because that’s an effect. I want to see the cause, so as not to repeat the problem. Then people trust and try new things because they’re not frightened of making mistakes.”

On his desk, Arabnia displays a wooden boat made for him by the workers at Fast and Fluid. They gave it to him the day he left, when they told him that whatever happens, he is always their captain.