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Thomas A. Stewart

Thomas A. Stewart

Executive director at the National Center for the Middle Market

Thomas A. Stewart Raises Intellectual Capital

The former chief marketing and knowledge officer at Booz & Company, now executive director at the National Center for the Middle Market, demonstrates the value of thought leadership.

by Jen Swetzoff

Prolific writer and global management expert Thomas A. Stewart majored in English at Harvard for one reason: He didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“Nowadays, you’d probably major in economics,” he said, “but at that time you majored in English. Then, of course, I graduated and wondered, What do you do if you major in English?”

To find out, Stewart moved to New York City and landed an assistant editor job at Grossman Publishers, a small trade publisher owned by Viking. A staff of seven people worked together out of an office at Irving Place.

“It was a great place to learn,” he said, “because I did everything. Once every seven weeks, it was my turn to take the postage meter and a check down to the post office.”

Stewart edited books written by Brit Hume and Ralph Nader, plus fiction, poetry, and a few other nonfiction titles with an investigative slant. After that, he worked as an editor with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and then moved onto Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

At the age of 29, he was hired as the editor-in-chief at Atheneum Publishers, where he remained for eight years, until a company reorganization left him high and dry. Disaffected with the way the book business had changed, he started to look for a new opportunity. A friend introduced him to a senior executive at a major publisher, who asked what he thought about writing for Fortune.

“I told him the honest truth, which was that I liked every issue I had ever read,” Stewart said, indicating a big round zero with his hand. “Somewhat surprisingly, I fit right in. As Henry Luce once said, it’s easier to teach a poet to read a balance sheet than to teach an accountant how to write.”

Stewart started off as a freelance writer and, after filing two articles — one on Nader and another on Westinghouse — he was hired to cover “business sociology,” a broad beat encompassing what people do at work.

“I stumbled upon the idea of intellectual capital during that time,” Stewart said. “It suited me very well because it suggested that the assets that really matter aren’t on a balance sheet, so I didn’t even have to learn how to read one.”

During his 12-year tenure at Fortune magazine, during which he rose to the board of editors, Stewart wrote stories on topics including intellectual capital, the first Gulf War, gay rights, multinational corporations, the business implications of the collapse of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, and the emergence of the electronic frontier.

“I was the second person to use the word Internet in Fortune,” he said. For the last two years of his tenure, he also served as the editorial director of Business 2.0 on the West Coast, flying out to San Francisco every six weeks.

In 2002, he was recruited to be editor of Harvard Business Review, where he remained for six years, resigning in June 2008 — just as Booz & Company was setting itself up as a firm separate from Booz Allen Hamilton. In September, he joined Booz & Company as chief marketing and knowledge officer, overseeing the firm’s intellectual agenda, major research projects, and strategy+business magazine.

In 2014, he left to become executive director at the National Center for the Middle Market, which is based at the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University. Founded in 2011, the center provides critical insights and analyses that drive growth, increase competitiveness, create jobs for the middle market, and, ultimately, improve the overall U.S. economy.

While running the center, Stewart has found time to complete a new book, coauthored with Patricia O’Connell. Woo, Wow, and Win: Service Design, Strategy, and the Art of Customer Delight will be published by HarperBusiness later this year. Previously, he published Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations (Doubleday, 1997) and The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-first Century Organization (Currency, 2001). He has contributed chapters to four other books and written articles for strategy+business, Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and the Financial Times, among other leading publications. He has delivered lectures and led seminars around the world, participating in 12 sessions of the World Economic Forum. In addition to graduating from Harvard, he holds an honorary doctor of science degree from Cass Business School, City University London.

Today, Stewart splits his time between New York City and Columbus, Ohio, where the National Center for the Middle Market is headquartered. During a recent conversation with Strategy&, he discussed the importance of midsized companies, service design, and learning.

You’ve had quite an impressive career. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I think I’m proudest of the work I did, along with a handful of others around the world, in discovering and developing the concept of intellectual capital. From my time at Booz & Company, I think we created a cohesive marketing team, and we produced important content that helped define and strengthen the firm. I think I left it better than I found it.

Tell me about your transition from journalism to corporate marketing.

Working with Booz & Company was dramatically different from anything I had done before, largely because of its truly global network. My team was based in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. It was exciting and fun, and pretty wild, to connect with each other. I remember having a 4:30 a.m. conference call with colleagues in India, because it was their turn to get some work–life balance. And we’d set up calls for 4 p.m. New York time, when people in Switzerland, for example, were available again after their children were in bed. It sometimes felt like we were weaving a very large and strong spiderweb, one strand at a time. It was an incredible experience.

What led you to the National Center for the Middle Market?

At Booz & Company, I was working on a project with a large financial company, which wanted to strategically focus on midsized companies. The executives wanted to differentiate their service offerings from those of banks, by offering intellectual capital as well as financial capital, calling on the knowledge of their [sister] industrial businesses to help clients of the financial-services company.

As a part of doing this, our client decided to undertake a study of the middle market. It sent an RFP out to various business schools, and Ohio State responded with the idea of creating not only a study but a full research center. Our client loved the idea, and together they created the National Center for the Middle Market, along with a National Middle Market Summit that brought a thousand people to Columbus in 2011. I was one of the people at that first summit — I ran a panel and participated in a couple of other panels. After that, I was invited to do some workshops for faculty members to help them write more clearly for practitioners. We kept in touch and, a few years later, they reached out to me about running the center. It was the right opportunity at the right time.

What’s the most fulfilling part of your work now?

It’s the most entrepreneurial thing I’ve done. I’m leading a small, highly leveraged team that’s operating an incredible research center. Our vision is for the middle market — generally made up of companies with annual sales between US$10 million and $1 billion — to be fully recognized for its importance in the economy.

The interesting thing about middle market companies is that they grow at the top line twice as fast as the S&P 500. They increase employment about twice as fast as the S&P 500, and about 75 percent faster than small business. Roughly 60 percent of all new private-sector jobs are created by the middle market.

How do you gather information on the middle market?

Researching privately held firms can be difficult. You need to rely a lot on surveys, because there is very little in the way of published, audited data. First, we publish a quarterly middle market indicator, based largely on a survey of 1,000 middle market executives, which we weight to be representative of the middle market as a whole. We ask questions like, How is business? How is your top line? How is your bottom line? What are your biggest challenges? What’s your payroll growth? What are your payroll expectations? If you had an extra dollar, would you invest it or save it? If you invested it, what would you invest in?

Second, we develop managerial-oriented content. Earlier this year, we published a piece called “How Digital Are You?” which featured our digital benchmarking in the middle market. Taken together, leaders in the middle market gave themselves a C in digitization. We also just finished the data collection stage of a study on best practices for middle market firms in sales-force management. We also provide grants to scholars — at Fisher and around the world — to study middle market companies.

Third, we do outreach. On the academic front, we teach a middle market course at Ohio State, and we run a middle market case competition for MBA students. We work with the Association for Corporate Growth in the Small Business Investor Alliance. We work with the CFO Alliance. We have content partners like the American Marketing Association, the Brookings Institution, and the Society for Human Resource Management. We worked with the Association for Corporate Growth to create a congressional caucus on middle market growth that now has 17 members of Congress in it. We recently held meetings at the White House. We helped create the Bloomberg Mid Market Index. We were in front of something like 3,600 executives in various forums last year, not including our big summit.

That sounds like a major undertaking, and you’re working on a new book at the same time?

Yes, the book is about service design: How do you actually plan and organize people, infrastructure, communication, and material components of a particular service to define, strengthen, and support the broader business strategy?

With more than 100 years of product design, we know a lot about that area of business. But the design of services is a very young discipline — and, given that services are about 70 percent of the economy, it’s a vital field. It started in Europe and is spreading rapidly in the United States. My book, which I’m coauthoring with Patricia O’Connell, discusses how customer experience and customer satisfaction are, really, the output of a well-developed service design. We explain how to develop and execute service design as a strategic capability.

How would you describe yourself?

Quick.

How would the people closest to you describe you?

Funny.

What do you think is the most overrated virtue?

Impatience.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without?

Cheeseburgers.

When and where are you happiest?

When I’m learning something.

Jen Swetzoff is a freelance writer and editor. Previously, she worked with Strategy& as the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

Disclaimer: Please note that historical references to Booz & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton are found in this article/section since the alumni featured here left the firm prior to Strategy& joining the PwC global network of firms.

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