Before the days of Internet and email, meta job boards and webinars, Wharton apparently mailed a bulletin to all of its graduates, listing job openings around the world. Without that photocopied, probably stapled, 10-15 page letter, John M. Gray WG87 would not have gotten wired into one of the most peculiar fields you’ll ever find a Wharton MBA.
To understand the importance of a mailed bulletin, we have to go back to 1987 at a time when Gray faced a career choice that many power couples still confront nearly 30 years later. Coming out of Wharton, Gray had a job offer at First Union, but he wasn’t infatuated with it and his soon-to-be wife’s legal job in the District of Columbia was better. So he followed her.
Gray had expected to go into management consulting after Wharton. Today, he realizes he was about a decade ahead of that curve. In the late ’80s, firms like McKinsey and BCG were looking for young professionals who could be molded in the firm’s image. Gray was 32 in 1987, several years older than his average classmate, and older than the typical recruiter that consultancies sent to campus. He had been a corporate litigator before Wharton, so he not only was older, he was already experienced in the ways of business.
So instead of breaking into management consulting, he was forced to sit on his hands in Washington and wait for an opportunity, and that’s when the Wharton job bulletin arrived. Inside, one job was listed for the District—a position with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) that required 20 years of consumer goods industry experience.
Although he did not possess those 20 years, Gray confessed as much in a letter to the GMA asking for a meeting. He mailed it on a Thursday. He got a call from the leader of the trade association on the very next Sunday. By Monday, he was having a “lovely conversation” with the gentleman. The man did not have a job for Gray, but told the young Wharton alum not to accept a job offer without talking with him first. Three weeks later, Gray had offers from a law firm and Amtrak.
In his second meeting with the GMA chief, the man asked Gray what he used to earn as a litigator, then proceeded to tell Gray he had created a position for him at that exact salary. The man had hired someone else for the position Gray originally applied for, but wanted Gray to come in and assist. His official titles became vice president of education and industry affairs counsel, whereby he provided antitrust counseling and corporate governance guidance.
The opportunity landed Gray on a first-name basis with the “who’s who of American corporations,” from Coca-Cola to Procter & Gamble, from Smucker’s to General Mills. And it led to a career in the trade association field. In 1994, Gray left GMA to become an executive director and general counsel for the Food Distributors International, representing wholesale grocery and food-service distributor companies.
Then he received another one of those calls, this time from the Healthcare Distribution Management Association (HDMA), in 2004. He’s been CEO there ever since and, again, has landed an opportunity to work with and for titans of industry, which is energizing for Gray.
“I think we’re the only trade group in Washington with three Fortune 30 companies in it,” he says.
He tackles multiple issues, from changing technology and industry standards to, of course, regulatory and legislative issues. Recently, his association succeeded in passing through Congress and the president a new federal law pre-empting the individual efforts of the 50 states to trace pharmaceuticals in the supply chain. The industry’s solution is an operational, electronic, 2-D barcode-based system that, when established, will be able to trace every drug product in the U.S.
It is his business knowledge that he leans on now more than his legal expertise. The skill he relies on most? Compromise. Those three Fortune 30 firms (McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health) represent 90 percent of the industry; 30 other member firms represent the rest.
“You always have that tension of the big guys versus the little guys,” Gray says. “Something like this could blow up in a nanosecond,” he also says, while commending his member companies for their civility and willingness to compromise.
Gray ensures that the HDMA agenda features issues of concern to the entire industry and that push the whole industry forward. He succeeds by being a good listener and by surrounding himself with a top-notch team that keeps him abreast of, and confident in, the association’s next political and technological moves. He listens to the member companies to learn how the association’s initiatives might impact them on the ground, but is also sure that he can explain the association’s point of view when the member companies object or ask for further clarification.
“We don’t pretend to be smarter than them … but you learn to speak up,” Gray says.
There’s one important skill that Gray cites for his success, though, that probably comes more from his liberal arts undergrad experience at William & Mary and his law school days at the University of Virginia—that is, the ability to communicate and write.
“Sometimes in business, it is sorely lacking,” he says.
Even without being told that today’s Wharton MBAs experience a first-rate communications track on campus, Gray is quick to promote the idea of more MBAs joining the ranks of trade associations (he doesn’t think he’s ever come across one other Wharton MBA in his field in Washington).
Perhaps this article will serve the same role as a mailed job bulletin for today’s Wharton MBA students, something that leads to a rewarding, not-run-of-the-mill 30-year career.