HR & Management

5 business leaders who worked their way from bottom to top

7 min read

24 June 2013

They were janitor assistants, freight elevator operators and shelve stackers in the businesses they would one day run.

There’s hardly a top executive who didn’t start their career in a low-pay position. To get to the top, these five enterprising minds had to scale their way up the corporate ladder, often starting with unglamorous positions in the companies they would one day run.

1. Brian Dunn

1985 – 2012

Brian Dunn had worked in groceries since he was 14 years old. Deciding to follow his mother’s footsteps, who worked as an accountant at Best Buy, the then 24-year-old started his career as a store associate.

Dunn admits that on his fist day he hit the sales floor not really understanding all the items he was trying to sell to the customers. “It was a series of very difficult exchanges. At the end of the day, the store manager came up to me and said, ‘How did it go?’ I told him in very direct terms it was a lousy experience.”

But as Best Buy grew from a handful of stores in 1985 to more than 1,400 stores and 165,000 employees, Dunn grew with it. Four years after he first joined Best Buy, Dunn became store manager, and the next year he was the district manager in Minnesota. In 2006 he served as president and COO and was finally named director and CEO in 2009.

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2. Jack Welch

1960 – 2001

After earning his PhD in chemical engineering, Jack Welch started working for General Electric’s plastic division in 1960. Chemical engineering is one of the best backgrounds for a business career as the classwork and required thesis teach you that there are no finite answers, Welch believed. This ideal inspired him to become the youngest vice-president in the company’s history in 1972.

“When I got involved with GE Capital in 1977, I had been making things all my life. I then was given responsibility for GE Capital, which was then still a very small business. We had all the capital in the world, and all we needed to make money was ideas. That was a revelation to me. Maybe it shouldn’t have been — I was a PhD chemical engineer, and I probably should have figured that out already.”

He almost got fired, however, when a chemical blast blew off the roof of the factory he was managing. Not letting the fact deter him, Welch later became vice chairman in 1979 and CEO in 1981.

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Ziemer went from freight elevator operator to CEO

3. James Ziemer

1969 – 2009

James Ziemer began working at Harley-Davidson as a freight elevator operator and completed two college degrees while working there. In 1970, he took a short vacation to join the army for two years, after which he came back to work in manufacturing and engine operations. But his climb to the top didn’t stop there. With degree in hand, he soon rose to the position of vice-president and CFO in 1990. 

“Out of my 37 years here, I started in the Union. I worked in the factory as a salaried worker. I’ve worked in engineering. I’ve worked in parts and accessories. So with that balance, I think that’s given me the ability to go beyond just being an accountant. I often share a joke with the Union presidents, who saw the same posting for an elevator operator, that they should’ve posted for it first,” said Ziemer.

He also served as president of the Harley-Davidson Foundation from 1993 to 2006. Ziemer, who became a director in 2010, was the president, CEO and director of Harley-Davidson from 2005 to 2009.

4. Philip Clarke

1974 – present

Philip Clarke began working at his father’s branch of Tesco at the age of 14, stacking shelves during school holidays. Clarke places great importance on the lessons his father taught him during that time.

“He knew about shop management and knew about the importance of a clean store. He said the shop should be like your home. It should be like the best room in your house, the front parlour your mum keeps for special occasions and visitors on Sunday afternoons.”

Though he went on to study economics and thought of becoming a banker, Clarke kept working at Tesco. Upon graduating, Clarke joined Tesco’s management trainee scheme. In 1994 he became a stores director, then a regional managing director for 200 stores in the Midlands in 1995. After a brief stint as head of supply and IT, and head of international in 2004, he finally became CEO in 2013.  

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Paul Sachs gave Weinberg the push he needed

5. Sidney Weinberg

1907 – 1969

A high-school dropout, Sidney Weinberg tried to find a job to help support his family at the age of 16. He claimed to have been looking for a “nice-looking, tall building” when he stumbled across 43 Exchange Place. He started at the top floor and worked his way down, asking at every office: “Want a boy?” When he reached the third floor, he went home without a job. The next morning, however, he returned to the third floor offices of Goldman Sachs and bluffed himself into a job assisting the janitor by saying he had been told to come back.

His fate was soon changed when he was one day asked to carry a flagpole on a trolley to the Sachs family house. Paul Sachs, grandson of the founder, took an instant liking to Weinberg and promoted him to the mailroom. Recognising his potential, Sachs sent him to Browne’s Business College to learn penmanship. 

By 1925, he was offered a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He was made a partner in 1927. Weinberg became CEO in 1930, a position he held for the next 39 years until his death in 1969.

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