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Plan of Action

Alumnus, former CEO focuses on big-picture outcomes in life and business

Greg Brenneman

From The Ichabod - Fall 2019

In business and in life, Greg Brenneman encourages people to “look for the blue chips.” It’s a poker metaphor – when betting on a hand of cards, blue chips are often worth the most, but it’s easy to become distracted by the abundance of less-valuable white chips.

“Often in life, we love to build our to-do lists, whether we write them down or put them in our iPhone or keep them in our head, and we get satisfaction from crossing things off every day,” Brenneman, bba ’84, h ’99, said. “But mostly, if you look at them, those are really white chips. You really need to ask yourself – what are the things you want to do in your life? What are the blue chips?”

In the business world, Brenneman is a sought-after expert when it comes to helping CEOs sort priorities. He serves as executive chair of CCMP Capital Advisors, LP, a private equity firm that specializes in leveraged buyout and growth equity transactions. Brenneman works with between 10 and 12 CEOs to help them turn around their struggling organizations. His process is straightforward – he asks leaders to develop a one-page plan focusing primarily on market, finances and people, considering three or four tasks in each area that will dramatically change their business.

“Once you have a plan, you need to put in place a team and an incentive system that will deliver that plan,” Brenneman said. “Most of it is about people – how do you treat people with dignity and respect? How do you reward them for what they do? How do you motivate them? In big companies, it’s really important that everybody knows what the plan is and what their role in the plan is.”

Brenneman’s expertise stems from experience. His stellar resume includes 15 years as the CEO or chair of large companies such as Continental Airlines, Burger King, Quiznos Sub and PwC Consulting.

“I executed turnarounds when they were in a little bit of trouble, fixed them up and made them better,” Brenneman said.

His most famous and well-publicized turnaround was with Continental in the late 1990s. Known for its dysfunctional management and terrible service, the flagging airline was losing money and customers. By sitting down with the company’s leaders and creating one-page plans, Brenneman was able to cut costs while improving the customer experience and empowering employees, simultaneously bolstering Continental’s reputation and ensuring it once again became profitable.

Brenneman later wrote about his experiences with the airline for the Harvard Business Review, which led to the publication of his book, “Right Away and All at Once: Five Steps to Transform Your Business and Enrich Your Life,” in 2016. The book details how individuals can use similar principles to transform their personal lives.

“You need a one-page plan for your business, but you also need a one-page plan for your life,” Brenneman said. “What are your eulogy virtues, not just your resume virtues? What do you want someone to say at your funeral? I suggest people use the five Fs – faith, family, friends, fitness and finance. If you can get those on a sheet of paper and really order your life around them, it has a dramatic impact.”

Last spring, Brenneman visited Washburn University to meet with students and discuss his book, which is widely read in business classes around the world. David Sollars, dean and professor, School of Business, said it is valuable for students to receive guidance and mentorship from successful alumni like Brenneman.

“It’s one thing to talk about turning around a company, and it’s another thing when you talk to the guy who turned around the company,” Sollars said. “It’s important our students here at Washburn realize they can be as successful as anyone who goes to any college or university in the world. We have so many great alumni who go out and do amazing things. When our students leave us, they’ve got an education that prepares them to succeed anywhere in the world, and we want to encourage that.”

Over the years, Brenneman and his wife of 35 years, Ronda, b ed ’84, have stayed connected to the University, which conferred on him an honorary doctor of commerce in 1999. He has served as a Washburn University Alumni Association and Foundation trustee since 1997, and the School of Business offers the endowed Greg and Ronda Brenneman Professorship in Business Strategy. Brenneman looks forward to developing additional opportunities to connect with and mentor current students.

“Washburn gave us a great education anchored by outstanding professors who really cared,” Brenneman said. “Ronda and I feel an ongoing indebtedness to Washburn. It is where we met each other, started our life together and launched our careers.”

Ichabod Magazine 2019 fall cover, Ichabod Plaza statue at sunset

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2019-20 fall edition online and look for it in mailboxes in October.

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