The Man with a Plan: Board Member Robert E. Abernathy
Robert E. Abernathy has had a prolific career. His success has not come from chance or luck, but rather meticulous planning. After graduating from the University of Alabama, he began working in Research and Development at Kimberly-Clark, a company that distributes various consumer products such as diapers, tissues, and hand soap. From R&D he transitioned to heading small manufacturing plants – employing 1,000 to 2,000 people. Soon, he was heading all of those plants and eventually went on to establish Kimberly-Clark’s international division. In 2013, he become the CEO of Halyard Health, a pharmaceutical and medical products supply company.
Foolishly, I first asked if he had ever travelled abroad. As it turns out, during business trips and personal excursions he had visited more countries than I can list – 132 to be exact. Jokingly he said, “I could knock out 20 more in one cruise to the Caribbean”. Nevertheless, from Mexico to Australia to South Korea, and so on, his exposure to so much of the world makes his level of expertise and insight invaluable to the World Affairs Council, as the newest board member. For people like me, we seek his advice, and what he has learned from his successes and pitfalls.
First and foremost, he says this: no business plan is one size fits all. Maybe this is an obvious adage now, but the idea stays true. To properly expand internationally and receive a return on investment, the plan must be tailored to the country. Even for countries as similar as the U.S. and Canada and especially for those developing nations such as Brazil, India, and China.
Similarly, he noted that there would never be enough resources or time to be in every country, so it’s important to choose the destinations wisely – a piece of advice he learned the hard way. Kimberly-Clark made the radical, at the time, decision to invest in Turkey and Indonesia. Despite a promising economy and heightened interest, the economy was simply not strong enough to turn a profit. In turn, he looked beyond Indonesia to find a more perfect fit and found countries like Vietnam to be a huge market for Kimberly-Clark.
After just four years at Halyard Health, it is clear the influence Mr. Abernathy had. On October 31st of 2014, he was proud to announce Halyard Health was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. What took him 25 years to build an impressive resume at Kimberly, he achieved with hard work and a plan, no doubt, in a fourth of that time and as CEO. Moreover, he is most proud of the products Halyard provides – medical equipment that helps prevent infections in hospitals and non-opioid prescription drugs to help patients coming out of surgery and those with non-chronic illnesses.
Mr. Abernathy recently retired and stepped down as CEO from Halyard Health. However, he still remains actively engaged in the community. He plans to continue to join more public Boards – such as the World Affairs Council of Atlanta. Like many members, he was impressed by the high level of speakers at the programs: from Ambassadors to Consul Generals to CEOs and executives, often from other countries. He hopes his expertise in international business and healthcare will bolster the prestige and influence of the Council and looks forward to becoming more involved in the Council’s annual Global Health Summit.
In addition to pursuing memberships on public boards, he and his wife will dedicate most of their time to World Vision. Through World Vision he and his wife have focused on theMaternal and Child Health Initiative which aims to keep women and children alive and healthy for the first 1,000 days, the most critical time period for their wellbeing and survival.
Finally, I suspect more than these philanthropic and professional pursuits, he will enjoy spending time with his grandchildren in Nashville, Tennessee and revisiting countries with his wife, Laura by his side. As a CEO and executive, he dedicated his life to his companies. Out of 365 days, one year he spent nearly 200 of those away from home. He has moved 17 different times, from Wisconsin to Sydney, Australia. Work-life balance was tough to achieve, but his solution: plan for the important moments and to not lose sight of what’s important.