Chairman, Vertiv Holdings Co.
By Thomas Gryta
This article is being republished as part of our daily
reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S.
print edition of The Wall Street Journal (August 1, 2020).
In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about
the people they turn to for advice, and how those people have
shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous
installments from the series are here.
David Cote led a legendary turnaround of Honeywell International
Inc. over 15 years, but it took him a long time to find his path to
Growing up in a small French-Canadian enclave in New Hampshire,
Mr. Cote was the first in his family to finish high school.
After that, he found a lot of things he didn't like. He was a
mechanic in his father's garage, a carpenter's apprentice, a
college dropout and a commercial fisherman off of Maine. He even
joined the Navy but backed out the day before swearing in. It took
him six years to graduate from the University of New Hampshire.
"I had a lot of ambition, but I was totally directionless," he
said recently in a morning interview, enjoying a cigar from his
house in Atlanta. "I didn't like school. I really didn't like
In one stint at UNH he was told by the dean of students that he
was no longer allowed to live on campus. "I asked what I'd done.
And she said, no one big thing. It just seems like wherever you
are, there's trouble. You're just a general troublemaker."
Mr. Cote got married and the young couple lived in an unheated,
uninsulated apartment in his native state. He worked an hourly job
at a General Electric Co. plant and his wife became pregnant. Mr.
Cote realized that they didn't have enough money to have a child,
something that finally focused his ambition.
"I was scared to death," he said. "I quit smoking cigarettes. I
started working out, I went back to school full time days while I
worked nights and had a family."
He eventually landed a job on GE's prestigious internal auditing
team, where future top executives of the company were groomed in a
rigorous multiyear program. He went from barely ever leaving New
Hampshire to traveling the world, learning different businesses,
and progressing higher through GE's ranks over more than two
decades. Mr. Cote made it on a list of potential successors to
then-CEO Jack Welch but was cut relatively early in the process.
Mr. Welch fired him and helped him land a job at TRW Inc., where he
became CEO in 2001. After just a year, he jumped to run Honeywell,
a conglomerate that GE tried to acquire but was blocked by European
regulators. The company was struggling.
"Once I got there, I realized as bad as it looked externally, it
was even worse internally," he said. He endured heat from the media
and analysts who saw him as the guy who was cut in the first round
of the GE succession race and wasn't even the first choice to run
In the decade and a half he was at the helm, Honeywell's market
value more than tripled. When Mr. Cote took the reins, the company
was reeling from a bungled merger with Allied Signal and that
failed deal to be bought by GE. He built a reputation for his
discipline in making midsize deals that expanded product lines in
areas like personal protective equipment, building controls and
mobile scanners. He avoided chasing competitors into new markets
and overpaying in the process.
Two years later, he teamed up with Goldman Sachs to acquire
Vertiv Holdings Co., which provides equipment for data centers. Mr.
Cote became executive chairman of the company when the deal closed
earlier this year and the company went public.
He also decided to write a book after much encouragement from
people including former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and former
President Barack Obama.
"I thought, well, if I have voices like that actually telling me
how to do this, maybe I ought to listen," he said. That book,
"Winning Now, Winning Later: How Companies Can Win in the Short
Term While Investing for the Long Term," was released on June
Below are four of his trusted advisers. Despite political
connections -- most of the people he named have worked inside the
Beltway -- he says he has no interest in public office.
"I'm more predisposed to getting a bunch of people in a room to
hash it out, make a decision, let's go make it happen. That
predisposition doesn't always work in Washington," he said. "So no,
I do not have any political ambitions."
Former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury secretary
Mr. Cote first met Mr. Paulson when the latter was still at
Goldman. He was impressed with the way Mr. Paulson was able to get
a conversation going at a dinner he hosted. "I've always been
impressed with him because he just had a really good grasp of
things," Mr. Cote said. "Watching how he handled the crisis, I
always said, thank God he was in the Treasury job at the time, it
made a hell of a difference." Mr. Paulson also has a deep
understanding of China, which was a major market for Honeywell, so
Mr. Cote was often asking for his perspective on the economy, China
and the rest of the world. "I still reach out to him just to get
Former White House chief of staff
Mr. Cote was a member of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction
commission appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010. Mr. Bowles
co-chaired the group with former senator Alan Simpson. "I love his
people skills, his understanding of organizations, and he is just a
downright good guy. It's tough to run into anybody who doesn't like
Erskine," Mr. Cote said. He was impressed with Mr. Bowles' ability
to get input from everybody and to progress at the right speed for
the process. It was an accomplishment that Mr. Cote said he could
never have done himself. "Things didn't go so fast that we didn't
bring people along, but not so slow that nothing happened," he
Business consultant and author
About 35 years, ago, Mr. Cote took a course at GE's famed
management center in Crotonville, N.Y., where Mr. Charan taught one
of the daytime sessions. It made a strong impression. Mr. Cote
praises the way Mr. Charan thinks about issues and how he gets
others to think. Everytime they have a meeting or meal together,
Mr. Charan comes with two or three items that he wants people to
think about. "He's always nice enough to say I learn from people
like you, Dave," Mr. Cote said. "And I always think to myself,
well, nice of you to say, but I think I'm the beneficiary here, not
the other way around."
Former senior White House advisor
In 2008, the incoming White House administration reached out to
Mr. Cote to see if he would be supportive of the stimulus plan,
marking the first connection with Ms. Jarrett. Mr. Cote supported
the plan, which he saw as boosting confidence that the government
was going to do something. He continues to reach out to her. "I
just find Valerie extraordinarily thoughtful about everything
that's going on and always able to see both sides of an issue and
willing to work with people to figure out a solution that can work
for everybody," he said. "I always liked getting Valerie's
perspective on things."
Write to Thomas Gryta at firstname.lastname@example.org
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