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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 8 months ago

Dream Come True

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Leadership, says one of the region's newest big company CEOs, is knowing how to get the answer — not the answer itself.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

Why it matters: PGT, the largest locally based private employer in Sarasota County, will begin a calendar year in 2018 with a new CEO for the first time since 2005.

In his senior year of high school, Jeff Jackson got a class assignment to write a paper about his post-graduation plans.

Recently going through old boxes, he found his paper, circa 1983, and reread it. Jackson's plans back then included wanting to be the president or vice president of a company. The paper's next sentence says he thinks the chances of that dream coming true are slim.

So much for slim. Jackson, starting this month, is CEO of PGT Innovations, the largest locally based private employer in Sarasota County. The impact-resistant window manufacturer has 2,800 employees and had $458.55 million in sales in 2016, up 174% from $167.28 million in 2011. PGT's board promoted Jackson to the CEO role from his previous post, president and COO. As CEO, Jackson replaces longtime PGT executive and prominent Sarasota County business community cheerleader Rod Hershberger, who will remain chairman of PGT's board. Hershberger had been CEO since 2005.

Jackson, 51, says 2018 will be an “opportunity for us to grow inside the state and outside.” Because of Hurricane Irma, there's a sense of awareness around impact-resistant products, he adds.

EXPANDING BANDWIDTH

Jackson's stage for his career took several turns. He doesn't come from a family of corporate executives. His parents had a 10th-grade education, and his dad was a firefighter. When Jackson was growing up, he wanted to be policeman.

At the University of West Georgia, he majored in criminal justice, and for six months he worked as a policeman. Then he met his future wife, Lisa, a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines. Three months later, the couple eloped.

Soon after, on a trip to California to visit his wife's family, Jackson met a successful accountant. Jackson had always been good at numbers. That meeting, coupled with his wife not wanting him to be a policeman because she thought it was too dangerous, caused him to change his major from criminal justice to accounting.

After college, Jackson joined accounting firm KPMG. He later worked for Coca-Cola Co. and frozen pie maker Mrs. Smith's Bakeries, where he was CFO and ran operations.

Before joining PGT in 2005, Jackson was also vice president and corporate controller for chocolate giant The Hershey Co. Jackson says the different positions he's held have allowed him to further a goal of developing what he calls “cognitive bandwidth.”

LEVERAGING STRENGTHS

Jackson joined PGT as vice president and CFO. He soon helped the company through its IPO, in 2006.

Debbie LaPinska, PGT Innovations vice president of human resources, says she and Jackson started off on rocky ground. When the recession hit in 2008, LaPinska says Jackson had to be the “bad guy” and “make the tough decisions” through cost-cutting measures and restructuring. LaPinska, meanwhile, says she was more concerned with protecting the company's culture and people. So their roles clashed a bit.

Jackson says the hardest thing he's ever had to do at PGT is let employees go. Once LaPinska and Jackson learned more about each other and the company survived the downturn, she says things changed between them. “After we went through it all together,” she says, “I realized he had the toughest job of all.”

In 2014, Jackson was promoted to president and COO. LaPinska, whose office is next door to Jackson's, says now they leverage their strengths to help each other. “He taught me a lot about business,” she says.

Jackson, she says, appreciates her decision-making style that leans more on intuition and gut feelings. But he's also encouraged her to use data to back up some decisions. “On the flip side, I've helped Jeff look at people,” she says, and to not rely only on data.

Hershberger, who co-founded PGT in 1980, says Jackson has become a seasoned leader over time. “The way he leads — the style has evolved and gotten more mature,” he says.

Jackson says he intends to preserve and enhance the culture Hershberger, LaPinska and others helped create and foster at PGT. The company, for example, has a laid back vibe, with casual Fridays that include employees wearing jeans and shirts that represent their favorite sports teams. “We believe in a simple, family-friendly lifestyle,” he says. “We don't want to lose that feel, we want to maintain it.”

LEADERSHIP LESSONS

As a leader, Jackson says one of his key jobs is to constantly ask questions.

Questions such as how can we improve? How can we be one of the best places to work? How can we be one of the best companies to do business with? And how can we make sure we have the best technology?

Jackson says, “Leadership is knowing how to get the answer,” not necessarily knowing the answer itself.

He says he also likes to empower his team to make decisions themselves. For example, Jackson says, “If I'm making the marketing decisions, I don't have a good marketing lead. It's really about empowering your teammates to do what's right.”

Some of Jackson's leadership lessons also come from books. He marks pages, highlights sections, stars certain passages and commits others to memory. “I constantly read,” he says. “The more a leader can read and learn about experiences of other leaders, the better leader they'll be.”

Hershberger describes Jackson's leadership style as chameleon-like. “He can assess the situation and provide the proper feedback based on the situation,” he says.

LaPinska agrees: “He can adjust to whatever audience he is having to spend time with,” she says. That includes everyone from the board down to customers and hourly employees.

LEADING LADIES

Jackson says a good leader also maintains balance, and he strives to balance work, family and his spiritual life.

Jackson attends church, and every day practices some form of praying. Sometimes it's while he's driving to work. He says, “I ask for wisdom to make the right decisions.”

Hershberger, who describes Jackson's work ethic as “unbelievable,” says some of their early conversations were about work-life balance and making the time to show up for important family events — even if it meant coming back to the office and working late hours.

Last December, Jeff and Lisa Jackson celebrated 30 years of marriage. They have three daughters — ages 22, 19 and 18. Jeff Jackson says he enjoys spending time with his family, especially going to movies, restaurants and vacationing together. To celebrate her 18th birthday, he recently went with his daughter and some of her friends to the Lady Gaga concert in Tampa.

LaPinska says Jackson “absolutely adores” his wife and three daughters. She also says he's “genuine about having more women on the leadership team and supporting women on the leadership team.”

LaPinska and Danielle Mikesell, vice president of marketing and innovation at PGT, created a leadership group for women at PGT called Leading Ladies. The group cultivates new talent and offers support to women leaders.

When Jackson found out about the group, LaPinska says he wanted to formalize the program and expand it. “He wants his daughters to have the opportunities to be successful,” she says, “and if he's going to expect that, he's going to create an environment that supports that.”

Jackson, going back to his high school dream that really came true, would like those opportunities to be possible for others, too. “I have three girls,” Jackson says. “I want them to be whatever they want to be.”

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