Brad Alford

Nesquik. GE jet engines. Finneytown. Which of these doesn’t belong?

The answer: They all fit together because the northern Cincinnati suburb produced two of the world’s biggest CEOs within the same graduating class at Finneytown High School. Since graduating in 1974, Jeff Immelt and Brad Alford have risen to the top ranks of CEOs and chairmen of the board at General Electric and Nestlé USA, respectively.

They may run Fortune 500 companies, but Immelt and Alford are still red and blue Wildcats at heart.

Natural Leaders

Alford didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Maybe a lawyer, he thought. However, there was no denying an entrepreneurial streak in his DNA.

Alford’s father owned Alford Motors Inc., a chain of local car dealerships on Vine Street and Carthage Avenue, which is now run by his brother, Bart. Alford’s grandmother was also an entrepreneur, owning a real estate company in Mount Healthy when he was growing up.

“When I was younger there were certain things I liked to do,” Alford says. “I remember as a very young kid, and as I got older, that I liked to make things and sell things. I had my own little newspaper when I was a real young kid. I used to have lemonade stands.”

Although Alford’s company doesn’t sell any lemonade today, they do own several bottled water and coffee brands, including Perrier, Poland Spring and Nescafé — a far cry from 10-cent roadside refreshments.
 
“There is some entrepreneurial blood in there, and I think that’s what really moved me into the job that I have now,” Alford says.

Growing up, he and Immelt played together on a Little League baseball team and attended the same swim club. Just as Alford’s entrepreneurial spirit developed in those days, Immelt was also getting prepared for a lifetime of leadership.

Immelt grew up with a father in GE’s Aircraft Engine Division, and his mother was a schoolteacher. No one ever seemed to doubt his future success.

“He was a natural leader. People were drawn to him. He was someone you enjoyed and wanted to be around,” says Scott Steel, a 1975 Finneytown graduate. Now an education strategist for leader development at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Steel knows a bit about leadership.

Steel was a family friend of the Immelts and grew up with Jeff. Their older brothers played sports together, and they got to know each other through games, family gatherings and holiday picnics.

“It’s wonderful to say that I grew up with and knew Jeff Immelt,” Steel says. “I saw him when he was at his best and when he was challenged. He’s in such a high position now, but he’s just like me or anyone else who went to school there.”

When they were all growing up in Finneytown, it was a safe, carefree community where kids would play in the streets or ride bikes, and parents never locked the doors — a microcosm of the Midwestern lifestyle at the time.

“You learned to get along with everyone there,” Alford says. “Whether you were an athlete or a good student or whatever you were in to, people got along with everybody. I think that’s important.”

In the Halls of FHS

Jeff immelt

Jeff Immelt

Maybe something was in the water. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Or maybe FHS imparted the sort of invaluable knowledge that prepared two top CEOs. But in the 1970s, Brad Alford and Jeff Immelt were just beginning to discover who they wanted to be.

Alford played intramural sports, worked hard in academics, and says he generally tried to stay out of trouble. He also served on the school’s student council.

“It was a relatively small class. All of us, for the most part, had gone through elementary school in Finneytown, too, so we all knew each other,” he says.

Steve Elliott is now program director of High School Service Learning for the Mayerson Foundation. He retired after 32 years of teaching at FHS, and had Alford and Immelt in his history class.

Elliott remembers Alford as a bright, quiet student who sat in the front of his class. Meanwhile, Immelt lettered in baseball, basketball and football, was elected class president and participated in a number of clubs.

Elliott was also Immelt’s varsity basketball coach. He recalls that the team before Immelt’s, in 1972, was very disciplined and intense in both their practice and playing. When that class graduated, he was faced with Immelt’s team — a close-knit group that loved to joke around, but were also good athletes.

“Their approach to the game and to each other was not as intense, but they got along and enjoyed each other and had a good time. As a coach, I was still in the mindset of the group I had prior to Jeff’s group, so I coached them the same way and with that kind of intensity,” Elliott says.

Early in the season, Immelt asked to see the coach after practice. He told Elliott that he and his teammates were very competitive and would work hard, but that they weren’t the same team Elliot was used to coaching.

“My first reaction was, here’s this 17-year-old kid trying to tell me how to coach and so forth. I remember driving home, thinking about it, and by the time I got home my thought was that he was absolutely right. I had to be respectful of who they were and the framework of that. To me, that stands out on the kind of individual he was. He knew how to approach me. He was kind of representing the interests of his teammates in such a way that was, I thought, just outstanding,” Elliott recalls.

Steel remembers Immelt’s early days of sales. One summer, the two high schoolers worked for a store called Mr. Tuxedo in Clifton, which is still in business. They sold enough suits that summer to earn free ones for their prom. Steel opted for a powder-blue tux, while Immelt chose one in plaid — the kind of 1970s fashions that cause contagious cringe outbreaks today.

In a 1974 yearbook photo of the prom court, Immelt towers above everyone, grinning in his new plaid tux with a top hat perched atop his fluffy hair. Yes, this man would become one of the country’s top CEOs, in the exclusive club of white collars and gray suits.

From Finneytown to Fortune 500

After FHS, Alford attended Miami University for his bachelor’s degree and received an MBA from Indiana University. He took a sales trainee position at the Carnation Company in 1980, and then joined the Pet Foods Division.

Alford held a number of positions at both Nestlé USA and Nestlé Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. In 2003, he was appointed president and chief executive officer of Nestlé Brands Co., and was promoted to CEO of Nestlé USA in 2006.

“The combination of taking advantage of the opportunities the company affords you and then doing well in those positions allowed me to move up when some of the other people that were at my level didn’t take advantage of those opportunities, and, consequently, I got an opportunity to move up when they didn’t,” Alford explains.

Today, he is working to improve Nestlé USA’s consumer focus, while dealing with an anorexic economy. “We have made some tactical changes. We are being more conservative in terms of how we spend money,” Alford says.

He lives in San Marino, Calif., near Pasadena, with his wife, Anne, and two daughters, ages 12 and 8.

Immelt’s résumé shows he attended Dartmouth College, where he played on the school’s football team and became the president of his fraternity. He received a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics, and then received an MBA from Harvard University.

Immelt started working at GE in 1982 and held posts in its plastics, appliance and medical businesses. He became a GE officer and joined the Capital Board in 1997. When former CEO Jack Welch announced his retirement, several employees, including Immelt, were considered for the position.

“I told people, ‘I know Jeff will get it. I don’t know the other people, I don’t know the situation, but I know this guy will get it,’” Alford says.

Alford was correct, and Immelt was appointed CEO in 2000. People from his hometown were impressed, but certainly not surprised.

“I think I felt the collective pride of the community, to have a Finneytown grad be ultimately so successful,” Elliott says.

Today, Immelt and his wife, Andrea, have a daughter and live in Connecticut.

It Takes a Village

Though they have gone far from Finneytown, Alford and Immelt are not quick to forget their hometown.

“A lot of people had success there. I haven’t followed them all, but I would be willing to bet that if you looked at that class, there’s a lot of success stories there,” Alford says. “I think it’s a function of the environment of that community, the school, the people that lived there. To me, that’s what makes Finneytown a nice place to grow up.”

Alford frequently returns to Cincinnati to visit family members. He likes to go boating along the Ohio River, catch Reds games and eat at his favorite local restaurants. Those include Skyline, LaRosa’s and Graeter’s, which he says is “really good” (high praise from the maker of Dreyer’s, Häagen-Dazs and Drumstick).

Immelt has also returned to his hometown. He was inducted into the Finneytown Schools Hall of Fame in 2000 and has been a contributor to the Finneytown Schools Education Foundation. In 2005, FHS implemented the Jeff Immelt Award for outstanding leadership on the football field. Scott Steel’s son David was the first recipient.

Immelt and Alford have come a long way from Little League and lemonade stands — not bad for two guys from a modest Cincinnati suburb.

“It’s not that we were all perfect,” Alford says, “but I think at the end of the day we had a pretty good grounding there.”