By Pamela Babcock
Thomas S. Robertson, Wharton’s 13th Dean, moves at the speed of business.
At a university whose founder famously said, “Time is money,” Thomas S. Robertson doesn’t waste a second.
Wharton’s new Dean is driven by three impulses: Move, do, and move on.
Robertson follows his frequent brisk runs not with a cold drink, but with a hot jolt of caffeine from a cappuccino. On the golf course, he plays like every hole is downhill, zooming over the fairways until he runs up on a foursome who regard golf as a leisurely game. When he tours a museum, he views and absorbs so quickly his companions are left two or three rooms behind.
“I have a high need for variety seeking,” said Robertson, who became Wharton’s 13th Dean on August 1. “I get bored easily. I like to make decisions, and I like to move quickly.”
Robertson is starting a second career at Penn. He ended his first 23-year career as a professor and administrator at Wharton when he left in 1994 to serve as a professor and later deputy dean at London Business School.
Robertson returned to the U.S. in 1998 to become dean of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. During his seven-year tenure, he was credited with building Goizueta into one of the strongest schools at Emory and positioning it as a leading international business school. Prior to his return to Penn, Robertson was executive faculty director of the Institute for Developing Nations at Emory.
His return to Philadelphia also was a homecoming for his wife, Diana Robertson, a former Wharton assistant professor and professor at Emory, who became a visiting professor in Wharton’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department in September.
For all his speed, former colleagues describe Robertson as keenly attentive and able to deftly balance the competing needs of a university community.
Al Hartgraves, an accounting professor who co-chaired the dean search that brought Robertson to Emory, said of Robertson, “His ability to work simultaneously with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and corporate leaders is unmatched, and he has the right temperament for dealing with a wide range of personalities.”
Robertson is as much a diplomat as an academic, said Hartgraves, who admires how Robertson led without conflict in the sometimes Balkanized world of a large university. “He has the ability to choose his battles carefully,” Hartgraves said, “and he rarely — if ever — makes any enemies.”
Another colleague admires Robertson’s laser-sharp focus on results.
“His best attribute is that he is able to make quick decisions based on a value system that is anchored in excellence,” said Rajendra Srivastava, the Roberto C. Goizueta Chair in Marketing and e-Commerce and executive director of the Emory Marketing Institute. “Because he is able to delegate execution to trusted colleagues, he is able to cover a lot of ground and does not get bogged down in details.”
When Robertson seizes on an idea, “he jots down the item on a single sheet of paper,” added Srivastava, who got to know Robertson at London Business School in 1997. “He stockpiles these to-do sheets of paper on his desk. His goal is to take care of these action items — crumpling the ‘done’ sheets and dumping them in the wastebasket — before he heads home.”
Robertson’s ability to work with people reflects his interest in human behavior. Early in his academic career, he struggled to choose between studying sociology or business. He chose business, but kept his focus on the human side. He is an expert on consumer and competitive behavior.
“What I have done over my career is to incorporate sociology into my research, specifically with my early research into consumer behavior and marketing,” he said.
At Wharton, Robertson will use his marketing knowledge to broaden awareness of the world’s oldest — and many say best — business school. Drawing on extensive international experience from his positions at Emory and London Business School, Robertson said he looks forward to helping build Penn’s global footprint and to champion Wharton as a force for good in the world.
“We can’t just say, ‘We’re 126 years old and we’ve done great things,’” Robertson said. “We should be very proud of what we’ve done. But we also have to ask, ‘Where do we go next to make new contributions and to create additional economic and social value in the world?’”
Scottish Roots for an International Career
The City of Brotherly Love is a long way from Robertson’s roots. He was born in Gourock, Scotland, a small town near Glasgow on the river Clyde. He was the oldest of three boys born to Scottish parents.
Robertson’s grandparents immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, but returned to Scotland when the Depression hit and took the younger of their dozen children, including Robertson’s father.
Tom Robertson lived in Scotland until 1955, when at the age of 12 his family moved to the U.S. The family settled in Detroit to be near other siblings and in-laws. He went on to get a BA in business at Wayne State University, an MA in sociology, and later a PhD in marketing from Northwestern University.
While a graduate student at Northwestern, Robertson met his wife, Diana, a native of Kansas City, MO, who was then an undergraduate in comparative literature. The couple married shortly after both graduated from Northwestern and has had parallel career tracks since.
Diana Robertson has a PhD in sociology from UCLA and has taught business ethics at Wharton, London Business School, and Emory, where she most recently was a professor of organization and management.
Robertson began his career as an assistant professor at UCLA, and later taught at Harvard Business School. From 1971 to 1994 at Penn, Robertson was on the Wharton marketing faculty, adding the title of Pomerantz Professor of Marketing and serving as chair of Wharton’s marketing department.
Later, as associate dean for executive education, he led the development of Wharton’s executive education program and played a pivotal role in Wharton’s dramatic transformation during the 1980s.
Wharton Marketing Professor George S. Day has known Robertson professionally through his research for nearly three decades. Robertson was instrumental in recruiting Day to Wharton in 1991.
“I have to tell you, he’s a really persuasive guy and he knows how to orchestrate recruiting,” said Day, who also is Geoffrey T. Boisi Professor, co-director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation and director of the Emerging Technologies Management Research Program.
Three years after Day joined Wharton, Robertson headed to London Business School. But they crossed paths again when Day took a one-year sabbatical there.
“I said ‘Tom, you really have to stop trailing me around like this,’” Day recalled with a laugh.
“I’ve always valued the relationship and his balance,” Day said. “And we’re both interested in global issues, which is one of the great things he’ll bring to the School. We have a lot of opportunities to consider, and my hope is that he will be able to do some of the things in that domain that he did with executive education when he was here. He really did build that and take it to a new level.”
Robertson chaired the Wharton Marketing Department when Hubert Gatignon joined the faculty as a young assistant professor. Over the next 14 years, they worked together on several research projects and published joint articles, several of which received awards.
“Tom is a wonderful scholar, always interested in discovering new ideas and in sharing the research process with others,” said Gatignon, the Claude Janssen Professor of Business Administration and professor of marketing at INSEAD, who also is research director of the INSEAD-Wharton Alliance.
“He was a great mentor as a role model and a great person to work with on an equal basis in spite of rank and experience differences. He is always extremely fair in working with others.”
Gatignon said Robertson gets to the point and works in a non-confrontational way with people while still getting things done. “His goal orientation has been an inspiration and I have tried to imitate his ‘cool’ attitude in tough situations,” Gatignon explained.
Implementing a Research Culture at Goizueta
Once he landed at Emory in 1998, Robertson tapped his talents in a variety of roles, including dean, faculty member, special presidential assistant for international initiatives, and most recently, as executive faculty director of Emory’s new Institute for Developing Nations.
Over a seven-year period, Robertson transformed Goizueta into a program driven by both research and classroom excellence. He grew faculty by 73 percent, doubled revenues and nearly doubled Goizueta’s endowment, launched new international alliances, spurred major growth in executive-education programs, and added a major new building.
When Robertson was being recruited, he said it was highly unlikely Goizueta could become “great” without a doctoral program. As dean, he followed through. But the issue was controversial because faculty knew funding a doctoral program was expensive. Robertson proposed expanding some other programs to help fund the PhD program and raised substantial donor money. Faculty, without dissent, approved the plan, Hartgraves said.
Robertson also was about pushing the envelope and “making sure that you are noticed,” Srivastava said. To support the development of a research culture, he had the chutzpah to encourage marketing faculty to host the AMA doctoral consortium the year the program was launched.
He also implemented a research culture that focused on both academic and business impact and raised the aspiration level of faculty. “In baseball parlance,” Srivastava said, “he encouraged the organization to go for home runs, rather than bunts and singles.”
Robertson called the deanship “great fun. It was an interesting assignment to take a school and make it better, move up the rankings, hire a lot of faculty, create new programs, and internationalize it.”
In 2005, Robertson created Emory’s first international board, the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) advisory board. The group, designed to help raise Emory’s international profile, consisted mainly of business, government, and professional leaders from throughout the region.
Over the years, Robertson also became a recognized expert on marketing strategy and competitive behavior, and a leader in innovation diffusion theory. Dating back to the early 1970s, he has authored, co-authored, or edited a dozen books and nearly 100 scholarly articles and book chapters.
On Returning to Philly
In choosing a place to be dean, Robertson said that not only was the school culture critical, but also the city and lifestyle. The couple is now renting an apartment in Rittenhouse Square until their home in the Buckhead section of Atlanta sells.
“Given that our children are no longer home, we are giving city living a try,” Robertson said. “In Atlanta, we lived in the suburbs, and when we were at Wharton before, we lived in Bryn Mawr.”
“Now, it’s pleasant to be in an apartment and be able to lock the door and walk out and not have to worry about the landscaping and the pool and to be able to walk to restaurants,” Robertson said. “And we live just 18 blocks from the university.”
With their three children grown, the timing was right for a return. Their son, Brian, graduated from Penn in 1991 and received a Wharton MBA in 1996. Brian is married to Wharton 1997 MBA graduate, Fatma Ozcan Robertson, and they live in London. The Robertsons’ older daughter, Ashley, graduated from Emory, is married to J.K. Givens, and also lives in London. Their younger daughter, Alexandra, recently graduated from Emory and lives in Atlanta. “We have many friends now who are in Philadelphia, and that makes it very pleasant to come back. Philly has a lot going for it and a lot more in the way of culture than most American cities. And it’s a faster pace, and more action-oriented, which I like.”
“We’re both very excited about this move,” added Diana Robertson. “It’s really just a fantastic opportunity and I am thrilled to be back at Wharton and in Philadelphia.”
Outside the Office
In his spare time, Robertson enjoys playing tennis, running four to five times a week, or going to the gym. Outside of work, the couple enjoys theater and art, and Tom Robertson enjoys reading the classics.
Thomas W. Dunfee, the Kolodny Chair of Social Responsibility in Business at Wharton, met Tom Robertson when Dunfee joined the Wharton staff in 1974. For many years, the Robertsons organized faculty and spouse mixed doubles games, followed by dinner. Dunfee also has played singles with Tom Robertson.
“He had a great forehand and I had a great backhand, and we would play to each others weaknesses,” Dunfee said. He declined to say who was the better player: “We each won enough to keep it interesting.”
Dunfee has jogged with Tom Robertson and recalls the pair sometimes creating an incongruous scene.
“I can remember several times we would go for a run in London, after which Tom would want to get a cappuccino,” Dunfee said. “We would go into a little tea shop mid-morning and there would be these older English ladies having their morning tea. And then these two guys would come in all sweaty, in shorts, and the women would just look at us.”
“It shows the importance of that cappuccino,” Dunfee said. “I doubt that there are many people who have a cappuccino after a run.”
In the End
Robertson replaces former Wharton Dean Patrick T. Harker, who in June was named president of the University of Delaware.
Robertson said that Wharton’s key asset is the caliber of its students, faculty, and staff. These days, the school boasts more than 4,700 students, 211 faculty members, and more than 82,000 alumni.
Wharton’s biggest challenge, oddly enough, is that it’s doing exceedingly well, he said.
“If you are doing very well the difficult thing is you have to reinvent yourself while you’re at the top and you can’t stand still,” Robertson said.
And the legacy he hopes to create?
“A business school has the wonderful ability to create economic and social value. Wharton has to consider our global presence, and we must take a leadership role in the world, not just in the United States, with regard to business education and corporate social responsibility and with regard to making the world a better place.”
Pamela Babcock is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. This is her first article for Wharton Alumni Magazine.