When Robert Sanchez, WG’93, came to Wharton for his MBA, the engineer dreamed of pivots into new careers, like consulting. The Miami native’s days in Philadelphia were a period of growth and learning, thanks to the coursework on campus and because he got married between the program’s two years. One lesson he learned: The best things in life can come when least expected. In his case, he landed his dream consulting job after graduation, but his wife (also a South Floridian) told him that he could move to Chicago as required by the new job—but she would be returning south. Sanchez chose instead a tech assignment with Ryder System Inc. in Miami, where he’s remained since.
The decision has paid off personally; he and his wife Melly have three sons, including Robert, a rising sophomore in the College, and a soon-to-be freshman in the College, Michael.
And it’s been an amazing run professionally. CEO of Ryder since 2013, Sanchez is steering the trucking and logistics firm through a period of growth—buoyed by a strong economy, in-house innovations like natural gas-fueled trucks, and a value proposition to convince “do-it-yourself” companies to outsource their fleet and supply chain needs.
Wharton Magazine spoke with Sanchez about his experiences as a business leader, his career overall, Wharton memories and more. Below is an abridged transcript of the conversation:
WHARTON MAGAZINE: At Ryder, you were initially hired in 1993 in a tech position. How were you able to make the transition to management? Was it challenging?
ROBERT SANCHEZ: Yes, it was. When you work as an engineer and you work in technology, the solutions are typically pretty concrete. There’s a right answer, and there’s a wrong answer, and your job is to solve a problem for a specific answer. When you get into management, things aren’t always as concrete.
WM: Did Wharton at all prepare you for this?
SANCHEZ: The first class that I took that had a case study was in marketing. I’d never had a class like that. I was up for hours working on this thing, and I thought I had figured it out; I had the answer for getting this marketing campaign done right. I came to class the next day, there was a lively discussion and everybody had a chance to talk. The professor is moderating the whole thing. I gave what I thought was the great answer after all the studying I had done.
And at the end of the class, everyone just stood up and headed for the exit. I’m sitting and thinking, “OK, so what was the right answer?” I approached the professor and asked, “So what was the right answer?” And [the professor] said, ‘Well, it depends.’ And I remember I was so distraught to think that there was no one right answer.
WM: How was the transition to CEO?
SANCHEZ: I’ve had a lot of different jobs [at Ryder] before I had this one. I was the chief financial officer. I was the chief operating officer. I was the president of the largest division. I was the chief information officer at one time. So they really gave me an incredible training program, if you will, by giving me the opportunity to do a lot of different jobs. I kind of felt like, well, I’m pretty ready.
But the day that I was put in the role where my boss was no longer here, the person who had been the CEO , Greg Swienton, for the last 13 years … it was very different. I realized that I no longer had that one person that I could go to on a day-to-day basis to bounce ideas off of and to really look for guidance. It initially was a little unsettling because I could really feel the burden of the big decisions I needed to make. And I’ve got to tell you the first six months I didn’t sleep as well as I had previously.
It’s like everything, you get used to it. You realize that you’ve got a good team. You work together to solve issues and use the knowledge that you have to try to make the best decision that you can, and things work out.
WM: What is your leadership style?
SANCHEZ: I’m very fortunate to have a very good leadership team that works well together. My style is really focused on teamwork and making sure that we have a group that trusts each other and works well together. And I think that is what makes the organization powerful. I’m not a big believer in having one superstar with a big ego or having a lot of people who are bickering, and looking out for themselves, and not looking out for the team.
WM: Some of that’s internal Ryder culture. But is your style taken from things learned at Wharton? From family?
SANCHEZ: Of all the things I learned from my father, [this is] probably the most important one. My father was big on always treating people with respect no matter who they are and no matter what role you have. I look for that in our team, that people treat their subordinates the same way they treat their boss and they treat their peers. And it’s surprising how difficult that is to find sometimes because you can have people that do very well in their careers and don’t have the people skills. Here at Ryder we try to make sure that we bring people in who have that balance.
WM: How have you been able to succeed at one firm for 21+ years?
SANCHEZ: I think the biggest attribute that has helped me is being a problem-solver. Whether I was in the operations for our logistics business or fleet business or working in our technology group or even in finance and in pricing, a lot of business is about solving problems—the customer has a problem and it could be that it’s costing them too much money to run their fleet or their logistics operation isn’t working well and they’re missing too many orders. The key is to solve the problem in an efficient way.