Cameron Smith & Associates' Mission To Put More Women in Public Company Boardrooms

Cameron Smith with Catherine Corley, left, and Denise Natishan, the Cameron Smith & Associates team leading the effort to place women on corporate boards of directors. | (Photo by Beth Hall)
Cameron Smith with Catherine Corley, left, and Denise Natishan, the Cameron Smith & Associates team leading the effort to place women on corporate boards of directors. | (Photo by Beth Hall)

(A correction has been made to this article. See end for details.)

If people still used Rolodexes, Cameron Smith would have one of the best in the world. As it is, the founder of executive search firm Cameron Smith & Associates has 6,000 names at his fingertips, a digital spreadsheet listing “every Wal-Mart vendor in northwest Arkansas,” he says.

Now, Smith wants to use the contacts built up over 20 years of helping to populate Vendorville to put women on corporate boards. And women — particularly in Arkansas — could use his help.

Nationally, in 2013, women held 16.9 percent of the board seats at the 500 biggest companies, according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit that researches women in business. Heidrick & Struggles, an international executive search firm, was a bit more optimistic in a June report, putting that percentage at 20.2 percent of total Fortune 500 board seats.

In Arkansas, women represent 12.3 percent of the 171 board seats of the 19 public companies based in the state. Almost half — eight — have no women on their boards. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has the highest percentage, 27 percent. Bank of the Ozarks Inc. is second: 25 percent of its 16 directors are women.

In an interview at his office in Rogers, Smith works hard to deflect attention from his role in his company’s initiative to put more women on corporate boards, emphasizing the efforts of associates — there are no titles at CSA — Denise Natishan and Catherine Corley, who are leading the effort.

But the fact remains that he’s the one with the monster spreadsheet of names of people doing business with the largest company in the world. And he’s the one who 22 years ago saw the opportunity to make his mark by filling a very specific niche: top provider of executive talent to many of the almost 1,400 vendors doing business with Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Founded in 1992, Cameron Smith & Associates now has 24 employees and an office in Minneapolis (headquarters of Target Corp. and, of course, many of its suppliers) in addition to Rogers. The firm’s revenue last year was $7.8 million.

“In order to be successful in this business, you really have to zero in and be in a niche and be the best in that niche,” Smith said. His niche became retail, specifically big box retail. “We build Vendorvilles,” he said, using a nickname for the area that Tom Jensen, who holds the Wal-Mart Lectureship in Retailing at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, shared with a reporter for The New York Times in 1998. It was one of the first uses of the term, but certainly not the last.

Smith estimates his firm has placed about 3,000 employees. Three thousand people owe something, even if it’s just a little something, to Cameron Smith & Associates. That’s a lot of favors in the favor bank.

Why Diversity, Why Now?

Diversity on corporate boards has been an issue for years. Most companies recognize that having directors from varied backgrounds isn’t simply a theoretical matter of equity; it’s a matter of performance.

Considering gender alone, which is CSA’s initial emphasis, the Credit Suisse Research Institute reported in 2012 that companies with women on their boards performed better financially than their all-male counterparts. The widely cited report, “Gender Diversity and Corporate Performance,” concluded:

First, that “companies with at least some female board representation outperformed those with no women on the board in terms of share price performance.”

Second, that “companies with one or more women on the board have delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing, better average growth and higher price/book value multiples over the course of the last six years,” from the end of 2005 to the end of 2011.

In addition, the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission since 2009 has required publicly traded companies to disclose whether they consider diversity when nominating directors and what their policies are regarding diversity on their boards.

Still, progress is slow.

“The lack of women in America’s boardrooms often comes down to access,” Kerry Goodenow, a senior associate with Catalyst, told Arkansas Business. “Catalyst research has busted a lot of the myths we hear today: that there aren’t qualified women available or that CEO experience is necessary to join a board. These excuses are simply not valid.

“Joining a corporate board still tends to come down to networks — who you know and who is willing to advocate for you,” she said. “There are plenty of qualified women, but if boards are not being intentional in their searches and looking for women, they tend to default to a man who all the other men know and feel comfortable with.”

Smith, as a corporate recruiter, was familiar with the literature concerning diversity, but the issue didn’t hit home with him until four years ago.

“I’d heard over and over in various articles that there was a gap there and didn’t really pay much attention to it,” he said. “And then I took a public board seat four years ago myself with Car-Mart.”

It was his first time serving on the board of a publicly traded company.

“We’ve been addressing it there. We know that we need to.” And his fellow directors of America’s Car-Mart Inc., based in Bentonville, are in accord: “From the CEO down, we all agree that that needs to happen.”

What are the specific reasons Car-Mart thinks this would be good for business?

“I think I had a lot to do with that because I’m in the human capital business,” Smith said. “And I’ve seen firsthand the difference in what female executives bring to the table, just a different perspective. I sit on many, many nonprofits with some incredible female directors and I’ve been blown away by the talent.”

Two years ago, Smith said, CSA decided to work toward matching women and corporate boards.

“But you don’t just, you know, hang a sign out on the door and start doing it,” he said. So the company has been assembling a roster of potential director candidates, “thousands of them from around the country.”

After compiling this estrogen-weighted Who’s Who, Smith said, “we feel like we’re ready to start.” In point of fact, CSA has started. “We’re already working with some of the largest companies in the world.” Discussions are sensitive and generally confidential, he said, but the H.J. Heinz Co. is one of the companies Smith’s gender diversity team is working with.

That team is headed by Denise Natishan and Catherine Corley. Natishan came to CSA 10 years ago from Toronto, where she worked in executive recruitment with Canadian Fortune 500 companies like Royal Canadian Mint, the Bank of Montreal and Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd., helping place women into senior positions. Corley is an Arkansan who came to CSA just a few months ago, having previously worked for Sam’s Club, where she was VP of member services, and Tyson Foods, where she was VP of strategic planning, corporate strategy and development.

Goals and Methods

Smith, Natishan and Corley described the firm’s gender diversity initiative and its goals in a written response to questions from Arkansas Business a few days before an in-person interview at CSA’s Rogers office.

The goals:

  • Helping companies achieve greater success by including key stakeholders in decisions that are being made at the board level.
  • Having role models that can inspire others and help develop talent in organizations is simply smart business practice.
  • Having diverse thought that reflects a broader understanding of the consumer is critical for successful companies as we move forward with millennials and the digital world.

The methods:

  • We will be doing what we do best, matching companies’ business needs with the best talent. In this case, we will be working with companies seeking to improve their boards’ effectiveness through diversity in gender, skills and backgrounds. It’s a natural extension to serve our existing clients.
  • We’ll start with our established clients and expand to other public companies, private-equity backed companies, private companies, startups and nonprofits.
  • We’ll bring visibility and opportunity to qualified women director candidates, assisting them in their preparation and search for a board seat.

In an interview a few days later, Natishan said that, particularly for retail companies, women bring value to boards by bringing their experience as consumers to the table. In addition, “there’s just a different dynamic in how women lead,” she said.

Natishan said that client companies have been open to the idea of women directors. “It just makes business sense,” she said. But “it’s a timing thing, too,” because CSA and companies have to take into account succession plans.

“I think the business case for gender-diverse boards has already been made,” Corley said, “so there is demand. It just makes sense to connect that with qualified, board-ready candidates. And both Denise and I know a lot of talented women who are qualified to serve in those roles.”

“In the next 10 or 15 years, hopefully, it’s not even an issue,” Natishan said.

Corley, speaking of the advantages Smith and Natishan bring to the effort, said: “They have relationships with these companies. They understand the executives. They understand the culture. When you’re selecting someone to go on a board, that’s a very tricky thing. The most important thing is it has to be the right fit. It’s not just qualified. And you need someone you can trust, who knows your organization, and that’s really what Cameron and his associates bring to the party.”

And they’re not just focusing on the publicly traded companies based in Arkansas; they have their eyes on companies throughout the U.S. and in Canada.

Cameron Smith & Associates, with its ties to the heavyweights in the retail world, is uniquely situated to have an outsized effect on companies’ efforts to bring aboard female directors.

That’s probably best illustrated by — again — Smith’s miraculous Excel spreadsheet that he wants me to see, this matchmaker’s bible on his computer:

“We have data on everything. This is every Wal-Mart vendor in northwest Arkansas. It’s the 3M team and everybody on the team and their phone numbers. I want you to see this. This is all 6,000 people here, so when I tell you how many people are here, I know for sure.

“Birds Eye, Black & Decker, Cadbury Adams, Dr Pepper, 7Up, Campbell’s Soup team. Every person on the team. Chiquita Bananas, the Clorox team. You can go all the way down here. Novartis, Pennzoil, Quaker State, Pepsi-Cola. Procter & Gamble is the biggest team. So we have that.”

And that, certainly, is a start.

(Nov. 17, 2014: An earlier version of this article said Bank of the Ozarks had the highest percentage of female directors of publicly traded companies based in Arkansas. It is second, with 25 percent. Wal-Mart Stores is first, with 27 percent.)