I meet Michael Watras at 45 Jermyn Street, a name perhaps more analogous with haute couture than haute cuisine.
I arrive early. Watras is already seated comfortably, halfway through a cappuccino. We shake hands: “how wonderful to see you” he says, in a subtle New York brogue, eyes beaming behind blue-frames as I take my seat.
“I wanted to bring you here,” says the straight-talking chairman and chief executive of Straightline, his second company, but certainly not his second career. “It used to be the Fortnum & Mason cafeteria – when you came here it was mostly people around 100 years old! It’s great now, they know me here, I come here all the time. I’ll give you a tip on what’s good. I don’t know if you like avocado?” – “I do” – “They do avocado on toast, and you get this side of very spicy tomato juice, and you can smear it on, it’s unusual.”
I take Watras’ recommendation, and ask if he’ll be having the same:
“Oh no, I just have the porridge; I’m pretty boring.”
Modest; the man is anything but boring.
New york, new york
By the time he was 25, Watras had graduated from Columbia University in his native New York, been drafted to the military, learned how to fly a Phantom fighter jet, and completed two tours of duty in Vietnam.
When he came out of the service, he landed a dream job, but not his dream job, flying long-haul commercial jets for Eastern airlines. Each flight “was like ten hours of torture,” he says.
Following that he tried his hand at being an analyst for consultant Booz Allen, where he was again bored, with “no identity.” While the mundane homogeneity of a grey cubicle was unfulfilling, it was here that Watras figured out how to stimulate himself.
Sony, at the time a company chiefly focused on consumer electronics, was a client of the firm, and making baby steps into entertainment and music.
During one of “many” trips to Tokyo, Watras became overwhelmed with the sheer presence of the brand.
“It occurred to me then here was a brand that was almost a religion in Japan. Sony was incredible. Every corner you would turn you would see Sony. It was everywhere. In your hotel you had a Sony TV, everybody carried Sony equipment; walkman, camcorders, all this stuff. I had an idea that I should look at the world of brand.”
Watras explains that “back then” branding was the prerogative of advertising agencies, which built short-term TV and newspaper campaigns around individual products, rather than the organisation itself – almost unthinkable in the age of the cult of Apple.
“For example, in the eighties, you wouldn’t be able to read an annual report unless you were a lawyer or an accountant. They were heavy tomes: boring, full of legal jargon. So I thought: ‘maybe I can come in and reconfigure how companies look at themselves’. How they communicate their verbal identity, and their visual identity. No one had done that.”
“That seems staggeringly obvious,” I mutter under my breath. Although Watras doesn’t seem like the sort one can easily offend. Why hadn’t anybody thought of it?
“You know I don’t know, I kept asking myself the same thing on a daily basis. I thought it just sounds too simple! You kind of ask that question: why didn’t anyone else do that?”
Someone out there will certainly wish they had thought of it. Watras today is a stalwart of corporate identity; more Mr Brand than Russell, a friend, confidant, and mentor to thousands of executives at the top of the world’s leading brands, from Heinz to JP Morgan.
I mention Heinz specifically, for after nine months of pitching to chief executives (or as Watras laments: “nine months of starvation, living in a little studio apartment in Manhattan on 300 calories a day, really almost out of money”), it was HJ Heinz that called him at his former company CGI (later sold to Havas), offering an opportunity to try out his new approach.
“They were buying companies left and right in the early eighties, so Tom Mackintosh called me, and he said: ‘why don’t you come in and meet with us?’ And I met Henry Heinz, who’s sadly passed away. He was fabulous. And I’ll never forget it, I got to ride in his corporate jet, which was ketchup red – the whole plane! – and the inside the wallpaper was little pickles, I swear to God. He was a great man.” After taking the suggestion of putting “Part of the Heinz Family” on all of its products, HJ Heinz’ share price spiked, the press got wind, and the rest is history.
Over nearly four decades, Watras, working “exclusively in the c-suite,” and his team, have branded and rebranded thousands of companies, turning round the tanker on failing businesses, gracing boardrooms on every continent in every industry in every circumstance.
The waiter approaches our plush orange booth by the window; one I’m willing to bet Watras sits in every time he dines here. His porridge arrives with banana and honey, my green blob of avocado, complemented by a piquant virgin mary sauce.
Watras is telling me he operates exclusively in the c-suite – he’s worked with thousands of chief executives in his time, most of whom he has “a great deal of respect” for. “ I’ve met some of the most powerful ones, they’re mostly good people, but there’s a few bad apples, like in any organisation.
“Back in my day,” he says, “some of these guys had a whole floor with just a secretary and themselves. It’s baloney. Talk about ivory towers!”
“Ivory Towers” seems the perfect segway to mention Trump, although I get the impression he’s sick of talking about The Orange One. With such branding prestige, I ask Watras what he thinks of “Brand America” in the Trumpian era. “I tell people I’m Canadian now!” he cackles. “I’ll be sat on an aeroplane and the first thing that happens is someone will lean over and say ‘oh what about your President?’ Every single day, no lie.
“Whether you believe it or not, America is the most powerful country on the planet. But he’s not a world leader. He’s not a statesman. He is someone who worries me though. I’m a New Yorker; my state didn’t vote for him. We consider him a joke in New York. But yes, the American Brand has been badly tarnished, and I think more of that is to come, I personally don’t think he’ll ride out his term.”
A pleasant breakfast inhaled, swilling cold black coffee, I ask Watras whether he ever has any free time. He has the air of a Stakhanovite. Here’s his life in numbers: he sleeps four hours a night, and is always in the office for 6:30. He exercises six times a week. He completed 40 Atlantic crossings, seven Pacific, and several more to Singapore. “I work 24 hours a day – ask anyone. I don’t know what I’ll do when I can’t do this anymore because I love what I do.”
“I think you’ll be doing this forever” I joke. He guffaws loudly, “I think so! My wife says so. I’m married to a Brit – Penny – we’ve been together 30 years and she thinks that I’ll do this until they carry me out of the office. Life is full of sacrifices; to my family, to my wife – parties, friends, vacations – I’ve had to cancel many of them, because we had a project to do. I always put my clients first, maybe that’s not a good thing. I can’t judge. I do what I do.”