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How to become CEO despite skipping college, and talk to the likes of Steve Jobs

Fender guitars boss Andy Mooney figured out that companies were run by the finance chaps. So he only studied accounts and gave the rest of college a pass. He also met Steve Jobs and learnt something valuable from him.

May 23, 2021 / 07:45 AM IST

A lot of people these days follow unconventional academic paths, launch start-ups and appoint themselves CEO. But how do you become the capo at a traditional, established giant despite skipping college?

Andy Mooney, CEO of Fender Musical Instruments Corp., which against odds had a thriving 2020, would have some answers.

Mooney, 66, was a music-crazed son of a coal miner in Scotland. He couldn’t afford a Fender those days, the very brand he now heads. But he wanted to play some music and also desired a good career. The young Mooney figured out that companies were really run by the finance chaps. With the goal of becoming a chief financial officer, he studied accountancy by correspondence and took up a day job. This way, he had some professional experience and a relevant qualification without having to spend resources on a full college education. And he could spend some time playing music.

“You need money even to be a semipro musician,” Mooney told the LA Times a few years ago. “I took a job out of high school at Uniroyal Tyres UK and skipped college. I took my accountancy exams by correspondence course. I did it at night when I got home. By the time I turned 25, even though I hadn’t gone to college, I was a qualified accountant.”

Nonetheless, Mooney’s resume did not have high employment chances. Unless some brash young company came along the way. That is exactly what happened. An irreverent new shoe brand named Nike hired him, straightaway, as its CFO for UK.


“The only company insane enough to give me that chance was Nike,” Mooney said. “Being CFO meant unloading 40-foot containers of shoes once a month and shipping them arm-to-arm with the guys in the warehouse to meet your sales goals.”

Later on, Mooney moved to Disney, where a meeting with Steve Jobs led to a learning he still remembers.

“When I left Nike after 20 years and moved to Disney, one of the first few people I met was Steve Jobs,” Mooney told Guitar World last year. “He was the founder of Pixar at that time and Disney had a relationship with them from distributing their movies.

“Steve kinda grilled me the first time I met him. He asked me what I felt made great brands and I told him a great brand was the accumulative effect of great products. Luckily he said that he agreed, but with one caveat. He said every single product you work on is like a deposit (if it’s good) or withdrawal (if it’s not) from the brand equity. I kinda held that in the back of my mind.”

In another interview last month, Mooney spoke about the importance of data, and how it led to the crucial finding that as many as 90% of first time guitar buyers stopped playing in the first year. This motivated Fender to offer a guitar learning app that could reduce that number.

“When I joined Fender I asked who was buying our guitars and nobody knew,” Mooney told Monocle. “So we conducted research and out of that came five key initiatives. One was that 45 per cent of guitars that we sell go to first-time players and 50 per cent of these are women. The big 'ah-ha' was that 90 per cent of those first-time players abandon the instrument in the first year; the 10 per cent that don’t quit tend to commit for life and spend about $10,000 [Rs 7.3 lakh approx] in the industry over a lifetime. Now we knew what digital product to create (with Fender Play); if we were able to reduce the abandonment rate by even 10 per cent we could double the size of the hardware industry.”

A lesson for professionals from Mooney’s playbook is to not be afraid, even if that backfires sometimes.

“Fear is the big limiting factor, in my view, for people’s ability to realize their potential,” he said. “I have no fear. I never had anything, so I have no fear of losing anything. It’s had mixed results because it’s controversial. I always took the position that I’m going to say exactly what I think is the right thing to do for the business, whether it’s politically in my best interest or not.”
Akshay Sawai

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