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From Mailroom to Boardroom: 10 Modern-Day Execs Who Started At The Bottom

While hard work isn’t a guarantee of a successful business or a million dollar paycheck, it certainly doesn’t hurt, and there are plenty of real-life examples of that. Many top executives didn’t start off in high-paying, respected positions with an MBA in hand — far from it, in fact. These enterprising minds worked their way up to the top, quite commonly beginning their careers working in mailrooms or in positions at the very bottom of the corporate ladder. Often, these low-paying and thoroughly unglamorous positions offered these future execs a chance to make connections and to show off business savvy, ultimately leading to bigger and better things.

While not everyone can turn a job opening mail into part of a long-term plan to become a CEO, these executives are proof positive that going from the bottom to the top through hard work, determination, and talent isn’t just a pipe dream:

  1. George Bodenheimer:

    George Bodenheimer got in on ESPN in the network’s infancy, starting just 16 months after the launch. His first jobs? In 1981, Bodenheimer worked in the mailroom and also in the administrative department. Over the years, he would go on to work his way up through the company, learning the business from the ground up, working in sales and marketing all over the United States. It would take him 17 years, but through hard work Bodenheimer would finally earn the position of Executive Chairman of ESPN Inc. in 2012, previously holding positions as president and co-chairman.
  2. Dan Adler:

    Dan Adler has dabbled in politics, but his career has largely been centered on the entertainment industry. He got his first real world job in 1986 at the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) where he worked in the mailroom. Getting ahead through hard work and starting at the bottom was a family tradition for Adler, whose father, a former Auschwitz prisoner, began his own career in the mailroom of a manufacturing company. The younger Adler would go on to gradually advance through the ranks at CAA, eventually becoming an executive there and later at Disney. Today, he is the CSO of The Convex Group, founder of Media Eagles, and founder and CEO of Fanista.
  3. John Borghetti:

    A consummate workaholic (he works 6.5 days a week and sleeps just four hours a night), it’s no surprise that this legendary CEO had the drive to get where he is today. Almost 40 years ago, Borghetti began his career in aviation in the mailroom at Quantas Airlines, the company where he would work until 2009, eventually taking on the position of Executive General Manager. This hard-working executive has been with Virgin Blue since then, and works as the company’s CEO, a far cry from his early days as a mailroom clerk.
  4. David Geffen:

    Music mogul David Geffen has a pretty well-known name, not only for his multiple record labels, but also for his part in founding DreamWorks, a now major film studio with partners Steven Spielberg and Jeffery Katzenberg. While Geffen may be a major player in today’s entertainment industry, back in the day, he was a three-time college dropout working in the mailroom at William Morris Agency. He showed promise, however, and quickly became an agent, eventually starting his own company. That company would blossom into several record companies and would make Geffen the Hollywood power player he is today.
  5. Andrew Taylor:

    Andrew Taylor may have been the son of Enterprise Rent-A-Car founder Jack C. Taylor, but that didn’t mean he got a pass on working his way up through the company. Taylor started working at Enterprise washing cars when he was just 16 years old, learning about the business over holiday vacations and summer break. After graduating from college in 1976, Taylor actually went to work outside of the family business, finding work with RLM Leasing, gaining experience before returning to Enterprise. Yet Taylor still wasn’t given any special treatment, working his way up through the ranks throughout the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1980 that he would become COO, and not until 1990 that he would be CEO. All that hard work seems to have paid off, as under his management the company grew from a fleet of 5,000 cars to 900,000 vehicles internationally.
  6. Simon Cowell:

    Simon Cowell might be best known as a (very harsh) judge on American Idol, but he was incredibly successful before ever hitting it big on American TV, and he got there the old-fashioned way. Cowell started off his career in the music business by working in the mailroom at record company EMI, a job his father, an exec at the company, helped the young Cowell land. He would later move on to working as an assistant to an A&R executive, a position that helped him work his way through the ranks, eventually leaving the company to found his own record label, which was sold to BMG. There he would become a top executive, signing major acts like Westlife and Five, both producing huge hits for the UK market. Today the former mailroom worker is worth an estimated $85 million.
  7. Ron Meyer:

    Ron Meyer knew getting a job in the movie business would be hard without a high school diploma, but he decided to go for it anyway. He would have to start at the bottom, however, finding work as a driver with the Paul Kohner Agency and later as a mailroom clerk at the William Morris Agency. From there, he found work as a talent agency himself, eventually getting enough clients and enough success to start his own agency, called the Creative Artists Agency (the mailroom of which would spawn other big entertainment industry pros, too). In the early years, the agency had little money and few resources, but somehow Meyer and his partners made it work. Today, Meyer is the head of University Studios, the longest serving chief of a major motion picture company in Hollywood history.
  8. Jim Skinner:

    McDonald’s Vice Chairman and CEO Jim Skinner wasn’t always at the top of the fast food chain’s multi-billion dollar business. After 10 years in the Navy, Skinner started his career with McDonald’s back in 1971, working as a restaurant manager trainee. From that early management position, Skinner worked his way up through the ranks, holding a wide range of leadership positions throughout the years. In 2004, Skinner was named CEO of McDonald’s Corp and under his leadership the company has increased sales by almost $20 billion, earning Skinner the title of CEO of the Year in Chief Executive magazine.
  9. Barry Diller:

    Today, Barry Diller has a fortune of more than a billion dollars, is married to a top fashion designer, and is one of the most powerful media executives in the world. He didn’t get there by magic, however; he paid his dues along the way. Diller, after dropping out of college, used a family connection to score a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. ABC network president Elton Rule noticed Diller and took him on as his assistant, a break that would help him land a job negotiating broadcast rights for feature films and in 1965, a position as Vice President of Development. Diller’s career would only get better from there, becoming CEO of Paramount Pictures, creating Fox and USA, and currently holding the position of Chairman and Senior Exec at IAC/InterActiveCorp.
  10. Norman Brokaw:

    The William Morris Agency’s mailroom has been the springboard for many big names in entertainment, including Barry Diller and David Geffen, whom we’ve mentioned here. It’s also spawned the careers of its own execs. In 1912, a poor Russian immigrant named Abe Lastfogel was the agency’s first office boy and would later become the agency’s president. Continuing in that tradition is Norman Brokaw, who started in the mailroom in 1943 at the age of just 15. Brokaw would go on to become a talent agent in the company, the first from the mailroom to do so, and today is the agency’s chairman.


This article was first posted in Online MBA.

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