In the world of business journalism, a company’s corporate communications manager can be a barrier to the press or a gateway into the internal workings of an organization. One of the best in the business, Al Maag, is retiring from Avnet Inc. this month.
My first professional interaction with Al – then a PR person for Hamilton/Avnet – was as a newbie reporter on the electronics distribution beat for an electronics trade publication. One of Hamilton Electronics’ longtime executives had announced his retirement, signaling the end of an era defined by the now-legendary Tony Hamilton. Without really understanding the backstory of the Hamilton/Avnet merger, I naively called this executive for a comment.
I had set off a firestorm.
Hamilton Electronics and Avnet Electronics were both managed by strong personalities that did not always see eye to eye. Tony Hamilton had recently passed away, and the transition into Hamilton/Avnet was not always smooth. Al, not knowing me very well, responded to my call. In his typical humane manner, he explained to me that the retiring executive had put a lot of energy and emotion into the building of a company and didn’t want to comment on the transition. Al put the feelings of this individual first. As a journalist, I could debate long and hard the issue of emotion versus nailing down the story but suffice it to say, I didn’t pursue the comment.
I have never regretted it for a second. In that one, awkward moment, I learned two lessons I’ve never forgotten:
- Companies are comprised of people, many of whom have invested their heart and soul into an organization
- Trust and respect are paramount. If you earn those two things in any professional relationship, you have done a good job
Al is retiring from the position of Chief Communications Officer of Avnet Inc. When he got the job, Al was humbled and amazed that Roy Vallee, Avnet’s CEO at the time, made the job a C-level position. His biggest worry was fulfilling the expectations that the “C” designation implied.
In all his years in his “lofty” executive suite, Al never failed to return one of my calls -- and there were lots of them. Some of them were positive – Avnet reached $1 billion while I was covering the organization – and others, not so much: Avnet’s one-time accounting firm, Arthur Anderson, had gone down in a flaming scandal. Many of our conversation were tough. In the days before political correctness, Twitter and the 24/7 news feed were the norm, executives said stupid things to reporters. (They still do.) Al’s rule of thumb was: “If I can talk about it, I will talk about it. If I can’t talk about it, I’ll tell you I can’t talk about it.” And often, even if he couldn’t talk about it, Al knew someone who could. Even with a charter of “put our company in the best light,” Al knew bad things happened. Dodging those things just made it worse. So he, and Avnet, tackled those things head-on.
Avnet, by the way, is now the largest electronics distributor in the world.
In addition to his professional capacity, I also know Al as a person. Al is one of the few people who have somehow managed to meld those two aspects and stay true to both. My colleague Bolaji Ojo puts it this way: “Al has taught me to look beyond the business to the people behind the activities. He should be self-promoting but he isn’t. Rather, he writes about life issues, including topics like motherhood, parenting, setting and achieving non-professional goals. He also talks all the time about members of his team to the point where without ever meeting them, you feel like you know them as well as Al does.”
In all capacities Al cares about people; he’s honest; he understands where people are coming from; and he will do his level best to assist them. If you’ve earned his trust, there’s no limit to what Al will do.
In short, he’s a class act.
Any journalist who has covered Avnet knows they won’t have to worry about access: the company’s policy of openness and honesty is one of Al’s legacies. “Al helped craft the image of Avnet as the giant start-up company,” Bolaji adds. “It’s a $26 billion company that keeps reinventing itself, both with greenfield expansions and via acquisitions. Somehow, even as it became a multi-billion company you still get the feeling when visiting Avnet that you are at your friendly neighborhood store. For journalists like myself, Al and his team are the direct representation of that symbolism.”
The trade press will miss him, but Al’s still going to be around. Al’s already assisted Electronics Purchasing Strategies in his new capacity as a self-employed Master of Marketing. There’s a whole new universe of people out there that can benefit from Al’s experience.
I consider myself lucky to be associated with Al. Over the years, I like to think trust and respect were developed on both sides of our relationship. If that’s the only thing I’ve accomplished, I consider it a job well done.
And I’m happy that the industry’s association with Al will continue. But in the interim: Hat’s off to you, Al, on your retirement from Avnet. Well done!