Big idea: To create a new kind of consultancy, helping big companies innovate by melding the best of Ideo and McKinsey. “Having an idea without knowing how it makes money is as valueless as knowing where growth lies without the idea,” says Geoff Vuleta, 48, critiquing the stereotypical design firm and the classic management consultant. The New Zealander and former ad man develops large-scale growth initiatives for major firms seeking $100 million-plus in new revenue. He makes money only if the idea works: “A funny thing happens when you only profit from a job if the job itself profits.” He’s now working on projects for the likes of Nestlé, LG, and Adidas, and booked more business in Q1 2010 than in all of 2009.
Why innovation scares CEOs: It’s not innovation so much as its perceived (and actual) cost. “The animals have overtaken the farm, and many lack operational or commercial expertise. Everybody’s spending money, and the company’s still getting only 4% growth. The future will be when people finally realize that commercial acumen and ideas have to be done in tandem with each other.”
Big break: After a successful career as an ad exec, Vuleta got a call from Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts. “He said, ‘I want to be an idea company, you’re an ideas guy; why don’t we see if you’re any good?’ I have to give him the biggest credit for my life as it is today.” Ultimately, Vuleta felt he couldn’t be as idea-obsessed as he wanted at Saatchi and created Fahrenheit 212.
Inspiration? “I have never really had role models, [but] rather a forever-expanding list of people doing things I admire.” On it now: Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman (“zigging while his industry zags”); Etsy founder Rob Kalin (“not for what he sells, because I would not be seen dead buying any of it, but for what his business has spawned”); and the Gilt Groupe team (“they create the Walmart Thanksgiving opening crush every day at 11:59”).
Greatest strength/weakness: “I’m a believer. If you say you’re good, I think you’re good. But I’m the last person to work out that something’s wrong.”
On being bi-continental: Vuleta commuted between New York and New Zealand for two years. “I naively thought I could build Fahrenheit from New Zealand. The moment I stopped doing that, the business started to grow.” He still returns every nine weeks to see daughter Isabella, 13. “Perversely, I spend more time with her now than I did when I lived there.”
Flight of the Conchords or Lord of the Rings? Conchords. “Just a totally novel idea.”
Frequent flying: “I fly every week of my life.” How many miles does he have? “I don’t know, but when I divorced my first wife seven years ago, we split everything in half, and she got a million miles. I thought, ‘What the hell has she done to earn those miles?’ Except put up with me. Maybe I should have given her all of them.”
If he could fix anything about air travel, he’d fix … “The journey from when you get out of the car to when you get on the plane.” It should be more Disneyesque: “As a kid, I learned about Disneyland and how, even when you’re queueing, you’re entertained.”
Originally wanted to be … a chef. “The irony is that I was never a very good cook. I harbored this dream for 11 years. All this time, my parents are saying, ‘We don’t think you’re going to enjoy it.’ Blow me down, they were right. I took the last bus home on my first night working in a kitchen and never went back.”
Tweeter? “I’m a fraud. I signed up because I went to get angry at somebody once, but then people started to follow me. But I wasn’t sending any tweets out — this is embarrassing — so my company tweets every day, and they retweet it on mine.”
Guilty pleasure: “I’ve drunk a bottle of champagne every Friday night for maybe 20 years.” Current favorites? Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle — “the best bubble of any champagne” — and Ruinart’s blanc de blancs.
Lessons from the scrum: The All Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby team, “could teach everyone about sportsmanship. You never boast. It’s always about what I’m going to do next. Rugby teaches you humility, honor, respect, and yet, at the same time, it’s the most physical, fiercely aggressive contact sport there is.”