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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Flying high: The Catholic corporate titan

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catholic and corporate - The Catholic weekly - James Keyes
Former 7-Eleven Inc and Blockbuster CEO James W Keyes with his “T-6 Texan” shortly before take-off flying in formation for Memorial Day across the skies over Dallas. Photo: Supplied.

Well before Zuckerberg was wrestling around in jiu jitsu tournaments, or Bezos and Musk were racing each other to the stars, lived the world’s original “adventure CEO.”

James W Keyes first created the “part action, part intellectual corporate persona” as head of global giants 7-Eleven Inc and Blockbuster Video, back when those brands were at the peak of their powers. Keyes was an exemplar of professionalism, capability, courage, and corporate daring.

Now in his late sixties, The Catholic Weekly caught up with Keyes just hours after flying his very own “T-6 Texan” in perfect formation over the skies above his hometown of Dallas, Texas as part of Memorial Day celebrations.

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“It’s a blessing, I truly believe I live a blessed life,” Keyes said.

The fact that he was able to rise to the top of corporate America in the late 20th Century is a story in itself that personifies the American Dream. He didn’t have the connections, Ivy League Education (although that came later), or generational wealth as his launching pad. Instead, his navigational stars were faith, fortitude, and a well-rounded Catholic education.

“I grew up in a house without running water, without indoor plumbing. So to be able to live a life of adventure is an amazing thing. You have to treat every opportunity as a trail to explore, and let faith be your compass.”

Starting his corporate journey in the 1980’s, a decade defined by shallow excess and materialistic pursuits, Keyes went against the grain, succeeding as a committed Catholic, who lived out his faith in the boardroom.

His faith led him to believe that shareholder value and social good are not mutually exclusive, that his role as CEO of globally recognised brands provided a unique platform from which to do good.

James W Keyes as the guest of NASA for the launch of his book “Education is Freedom: The Future is in Your Hands,” in Zero-G.

“I discovered that it wasn’t necessary to impose my religious beliefs on others, but instead I could accomplish the same objectives through leading by example, letting my faith be the guide.”

Keyes said that in large, secular societies with people of all backgrounds and beliefs, this is an essential trait of a successful leader, who brings people together for a common purpose. The key is to recognise that the “tone at the top” is an essential part of leadership.

“It’s a difficult skill to master as a CEO. Large, multi-national corporations are living, breathing organisms. They have shareholders, employees, customers of all kinds. You have a responsibility to all of them to act ethically and in their interest.”

This, Keyes adds is becoming even harder in today’s world that is increasingly polarised. The clash of ideas becoming even more extreme, with corporations increasingly pressured to take an ideological stand.

“As a CEO you’re always under pressure to take a stand on whatever the social issue is of the day. The problem is, when you captain large companies, your business employs all people, your customers represent all sides. This is where being a Catholic is an advantage. Because we learn to look at all issues in a measured and compassionate way.”

He cites various examples of recent corporate advocacy, which Keyes explains ultimately ends up backfiring spectacularly when it damages brands, and the section of the public they’re isolating by taking up ideological causes.

“It’s shocking and frightening how aggressive both extremes of the political spectrum can be.”

Living out his Catholic faith, even in his corporate life, Keyes has always exalted the virtues of understanding and education.

His new book, “Education is Freedom: The Future is in Your Hands” which he launched in true “adventure CEO” style, in zero gravity with longtime friend, Apollo 16 Astronaut Brigadier General Charles Duke (Ret) explores the three challenges one must overcome and exhibit in leadership.

During his corporate career, James W Keyes was the Chief Executive Officer of some of the world’s most recognisable companies, including 7-Eleven and Blockbuster Video.

“The polarisation of society, like we see today is born from ignorance and fear.” The antidote to fear, he says “is knowledge and faith.”

Keyes coined the expression “change equals opportunity” or CEO as the most important role of Chief Executive Officer. He notes three things that have been his gift in leadership: change, confidence and clarity.

“We must understand that the world is changing and adapt to change, while remaining true to our Catholic faith. We must have the confidence not to be overwhelmed by fear, and we must have the clarity to both listen, and speak the truth with love.”

Keyes will be in Sydney next week to officially launch his book “Education is Freedom: The Future is in Your Hands”, now available to purchase on Amazon.

He will also be the guest of Most Rev Bishop Richard Umbers at the 14th Bishop’s Blend, on Tuesday, 4 June. Tickets are available now.

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