After arriving here from Russia as a 13-year-old, Boris Elisman developed a particular fondness for Twinkies.
Enjoying one every day, the lanky teen eventually noticed he was putting on weight. His pants, which his parents couldn't afford to replace, were getting too tight.
Elisman never ate another Twinkie.
Such is the discipline Elisman, 50, brings to his role as president and chief operating officer of Acco Brands Corp., the Lincolnshire-based company known for Swingline staplers, Kensington computer accessories and, with its most recent acquisition, Mead office products.
As the likely internal successor-in-waiting to the company's chairman and chief executive, Elisman's job is to guide the day-to-day operations of a company whose goal is to become the branded office products company within five years.
At the same time, Elisman is tasked with building a team around him so he can become more comfortable delegating some of his responsibilities and can focus not just on operations but also, when the time comes, on board-level issues and the investment community.
It's a delicate balancing act for Elisman, acknowledges Acco Chairman and CEO Robert Keller, but one that Keller said he and the board believe Elisman is up to handling. "He's very smart and very hard-working," Keller said. "He has as much or more capacity to absorb information as anyone I've ever met."
That ability to quickly digest information helped his assimilation into American culture. Elisman, his parents and his then-18-year-old sister emigrated to the United States from Russia because his parents, both engineers, sensed greater opportunities for themselves and their children here. They arrived with $400.
They settled in Providence, R.I., because a distant relative lived nearby. Elisman was enrolled in public school not knowing a word of English. For the first six months, he sat with a dictionary by his side every night as he did homework, looking up one word after another.
"With hindsight, I think it was great," he said. "It forced me to learn. It's hard going through it, but it's a great thing."
Displaying an aptitude and interest in math and science, he enrolled in Brown University, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering. After graduation, he took a job at Bell Labs for three years, designing transmission circuits. Then he applied to business schools for a master's degree in business administration.
He and his future wife, Karen Hymes, moved to California where he enrolled in Stanford University's MBA program. Halfway through the two-year program, he got an internship at Hewlett-Packard. He really never left, taking a full-time job there after earning his degree and spending 15 years with the company in different managerial roles.
At HP, Jacques Clay, who headed the company's personal computer business worldwide in the 1990s, quickly saw Elisman's strong business sense. "He has excellent analytical skills, coupled with a great instinct about what the market expected, or not," Clay said. "He was capable of grasping a business challenge from many angles, not only one."
Working his way up the ladder at HP, Elisman was content. That was, until a certain email landed in his inbox one day.
"In 2004, I got an email entitled 'president of high technology company,'" Elisman recalled. "That was the subject line. I double-clicked on that. I'm sure if the title wasn't that, I wouldn't be here. It was intriguing enough for me to double-click on it. That was eight years ago."
The company was Kensington Technology Group, the Silicon Valley-based technology division of Acco, and Elisman became its president in 2004. Before being named Acco's president in December 2010, he was president of Acco Brands Americas.
The different jobs have given him not just more insight into the breadth of the company whose products range from paper clips and shredders to cases for the latest iPhone, but also invaluable experience in managing a workforce of 6,200 people.
Elisman sees challenges and opportunities in growing both Acco's low-tech, unsexy office products category as well as its middle-tech accessories.
Key to its low-tech segment was its $998 million acquisition earlier this year of MeadWestvaco Corp.'s consumer and office products business. The purchase expanded Acco's stable of brands to include, among others, Five Star school supplies, Trapper notebooks, At-a-Glance calendars, Cambridge notebooks and Day Runner organizers.
"It gave us scale," Elisman said. "It gave us presence in Brazil and Canada. It gave us mass channels in the U.S. It gave us brands we can leverage to the Acco side. And it gave us a very talented workforce. This was a very attractive purchase for us."
The access to mass merchandisers like Target and Wal-Mart is critical to broadening Acco's exposure to consumers beyond office product superstores. Elisman said he would be very disappointed if Acco's other products don't start appearing on mass merchandisers' store shelves next year.
How does he demonstrate disappointment?
"I'm cranky," he said. "I try to manage it but I get cranky. It's a balance. You have to drive the teams for high performance and achievement and not allow them to use any excuses. But you have to be human about it and (know) that people make mistakes. If you're always pushing and pushing and pushing and never allow or accept your folks making a mistake … you will have 'yes' men. You have to allow them to fail once in a while."
The MeadWestvaco deal is expected to immediately be accretive to earnings and yield annual cost synergies of $20 million.
"They want to be one of the last companies standing in a consolidating office products industry," said Kevin Steinke, an analyst who follows the company for Barrington Research. "Overall, it was a winner."
Yet it has been a rocky road since then.
In August, amid weakening demand in Europe, Acco cut its full-year sales and earnings forecast, sending its share price down. Its stock price has yet to recover and is trading in the $6.50-a-share range, compared with its 52-week high of $13.30. Acco's market capitalization is more than $725 million.
Since being spun off from Fortune Brands Inc. in 2005 and merging with General Binding Corp., Acco has faced numerous challenges. The recession left many companies flailing, including Acco.
The company made headlines nationally in early 2009 for imposing a 47 percent pay cut on its nonunion U.S. employees for six weeks, and a lesser cut after that, rather than resorting to layoffs. While it did cut its head count, in late 2009 the company began a two-year process compensating employees for those lost wages.
Keller said he frequently is credited with earning back the confidence of customers during those difficult times. In reality, he said, the credit goes to Elisman as well. "He has earned a significant amount of respect from our customers," Keller said.
Elisman, who spends a lot of time on the road meeting with suppliers and customers, is bullish on Acco's prospects. He recently acquired 3,000 shares of the company, at an average price of $6.81 a share.
Beyond integrating the merger, the company is planning to grow its core office products domestically by snaring market share from competitors and internationally through organic growth. Elisman dismisses talk that paper-based office products are an aging, declining business as a U.S.-centric view of the world.
Kensington, meanwhile, is focused on bringing products to market quickly. It was one of the first companies to bring keyboard products to market for the iPad and most recently, cases for the iPhone 5. Acco began gathering intelligence about the new iPhone nine months before its Sept. 12 introduction. Prototypes were designed and a line of cases was manufactured to ship Sept. 12.
"When the risk is manageable, you can go ahead and take a shot," Elisman said. "You're taking some risks but the upside is you're first to market. You establish yourself with the consumer, with the trade customer and you get great benefit from that."
He acknowledges that one of the company's challenges is dealing with the greater macroeconomic trends that are out of its control. "The driver of our business is white-collar employment because white-collar employees, knowledge workers, are the ones who use office products. It also is business confidence. Right now, both are issues."
Developing his management style at HP, Clay said Elisman thrived on being able to grasp a business challenge from many angles, not just one. He also became adept at challenging others' ideas, whether they were from a peer, subordinate or boss, but diplomatically.
"He knows how to suggest that what you think of being one of the greatest ideas may not actually be," Clay said, "And he is usually doing this with a smile, or a joke, which captures your attention and alerts you that it is probably a good time to listen to what he has to say."
His wife has been by his side since they met while Elisman was at Brown, and said "Bo" remains the same as he was then — financially conservative, socially liberal and always fighting for the underdog. "On our first date, we had a wonderful time and I came home and told my sister I was going to marry him."
They did, nine years later in 1991, by eloping. "He can be somewhat spontaneous at times," Hymes said.
Elisman became a U.S. citizen in 1982. Hymes said she still feels like she's married to an immigrant.
"It defines him," she said. "He's very appreciative of everything, especially becoming American. He is very much still an immigrant but at the same time he's an American success story."
Part of that story is his focus on his family.
Three years ago, his son, Max, began experiencing coordination problems as he was boarding a flight to California with Hymes just before starting his senior year of high school. He wound up spending seven weeks in California hospitals, diagnosed with a form of encephalitis, before he returned home for four months of rehab to learn to walk again.
"Bo was (in California) all the time," Hymes said. "He would go so many nights on the red eye to be there all the time. I'm convinced today that part of Max's miraculous recovery was due to his father."
Recently, Elisman's travels have included joining Keller's meetings with the investment community. Arnold Ursaner, president at CJS Securities, Inc., said he saw the beginning of the handoff process, with Elisman playing a bigger role during presentations. He predicts Keller and the board will hand over Acco's reins to Elisman in 18 months or so.
"I think he's the assumed replacement but in an orderly manner," said Ursaner, whose firm has received investment banking fees from Acco in the past 12 months. "Here's the challenge. Keller is extremely charismatic. That's a hard thing to replace personality-wise. Boris is more cerebral, a little quieter. Bob will listen and make a decision and it's a clear decisive action. Boris may do it in a quieter, more thoughtful way. (Elisman) has proven himself a divisional winner and now his challenge will be to take it more broadly."
"Clearly he's being positioned as the internal candidate," said Keller, who declined to say when he might step aside.
"Part of the development process we've talked to Boris about is he needs to build a team that he needs confidence in because he's not going to have anywhere near the historical amount of time that he's had to focus on operations," Keller said. "Given his background and what he's had to overcome, he's clearly driven to succeed. In some people that would cause them to lose sight of their values. It hasn't in him."
Elisman refers to his childhood in Russia as his formative years, and at the time, he didn't want to move to the United States. As he got older and more reflective, he came to realize the bravery of his parents to leave everything behind and take a risk.
"I was sad to go," Elisman said. "I was leaving everything behind. Now, 36 years later, the lesson there for me is it's good to take smart risks. My parents took a big risk. From a learning perspective, it was very formative. Take smart risks. Look ahead. Don't look back."
Title: President and chief operating officer, Acco Brands Corp.
Corporate ambition: To become the branded office products company.
Family: Wife, Karen Hymes, two children. Son Max is a sophomore at Brown University. Daughter Katia is a high school junior. Lives in Lake Forest.
Down time: Family vacations and riding the Harley his wife gave him 10 years ago for his 40 birthday. "You have the wind in your face and it allows you to think clearly." He has attended the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally.
Quote: "Part of good management is being able to manage through all the layers. Very often as you go up the chain, things get filtered. I don't want that. I want both sides of the story."
Board membership: Glenwood AcademyCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times