Mike Edwards is on the hunt for his next CEO position.
He didn’t come to LeBow this week to hand out resumes, though. The former CEO of Borders and eBags unfolded tales of his life in business, along with a few key bits of clear-eyed wisdom, to several classes of Drexel LeBow undergraduates.
Students enrolled in Foundations of Business, Entrepreneurial Law and Consumer Behavior classes received a whirlwind tour – “30 minutes, 35 years” according to Edwards’ calculations – of his career since graduating from Drexel in 1983, with his various stints as a CEO as highlights.
Edwards’ remarks were honest and self-effacing, punctuated by exclamation of “wow” in both wonderment and disbelief at the highs and lows he’s traversed, particularly during the collapse of Borders in 2011.
“I learned more going through bankruptcy than I did from any of my wins,” he said. “No one loves you when you’re in bankruptcy.” Running a company through an experience like that, he added, is “more than anyone should ever bear. It’s a test of integrity in many ways.”
Edwards found greater success at eBags, where he worked to make improvements, particularly in e-commerce, that eventually resulted in the company being purchased by Samsonite. “It took a lot of hard work and research, which is really a part of the Drexel culture,” he said. “Most people aren’t willing to do that.”
Edwards highlighted other connections to his alma mater, including citing Bennett S. LeBow ’60, the University’s largest benefactor and namesake of LeBow College of Business, as a mentor and investor; LeBow served as Chairman of the Board and is also a former CEO of Borders. He also noted that his recent nomination to Drexel’s Board of Trustees stands out as “one of my top one or two honors,” alongside receiving an American Heritage Award from the Anti-Defamation League.
As for his next venture at the CEO level, Edwards says he’s researching companies for hours each day, often starting around 4 a.m. Apart from examining a company’s financials, he asks, “Are there things in it people haven’t seen? And can I control it?”
He’s looking at challenging cases in particular. “I come in when no one thinks it can be done,” he said. “I find that exciting.”
Following this frank and wide-ranging talk, Edwards weighed in on larger business-world issues, like the battle for supremacy between Amazon, Google and Facebook, while answering a lively stream of student questions.
Jon Gulardo, a business and entrepreneurship major, had a front-row seat for the talk. “I thought it was incredible. It’s really rare to hear someone of that high caliber,” he said. “I wish more students could have heard it.”
Natalie Pedersen, assistant professor of legal studies, hosted Edwards during her Entrepreneurial Law class. She was encouraged by both the quantity and quality of the students’ questions. “He was speaking to an audience that’s interested in starting their own businesses, so for them, I think he was very relatable,” she said. “It’s amazing for students to hear from someone at that high a level who’s job-searching himself.”