Patrolling the HR Beat

John McMahon is a workforce executive with a storied history. And we mean storied.

By Dirk Olin 
John McMahon oversees a workforce of extraordinary functional diversity. Part-time clerks managing convenience stores at midnight for $10 an hour. Grizzled, tatted-up drivers of diesel fuel delivery trucks. Even a few hotshot commodity traders, calculating logarithmic price spreads so that they can buy that new Rolex.
What operation includes such an employee mix? The Cumberland Gulf Group of Cos., which earlier this year named McMahon its senior vice president and chief human resources officer. Stretching from New England to Florida, Cumberland Farms convenience stores—typically yoked to a gas station—have dotted the roadsides for decades. In early 2010, the retailer bought its largest fuel supplier, Gulf, in a vertical merger that yields signature efficiencies.

It also yields particular workforce challenges.

But, with a long track record of creating successful programs for talent management and career development, McMahon brings an unusual—perhaps unique—dimension to his work. He’s been at the forefront of healthcare administration. He spent a number of years all the way inside the dot-com bubble. And he’s been hung in effigy.
Plus, there just aren’t that many chief HR officers who can say they spent time detailed to a federal narcotics task force.

“I come from a family of New York cops,” says McMahon, “My grandfather and father were both on the force.”
So, as he was about to get his undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Westchester County’s Mercy College in 1974, McMahon “took the test.” The result? “I worked for the Westchester County Police from 1974 to 1980. And during the last three years, I was assigned to a narcotics task force working with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency as a detective.”
Undercover? “For part of it, which was why my girlfriend started to raise some issues. We wanted to have a family, and it was getting a little dicey with me out half the night. I wanted a career change.” (McMahon and his wife, Joan, have now been married for 28 years, and they have two sons.)
The impulse to shift led him to Loral Electronics, where he leveraged his security background to manage industrial security, defense documents, and the like. Then it was on to Raytheon Corp., where he did the same thing, but also where the “head of personnel” (how quaint) asked for his help in screening and staffing 400 positions that were needed to fulfill a new contract.
“I can get information out of people,” the former cop deadpans.

In 1984, he was recruited to ITT Corp, where he served a nine-year stint. “There were some difficult times then,” he recalls. “We were in heated labor negotiations, which included a seven-month strike. I was hung in effigy. Cars were being burned.”
He’d seen worse, of course, and survived the baptism of workforce fire. But the urge for greater achievement was simmering too. Toward the end of that tenure, in 1992 McMahon secured a Master of Science degree in human resource management from Upsala College. He was now ready to commence an even steeper professional ascent.
McMahon’s next big tour of duty was with Lycos, the search engine, which he joined in 1999. The Internet bubble was swelling to the bursting point, and in 2000 the company was bought by Terra Networks, internet arm of the Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica, for $12.5 billion ($17-plus billion today). The pricetag constituted a return of nearly 3000 times the company’s initial venture capital investment and about 20 times its initial public offering valuation. The merged operation was renamed Terra Lycos. But for McMahon, all that churn meant one major reality: “I was in Madrid—back and forth every six weeks—for three years.”
In 2005, he went to Fischer Scientific, which he calls “my one swing and miss.” Why? “It was just a disconnect, they’d just made a big acquisition, which didn’t bother me because I’d done M&A work before, but their real plan was to sell, which they did a year later.”

This led to “another whole new experience,” at UMass Memorial Health Care. “Their work was wonderful, but there was not an iota of business acumen, so it was not that interesting—except for seven different union negotiations.”

McMahon’s last stop before his current posting was at Arrow Electronics, which was a major challenge. “They had no HR systems or processes in place. You were relegated to an administrative responder. We built a global talent suite and strong leadership brand. But the CEO wanted to move the company to Colorado, and McMahon was more interested in returning to Massachusetts.

At Cumberland Gulf, he now oversees 7,000 employees (only a sliver from the oil side). And, navigating a merger that’s just under three years old, he still has his work cut out for him.
“Things are moving forward very quickly,” he says. “We have transitioned from the planning stage to the action stage. We have repositioned HR at Cumberland Gulf as a proactive and strategic function to support and accelerate overall business success. We have rolled out an intensive three-year plan across all business units under the heading, ‘Fueling success through our people.’ We have also significantly grown the human resources senior management team.”
Which means what, in terms of making or buying HR services?

“We are in the process of evaluating all of the work performed across the department,” McMahon says. “Our plan is to outsource as much as we can to enable the HR team to focus on strategic functions that support the growth of our company.”
It’s also meant putting in some time on the road. “I’ve been visiting the stores, riding with managers, going to diesel terminals, meeting with drivers, visiting a 500,000-square-foot warehouse of 500,000. It’s all about learning the processes and seeing what people are doing. Without that, I have no context for what I do.”
It’s all about staying plugged in. “I love being with different workforce types. Upscale, downscale, my background is with all sorts of people, and I like it.”
Which, again, includes those sharpies tracking the markets. “We have five commodity traders,” McMahon says. “These individuals closely monitor and analyze the traded oil and gas market and the company’s position throughout the day. They keep abreast of all relevant developments throughout the day. They also execute trades to and from suppliers within the energy space and buy futures and hedge purchases and sales as appropriate. They communicate and negotiate deals with trading counterparts and brokers, and communicate with our wholesale and retail groups to ensure daily needs are adequately supplied, review existing contracts, sales and analyze future sales projections to determine appropriate volumes and amounts of product to purchase.”
All in a day’s work for McMahon. And at least he doesn’t have to go undercover to watch those

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