Creating Value to the Enterprise

An Interview with Keith White, Chief of Safety and Security for Salesforce.com

Keith White
Keith White

EDITOR’S NOTE: Keith White, LPC, joined Salesforce.com in August 2020 after nearly twenty years with The Gap where he rose to executive vice president and chief security officer. Prior to The Gap, White held various management roles with Marshall Field’s and Target. He has played significant roles in the retail loss prevention industry as an LP committee member of the National Retail Federation, board member of the International Organization of Black Security Executives, board member of the Loss Prevention Foundation, and editorial board member of LPM.

JIM: Congratulations on your new position with Salesforce, Keith. It came as a little bit of a surprise to many in the industry given you had such a long and distinguished career in what I would call traditional retailing, dating back all the way to Marshall Field’s and then Target before The Gap.

KEITH: Thank you, Jim. Yes, my loss prevention career goes back to the Lew Shealy days at Marshall Field’s—may he rest in peace. As you know, he passed away this past December.

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JIM: Yes, it was very sad news. He was quite a legend in this business as I know you would agree. Let’s start by you telling us why you made the move to Salesforce.

KEITH: It was a combination of things. When I was approached about the opportunity, I was struck by the fact that it was a brand-new role created to evolve and transform the safety and security enterprise to match the speed and growth of the company. This was intriguing because it is rare that one gets to be part of a company that’s growing as fast as Salesforce, but at the same time to continue to build upon a safety and security program that enables and supports the growth of the business. The company sees our mandate as an integral part of their growth, given the number one value at Salesforce is trust. So that was the main attraction: to build something new in a completely different industry and to build it with a company that was aiming very high and moving very fast in a meaningful way. They aren’t just putting together widgets; they truly believe that business is the greatest platform for change.

JIM: You’ve been at Salesforce now for just about five months. In that short time, have you developed a game plan of what your role is going to be and the roles of those who might work on your team?

KEITH: Absolutely. I followed the adage “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” But given this is a business that moves so rapidly, I saw a framework starting to develop that built on what was already in place. Based on the growth of the company, I saw an opportunity to build for this evolution via the creation of four Centers of Excellence (CoE) focusing on investigations, strategic initiatives, security operations, and events. In other words, creating Olympic-sized swim lanes but making sure everyone was in the same pool with their counterparts so that there was absolute synergy, efficiency, and cross pollination wherever possible.

JIM: Have you outlined objectives and measurements for your team to achieve success?

KEITH: That’s coming. Many of the measurements for the individual focus areas were already present when I joined. My job is to consider our broader measurements with the introduction of our four Centers of Excellence, along with broader service-level agreements, while thinking about the performance of those areas in a much more global sense.

JIM: Let me ask you about today’s remote working. You’ve been managing people for thirty-five years in this business where you were mostly, I assume, sitting around a conference table speaking directly with each other. Now you’ve walked into a situation where predominantly you’ve been virtual the whole time you’ve been at Salesforce. What challenges are there for you managing new people from a virtual standpoint, as opposed to your long history of being able to eyeball these folks?

KEITH: You have to understand that this evolution of remote connection started years ago, I think the moment you start working for a multinational company, you understand that your direct reports aren’t sitting around a conference table with you physically. And if they are, it’s very rare—maybe twice a year. I’ve had people reporting to me based in India, China, and of course, Europe, who were seldom sitting across from me. This was already becoming the norm, although the pandemic accelerated this practice and literally pulled the future forward. Now I think it’s changed how we work together forever! The expectation that you have to meet in person will diminish significantly. Don’t get me wrong—I’d much rather work face to face, but I also have learned over the years that’s not always possible or the most efficient or cost effective, so this has been a real nice benefit of the pandemic.

JIM: That makes sense. When you read about the formation of Salesforce and the fantastic growth that the company has had, one of the things that jumps out is a special culture that exists for the employees who work there. Can you talk about that?

KEITH: Culture was definitely one of the company attributes that attracted me to Salesforce. They refer to an important part of the culture here as “our Ohana,” a Hawaiian word for intentional family that guides the company’s core values. It has led the company to achieve numerous accolades on best places to work lists from the likes of Fortune, Glassdoor, and more. It is tangible, and you feel it immediately when you join the company. To be honest with you, I didn’t know what to expect shifting into the tech world from retail. I knew Salesforce by its reputation, but having only been a client of technology companies, I thought they were typically more transactional. The opposite has been true. It’s very clear here that relationships come first. People really want to get to know you. They want to understand how you operate, what your value system is, and they definitely want to help and support each other in a big way. It’s very evident in the culture, and obviously the results, that relationships matter. Collaboration is critical, and a high EQ is a very desirable attribute in both industries.

JIM: Keith, you are always good at evaluating yourself first, before others evaluate you. Have you laid out a plan for how you are going to measure success for yourself? What do you want that success to look like?

KEITH: In retail, key metrics were typically focused on shortage and impact to overall revenue. My goal was always to exceed the expectations around those metrics and others that have direct financial implications. The same is true at Salesforce—it’s imperative to measure success in terms of how we impact the business. Focusing our efforts to ensure we are answering the following: Are we creating moments and opportunities where we get to play a bigger role than our on-paper responsibility, where we become not only trusted advisers but also trusted leaders? Are we brought into the loop to be consulted with because our opinion matters? Are we making decisions that unilaterally impact the business in a really effective way that’s appreciable? Do we come up with ideas and initiatives that can be codified and ultimately impact our customers’ success?

My experience has been that when we enable the business to operate in conditions that provide a competitive advantage, leadership sees that you are not just an entity that is focused on safety and security; you’re an impactful entity that minimizes disruptions, improves resiliency, and fosters a safe environment for all employees. When we create this environment, our value jumps off the paper and balance sheet. That’s what I’m carving out for the team here—a space to have a substantial, positive impact on the business where our efforts are recognized.

JIM: In your years in traditional retailing, you developed a set of leadership values and management qualities related to the disciplines of retail asset protection and loss prevention. Is it as simple as taking those qualities and putting them in place in a completely different discipline that you have at Salesforce?

KEITH: It’s never easy or simple. It just isn’t. It wasn’t easy in retail, and it’s not simple here. That’s why it’s crucial that I do my homework, that I really understand the business platform, that I dig really deep, and that I accept the partnerships being offered from peers and key stakeholders. So as I develop initiatives, they are meaningful and not done in a vacuum. I think that’s the message for everyone, regardless of industry. You just can’t assume that you know what’s best; you have to constantly listen, ping and ping, and test and test, until you get a few things right that seem to be creating value. Then you start to move to apply even more of that impactful work.

JIM: I can tell there’s a music to your step in taking on this new position and creating for yourself a second career, so to speak. It’s exciting to hear. Since we are a loss prevention publication, let me ask you for your opinions and evaluations on a few topics given your many years in retailing. How has asset protection and loss prevention changed over the years both for the better and, perhaps, for the worse?

KEITH: Let me answer that question this way: When I first joined this field, we were starting a family and people would ask me, “Would you want your kids to grow up and do what you do someday?” I would say, “Work in retail? Are you kidding me? No way.” It was not that I didn’t respect the profession, but it was just such a slog for us in loss prevention and so difficult to get the industry to pay attention to the big picture. That was in the beginning of my thirty-plus-year career. Then there was a turning point in the early 2000s, where the next generation in loss prevention wasn’t so focused on the cops-and-robbers aspect of the business. They were more focused on the balance sheet, and their voice and prominence in the C-suite became louder. They had a seat at the table and were able to influence a much broader aspect of the business.

So literally in the middle of my career, my answer changed. I would absolutely be proud of my kids to follow suit and work in the retail asset protection field because it has really transformed into a very admirable, professional, respectful profession. As a matter of fact, two of my children work in the field, and I’m really pleased to say that I was part of that transformation and worked alongside people who helped transform it. Loss prevention went from being a necessary evil, that had an office in the basement, to senior and executive vice president positions. I don’t think anyone would have predicted that thirty years ago.

As far as challenges, of course there are all kinds of stressors in every profession, whether it be the volume of work, 24/7 access, or balancing focus and the growth of expectations. However, most leaders in this business have more than loss prevention that they’re responsible for. Many of them have business continuity planning, safety, or some other area of responsibility. So they become much more of a general manager, and I think we all know that the more generalized you become, the more you lose some of the detailed specifics of past roles.

JIM: That was a very powerful answer, Keith. Thank you. Because I know a little bit about your background, you had the distinction of working and learning from some of those leaders who had made the jump to understanding the broader base of retail and how asset protection could influence it. Perhaps you would like to mention a couple of those who influenced you.

KEITH: That’s very nice of you to say. First of all, and I’m not just being gratuitous, Jim, you and Jack starting LP Magazine was a huge step toward recognizing us as a profession. Very often, I would send the magazine or articles in the magazine to my bosses and C-suite executives. The real turning point was when they sent articles to me asking, “Did you see this?” I thought, “Uh oh, I’m in trouble now if they’re reading it before I am.”

Then, of course, starting off in the business, I had people like Lew Shealy at Marshall Field’s, who I remember did the first press conference, I believe, addressing organized retail crime. We had this huge case at Marshall Field’s, and I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, our VP of loss prevention is hosting a press conference, and the press is actually showing up!” That was a big deal because we were educating the public in a joint partnership with law enforcement about organized retail crime, which I thought was very powerful.

There was a gentleman by the name of Paul Cogswell who was a great mentor. King Rogers, of course, played a great role as he was so innovative in his days at Target. Then there’s the new breed like Dan Faketty, who is really smart and sharp, and Laurie Sorensen up in Seattle has always impressed me. I think Megan Curtis at Disney is just remarkable. Joe LaRocca made a mark for himself, and John Gantenbein would also be on that list. It’s dangerous when you make me do a list like this because I’m sitting here thinking I have to be missing people. So I better stop.

JACK: Keith, when you were describing the evolution of going from a security manager to an executive VP, you were one of the primary people we were observing moving that way. And at The Gap, you kept picking up new responsibilities until you had a title that was five, six, seven words long. Did you do that purposely, or was that thrust upon you?

KEITH: It was a combination of things. First of all, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to get to a place where we can build more capacity as a leader, because once you have mastered and really understood the work in your portfolio, you should ask yourself how you can support and lead other areas. I thought, “If I get this right, this is going to qualify me for more responsibility because I think I can do other things here.” That mindset really increased both my value and the entity’s value to the organization.

Another impactful component that I once heard said by Carla Harris, vice chairman and managing director at Morgan Stanley: “The work doesn’t speak for itself.” So it’s important for you to make sure, and I did, that the work speaks. For example, if we were accomplishing our goals, and I felt we were doing it in a profound, measurable manner, I made sure people knew it. In that process, there would be additional asks for more responsibility and offerings of greater breadth and depth of my purview. I think that can be hard for some because people tend to just do the work and expect to get the reward. But that’s not enough. I had to learn that the hard way. Sometimes you have to ask. You have to say, “Hey, I think I can do more here. What else can I take on?” So it’s a combination of hard work, taking on additional responsibilities, and humble self-promotion to further growth, advancement, and prosperity.

JACK: I would suggest that it was almost impossible for you to take on those greater challenges if you didn’t have key people in place in your organization. If you agree, would you want to call out any of those people who helped you expand your role at The Gap?

KEITH: Yes, that is very true and is a super long list. When I think of people who were key for me at The Gap, of course, there’s Debbie Maples, Orlaith Murphy, Chris Nelson, and Michael Lazcano. All were just huge in their efforts in their work. There was also Bryan O’Brien and Mike Keenan. I was just really blessed to have worked with and been around literally some of the best people in the LP business. And that’s just a handful of the folks that I worked with at The Gap that supported me as I took on additional responsibility.

JIM: The blessing there, Keith, clearly is the fact that you recognize their abilities as leaders and good thinkers in this business and helped nurture them along. And that’s a two-way street. You deserve a lot of credit for that yourself, because all those people you named are people who are very recognizable in asset protection.

KEITH: Thank you, Jim. I have been blessed to work for and with a great number of wonderful people and great professionals; and given the team here, I also expect the same to be true here at Salesforce.

JIM: I would be remiss if I didn’t say the following to close out this discussion. I was very excited and happy when Jack and I decided to invite you for this interview because it gave me a chance to catch up with you and an opportunity to say that the retail asset protection world clearly will miss you as a leader for so many years, as a mentor to many others, and as an innovator in the asset protection business. You are one of those people who helped move and make the transition from cops-and-robbers and security into a real asset protection discipline. But that loss is only the gain for a company like Salesforce, which is certainly one of the leaders in business today. So our congratulations to you.

KEITH: That’s really kind of you to say, Jim. I feel honored more than you know. The reason I do these interviews, especially with you guys, is that there are others out there who are in the pipeline. And they’re wondering if this is going to work out for them because the work is tough and challenging. And the answer is, yes—a resolute yes. Yes, it’s going to work out. It’s going to be great. And I’m living proof of that. I’ve had just an unbelievable career. I’ve been able to meet such great people, and I’ve had help from a lot of great people. I haven’t done it by myself. And if it’s encouraging to anyone out there to see me doing what I’m doing, I’m all in to support in any way I can. Thank you both for what you’re doing. I really appreciate the connection and the difference you’re making.

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