Ricardo Nunez | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Taking a Genuine Interest
By Robert Green
The concept of critical success factors was first developed by McKinsey & Company in 1961. Extensively pursued, these critical success factors are those few things that must go well to ensure success for a manager or an organization. Ricardo Nunez, the General Counsel of HD Supply, believes that his career success has been greatly enhanced by a factor that often gets overlooked – taking a genuine interest in others. “Hard work, execution and constant learning are important,” he says, “but taking a genuine interest in others helps to drive performance and enhance team dynamics - and it’s certainly more pleasant.”
Ricardo Nunez was born in Coral Gables, Florida and grew up in the Coral Gables area except for a brief stint in the Bahamas from age four to seven, necessitated by his father’s business. He attended an exclusive private school, the Gulliver Schools, whose students have included many well known individuals such as pop singer Enrique Iglesias and the children of Governor Jeb Bush, among other celebrities. Although he participated in team sports, boating and business were his primary interests as a child. From the age of 11 he sold everything from cinnamon toothpicks at school, to imported jewelry and flower pots door to door. In the summers, he mowed lawns and tarred driveways.
His strongest subject in school was always math. He participated in two to three team sports per year including football, soccer and track and field, and took martial arts lessons from middle school through high school. Water sports – fishing, boating and skiing - were his main passions, however. He one day caught 125 mahi-mahi and three amberjack with his brother and father, and at the age of 12 captained the family boat from Miami to the Bahamas with his 11 year old brother. “It took 12 hours instead of the usual four and a half, “ he says, “but we had five to eight foot seas and were dodging water spouts the whole trip.”
Ricardo has two brothers but, as he says, the family “always seemed bigger to me.” His grandmother lived with the family and “they had an endless number of cousins, both real and honorary.” Ricardo’s parents had migrated from Cuba in 1960 and became part of the tight knit Cuban community in Miami in which everyone was in the same boat – essentially starting from scratch. He recalls the many sacrifices his parents made for him and his brothers, especially in the area of securing the best possible education for them, and that has contributed significantly to who he is today. Much of his community work revolves around the welfare of children and education.
When it came time to decide on college, Ricardo knew that he was primarily interested in business and accordingly wanted to apply to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, but was discouraged by his high school counselor. “She told me not to waste my money on applying, that I wouldn’t get in,” he says, “so I applied anyway and was accepted.” Unsurprisingly, what he liked most about college was the variety of people that he had the opportunity to meet. “We had people from all over the world with different backgrounds and interests,” he says, “it was great.” He enjoyed his classes, felt the professors were all first rate and found time to indulge in the rich cultural history of Philadelphia where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and signed. During his classes on entrepreneurship, he had the opportunity to consult with business men and women who were running their own companies. He played Rugby for Penn for two years. After graduation, Ricardo briefly considered becoming a commodities broker in New York but changed his mind after being accepted into law school at Columbia University. “I thought that if I went to work first, I would never go to law school,” he said.
As with college, what Ricardo liked most about his law school experience was the people he met who were “all uniquely talented and interesting in different ways,” he says.
After successfully completing law school at Columbia, Ricardo went to work at the prestigious Miami firm of Steel Hector & Davis (now a part of Squire Sanders). Starting off as a real estate, land use and legislative attorney, his practice grew over time. He eventually moved to a boutique firm and was assigned to work two days a week at the offices of firm client Burger King Corporation. “I liked working on site for Burger King a lot,” says Ricardo, “it gave me a taste of what working in house would be like.” After five years in private practice, he was asked to interview with Esso Inter-America, Inc, the Latin America subsidiary of Exxon Corporation, for an in house counsel position. The historic company had been founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1882 as part of the Standard Oil Trust and concentrated on oil refining and distribution. Moving to Esso, Ricardo worked in a very dynamic role on everything relating to their Latin America downstream operations, even “helping to draft legislation for the country of Nicaragua.” He performed so well that he was asked to move from Miami to Dallas to work directly for Exxon’s General Counsel. “It was a great opportunity, but I couldn’t make the move to Dallas at the time - for personal reasons,” he says, “and felt compelled to resign.” But that same day, he got a call regarding an opportunity with GE Energy based in Miami.
The move to GE required a lot of travel but also put Ricardo in the middle of some very important work. During this time, he became an American Airlines Lifetime Gold Member doing work in Latin America and globally. He loved the work. One three day assignment in Paris turned into three and a half months. In his first $1 billion plus merger & acquisition deal, Ricardo was asked to summarize in English a number of contracts written in Spanish and French. “Being multilingual turned out to be a valuable tool in my experience with GE,” he says. In 1999, Ricardo became head of Global Compliance and Supply Chain for GE Energy. The position was based in Atlanta but Ricardo was allowed to commute from Miami, which he did for over a year before moving with his family to Atlanta.
Although reluctant to move to Atlanta, Ricardo and his family soon came to love the city. By 2005, he knew that career growth at GE would require relocation, which neither he nor his family wanted to do. But that same year he received a call from Home Depot’s then General Counsel, Frank Fernandez, about an exciting opportunity to become its Vice President of Legal Business Operations. In this position, he would have the chance once again to support former GE executive Bob Nardelli, who was then Home Depot’s CEO. Ricardo met with Mr. Fernandez and felt the opportunity would be an exciting challenge. He moved to the Home Depot that same year.
Ricardo’s new job at the Home Depot was a big one. His responsibilities basically covered all operations, excluding litigation (commercial and employment), real estate and M&A. Consequently, he found himself dealing with intellectual property, merchandising, environmental health and safety, loss prevention, advertising and international work including import and export. He also helped open the Home Depot’s first stores in China. While the variety of work was exciting from the beginning, his tenure did start with a cautionary note: his boss, the General Counsel, pulled him aside and told him that he was replacing a beloved fixture of the legal department of many years, Reggie Hedgebeth, who had recently left to become General Counsel of Circuit City. Ricardo was advised that he would encounter obstacles winning over some members of his new legal team because, as the General Counsel told him, “you are coming from the outside, and Reggie was loved.” While hearing what his boss had told him, Ricardo was as unconcerned about his warning as he had been by his high school counselor’s warning not to apply to Wharton. “I just ignored it and went about my work as usual,” he says. Many people with the company were curious how things would turn out.
Within four months, Ricardo had won over his new legal team and, even the attorney expected to be the toughest challenge, had reported to the General Counsel that she really liked Ricardo and took back all the things she had said about being apprehensive. “I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary, instead just did my usual work,” says Ricardo, “but that included taking a genuine interest in each individual on my team. It was important to understand their motivations and concerns. The most gratifying moments of my career have been the affirmation – and reaffirmation – that taking a real interest in others leads to camaraderie and a great working relationship. I can’t imagine working any other way.”
In addition to his other duties at the Home Depot, Ricardo was asked to support the HD Supply business. HD Supply was the Home Depot’s separate unit that focused on supplying contractors and other businesses. While supporting HD Supply, the Home Depot decided to separate from HD Supply to focus on sales to the consumer market. Ricardo was asked if he wanted to move with HD Supply and become its General Counsel. Ricardo was both excited and honored – his first General Counsel job would be with a Fortune 500 company. He also saw it as a great opportunity. “I would be building a legal team from scratch and putting in place all legal processes and procedures,” he said. He decided to accept the challenge and move with HD Supply. The company was purchased by Bain Capital, the Carlyle Group and Clayton, Dubilier & Rice in August 2007.
“Because we were being purchased by private equity firms I knew that the team I put together would have to be incredibly efficient,” he says. “My secret sauce for dealing with this requirement was to pick people who were both great lawyers AND team players. So we have a very diverse group that functions very well together.” Ricardo fosters this culture of teamwork with teambuilding and fun. “We do a charity related teambuilding exercise every year,” he says, “taking a day to work as a team for Toys for Tots or the Atlanta Community Food Bank, among other excellent organizations. We usually find a way to make the work a friendly competition as a way to have fun.”
Ricardo’s attitude on management is valued at the company and he is often asked to speak to new managers at HD Supply during their training. He advises them to focus on three fundamentals when dealing with all people, but especially junior team members: 1) treat everyone with respect; 2) be compassionate; 3) remain humble. “These actions are a requirement to having a genuine interest in others,” he says, “and you have to have all three – otherwise, you can’t be truly genuine.”
The company went public in 2013 but is still majority owned by its private equity investors. The Home Depot is a passive investor in HD Supply, currently owning less than 10% of the company. Working with HD Supply management, Ricardo had authority over all legal aspects of the IPO and has continued to be extremely busy since. “We are actively moving toward having an independent board of directors and have added three independent board members since going public,” he says. “Also, we have had seven funding transactions involving over $8 billion in debt to extend the debt structure and lower interest rates over the past two years.”
HD Supply today has approximately $9 billion in annual revenue and approximately 15,000 employees in over 600 locations in the US and Canada, and Ricardo sees a lot of excitement as the company works to achieve its full potential. “I enjoy being a part of my company and working with all the people here,” he says. “I can confidently tell you that my legal team is as talented a group of lawyers as I have ever known. It’s an all-star team and I’m honored to be working with them. And the whole company is constantly trying to get better at what we do. It’s an exciting challenge.”
Ricardo spends a fair amount of time mentoring college students who are preparing for a career in law. This work includes hiring one summer intern each summer who has shown an interest in the law and involving that intern in real life work experiences. He also spends time helping them to understand the value of a legal education and helping them move toward a decision on whether or not it would make sense for them.
Asked about hobbies, Ricardo says that when he is not working, he is spending time with family. The majority of his free time is dedicated to attending the sporting events of his children, or target shooting with his kids. He does still get away on an occasional fishing trip. About 6 years ago, during a spring break trip with his family to Costa Rica, he had quite an exciting fishing experience. While fishing aboard a chartered 52’ Hatteras with his then 14 year old son and three of his son’s school friends, the boat caught fire 12 miles off the coast in the Pacific and they were forced to go overboard. As they floated in the water, the entire boat became enveloped in flames and began to sink. The fire set off three minor explosions, one creating a hole in one side of the boat. “From the moment we first spotted the smoke to the moment I asked the kids to jump off the vessel, a lot was happening. What I remember most, however, is how poised and attentive the kids were. In addition to the life preservers we all got before jumping, my son was able to find a couple of bumpers that would assist our flotation.” They were rescued after about 45 minutes in the water by another boat that spotted the smoke from shore and decided to go out and see what was happening. “We were very grateful that these North Carolina fishermen came to our rescue. During the entire ordeal, no other boat came out.” On the positive side, Nunez recounts, “the kids all had good college essay material.”
Married since 1989 to wife Carmen, Ricardo has three children – Ricky, age 21, will graduate from the University of Georgia this year. Alessandra, age 19, is a sophomore at Vanderbilt and Daniel, age 10, is in 4th grade at Westminster. The family resides in East Cobb.
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