An Interview with Phil Brandt

CEO, AAIM Employers' Association

Phil Brandt was recently chosen to be the chief executive officer of AAIM Employers’ Association, replacing Ray Edwards, who retired after nearly seven years with the organization. Brandt has more than two decades of experience as a human resources executive and strategic business partner to executive and operational leadership teams in both domestic and global business environments. In the last decade, he has held senior leadership roles at Patriot Coal Corp., GKN Aerospace and Nestle Purina PetCare Company. He is a graduate of Central Missouri State University and earned his MBA at Lindenwood University.

Tell us a bit about your background.
I spent most of my years growing up in Missouri, with a lot of summers in the central Illinois area in Mount Olive along Route 66, so my interests are very rooted in all the things great about the Midwest. I was educated at Central Missouri State in Warrensburg and set some scoring records on the football field for kicking field goals. Today, I’ve been happily married to my wife, Angie, for 20 years, and we have three awesome kids, Dominic, Joshua and Maria.

How has your career path led to your current position as CEO of AAIM Employers’ Association?
Having had a background in human resource management, as well as practical and strategic leadership roles both locally and globally, has allowed me to understand the needs of employers regardless of shape and size. I had been an actual member of AAIM for more than 20 years, so I consistently valued what it provided me and the HR departments I led. When the position became available, I knew I had to pursue it. It’s been quite a ride, and I’m so grateful to now be leading the organization for which I’ve been such an advocate.

Tell us about some of your past leadership roles.
I have been very lucky to work with some of the smartest and brightest leaders in several industries. My career started like it does for most college graduates: as an individual contributor doing entry-level tactical work. I was fortunate to quickly move up the ranks of management and eventually served in roles at the top levels of leadership. Before the age of 40, I was promoted to a senior vice president position leading a multi-billion-dollar global aerospace business. For the most part, I was focused on growth, deploying strategies organically or through acquisitions. I’ve always enjoyed developing organizational solutions to complicated challenges in a practical manner.

How familiar are you with the Peoria area?
As I mentioned, I spent a lot of summers in central Illinois. I became very familiar with many small cities around the area, including Peoria. As a big hockey fan, I’m familiar with the Rivermen and their connection to the St. Louis Blues. In addition, GKN, where I served as director of HR, was a big supplier to Caterpillar.

Describe the reach of AAIM Employers' Association and how the organization is structured.
We have a strong reach throughout Missouri and Illinois, and at times, we have a presence in communities well beyond those boundaries. Our headquarters is in St. Louis, and we merged our efforts with Peoria’s Employers’ Association in 2009 and have enjoyed the benefits of combining our shared mission. The sum of our parts has made us a much stronger service provider as one organization. I think the strong consensus is that this has been a very good experience for both organizations and a true comprehensive resource for both sets of members now combined.

What are the top services AAIM EA can offer businesses? How are your offerings tailored to the size and specific needs of any given company?
I think most professionals know us for our top-tier training programs and the expertise of our HR-related consultants. This reputation starts with our popular answer line and continues with our HR consulting practice, our work in compensation, benefits, background checks and drug screens, and our exemplary recruiting services. But our real strength comes from the ability to deliver solutions to unique challenges. For example, AAIM EA has been tapped to assist the St. Louis Police Department in a comprehensive internal search for their next chief of police. We’re delighted to serve the greater St. Louis community by assisting this important member in the process of making this important selection. It really showcases a great deal of what we can do for our members in one important case study.

In your opinion, what has been the biggest change in the HR field over the last five years?
I think the collective knowledge at AAIM EA would answer that the changes in healthcare for employers (as they relate to benefits) have been vast in just the last few years. The second is the impact the economy has had on the growth plans of employers and the disruption it has caused inside companies. Those two together can create situations we’ve been reading about in the news, in which several major restaurant chains suggested strongly that they may split full-time positions into part-time positions to avoid the parameters of the healthcare reform act. These are the unintended consequences of complicated legislation and provide many pitfalls for sustained growth in the economy.

What do you foresee as the biggest change in the next five years?
As baby boomers retire, there will be a much smaller workforce at the age when companies typically promote people into leadership. The demographic reality, as of 2010, is that there are 26 million fewer people between the ages of 34-45 than people between the ages of 46-65. The challenge lies in finding talent with the education and skills that will be needed to fill retiring positions. AAIM EA teaches four strategies in attracting and retaining talent: succession planning, retention strategies, knowledge management and knowledge transfer. We’ve done a lot of research in this area, and we consult many of our member companies. This is something we’ve termed “talent wars.” There’s much more information about this on our website.

Tell us why you believe we are on the cusp of a hiring explosion in 2013.
I think that without a doubt, there’s been reluctance by companies to invest in human capital. In short, they won’t hire to facilitate growth because they’ve been somewhat profitable by hedging a bit. Employers tell me they are concerned by the uncertainty of the direction of the economy and which party’s agenda will be implemented after the election. I believe now that the election is decided, companies will move forward with investment, led by a wave of optimism that will be hard to ignore.

Is this forecast for the country at large?
Generally, my thoughts are about the country at large, but different states are either struggling or succeeding based on specifics about their key industries and the regulations that inevitably go along with them. There’s a big disparity between states like Nevada, with 12-percent unemployment, and South Dakota at four percent—so one size clearly does not fit all.

What should be the top priority for the next president in terms of addressing the economic challenges facing business in this country? What about the state level?
The pendulum of regulation and red tape on business swings back and forth. Many of our members tell me they are spending too much of their day navigating through numerous regulations imposed on them by Washington DC, and to some degree, state governments. We should remember that all big businesses were once small businesses—from Sears to Apple to Express Scripts to Caterpillar. We need to continue to support and nurture small businesses so that they may grow into the big employers of tomorrow.

My sense about Illinois is that state leaders, from the governor’s office to the state legislature, have got to make a strong commitment to business in the state. We’ve seen major corporations in Peoria communicate their concerns about the fiscal health of the state, recent tax increases and the commitment to the overall business climate. These items are not small things and have got to be addressed to shore up employment and give confidence to Illinois business owners. The good news is that these are very strong companies that will prevail over the long term.

What is in the works for AAIM EA next year? What is your vision for the organization?
We’re prepared to help employers with their next explosion of growth. We’re looking to design our programs and services to serve different segments of their businesses. From a 20-person company to a 200-person company to even 2,000, AAIM EA sets in place the principles and programs to serve across that wide spectrum. We have an on-demand model that helps employers avoid unnecessary cost and receive the direct services they need. We’re very excited about the future in 2013 and beyond. iBi