Almost every advertisement for razors ever created captures the same moment. Towel around his neck, a man with morning stubble confronts his bathroom mirror. He is about to execute the manly act of shaving. But first, he locks eyes with his image.

Such a stock visual opens the ad for Gillette razors released in mid-January. But this new pitch goes further and explores a potent concept. For many men, the daily meeting with the mirror serves as existential reckoning. What am I doing? Where am I going? Who am I?

Procter & Gamble Co., the global consumer-goods giant, owns Gillette and developed the ad to splash chin-deep into today’s public turbulence about sexual harassment and bullying. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the ad said, men can no longer excuse bad behavior with the rationalization that boys will be boys.

The ad aired, then…BOOM.

For a few weeks, the media world set itself on fire over the ad. Offended opinion shapers barked that P&G was labeling masculinity as toxic. Reddit and Twitter commenters vowed boycotts of Gillette and other P&G goods.

P&G had expected blowback, and with its sophisticated communications force, the company could have dispatched a battalion of officials to the defense. The man who got into position, though, was P&G’s president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board of directors, David S. Taylor ’80. In a television interview while convening with business titans and political leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Taylor explained that the ad is not saying men are bad, but rather that men can be better, that men want to be better.

Arriving at a critical juncture in the company’s 182 years, the furor over the ad spoke to the foundational status of P&G as a major American commercial institution with business in 100 countries, about 95,000 employees, and $66.8 billion in 2018 sales. But the ad also said plenty about the company’s leader, Taylor, now steering P&G through fundamental structural change.

No one growing up in the 1970s, especially in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, could miss the tumult over court-ordered busing for public-school desegregation. Many families in Charlotte’s largely white Myers Park neighborhood responded by pulling their children from public education for private schools.

Howard and Bea Taylor, parents of five boys, offered that option to their third son, David, who was about to start high school. He chose the bus, which meant a half-hour ride to West Charlotte High School, with a majority African-American student population.

In his eleventh-floor office at Procter & Gamble Center in downtown Cincinnati, a space lined with P&G products, Taylor says those years “opened my eyes and broadened my field of vision to what the world had to offer.”

“You had, frankly, some fear and concern. Race relations weren’t good. There were literally riots. There were all types of tough things going on,” he says. “Then it settled out, and you ended up figuring out that they were kids just like you.”

Taylor credits his West Charlotte teachers with quickening his love of mathematics and preparing him for college. During high school, he got a summer job at the Carowinds amusement park in Charlotte, first helping to run the cable cars, then leading the teenagers operating the Thunder Road rollercoaster. He spurred his team to break ridership records.

He followed an older brother, Howard B.S.E. ’76, to Duke, joined Kappa Sigma fraternity, played intramural sports, and held down the math-and-science course load in electrical engineering. In addition to working summers at Carowinds, he drove three hours home every spring and fall weekend to work at the amusement park.

One day, a new team member reported to Thunder Road, a smart, shy Winthrop College student named Marsha Hellard. She noticed the thatch of red hair on the tall, skinny leader, but more important, his frequent laughter and friendliness.

“He had a very diverse group on his team, and all these people wanted to do well for David Taylor,” she says. “They worked hard because they wanted to do it for him.” Taylor asked her for a date, then another, and she soon knew he was the one.

Taylor quit Carowinds the summer before senior year for an internship at Procter & Gamble’s plant in Greenville, North Carolina. He went back to Duke in the fall with the offer of a full-time job upon graduation in his pocket. Taylor collected his degree and married Marsha the next month. They set up housekeeping in Greenville.

The next year, P&G brought in another young engineer to the plant. Stan Harper and Taylor are friends to this day. “He really was fantastic at motivating people and coaching people,” Harper says, “and not only coaching the people he worked with directly, but people like myself who were his peers.”

Harper recalls that when the plant plugged in its first desktop computer, Taylor wrangled an office key from the head of finance. When the young managers finished their shifts on the line, they would poke at the computer keyboard for hours to teach themselves how to do spreadsheets.

From Greenville, the Taylors moved to P&G’s plant in Cheboygan, Michigan, where their Piedmont drawls fascinated the locals. A year later, the company sent the Taylors to the Albany, Georgia, factory. Then came the step that marked Taylor as a star.

Normally, a production manager had to clock in at least fifteen years with P&G before getting the chance to run a whole plant. But with just nine years in, Taylor was picked to lead P&G’s largest manufacturing facility then, in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania, about thirty- five miles northwest of Scranton.

Janeen Lyle landed at Mehoopany as a manager just out of college, a little worried about fitting into the plant culture. In one meeting, the guys talked about their long hours, and she cringed “because I’m a young mom, and I’m going to be saying that I start at 7:30 and leave around 5:30. I began to apologize and talk about childcare. But then David jumped in and said what matters is that people get their work done, and people get it done in different ways. He probably didn’t even give it a second thought. But it was huge support from him.”

Taylor soon was known for “Davidisms” that became so familiar to his team that one manager could start the sentence, and another could finish it: Anything is possible, but not all things that are possible are smart to do. No one of us is smarter than all of us. Are you listening, or are you waiting to speak?

P&G’s career tracks are clad in steel, and changing emphasis could be risky. One day, a boss visiting from headquarters assured Taylor of his rise on the production side. But two years in Mehoopany made Taylor curious about marketing. The boss said shifting gears meant going into an entry-level job usually filled with college graduates. Six months later, Taylor did just that.

Moving to Cincinnati, P&G’s birthplace and corporate home, Taylor joined the Pampers brand account, a happy coincidence with his home life. By then, he and Marsha had three young boys, Jason, Christopher, and Brian. David changed diapers, Marsha says, because “he was interested in how the product worked.”

Jason Taylor says his father’s grueling work habits stayed at the office. “He and my mom maintained a pretty normal house. He was our dad. He’s always been fantastic at being present. He’s there with you. He’s engaged. He makes a big effort. The only way I knew if something was wrong was maybe from my mom.”

Marsha Taylor figured they were in Cincinnati for good. But as P&G’s global operations expanded, the corporate management path demanded overseas tours. In 1998, Taylor came home with a promotion: general manager of hair care in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. He knew nothing about hair products or, for that matter, Asia. He took the job.

The family moved to a neighborhood in Hong Kong that felt like a little corner of America, full of expatriates to celebrate the Fourth of July and Halloween. Taylor commuted eighty miles to P&G’s office in Guangzhou, China, on Tuesdays and came home Thursdays.

Taylor’s portfolio expanded to anti-counterfeiting, a huge issue in China, and he became a vice president. In 2001, another move loomed, but first the family had a meeting. The move to Hong Kong had been hardest on Jason, then ten. In an act of rebellion, he once swiped a lighter from a convenience store. When his parents uncovered the theft, they marched him to the store to apologize to the owner and return the lighter. “They didn’t yell,” Jason says. “There was just this profound disappointment that said more than anything else.”

Dad explained they could go home, or to Geneva, Switzerland. Now seasoned world citizens, the Taylor sons voted for the European assignment.

In 2003, the Taylors did return to Cincinnati, and over the next dozen years, Taylor rose to group president for global beauty, grooming, and health care, running about one-third of P&G. Working with him was Mindy Sherwood, who runs P&G’s business with Walmart.

“He has straight talk. He will ask: Where is the business? If the business is off track, I’ve never heard David Taylor dance around the fact that the business is not where it needs to be,” she says. Sherwood calls Taylor a lighthouse leader, who “will show you the beacon of where you have to go, in smooth water and in rocky water. In some very rocky water, he is positively but realistically focused on where we need to go.”

Outside the company, Taylor shouldered two interests. The Asia years awakened him to hunger around the world and in the United States. Between 2006 and 2014, he served on the board of the relief organization Feeding America. Today, he is on the board of a Cincinnati nonprofit, the Freestore Foodbank.

His second keen interest was Duke. The three Taylor sons earned Duke undergraduate degrees. Brian also earned a Duke master’s degree in environmental management, and Jason just finished a master’s in business administration. When his father speaks at the university, Jason says, “He makes the joke: ‘I would support them going anywhere, but I pay for them to go to Duke.’ ”

David and Marsha Taylor visit Durham for one or two football and basketball games a year. When P&G’s recruiter visits Duke to pan for prospects, the CEO sometimes tags along. For five years, Taylor has served on Fuqua’s board of visitors.

In July 2015, P&G’s board of directors selected Taylor, then fifty-six, as the next president and CEO, the latest leadership product in the company’s 182-year line of top executives hired and promoted from within.

Jason Taylor remembered that in family talks about the job, his father was reluctant. He didn’t want to be that public. But he also felt an obligation to the people of P&G. Janeen Lyle, his Mehoopany teammate, says Taylor’s selection was “electrifying,” the elevation of someone on the inside who seemed to know everyone and who embodied what was right about P&G.

But some people on the outside saw Taylor’s arrival in the corner office as evidence of things going wrong at P&G. Barely two years in the CEO’s job, Taylor faced a multimillion-dollar struggle for control of the company to which he’d given his life.

Nelson Peltz wasn’t the first hedge-fund investor in the past decade to complain about P&G’s performance in the marketplace. But the CEO of Trian Fund Management aimed to make a change. P&G had hit a trough. Taylor’s two immediate predecessors had dialed back on research. The company that had created toothpaste that cut tooth decay and dish soap gentle enough to clean birds pulled from oil slicks looked to be out of new ideas.

The world’s largest advertiser even sliced ad spending, an odd move for an operation dependent on keeping its goods in front of consumers’ eyeballs. P&G cut thousands of jobs and sold product lines to get leaner. Yet in 2015, sales dropped, and inside nine months, the stock price plunged from ninety-three dollars to sixty-eight dollars a share.

Perhaps the greatest long-term threat lay in the shifting sales environment, and P&G didn’t appear ready or able to adapt. For decades, P&G relied on product domination of grocery-story shelf space. But in the twenty-first century, ordering consumer staples online for front-door delivery had gone from novelty to fact of life, and P&G wasn’t responding. The markets of China and India exploded, with no bold action from P&G. Fashions changed: Many young men did not believe good grooming required shaving.

In early 2017, Peltz announced that Trian held $3.5 billion in P&G stock, or about 1.5 percent. At midsummer, Trian offered a devastating analysis that P&G’s “suffocating bureaucracy” suppressed innovation and shareholder return. Peltz would ask shareholders, most of them large institutions, to elect him to the board of directors.

In defense, Taylor said Peltz’s plan for P&G was radical and dangerous. Taylor acknowledges that P&G had been slow of foot, but he says the company was addressing its problems and focusing more than ever on innovation. The shareholders spoke in October 2017, with nearly 2 billion votes cast. In three separate counts, the lead changed hands with ever-narrowing margins. In December, the company’s directors invited Peltz to join the board.

In an appearance at the Fuqua School a year later, Taylor said it was better to have Peltz on the board rather than “on the outside saying you’re not listening.” In late 2018, P&G unveiled a reorganization that drew on Peltz’s 2017 analysis. In January 2019, Trian sold some of its P&G position.

The stock broke $100 a share again, and Taylor announced a sixty-third straight year of dividends. In April, Taylor said, “After a contentious proxy fight, we both turned the page, and we found common ground to build a better relationship for P&G.”

Stan Harper, Taylor’s old friend, says, “You don’t see Mr. Peltz in the news saying bad things about the company or David.”

The company also began publishing an annual citizenship report on such initiatives as hunger relief, the provision of clean water, and global efforts to cut back on plastic waste. Taylor also emphasizes diversity and inclusion in the company, a legacy of riding the bus to high school.

“We have figured out and embraced the idea of creating an environment where everybody can show up every day, authentically, and contribute and value difference, as opposed to fear difference,” he says. “I have to believe, to some degree, even back to my days at West Charlotte, you either reject or you embrace difference.”

Advertising got a boost, too, but the spending of $7 billion a year reflected a fresh message about P&G’s products, and about P&G.

In 2015, while Taylor was in top leadership but not yet CEO, P&G rolled out an ad that looked more like a mini-documentary. While advertising feminine hygiene products, the “Like a Girl” pitch addressed how teenage girls need reinforcement and support. In 2017, an ad called “The Talk” was a frank comment on racism. Both ads won commercial Emmy awards.

In January, the company released the Gillette ad. The two-minute pitch, titled “We Believe,” unspools a string of uncomfortable images of boys bullying each other and men harassing or belittling women on the street and in the workplace. Many male viewers, and some women, scoffed that a razor-blade maker had no business telling men how to behave.

“We got lit up,” Taylor said in April, yet the Gillette ad delivered as intended, particularly with the under- thirty market. “They can say, ‘This is a brand that shares my values,’ that isn’t afraid to stand up and express those values.”

“If you’re values-based, at times you’ll take some heat,” he says. “But we won’t walk away from something that’s good for the long-term health of the brand.”

Every morning, David S. Taylor shaves with a Gillette razor. But one day, the next CEO of Procter & Gamble Co. will stare into a bathroom mirror at the start of the day, and the reflected image might be an African American’s. Or a woman’s. It could be the face of someone who did not spend a lifetime working in P&G. In that respect, Taylor may be the last man of his kind.

“I want to hand over a company that is producing strong results with a strategy that a board is confident in, and a leadership team that is taking it to higher levels,” Taylor says. “When that happens, I’ll be happy to retire.”

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