But read between the lines: There’s more to his success. While luck played a role, so did hard work and alliance building.
WS: Were you ambitious early in your career?
Hannah: It wasn’t ambition so much as the nature of my work. When I got out of college, I was a public accountant for nine years. In public accounting, you either move up or out. It’s not like you can stay a senior accountant for good.
WS: So you chose “up” over “out?”
Hannah: Reliance was a client of ours. I had worked on its accounting for a few years when one of our other accounting managers left our firm. That left me as the main accountant working with Reliance, and I got more exposure to its senior people. Had that manager not left my firm, I may never have had a chance to work so closely with Reliance and ultimately join the company.
WS: So it was fate?
Hannah: At that point, yes. I started at Reliance as chief financial officer. But I tried to learn and listen, and that helped me do well.
WS: Can you give an example?
Hannah: In the early going we were expanding, and I recall meeting with a business owner to negotiate our buying his business. I didn’t say a word the first few meetings. I had never been through this before, so I let him tell me what he wanted. Pretty soon, I found myself doing more and talking more because I understood more. I began to say more only when I could make a contribution.
WS: When you meet your employees, can you tell which ones will rise faster?
Hannah: Not always. I look for people who are excited about what they’re doing. They get me excited, too. With over 4,000 employees in 21 states, it’s hard for me to get to know everybody. So I ask managers to identify the people who they think are good candidates to advance. I’ll make a special effort to meet those people when I visit.
WS: What makes certain employees stand out?
Hannah: First impressions are important, and some people seem comfortable expressing themselves. Sometimes—based on my position— people are nervous around me. But I’ll usually ask an icebreaker like “How’s business?” and see what they say.
WS: What’s a good answer?
Hannah: Something business-related that captures my attention. If an employee is turning inventories more often, tell me about it. Give a few quick facts. Calculate how your work affects the bottom line, and let me know the good news.