The most sardonic Procter & Gamble Co. vets can't find a snide thing to say about him. But in what could be the toughest section of a final exam before becoming CEO, it falls on Mr. McDonald, vice chairman-global operations, to fire around 6,000 synergy victims in P&G's $57 billion acquisition of Gillette Co.
"We're going by the principle of fielding the best team," Mr. McDonald said, ironically enough at a London reunion of P&G alumni whose ranks he's about to decimate. "We want to take the best people from Gillette. And we're going to separate the people from P&G who are the lowest performers."
This is no old-fashioned P&G takeover in which the acquired company gets disemboweled while P&G managers grab key posts. Nor is it like the genteel restructurings of years past, with generous voluntary packages that often allowed accomplished managers to get on with their consulting and startup-company careers. Neither P&G nor Gillette is offering any voluntary separation packages, other than to high-ranking Gillette managers covered by change-in-control provisions in their contracts.
Mr. McDonald oversees administrative services and regional market development organizations that handle sales, local marketing and media in the U.S. and around the globe. He acknowledges that this is where 70% of the Gillette integration work will fall. So Mr. Nice Guy by necessity becomes the primary hatchet man.
Based in Cincinnati, he spends some 90% of his time traveling. One goal is to meet as many of the people he'll be firing as possible. "I don't want to make a decision about someone's future," he said, "without at least meeting them face to face."
He's also trying to do it without undoing P&G's progress in making itself less of a bastion for folks like Bob McDonald. More than half of P&G's top 50 managers now come from outside the U.S., and one of Mr. McDonald's top competitors to be CEO is a woman-Vice Chairman Susan Arnold.
"We're much more diverse than Gillette," he said. "Gillette's leadership tends to be mostly men, mostly American and mostly centered in Boston."
The pressure is also on Mr. McDonald, 52, to deliver something P&G has done only once before in more than a dozen major acquisitions over the past 20 years-significant top-line and market-share improvements. He's counting on complementary strengths of the U.S. in markets like Eastern Europe and Gillette in India and Brazil to help.
If anyone can pull off firing thousands while remaining popular, it's Mr. McDonald, former colleagues said. Even in a P&G with such well-liked bosses as former Chairman-CEO John Pepper or current Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley, Mr. McDonald stands apart as having no detractors.
Mr. McDonald is "very smart, supremely principled, and the most organized and disciplined person
on earth," said David Diamond, a marketing consultant and former brand manager alongside him in P&G's laundry business. "He's completely focused and not sentimental ... and people will think [the layoff decisions are] OK because it will not be about politics."
Mr. McDonald finished 13th in his class at West Point in 1975, serving in the Army the following five years while getting his M.B.A. at the University of Utah. At P&G, he's moved up mostly through the laundry business, though he's also had the assignment that's become a sign of ascendancy for future CEOs: running the Kobe headquarters in Japan.
"All of that stuff comes through with Bob McDonald without any of the arrogance or negative baggage you might think of when you use the term military," Mr. Diamond said. "I was the one from the liberal, Jewish, New York family. If anyone should have hated him, it would have been me. And I love the guy. ... The hardest thing is that it takes a few months before you believe it's really true. But it's genuine. He's not just doing it to get ahead."