Wal-Mart to Wall Street Dream Dies as Citadel Securities CEO Out

  • Kevin Turner left job just months after joining from Microsoft
  • He started as Wal-Mart cashier, moved up to Ken Griffin’s firm

Kevin Turner

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Kevin Turner, who joined Citadel Securities as chief executive officer after a career that led from Wal-Mart cashier to the top-paying job at Microsoft Corp., is leaving the market-making firm just months after he was hired.

Peng Zhao, previously global head of market making, replaced Turner as CEO, said company spokesman Zia Ahmed. When it was announced in July that Turner was coming aboard, Zhao was promoted to chief scientist, a role created specifically for him. Zhao has worked at Citadel Securities since 2006.

At Citadel Securities, the trading firm affiliated with Ken Griffin’s $26 billion hedge fund, the 51-year-old Turner joined an industry unlike the retail and tech worlds where he had thrived. The company says it handles about 18 percent of volume in the U.S. stock market, accounts for more than one-third of all retail stock orders, and matches more than one in five of all U.S. listed options trades.

“This is the biggest opportunity I’ve ever been a part of in terms of reshaping an industry,” Turner said in an interview in November at the 35th floor of Citadel’s Chicago headquarters.

Business Gurus

Turner, a voracious reader of business-strategy books, tears through them faster than Amazon Prime can deliver them. And at the behemoth companies where he’s been in charge, he frequently invited gurus to come in and speak. When he was an executive at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., he brought in Jim Collins to help his executives learn how to go from “Good to Great.” Later, as chief operating officer of Microsoft, Turner tapped Deepak Chopra to discuss “The Soul of Leadership.” Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success was the latest title to earn Turner’s recommendation. Within his first 100 days as chief executive officer of Citadel Securities he’d handed out the book to senior executives.

That wide range of authors and philosophies proved little help, however, as Turner failed to navigate one of the trickiest straits in finance: growing a business at Citadel while not being named Ken Griffin.

Other Departures

Turner’s departure was the second executive loss for Citadel Securities in recent weeks. Tian Zeng, who led Citadel Securities into the market for credit-default swaps, left earlier this month after a year at the firm. Griffin has seen executives come and go in short order before. In 2008, he hired former Merrill Lynch & Co. executive Rohit D’Souza to spearhead a new investment bank, and he quit a year later. His replacement, Patrik Edsparr, was ousted after seven months in the role following disagreements over business strategy and management.

Turner had pulled off dramatic career moves before. He ascended from cashier to executive at Wal-Mart, then was wooed away in 2005 to Microsoft, where he spent 11 years as COO. He’d never previously worked in financial markets. The two people who built the business Turner was shepherding at Citadel Securities, Jamil Nazarali and Paul Hamill, had years of executive experience in their fields, as well as a deep understanding of what it means to report to Griffin. Nazarali, who runs Citadel Securities’ equities and options unit, previously was an executive at Knight Capital Group, a predecessor to KCG Holdings Inc. Hamill, who heads its business in fixed income, rates and currencies, joined from UBS Group AG.

Counting the Days

A methodical boss, Turner kept track of the days he’d been on the job at Citadel Securities. One Tuesday in November, after noting it was his 70th day in charge, he looked back at how his attention to detail ensured his advance from ringing up Wal-Mart customers to helping keep the company’s books. “I was a pretty lethal auditor, because I’d worked in the stores,” he said.

Turner attended East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, taking a job as a Wal-Mart cashier. When he spotted a pretty girl coming through his aisle one day in 1986, he chatted her up, got her number, and later asked her out. They married a few years later and recently celebrated their 27th anniversary. After several promotions, Turner found himself in the auditing department, where the reports he wrote caught the eye of founder Sam Walton. On Walton’s advice, Turner moved into data processing, where he ultimately saved the retailing giant millions of dollars by writing computer code to streamline back-office systems.

As a leader, Turner liked to look for a formula for success and hold employees accountable. At Citadel Securities, he was in the process of creating and implementing a “common definition of success” to hold employees to his exacting standards.

Color Coding

That was also his strategy at Microsoft, where he was the company’s highest-paid executive. Turner managed more than 51,000 employees in 191 countries and helped to increase revenue from $40 billion to $94 billion from 2005 to 2015. He introduced color-coded assessments across 30 areas of worker performance.

Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO who hired Turner away from Wal-Mart, recalled reviewing that system with Turner. They met to discuss the Microsoft scorecard metrics over shrimp and nonalcoholic beverages -- iced tea or diet soda for Turner, seltzer for Ballmer -- at a Mexican restaurant in Seattle. Together they combed through the 30 benchmarks.

“His mantra was to pick some goals and really inspect people who aren’t making them,” Ballmer said. “He shifted the culture.”

The system wasn’t for everyone. The new focus on metrics didn’t sit well with some employees, Ballmer said. “Kevin broke a little glass when he got there in order to drive up accountability,” he said. “You can’t run an operation with too much loosey-goose.”

Even after just months at Citadel Securities, Griffin on Friday credited him with making a “lasting impact.” “Kevin has made important contributions across many areas of Citadel Securities,” Griffin said in a statement.

Asked in late November if he feels like he’s fully in control of the giant securities trading operation yet, Turner threw back his head and laughed for just a beat too long. “I am getting my arms around this business, and I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun.”

— With assistance by Saijel Kishan

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