Undercover Boss: Young CEO's Secret? Be a Sponge

Last Updated Dec 17, 2010 2:26 PM EST

Michael Rubin CEO GSI CommerceI don't know about you, but I was starting to get a little bored with the whole bungling, teary-eyed Undercover Boss thing. Every episode was starting to feel the same -- that is until I interviewed Michael Rubin (pictured). The 37-year old founder and CEO of GSI Commerce is one of America's 15 most powerful CEOs under 40, according to Forbes.

This is a guy we can all learn from. Rubin isn't just an entrepreneur. He's a true business prodigy, a rare individual with passion for business coursing through his veins and a unique ability to focus on one thing, being the best at something. Everything else is secondary.

Rubin's story is insightful and inspiring. He opened a ski shop at 14 and was running a $100 million public company by the time he was 22. This year, GSI topped a billion dollars in revenue providing ecommerce and interactive marketing services to some of America's top retailers.

Rubin is unique among CEOs I've known. During the interview he was terse, talked fast, and had little patience for BS. I got the distinct impression he was aching to get back to work. But before he did, here's what he had to say about what drives him, what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, and the leadership attributes that made him what he is today.
Tobak: How'd you get your start in business?

Rubin: I grew up in suburban Philadelphia and always had a passion and love for business. I barely made it through high school, went to college for a few weeks, and started a business when I was in my teens.

Tobak: Where do you think this passion for business came from?

Rubin: I think some people are just born a different way. I think it's inherent in my DNA, I really do. I mean my mother's a psychiatrist, my father was a veterinarian, certainly no business blood in our family. For me, even when I was a little kid, I loved selling things and buying things. And I was good at it.

Tobak: Dropping out of school to follow your passion is sort of the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates model. What do you make of that?

Rubin: I don't think it's unusual for a young entrepreneur to be incredibly aggressive and wanting to use every minute to build a business career. It's certainly a great class of people to be associated with, but I think true entrepreneurs have it in their blood. They just have no patience for anything other than that, especially when they're young.

Tobak: At some point you made a key transition from sports attire to ecommerce. How'd you come up with that?

Rubin: I think it comes from having the vision to see what's important and having the tactical wherewithal to go after it. When I was in my mid-twenties the business was fairly successful, but I knew I didn't have a chance to be number one, and I really wanted to be number one at what we did.

That's when I had the idea to start GSI as we know it today. I believed that big brand retailers would win on the Internet, but they didn't know how to approach ecommerce. We felt we could provide all the ecommerce and marketing capabilities these big brand retailers needed to be successful over startup brands.

Tobak: You've always been the boss. How'd you learn to manage?

Rubin: You know, I'm like a sponge and I believe in the school of hard knocks. I think if you ask a lot of smart questions, listen well, and have the tenacity to grow and learn, you just do it. I've also learned management and leadership skills by watching successful executives run their businesses. I've got some great leaders as clients. It's a great opportunity to learn from them.

Tobak: What distinguishes your management style?

Rubin: I think it's just like a sports team; you have to pick the best athletes.

Tobak: What's the biggest challenge for your company?

Rubin: Prioritization. We have so much opportunity, we really have to prioritize well, choose what to do and what not to do. Prioritization and picking the right athletes.

Tobak: Think you'll ever go back and finish your degree?

Rubin: I don't think they can deal with my ADD.

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Image:CBS Entertainment