Executive Profile: Boris Elisman, president and chief operating officer of Acco Brands
After arriving here from Russia as a 13-year-old, Boris Elisman developed a particular fondness for Twinkies.

Enjoying one every day, the lanky teen eventually noticed he was putting on weight. His pants, which his parents couldn't afford to replace, were getting too tight.

Elisman never ate another Twinkie.

Such is the discipline Elisman, 50, brings to his role as president and chief operating officer of Acco Brands Corp., the Lincolnshire-based company known for Swingline staplers, Kensington computer accessories and, with its most recent acquisition, Mead office products.

As the likely internal successor-in-waiting to the company's chairman and chief executive, Elisman's job is to guide the day-to-day operations of a company whose goal is to become the branded office products company within five years.

At the same time, Elisman is tasked with building a team around him so he can become more comfortable delegating some of his responsibilities and can focus not just on operations but also, when the time comes, on board-level issues and the investment community.

It's a delicate balancing act for Elisman, acknowledges Acco Chairman and CEO Robert Keller, but one that Keller said he and the board believe Elisman is up to handling. "He's very smart and very hard-working," Keller said. "He has as much or more capacity to absorb information as anyone I've ever met."

That ability to quickly digest information helped his assimilation into American culture. Elisman, his parents and his then-18-year-old sister emigrated to the United States from Russia because his parents, both engineers, sensed greater opportunities for themselves and their children here. They arrived with $400.

They settled in Providence, R.I., because a distant relative lived nearby. Elisman was enrolled in public school not knowing a word of English. For the first six months, he sat with a dictionary by his side every night as he did homework, looking up one word after another.

"With hindsight, I think it was great," he said. "It forced me to learn. It's hard going through it, but it's a great thing."

Displaying an aptitude and interest in math and science, he enrolled in Brown University, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering. After graduation, he took a job at Bell Labs for three years, designing transmission circuits. Then he applied to business schools for a master's degree in business administration.

He and his future wife, Karen Hymes, moved to California where he enrolled in Stanford University's MBA program. Halfway through the two-year program, he got an internship at Hewlett-Packard. He really never left, taking a full-time job there after earning his degree and spending 15 years with the company in different managerial roles.

At HP, Jacques Clay, who headed the company's personal computer business worldwide in the 1990s, quickly saw Elisman's strong business sense. "He has excellent analytical skills, coupled with a great instinct about what the market expected, or not," Clay said. "He was capable of grasping a business challenge from many angles, not only one."

Working his way up the ladder at HP, Elisman was content. That was, until a certain email landed in his inbox one day.

"In 2004, I got an email entitled 'president of high technology company,'" Elisman recalled. "That was the subject line. I double-clicked on that. I'm sure if the title wasn't that, I wouldn't be here. It was intriguing enough for me to double-click on it. That was eight years ago."

The company was Kensington Technology Group, the Silicon Valley-based technology division of Acco, and Elisman became its president in 2004. Before being named Acco's president in December 2010, he was president of Acco Brands Americas.

The different jobs have given him not just more insight into the breadth of the company whose products range from paper clips and shredders to cases for the latest iPhone, but also invaluable experience in managing a workforce of 6,200 people.

Elisman sees challenges and opportunities in growing both Acco's low-tech, unsexy office products category as well as its middle-tech accessories.

Key to its low-tech segment was its $998 million acquisition earlier this year of MeadWestvaco Corp.'s consumer and office products business. The purchase expanded Acco's stable of brands to include, among others, Five Star school supplies, Trapper notebooks, At-a-Glance calendars, Cambridge notebooks and Day Runner organizers.