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Hatching Innovations

By Kevin Kipp

J. Carter Williams
Manager of the Chairman’s Innovation Initiative
The Boeing Company


Nice work if you can get it. Not only is Carter Williams thrilled that he’s helping create jobs, his dad would be proud of what he’s doing.

As manager of the Chairman’s Innovation Initiative—essentially a company-wide in-house business incubator—at Boeing, Williams and his team look for ideas and practices inside Boeing that might make it as a stand-alone business.

“My father was a corporate lawyer specializing in M&A for a well known firm in New York,” Williams says. “We’d sit at the dining room table on Friday nights, and he’d ask our opinion about what we would do on one or another of his billion dollar deals. He always reminded us how important it was to think about the jobs.”

That was back in Rye, N.Y., and was part of an education that included boarding at Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., and degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute— mechanical engineering—and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

In 1989, between earning his bachelor’s and MBA, he began his career with Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas then, on the F/A-18 program. Although MIT (and some other opportunities) distracted him in the ’90s, Williams jokes, “At age 35, I’m a virtual lifer at Boeing.”

In other positions at the company, Williams has been involved in engineering, manufacturing and R & D.

Boeing materials say The Initiative taps employees’ “talents and creativity...to develop new solutions for our current customers and new customers for current technology.”

If somebody at Boeing has an idea that he or she thinks could make it in the market place, Williams and his colleagues get involved, “evaluating the strategy, and helping write the business plan.”

Less than 2 percent of what The Initiative team reviews will ever be spun out, Williams says, “but about half of what we look at will be reintegrated somehow into the current enterprise. We get a lot of good ideas and suggestions for operations as we vacuum up business ideas.”

Another benefit inside: “People feel better about pitching things to their bosses. They like the company better even if we didn’t select their ideas. They feel they’re better for the experience and more effective in their careers.”

The Initiative, Williams believes, will help engender an entrepreneurial culture at Boeing: “We’re aimed at the white spaces between our businesses, and we look for individuals who are falling between the cracks...people who have a hard time explaining their ideas in the context of the current business. Instead of getting lost, we create an avenue for them to pursue something that creates value while being cool.

“Nobody’s doing anything wrong,” he adds, “but sometimes it’s as though they’re explaining an ‘orange opportunity’ in an ‘apple operation.’”

Williams acknowledges his work resembles 3M’s vaunted new product research & development, “but they keep [innovation] inside the company. They look at it from a sales and revenue perspective. We appreciate it for its contribution to the entrepreneurial culture and look at it from a perspective of return on equity, like a venture capital firm.”

He wouldn’t name his favorite innovation or idea so far “You ask me to pick my favorite child?” but his first-born is AVCHEM, a company that serves manufacturers by managing chemicals and hazardous materials (labeling, documenting, reporting, handling and disposing of paints, sealants, adhesives, lubricants) in compliance with EPA and other regulations.

“Mark Reighard is now president & CEO of his own company, instead of a manager,” Williams says. “He’s working three times as hard and having 10 times as much fun...and making more money, too.”

He says his road to honcho started with a white paper, followed by drafting and redrafting a business plan, and a make-it/break it presentation: “It’s called the Gate 3 Review. It’s one of the stressful days you always remember. That’s where you get the authority to spin out the company.”

Along the way, Reighard says, “The Initiative provided the technical assistance in areas you don’t know about. Should we be a C-corp or an LLC? And The Initiative helps with financing. A guy like Carter also provides contacts in the real world, along with guidance and networking in the business community.”

AVCHEM opened its doors in June 2001, and now employs 23. Boeing has a minority equity position; management has the rest.

“What we are seeing is that even though people are successful in the company,” Williams posits, “there is more potential in the company that could be brought to bear. Mark is more productive and happier.”

Williams wants his team’s experience applied “to the culture of Boeing...to make people happier in their jobs, to want to contribute their talents, and to be rewarded financially for making Boeing more successful.

“Many people think those variables are hard to get in line,” he says. “Fundamentally I think they’re wrong. I’m not sure what the secret sauce is, but if you approach the decision-making differently, if you stop saying it can’t be done, that’s the first step.”


Kevin Kipp runs Bubble Communications, a creative services and community relations firm in St. Charles.
 

 

 


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