Teamwork and leadership have been a part of the life of James McNerney ’71 since his college days. Years after pitching for the Yale baseball team — at the same time President George W. Bush ’68 played second base — McNerney is now the CEO of 3M.
McNerney returned to Yale Thursday to speak at a Branford College Master’s Tea about his experiences working as a major business leader. About 40 people attended.
McNerney said international expansion and a culture of innovation distinguish 3M from other companies today.
“We are incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial. We are not interested in acquiring other companies, but in growing ourselves,” McNerney said. “The way we encourage growth is by allowing our scientists to evolve and control their creations, instead of redeploying them to a new place.”
A $16 billion dollar company, 3M is based in St. Paul, Minn., but serves customers in nearly 200 countries, with over half of its sales overseas. A self-declared “diversified technology company,” 3M has, since its founding in 1902, manufactured products ranging from skin-care lotions to computer circuitry. Among the company’s best-known products are Scotch tape and Post-it notes.
McNerney said he believes in “15 percent time,” a policy of giving lab workers free reign over fifteen percent of their work hours, so they can interact with other divisions of the company.
“3M values individual ideas, and what I aim to do is preserve that natural tendency for scientists to walk down the hall,” McNerney said. “For example, Post-its were the result of people walking down the hall, people in nanotechnology working with adhesive people. The adhesive in Post-its is like the Holy Grail of adhesives.”
Before becoming CEO of 3M three years ago, McNerney worked in various executive positions at General Electric, Procter & Gamble and McKinsey & Co.
Controversy emerged for 3M when studies found that a chemical in their Scotchguard stain repellant products had contaminated and persisted in the bloodstreams of workers, people who used the product, and some animals. The chemical, called perfluorooctane sulfonate, was also detected in water and air. 3M abruptly pulled Scotchguard from the market in 2000, and still faces criticism that the company knew that Scotchguard was unsafe as far back as the 1970s.
“3M is very environmentally conscious,” McNerney said. “Thirty percent of our capital investment is for environmental control — We pulled Scotchguard from the shelves as soon as we knew it contained compounds that persist in the human body, which is more than other companies which still use the same chemicals.”
Most students said they were impressed with McNerney’s talk.
“I came to the talk because there are very few people from corporate America who come to speak at Yale,” Ben Rose ’04 said. “Jim McNerney is arguably one of the best CEOs there is. I may be somewhat interested in business, but not the Wall Street variety. Probably something more like 3M, where the values of the company are similar to values of the home.”
Cristina Brito SOM ’04 said she was impressed with the way McNerney answered a question she asked about how he dealt with corruption in business dealings overseas.
“I think it’s unfortunate that more students weren’t here today to see him speak,” Brito said. “He seems to have a very natural intelligence and thoughtfulness, especially in addressing questions. I hope more business leaders feel the way he seems to.”
Joe Aphinyanaphongs ’07 said he enjoyed McNerney’s presentation but thought McNerney could have provided a fuller picture of 3M’s international corporate activities.
“The overall strength of his speech about putting actions into goals was something I definitely enjoyed. But I did notice that he tried to dance around questions about factory labor overseas,” Aphinyanaphongs said.
McNerney is a Branford College Gordon Grand Fellow.
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