By Eric Wright
Even after 120 years, Charles and Alfred Harris still serve as a source of inspiration to their corporate heir Bill Brown, the Chairman, President and CEO of Harris Corporation. These two intrepid entrepreneurs solved a challenging problem – hand-fed printers were too slow to meet their needs and market demands. So they invented the first automatic sheet feeder and printing press, which in 1895 birthed the Harris Automatic Press Company. Today the emphasis on innovation, excellence and the entrepreneurial spirit is central to Brown, who has led the company through some of the most significant developments in its long history.
Many on the Space Coast may think we refer to the decision to keep the headquarters of the largest private employer in the county here in Melbourne. Or perhaps the opening of the new $135 million, six-story, 450,000 square-foot high-tech center on its Palm Bay campus.
But it was the acquisition of Exelis Inc. for $4.7 billion – a global aerospace, defense, and information services company created in 2011 as a result of the spinoff of ITT Corporation’s defense business which captured national and international attention. The move almost doubled the company’s size and was Harris’ largest acquisition to date, creating a company with combined annualized revenue of about $8 billion and more than 22,000 employees.
“When I look at what we’ve done over the last year, in closing with Exelis, it was less about a strategic shift and was more about Harris focusing on what we do really well,” Brown explained. This “shift” he refers to appeared to be a significant change, as the company had been moving into more commercial ventures in what many saw as an effort to diversify away from government work.
Uniting Core Strengths
“We took a hard look at our core competencies and what we do exceptionally well, compared it with global market trends, and then developed our strategy,” Brown explained. “We saw long-term opportunities globally that aligned with our major competencies in space, intelligence, weather systems, tactical communications and air traffic control systems.”
Harris’ growing leadership in these arenas is largely due to the major investment in research and development they have made, growing from 4 percent of revenues a few years ago to 5.5 percent this past year – or nearly $275 million. “Most companies facing a sequestered environment pulled back on R&D, due to the uncertainties of the future,” Brown observed. “We chose to put more into it, and as a result we are in a much better position than many of our competitors. Our investments in technology drive differentiation.” That approach strengthened Harris’ leadership positions in tactical communications, weather, geospatial, air traffic management, intelligence and other technologies.
Describing the acquisition he said, “We spent years driving performance improvements to prepare us for this move. We screened more than 100 different companies, and Exelis was at the top of the list. Exelis brought us capabilities in space and intelligence which aligned with and strengthened our core. This company is in our wheelhouse and acquisitions succeed when they are close to your core; they tend to fail the further they get from the core.”
However he admits, “The night before this was announced, not a lot of people here got much sleep, including me. We didn’t know how the employees or Wall Street would react. But our stock actually jumped 10 percent on the day we announced, because it showed investment into the company.”
“The key now, as we move forward, is making sure we execute this merger flawlessly. That will earn us the right to make future acquisitions,” he added.
Another priority Brown has is identifying the next generation of leaders in the company. Finding ways to provide growth opportunities for employees and for a meaningful sense of contribution in the company and the community is a primary target. Like mergers and acquisitions – or his emphasis on Harris Business Excellence (HBX) – he leaves little to chance and pursues leadership development and diversity with the same sense of passion, planning and precision.
“Keeping and energizing people is on my mind a lot,” he shared. “Attracting and developing talent is everyone’s responsibility, throughout the company. Everyone owns the talent agenda, not just for a division, but for all of Harris.” Since he came to the company, the women executive staff has increased from 21 percent to 27 percent, but he is determined to push it higher.
“I remind our team, we are never at a shortage of great ideas or of things to fix or things to do, but there is always a shortage of people to go and do it. Our capacity constraint is always people, and the broader your base of inclusion, the more effective will be your results,” Brown emphasized.
“Our company has been around for 120 years and I have been here four. My predecessors and I, at the CEO level, are just a blink in time. You have to ask, ‘What does a leader leave behind?’ The answer is talent. People are the legacy. There are a myriad of essential things we can and do focus on, but what makes an organization great is the quality of the people.”