Harris Corporation’s New CEO, Bill Brown
Sir Isaac Newton wrote to Robert Hooke in 1675, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It was a humble acknowledgment from the man who was the face of physics until the rise of Albert Einstein in the 20th century. Harris Corporation’s new CEO William “Bill” Brown is also standing on some pretty broad shoulders, including former CEO Howard L. Lance. However, like Newton, the consensus is he has the vision, the experience, the intelligence and the passion to carry the Space Coast’s largest company to the next level and beyond. Perhaps a more descriptive quote might be Lincoln’s, “I get ready and perhaps my chance will come.”
Brown concedes that he never set a goal of being a company CEO or the CEO of a public Fortune 500 corporation, but he added, “In retrospect a lot of the decisions I made, the positions I held, and the skill sets I developed prepared me well for the role I am in.” Formerly a rising star at United Technologies Corp. (UTC is the $50 billion parent company of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Carrier Air Conditioning and Otis Elevator, to name a few), Brown reflected that the questions he always asked himself were: “Is the job I’m in challenging, fulfilling and am I learning and contributing?” It was the answers to those questions that took precedence over what might be his next step or career move.
Building on Experience
When asked what those skills sets were, Brown responded, “Every stage and role in life gives you a set of experiences which prepare you for where you’re going. I worked from the time I was in the fourth grade, which taught me to have a responsible work ethic and to do what you say you’re going to do. As an engineering major at Villanova, I learned many disciplines, but most importantly I learned that engineering is about solving problems; whether they are business problems, technical problems or legal problems, the process of gathering data and finding solutions is much the same. When I went to business school [at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business], I better understood how those problem solving skills fit into an overall business strategy.”
From there, Brown went to McKinsey & Company, one of the premier management consulting firms in the nation. He said it trained him to converse with CEO’s or C-level executives about areas of concern or needs that they had – from how to grow a particular sector to how to launch a new product, or how to reposition their business because of changes in the economy. In addition, he met people with an aptitude for acquisitions, investments and strategic planning.
“You quickly learn to interpret data and read the signals, to help your clients know what to do. I spent seven years advising others and realized I could execute as well, which is why I left McKinsey for UTC. As a consultant, I worked on ‘what companies could a corporation buy that would add value?’ However, I had never worked on a deal, structured a deal or negotiated a deal – that was an expertise I developed while at UTC. It is a set of skills a CEO has to have to grow a company,” Brown emphasized.
Developing a Global Perspective
Brown ran UTC’s Carrier Air Conditioning business for all of Asia. “It stretched me out of my comfort zone to run a company and move my family to a completely different culture, halfway around the world,” he conceded. It required a whole new skill set, as the way business is done and the pace of making decisions was so radically different.
He explained the challenge: “For any business leader, you have to determine how to define a structural problem. And, ‘How do you manage this massive influx of data?’ You can’t process all the data yourself, at the speed at which decisions have to be made. You therefore have to, by definition, prioritize and decide what the focal points need to be. What information is critical to your decision? After 25 years of leading various companies, you learn to distill huge amounts of data and filter it down to the key areas the company needs to focus on.”
But relocating to Singapore in 2003 was a test in ways he never anticipated. “My wife and I flew to Tokyo then on to Malaysia just to ‘check it out,’ but it was right when the SARS epidemic broke. On the entire 747 there weren’t ten people. The streets of Singapore, which are normally jammed 24/7, were empty and the people we did meet all wore surgical masks,” Brown laughs. “But I grew; I spent one week per month in China and ran a joint venture in Japan with Toshiba. Equally, we grew as a family. My kids attended the American School and we traveled all over the region.”
“I was spanning Asia, India and Australia; each market had different paces of change and different competitors. It was massively complicated and moved very fast. But what I realized was that if you run a global business you have to have a great team, people who know how to move quickly and are able to make decisions on the ground. It shaped how I think about the world, cultures and the pace of change. It also drove a sense of entrepreneurialism, along with a willingness and desire to challenge the status quo.”
Hitting the Ground at Harris
Before coming to Harris, Brown served five years as president of UTC’s Fire & Security division, where he led 45,000 employees (See Side Bar). During the last six months, he was UTC’s Senior Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Development, being responsible for the company’s global strategic planning, along with mergers and acquisitions. His Asian experience not only helped shape his abilities to deal with different global cultures, it also prepared him for different corporate ones. He explained, “That experience teaches you how to adapt to different environments, like Harris, which is much more government contract based, than my background. But I am quickly getting up to speed on how to drive this great franchise forward.”
But what was it that attracted him to Harris? According to Brown there were several factors. “First, this is a company with a very strong reputation and code of ethics. No matter who you are, you aren’t going to join a company that has a dubious reputation. Secondly, it was a company that had a focus on engineering and R&D; that fit well into my background with UTC. As we used to say, ‘Technology is our middle name.’ Third, the background I have with strategic planning and acquisitions, to grow the business globally on the commercial, not just the governmental side, all is consistent with the direction that the Board and that we as a company have internally articulated is the key path in going forward. We can continue to leverage what we have done on the governmental side, competencies Harris has developed that we can take into commercial markets around the world.”
Though intentionally vague about specifics, Brown was also very confident about Brevard being a hub of Harris’ R&D efforts and the new facility in Palm Bay as a way to attract the best and the brightest young engineers and scientists.
The Past and the Future
In spite of Brown’s experience, he admits he is stepping into some big shoes. What did he admire most about his predecessor? “Howard was extraordinarily successful; he tripled earnings and revenues and doubled the stock price. In the time we have spent together, I found we think a lot alike. Howard paid attention to ensuring the right people were correctly positioned. He also was attentive to technology and to what has driven the company in the past – an investment in R&D, which is reflected in the growth of our very impressive patent portfolio. Also Howard focused on diversifying our business model, which is a long-term strategy, yet it is a great springboard that plays to my strengths and I will continue to fine tune it over time.”
With such an impressive resume, one wonders if Brown has experienced any significant miscues. Smiling he admits, “Failure? Not one, but thousands. But the key is not ‘Never make mistakes;’ if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t pushing the envelope. It is learning from the mistakes you make and analyzing what you are going to do differently, given the mistakes you made. I’ve learned a lot, but most of the mistakes I’ve made were people related. Either I should have worked harder to keep certain people on the team that wanted to leave, or I didn’t recognize or act on my belief that someone on the team or a whole personnel group was not well placed.”
Then he added, “We did a lot of acquisitions at UTC that I wish came with a money-back guarantee. But that doesn’t happen. However, I have learned what makes a good acquisition successful and as a result I think my experience will serve us well here at Harris.”