A CEO’s problem to fulfill stratospheric demand


For a person who has spent 32 years with one firm, Mike Roman has an eclectic CV. {An electrical} engineer by coaching, he has managed a transportation methods laboratory, run a safety enterprise in Belgium, presided over an optical methods operation from South Korea, launched a renewable power unit and offered industrial adhesives. 

Solely at 3M would such a background seem like a strategic profession path to the chairman and chief govt’s workplace. The previous Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing firm, based in 1902 to excavate a mineral utilized in sandpaper, now spans industries from pet care to automobile security, even when it stays greatest identified for its Publish-it notes and Scotch tape. 

That breadth offers 3M a window into so many corners of the world financial system that Wall Road sees it as an vital bellwether. However, regardless of its roughly $100bn market capitalisation and greater than 90,000 workers, it has been the sort of firm the place a CEO who prefers a low profile can take pleasure in one. 

That modified abruptly for Mr Roman in March when one in every of its 60,000 product strains turned the world’s most in-demand merchandise nearly in a single day. 

3M has made N95 respirators, whose electrostatically charged fibres filter out dangerous particles with unusual effectivity, for many years. It usually offered 90 per cent of them to clients in factories and on constructing websites. However when coronavirus swept from Wuhan to Washington state and past, the world’s hospitals wanted that merchandise of non-public protecting tools in portions that 3M had by no means produced earlier than. 

Inside weeks, Mr Roman needed to rework the speed at which his firm was making N95s and overhaul their distribution, in order that 90 per cent had been going to not industrial customers however to healthcare professionals. 

Mr Roman is among the uncommon executives whose firm had ready for a pandemic. Having seen the demand for respirators throughout the Sars outbreak of 2002-3, “we invested in capability: capital tools that was largely idle over the subsequent 15 years”, he explains.

By late-January, at the same time as he was saying 1,500 job cuts and a quarterly earnings miss after Covid-19 hit its gross sales in Asia, he was in a position to convert dormant areas of 3M’s factories to double its N95 output. By mid-February, the corporate was producing at a price of 100m a month. 

However demand quickly outstripped capability once more, and as international locations, states and particular person hospitals raced to safe scarce provides, Mr Roman was thrust into the political highlight. 

In early April, after stories that 3M had refused to divert hundreds of thousands of N95s from Asia to the US, Donald Trump weighed in. “We’re very dissatisfied in 3M. They need to be caring for our nation,” the president raged, warning that the corporate would have “a hell of a worth to pay” if it didn’t do higher by its dwelling nation. 

The blast of America First logic, which prompted ugly social media feedback about Mr Roman, posed an excessive problem to a studiously on-message govt schooled within the bland company language of “native for native” manufacturing. 

Requested about that second now, he’s reluctant to disclose what strain he felt. “We . . . learnt that the highlight on management on this pandemic actually had further expectations,” he says with diplomatic understatement. “We’ve at all times labored in partnership with authorities [but] this one actually took on a brand new dimension.” 

It fell to Mr Roman to reassure workers, and to step up his communications with the surface world about an organization he out of the blue found was not properly understood. “The narrative on the market had some issues that weren’t honest about 3M. Folks didn’t know us,” he says. 

3M produces almost all of what it sells within the US contained in the nation, he says. However though the cost that it had betrayed People by transferring manufacturing offshore had been unfounded, he felt he wanted to rebut them. “Communications was vital each step of the best way,” he says. 

There have been three different important parts to his response. First, having turned on idle equipment to double N95 manufacturing to 35m masks a month for the US alone, he got down to double it once more. 

An $80m funding from 3M and $200m in funding from the US Division of Protection introduced US manufacturing to about 50m N95s a month by June. It has since upped the speed to about 100m a month, thanks partly to new tools, which it began working on the producer’s facility to keep away from losing time delivery it. “We’ve finished in weeks what would have taken months,” Mr Roman says.

In the meantime, 3M was constructing bridges with the Trump administration by working with the US Federal Emergency Administration Company to import nearly 230m N95s from factories abroad between April and October. 

Mr Roman’s staff was combating on a 3rd entrance: to determine price-gouging retailers and take down tens of 1000’s of internet sites fraudulently claiming to be 3M distributors, which risked damaging its model.

“The training for me was we actually needed to step up our management, not simply in manufacturing,” he remembers. “All people was reacting and studying as we went.” 

Mr Roman was studying these classes whereas juggling calls for acquainted to many CEOs on the time, akin to methods to function factories safely within the pandemic, and methods to hold workplace staff productive whereas working from dwelling. Slower demand for merchandise as numerous as workplace provides and oral care tools added to the problem, forcing 3M to chop working prices, sluggish advertising and marketing spending and deal with defending its money move. 

However he was helped, he says, by the truth that he had rallied his administration staff in January round three priorities to drive 3M’s response: deal with defending worker security; “struggle the pandemic from each angle” with its merchandise; and proceed to ship for purchasers and shareholders.

Sustaining the tradition of innovation in an organization staffed by scientists has been simply as vital as responding to the pressures this 12 months has thrown at its management. “All the things that differentiates 3M begins with folks, so if we aren’t persevering with to make 3M a spot the place the most effective expertise needs to be we aren’t transferring ahead,” Mr Roman says.

That tradition, and people folks, ought to imply that 3M delivers 2bn N95 respirators all over the world this 12 months — thrice what it shipped in 2019. 

A brand new wave of Covid-19 instances is overwhelming hospitals once more and can take a look at 3M anew within the coming months. However Mr Roman’s response has received over one early critic. In April, as Mr Trump introduced the Fema partnership to import extra respirators, he concluded: “The 3M saga ends very fortunately.”

Three questions for Mike Roman

Who’s your management hero?

I grew up in Wisconsin so I at all times admired Vince Lombardi’s dedication to excellence and had his poster on my wall. [The Green Bay Packers coach led the team to five NFL championships and two Super Bowls.] American soccer for me was actually a lesson in teamwork . . . Generally he didn’t even have the best expertise and he nonetheless received. 

If you weren’t a CEO, what would you be?

Baseball was my past love. Early on, if folks requested me I’d have stated a major-league baseball participant. [But] I’d nonetheless be a enterprise chief. Enterprise is unimaginable. It offers you a lot rewarding paths and you’ve got a capability to carry collectively an curiosity in folks and management and my engineering background offers me insights into enterprise.

What was the primary management lesson you learnt?

The primary management classes I take into consideration are in my youth they usually had been sports activities associated. I keep in mind seeing examples the place management made the distinction between successful and dropping. I performed on groups that had been properly coached that beat groups with higher expertise . . . that’s a management lesson that I’ve [carried with me].