Wendell Weeks knows that Corning Inc.’s business, driven by innovation and invention, sometimes also is a game of chance.
“Sometimes a good innovation does not do so well in the marketplace,” says Weeks, 46, Corning’s new president and CEO. “Bad things can happen even to good ideas.”
In 1996, Corning underwent a transformation, selling off its established medical testing and CorningWare business and investing in fiber optics and photonics.
To prove its commitment to the new ventures, Corning spent some $10 billion to purchase 10 companies in 1999, gaining the attention of Wall Street and making it a favorite stock for technology investors.
The photonics push also brought Corning to Rochester.
In 1999, the company acquired Corning Rochester Photonics Corp., which designed and developed components used in optical telecommunications networks and compact display systems. The company in 2001 also had begun to establish an $80 million Monroe Photonics Park plant in Henrietta.
The company’s stock passed the $100-a-share mark in 2000 when telecom companies were lining up to buy cable from the fiber-optic giant. Telecommunications was generating $5 billion of its $7 billion in annual revenues.
Things also were looking up for Weeks.
With his knowledge of the company and charisma, Weeks long had been a rising star at Corning.
That was never more the case than in 2001 when he was named president of Corning’s optical communications division, where he oversaw most of the company’s new ventures into telecom and photonics.
Then in 2001 telecom went bust.
That year saw Corning’s stock fall from a high of $113 a share, adjusted for a split, in 2000 to roughly $9 a share. It eventually would drop to $1.10 a share.
Company leaders moved quickly. John Loose was out as chief executive and former CEO James Houghton came out of retirement with the mission to rebuild the company. Houghton made drastic changes, closing a dozen plants around the world and laying off nearly half of the company’s work force.
The slowdown in telecom and fiber optics forced Corning to back out of the Monroe Photonics Park plant in Henrietta. The building later was sold to Paychex Inc.
Corning also shut down Corning Roch-ester Photonics, leaving Corning Tropel Corp. as the company’s sole local connection. The Fairport firm employs some 200 people, part of Corning’s 25,000 workers worldwide. The company has roughly 4,500 employees in the Corning area.
During the reorganization, Weeks was promoted and, some say, groomed to take over the company for Houghton.
Some three years later-in January-the company announced Weeks would succeed Houghton, taking the helm of the Southern Tier company April 28.
While some may have been shell-shocked by the telecom blowout, Weeks instead learned from it, and draws on those experiences in his current role.
Sitting at the conference table in his second-floor office, which overlooks the Canisteo River at Corning’s corporate headquarters, Weeks takes a moment to gather his thoughts before talking about lessons learned during that time.
He spoke of the need for a stable balance sheet, adding that his division did not decrease debt enough while growing its revenues. Today he is more focused on the bottom line.
“Financial conservatism is dramatically important,” Weeks says.
He also learned another valuable lesson: “You impact people’s lives with the decisions you make.”
Those lessons solidify Weeks’ belief that for Corning to be a growing, successful company, it must invest in different markets and areas.
“My goal is to be a bigger, but more balanced, company,” he says.
Once known for its CorningWare line of dishes, Corning is a technology company relying on long-term research.
It develops products for the telecommunications, flat-panel display, environmental, life sciences and semiconductor industries.
The company has some 25,000 workers worldwide, including research centers in North America, Europe and Asia and, on average, generates some 300 patents per year.
Corning’s focus has shifted to manufacturing both liquid crystal display glass, used in laptop computers and flat-screen monitors, and ceramic substrates for catalytic converters.
Weeks was an early supporter of the LCD business.
“We lost money in it for 14 years before it became an overnight success,” he says with a laugh.
The company expects the LCD business to increase this year from 5 percent to 10 percent penetration in the marketplace.
Optical fiber used in telecommunications continues to be a moneymaker for the company and is being enhanced by a fiber-to-the-premises initiative, an area focused on bringing the benefits of optical fiber to homeowners by assisting homebuilders and developers in building fiber-optic infrastructure into their plans.
Corning also is making an investment in diesel emission-control products. Last year, the company spent $200 million for a new production facility in nearby Erwin as the demand for diesel emission-control products continues to increase due to tighter clean-air standards implemented in the United States, Europe and Asia.
In the long term, the company is working toward creating a new industry called biophotonics, which is a way to use light to help discover new drugs. The new technology is being tested at pharmaceutical companies and universities.
Weeks says the company should know more about the potential growth and success of these areas by the end of the year. New ideas that can lead to products are risky ventures, but can pay off in aces, he adds.
“When we succeed, we succeed well,” he says.
Rising up the ranks
Those in the Corning community have heard the story of Weeks’ ascension up the ranks of the Fortune 500 company.
With two years at the company under his belt, Weeks, then a junior manager at Corning Glass Works, was getting ready to leave to attend Harvard University’s business school to complete work toward his master’s degree. While packing up his desk, Weeks received a request from CEO Houghton to come to his office.
Nervous, Weeks made the trip to Houghton’s office, where the leader made a simple request-he would help Weeks when he left for school if he agreed to return to Corning after completing his studies.
The two cemented the deal with a handshake and two years later Weeks was back at Corning with a graduate degree as the company’s corporate business development manager.
Although he has been with Corning more than two decades, Weeks laughs about still being a short-timer. He speaks about a ceremony held annually where service pins are given out to those who have worked for the company for 50 and 70 years. The ceremony is one of Weeks’ favorite events.
While he may be a “newbie” in Corning terms, Weeks’ knowledge of the company cannot be denied. He can speak at length about the technology and products at the company.
“It’s a labor of love,” he says.
Weeks’ first contact with Corning came shortly after receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1981 from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. The accounting major was working in New York City and Corning was one of his clients.
He was impressed with the work being done at the company and during one of its restructuring periods, Weeks was asked to come on board. He accepted, postponing graduate school for a job in the company’s controller division in 1983.
Over the next 22 years, Weeks was promoted nearly 20 times and has served in a broad range of positions in manufacturing, product development, innovation initiatives and executive positions.
He led product development and initiatives, including the introduction of premium optical fiber products and glass substrates used in LCDs.
Weeks was elected to Corning’s board in December 2000 and was appointed president and chief operating officer in April 2002.
As COO, Weeks led Corning’s restructuring and return to profitability following one of the most challenging periods in the company’s 154-year history.
Now in his role as CEO he is hoping to keep the momentum going.
Weeks often refers to the company as “an institution,” bigger than the people who lead it.
While his job, he says, is to help the company be around another 154 years, he credits Corning’s workers for the company’s success.
“The real heroes around here aren’t those who go on to become CEO or COO,” he says. “They are the ones that grow the business by inventing new products.”
One of the most important parts of his job, he says, is to steer the overall ship that is Corning, while knitting together what it means for people to be a part of the company.
Weeks helps draw the imaginary line between what an employee does and how that helps the company’s mission. He acknowledges running a global company from Upstate New York is not easy, but says focusing on Corning’s seven core values helps. The values-quality, performance, integrity, leadership, innovation, independence and the individual-translate everywhere, he says.
Weeks has gotten to see how it translates-in person. Since becoming CEO his travel schedule has increased. More than 65 percent of Corning’s revenue comes from outside the United States and Weeks often makes trips to places such as China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
He has run the numbers to show how much he is on the road; Weeks spends 60 percent of his time traveling and of that, 14 percent is spent in the air.
But keeping up with worldwide changes and predicting future trends is part of Weeks’ job.
“It’s hard to do stuff that will benefit someone a decade from now if all you have on your mind is a paycheck,” he says.
Since part of his focus is on the next wave of growth at Corning, Weeks says his goal is to pass on a better company.
“That’s how we’ll measure our success,” Weeks says.
Those who know him say Weeks is the person to lead Corning into the future.
Houghton, now Corning’s chairman, has known Weeks for many years as a trusted colleague, and as a friend.
“(Weeks is) passionately devoted to the notion that investing in technology can help change the world,” Houghton says.
“Wendell has the respect and support of Corning’s board, management committee and employees around the world,” Houghton says. “He has a deep understanding of how our company works and what needs to be done for it to continue to perform successfully.”
James Flaws, Corning chief financial officer, says Weeks has a deep understanding of the company, its technologies and cultures.
“Wendell has the leadership skills, experience and commitment to our values to grow Corning Inc. and continue our long tradition of innovation,” Flaws says.
Outside the Glass Works
When he is home in Corning, Weeks prefers to spend time with his wife, Kim Frock, and the couple’s two children: Olivia, 13, and Porter, 11. Both children are students at the Alternative School for Math and Science in Corning where Frock is the administrator.
The private junior high school, which opened roughly 1 1/2 years ago, places an emphasis on math and science instruction coupled with other areas such as music and community service. There are some 60 students enrolled in grades 6 to 8.
Weeks strongly has supported the school since it was in its conceptual stage.
“That is the age group when we lose kids, especially girls, in math and science,” says Weeks, noting in a high-tech world those skills are important.
He is guarded about discussing his personal life, but says he was born in Reno, Nev., and grew up in Pennsylvania. His father served in the U.S. Air Force.
Those who know Weeks described the CEO as brilliant, driven and generous. He has donated, often anonymously, to various charities and non-profits in Steuben County.
Corning, located some 90 miles southeast of Rochester, still has local ties and interest in the community, Weeks says. That connection includes Corning Tropel Corp.
Corning Tropel supplies optical materials, high-performance precision optics, optical-based metrology instruments and other products for the semiconductor industry.
Located in Fairport, Tropel is part of Corning’s semiconductor materials group, working with other Corning sites that do similar work, including a facility in Canton in the North Country. It was acquired by the glass giant in a $190 million deal in 2001.
Weeks says Tropel will stay put in the Rochester area where optics is strong and the work force is talented.
“Invention is about people,” Weeks says.
He speaks enthusiastically about Rochester’s history in innovation, as well as the growing business opportunities between Tropel and other Corning divisions.
Tropel is a specialty division for the company because, instead of components, it works on subassemblies of optical systems, Weeks says. Because of its differences with other Corning groups, there could be ways to further partner the division with others on areas such as defense/aerospace and optical inspection equipment.
He spoke less, but with the same enthusiasm, about Infotonics Technology Center Inc., a New York State Center for Excellence in Photonics and Microsystems that was created to help drive the area’s economic growth.
In addition to a windfall of cash promised by the federal and state governments, Corning, Eastman Kodak Co. and Xerox Corp. each pledged some $15 million in cash and in-kind services to the venture.
While Joseph Miller, Corning’s chief technology officer and executive vice president, has the most contact with Infotonics, Weeks says he is impressed with the work being done at the Infotonics Center and hopes to see new ideas come out of it. It could lead to jobs for some of the employees let go during Corning’s past downsizing, he added.
Weeks says Corning is in a good spot in terms of innovation and finance.
After hitting a stock low in 2002, it since steadily has risen.
In April, both Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings raised Corning’s bond rating. In early July, Corning stock closed higher than $17 a share for the first time since June 13, 2001.
The stock rebirth may have been helped by reports that Moody’s Investment Service is considering raising Corning’s bond rating from junk to investment grade. A higher bond rating would allow the company to borrow money at more favorable interest rates.
Corning logged $3.85 billion in sales in 2004, up 25 percent. It posted a net loss of $2.17 billion, or $1.56 a share, compared with a net loss of $223 million, or 18 cents a share, in 2003. Excluding special items, Corning reported 2004 net income of $674 million, or 45 cents a share.
Corning is set to release second-quarter earnings July 26. The company is expecting at least $1 billion in sales, with earnings per share of 17 cents to 19 cents before special charges. If those numbers are hit, it will be the first time in years Corning has ended four consecutive quarters in the black.
Weeks said Corning remains committed to continuing its legacy of growing through innovation.
“We will always take risks and will invest in new technologies that can help make a positive difference in people’s lives.”
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07/22/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal