People Power

13 July 2008 (Last Updated July 13th, 2008 18:30)

Dr Joseph De Remigis has taken optics company ELCAN through a period of dramatic change. He tells Andrew Tunnicliffe how focusing on employee talent has been crucial for taking the business to a market-leading position.

In 1989 ELCAN was a failing venture, virtually deserted by its then owners and struggling to survive. But in just 20 years the company has been transformed, generating massive profits and breaking into new market sectors. Dr Joseph De Remigis is described as the architect of the company's success.

Andrew Tunnicliffe: Your career at ELCAN has spanned three decades, what changes have you seen in that time?

"Technology has led to a massive change in productivity."

Joseph De Remigis: In the 1980s we were in the optics market, a hands-on industry that is more of an art than a science. But this quickly evolved through the 1990s into a heavily computerised sector. Computers were used to design the optics; we then implemented those designs with complex CNC machines that largely replaced the optical individual skills of the past, though they remained as designers.

AT: Has this growth in the use of technology helped or hindered?

JDR: It's definitely helped. In the late 1980s and early 1990s we were a factory employing about 300 people and generating $20m worth of optics. Now we have 700 people and generate roughly $200m. Technology has led to a massive change in productivity. ELCAN now has 1,300+ global employees, 850 of which work in the Midland operation, which had 300 in the 1980s.

AT: When you get five minutes to think of the business now and what it was, are you ever amazed by this transition?

JDR: The way we have changed has been relatively organised. We've always had an active planning method. Every year we review where we're going and where we want to be. In 1990 we had a goal of generating $100m in revenue within five years. We laid out the plans that would enable that and things worked out more or less how we planned, [despite] detours along the way.

AT: As the person in charge of pushing the business forward, how do you prepare for things that you didn't expect?

JDR: We have a lot of smart people; one of the key things we are able to do is distribute the decision-making responsibilities. One of our biggest disappointments was the telecoms industry. We entered the market in 2000 with great expectations but crashed and burned. But we came out of it with a lot of technology and some very smart people. Much of that knowhow was then focused into the medical area.

AT: Is there a philosophy that comes out of that for you?

JDR: Absolutely. I have a rule of thumb that says if you take a run at three things, one of them might pan out. So always try to have three to five opportunities running at one time, with talented people working on them; they're not all going to work out.

AT: You're accredited for masterminding the formula the business operates now, how do you feel about that?

JDR: The thing that is most important to our success story is that we utilise the talent, people and brain power we have.

In the early days we were subject to a few standard financial constraints but other than that the talent was always here.

AT: You have a mix of customers, how do you formulate a business that can cope with their needs, large or small?

"We have a number of large customers worth tens of billions of dollars."

JDR: We have a number of large customers worth tens of billions of dollars and there are some benefits of dealing with companies that large, including stability and predictability. But there are some negatives too. It is not possible to get much leverage – in a large company it is difficult to grow your business in leaps and bounds.

In a small company the downsides are opposite to the strengths of the bigger guys. But if their product takes off you are able to grow rapidly with them.

AT: Why do you refer to your customers as partners?

JDR: One of the first posters we hung on the wall 20 years ago shows two hands shaking; we're partners in business. While we have a number of our own products, much of what we do is work with our partners who will come to us with a concept, specification or even a design. They will ask us to build it or take their ideas and turn it into a functioning system. That takes a partnership because we each have to share the risk.

AT: Has there ever been a project that you have said no to?

JDR: We quite often say no. That could be for a number of reasons depending on the opportunity. We have to believe in the business plan behind the proposal. We've turned a number away because the technology isn't going to work. Sometimes the client doesn't have the ability to make it happen and sometimes we don't have the right resources.

AT: You've been the figurehead of this organisation since the 1980s, what qualities do you think are needed for this?

JDR: For this business I think the important thing is that the leader has an understanding of the business because this is a specialised market. You also need the ability to live in a high-technology family as we are working with a lot of very smart people. But key management skills are essential to a successful execution of anything. Don't have a command and control culture and don't try to stifle talent.

AT: Does this mean the person is as important as the product?

JDR: Absolutely. When talking and working with our partners we are selling the company and its people, ours and their ability to be creative. If I can get our talent in front of potential clients then the relationship is a lot stronger.

"We made $70,000 in 1990 but that was as good as making $50m today."

AT: What are the factors in selecting and retaining that talent?

JDR: We're fortunate because 80% of the key leaders in the business today were here 20 years ago. They were younger, but they have grown with the business. My focus has been to build the organisation around them. Crucially, we are small enough to allow our workforce to be creative and let their imaginative juices flow, but big enough to offer stability.

AT: What are the challenges over the next five to ten years?

JDR: Our company challenge is to find new markets to exploit. We see a lot of opportunity in the medical device market and have done a lot of work here but we feel we can do a lot more. Our aim is to get more of this high-performing talent working for us in this field. We also want to translate some of the new technology we've got into useful applications.

AT: What is your personal motivation?

JDR: I love to see the company be successful. It excites me; I get a kick out of it. I like to see the company make money and develop. But I especially like to see our talent challenged.

AT: What is the thing you're most proud of?

JDR: When we made a small profit in 1990 it was significant because when I started here the company was losing money and our parent company was giving up on us. I said then that I believed we could be profitable in 1990. We made $70,000 in 1990 but that was as good as making $50m today.

AT: Is there anything that you would have done differently?

JDR: I can honestly say no, there isn't. Its important to remember that out of some of the failures came our biggest successes. I have learned that in order to be successful, keep the talented people, watch the cash and make sure the world knows how smart you are.

AT: How do you bring your message to the world?

JDR: More and more people are now using the internet to find out where to go and who to talk to. If your name doesn't pop up then you're nowhere. Even if you are not any better than the other guys, if you have a strong brand then you can make a strong statement.

"It's important to understand employees' needs as well as those of the business."

AT: Is there any aspect of your work life that you take home?

JDR: One key thing is to never underestimate the power of sitting quietly and thinking; and you don't have to be in the office to get some of your best ideas. But when I'm around my family I don't bring my problems home – I do brag about my successes though.

AT: And are there any aspects of your home life you bring to work?

JDR: I treat people as people. We have parents that work here and I imagine their home life is like my own. It's important to understand employees' needs as well as those of the business.

What motivates many people is their home life. ELCAN is a big company and we have a responsibility to our employees. This year we have added 120 new staff – 120 homes and families we have to think about.