Engineering Success
Under the Microscope


September 2013

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“I’m the accidental CEO,” says Don Kania, president and chief executive of FEI Company, a global maker of electron and ion-beam microscopes. “I wanted to be a great scientist but when I figured out that it wasn’t going to happen, I made other plans. I gave up the science world for the business world about 15 years ago.”

Today, Kania leads a thriving and seemingly recession-resistant global company at the top of its niche in the dynamic fields of materials and life sciences. His path from ice hockey hopeful to graduate engineering student to lab jockey to business leader is a great example of the choices available to professionals with a dual knack for technology and markets.

Measuring Infinity and Beyond

“I always wanted to figure out how things worked, how they fit together,” says Kania, now 58. That curiosity never quite cooled his passion for ice hockey, but it was strong enough to propel him toward an engineering education.

Born and raised in Detroit, Kania is 100% Wolverine – academically speaking, that is. He earned dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and engineering, as well as an engineering doctorate, at the University of Michigan. Leaving Ann Arbor in 1981 with his Ph.D. in hand, he gained an early foot in the door to a stellar research career through a first job in the Physics Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. From this first taste of Big Science, he transitioned to a 12-year run in industrial-focused research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Don Kania.

 

 

He recalls that national lab work often encompassed projects seemingly borrowed from a sci-fi plot. One assignment, for example, put him on a team that did nothing less than alter the size of the universe. His work contributed to a new, more accurate measurement model that ultimately and ever-so-slightly changed the specs of our physical reality. “It was really cool,” he says.

But if his scientific future was already mapped, a startling finding in the laboratory would inspire a permanent detour.  Working alongside elite scientists and engineers, he says, he discovered he wasn’t cut out for scientific greatness. The researchers he admired most possessed qualities that set them apart from the pack, and from him.

“What makes a great scientist? A great scientist is good at picking the problems that have the biggest impact. I was never like that,” he says. “I like to connect all the little dots.” Based on positive interactions with industry partners such as Intel, he began thinking about ways to translate his engineering skills into something new.

“The best thing about national laboratories is that they put smart people together in one place and let them go,” he says. “That free environment was dying by the late 1990s.” The Intel project introduced him to a new way of connecting scientific dots to achieve specific outcomes – technology marketing. A Lawrence Livermore collaboration with Veeco Instruments morphed into an offer to join the company as CTO, and his transition to the lab equipment business was complete. It turned out to be a natural fit. “I think I have a brain that works well in that environment,” he says. “I’m a marketing guy. In business you don’t have nature telling you you’re right or wrong like you do in science. It’s much harder to embarrass yourself in business.”

As CTO, he mastered the arts of strategic planning, product management, mergers and acquisitions, customer stewardship and – most critically – human resources. “I got to learn on the job, and a lot of the job comes down to arithmetic. If you’re an engineer, it’s pretty easy to quantify problems,” he says. However, the HR world provided some formidable challenges. “It would be an easy job if it weren’t for the people,” he jokes. “Arithmetic doesn’t work very well with them.” Eventually, he says, “it all came together for me – the markets, the HR issues, the technology.”

His final three years at Veeco were all about moving up in the ranks while digging down into the details of leadership and marketing challenges from branding to bean-counting. As COO and President of Veeco from 2004 to 2006, he was the heir-apparent to this founder-run company, but with a catch. “The thing about founder-run companies is that founders never leave,” he says. When the call from FEI came, he was more than ready to move – both into the chief executive role and to the greener pastures surrounding FEI’s suburban Portland home office.

FEI: “Ridiculously Sophisticated”

“We make the most ridiculously sophisticated microscopes in the world. You can see an atom. That’s all most people need to know about FEI,” he says. But when any company serving a complicated global market manages to double its sales in seven years, people tend to want to know more about it and what it’s doing right. Built on a platform of focused ion-beam technologies concocted by faculty at local universities, FEI grew through the 1990s with the semiconductor and materials science businesses. A couple of years after going public in 1995, FEI joined forces with the Electron Optics division of Philips (Eindhoven, The Netherlands) in a relationship that made lasting changes in FEI’s culture and global presence. Philips sold its interest in FEI by the end of 2006, about when Kania came in.

“We have gone from a poor second or third in our business to a strong number one,” Kania says. FEI’s sales hovered around a half-billion dollars when he arrived, but today are on track to soon pass $1 billion. Even more significantly, he says, net income has grown five-fold during the same period. The company’s consistent strategy got it through the global economic meltdown with only a short, slight dip in revenues. Kania attributes the resilience to FEI’s commitment to stick with its strategy, which involves a focused effort to push electron microscopy farther into the lucrative life sciences market, an increased cultural emphasis on branding and marketing, and strong operations in relatively stable economies like China and parts of Europe. But it boils down, he says, to anticipating customers’ needs.

Having pushed its instruments to this “ridiculous” level of technical performance, FEI reached a fork in the road a few years back. “We can now see individual atoms,” he notes.  “Do we need to keep going until we can see half an atom, and does anyone want to pay for that?” Kania has been advocating a cultural shift at FEI away from the traditional scientific equipment mentality of “building boxes” and toward solutions to customer problems and productivity challenges. These days helping scientists design and optimize workflow issues such as sample preparation and data management is more important than incremental improvements in performance, he says. “I started telling my people that the resolution race is over and we won,” says Kania. “We have shifted to helping customers translate images into knowledge they can use to change the world.”

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

In business you don’t have nature telling you you’re right or wrong like you do in science. It’s much harder to embarrass yourself in business.

Don Kania, Ph.D.

 
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