Since becoming CEO, Inge Thulin has led 3M Co. in unexpected directions.
He has increased 3M spending on research and development just as fellow industrials have gone the other direction amid declining revenue. He has invested in Canada as others pulled back because of that country’s challenging economy.
Bucking trends has worked since Thulin took the helm in 2012. For four years, 3M often posted best-in-class results when other industrial giants stumbled. Its stock trades at record highs. Profits have jumped 10 percent.
Now, the Sweden-born Thulin is aggressively looking toward 2020. His goal? Increase 3M earnings per share 8 to 11 percent, on average, over five years and grow revenue from the current $30 billion to at least $33.5 billion by 2020.
“This is an incredible company,” he said. “The good thing about our business is we work in every cycle of the economy. We have very high margins, almost 23 percent ... and we are all about technology, manufacturing, global capabilities and brand equity. These are the fundamentals of 3M. So we can move on that.”
That means taking more measured chances and working through weaknesses in the market. Most multinational companies are battling a brutal slump in the oil, industrial, mining, agriculture and electronics sectors. It’s caused most, 3M included, to rein in their 2016 forecasts. Matt Arnold, an analyst for Edward Jones Equity Research, said 3M is battling in “a tough economic environment where growth remains elusive, and not anything within 3M’s control.”
Some predicted 3M will either sell or dial back its ailing electronics/energy business. 3M watched division sales fall 18 percent in the first quarter of 2016 and fall another 14 percent in the second quarter. It’s struggled with the business in 2013 and 2015. But to sell it?
Thulin says “no way.”
3M’s electronics/energy unit is a $5.3 billion business that makes screen brightening films, circuit-board adhesives, conductive tape and other components for cellphone, laptop, tablet, touch screen and TV manufacturers worldwide.
They are part of the “mega trend of global connectivity. So, why would you leave a business like that?” Thulin said. “No. We won’t. People have a tendency to talk about volatility when [a business] is down. But volatility means it also goes up. When [electronics] comes back, it will come back fast. And man, we will blow off the doors and people will say, ‘Oh, you were smart to stay in that business.’ ”
In the meantime, Thulin said the company will turn to the areas where it has more control and opportunity: health care, health information systems, personal safety and nonelectric consumer goods.
“These guys will compensate” for 3M’s weak industrial and electronics/energy business and drive growth until the sectors recover, he said.
For Thulin, who long ago made 3M and Minnesota home, the game plan to get 3M to 2020 is not about defying odds. It’s about the 3M “playbook” that will propel 3M toward a healthy future despite short-term hurdles. The plan relies on product sales, better penetration into developing countries, more than $1 billion in cost reductions and $3 billion in strategic spending that will boost sales and save money long term.
That means the maker of respirators, passport security chips, Ace bandages, Post-it notes and 55,000 other products will continue to invest in research, product development and play to global “megatrends” involving safe food, water and work; improved environmental practices; and digital connectivity, officials said.
The company’s five-year plan flirts with developing countries where emerging economies are demanding more sophisticated health care, safety and consumer products while at the same time making the company more efficient with new software, centralized processing centers, consolidated factories and improved customer service.
In March, 3M said it was “going to try and be more efficient and more focused on what they call business transformation, which is basically [achieving] operational excellence and doing what they do more efficiently and more profitably,” said Kevin Earley, co-manager of Mairs and Power Balance Fund that owns 3M stock. 3M has “revenue growth [goals], but this is more toward margins. We think they have taken a big step toward driving improved profitability going forward. And that is becoming kind of a big focus internally for the whole organization.”
Earley also pointed toward R&D spending, stock buybacks and 3M’s recent acquisition spree. Using 3M’s strong balance sheet for such actions “is positive and something [Thulin] has brought to 3M that is new from prior management,” he said.
3M spent $4.6 billion on five acquisitions last year after a two-year break from buying. Two of the deals, Capital Safety in Bloomington and Polypore Separation’s Membrana business, were billion-dollar deals.
And 3M’s not done. “I will be very open to any potential acquisition,” Thulin said.
Improvements at every level, from new products, new computer systems and the renovations of physical plants and offices, all contribute to growth, he said.
For example, 700 of 3M’s scientists now have a home at the new $150 million R&D lab in Maplewood that opened in March. A multimillion-dollar design center opened in July. Such investments are a “key competitive advantage,” Thulin said.
“You will see we are constantly expanding and upgrading all our buildings,” he said. “We would like all our employees to work in a contemporary open environment or space. That is our objective. We spend a lot of money.”
Not all backbone improvements are as showy as the gleaming headquarter additions.
Last year, 3M rolled out an enterprise resource planning (ERP) computer system in Canada that tracks customer orders through each stage of manufacturing and delivery. This year 3M installed ERP in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, France and Belgium.
Already, “the benefits with ERP are big,” Thulin said. In Canada, where the company generates roughly $1 billion in sales, delivery times improved twofold and profitability margins increased 6 percent.
Earley expects similar results as 3M expands ERP to all its global operations. ERP “is going to help them be much more efficient in delivering products to customers, [and] help them focus on improving their margin structure even more,” he said. “3M definitely has an advantage over their peer group in that they earn much higher returns-on-capital than their peer group.”
CFO Nicholas Gangestad recently noted other efficiency investments involving new global service centers in Costa Rica, Poland and the Philippines plus new 3M “supply centers of enterprise” that just opened in Singapore, Switzerland and Panama. 3M is also belt-tightening in China. In other countries it’s moving some production from small to larger factories to cut costs.
Combined, all “business transformation” moves will siphon $500 million to $700 million from annual costs and cut inventory by another $500 million.