Inge Thulin, who stepped aside last month as chief executive and president of 3M, liked to say he had one eye on the microscope and another on the telescope. This way he could focus on day-to-day results while charting a long-term vision. Thulin has spent 38 years at 3M, the last six as CEO. He led the Maplewood-based manufacturer through a bruising global industrial downturn as well as slowdowns in China and Japan, and he streamlined operations by spinning off underperforming business units. Thulin, 64, now moves into a newly created post as executive chairman of the board, where he hopes to serve as an adviser and sounding board for new CEO Mike Roman, while keeping that telescope handy.
A: You decided to retire as CEO even though 3M’s board gave you the green light to keep working past the mandatory retirement age of 65. Why not just stay at the helm?
Q: I am healthy, I’m full of energy. I could continue. But it has to do with the right timing for the enterprise. We had a leader who was totally ready to take over in Mike Roman. When I reflected on that, it was not right for 3M for me to hang in a couple more years. I was very honored that the board said they would agree, on the one condition that I stay on as executive chairman. So now we have continuity, not so much with customers and employees, but with investors. I didn’t have that opportunity when I became CEO. Almost immediately I became also chairman. I would have liked if I’d had the opportunity to have someone to talk to and test my ideas. Mike will get that opportunity.
Q: Was Mike Roman your top pick to succeed you?
A: It’s an interesting thing when you’re CEO. On your first day you start to think of your own replacement. You are actually required by the board to write down and put it in an envelope and put it in the top drawer what would happen the next day if you win the big lottery. [Some people say, if you get hit by a train. I prefer to say, if you win the big lottery.] There was no doubt in my mind that Mike Roman was the right man. I never had to think twice. His background is perfect for that job.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges for Mike Roman in the road ahead?
A: The momentum is there for 3M. We have a very strong and competitive management team in place, that is functioning very well. Our playbook is working very well. He will not have a challenge with the people. For all of the business enterprises, he will need to figure out the future, relative to commercialization, transformation, digitalization and where that will lead. That’s an opportunity, not a challenge, and what I would be focusing on if I were Mike. And focusing on people, and making sure you have the hearts and minds of the people with you.
Q: Will you move out of the corporate campus in Maplewood?
A: I will move my office to Austin, Texas, where we have our second busiest enterprise in the United States and are making big investments — building a new research-and-development center and new office. This is an important difference for Mike. I’m staying on as executive chairman of the board, which means I am still a 3M employee, not an independent board member.
Q: Ah, Austin, Texas. No more winter for you!
A: I’m a Swede, and I also lived in Russia. So I can take winters. I have no problems with it.
Q: What has it been like to pull up stakes?
A: I was reflecting on this today. When you leave the CEO office, you get a lot of e-mails, texts and stories. One of the best was from an individual in the Czech Republic who had a brain tumor in 2014. What he remembered is that I sent him a note and I made a call to him a couple of days before surgery. For me, that is legacy. People talk about the figures and doubling market cap and all that. But a note like that, it says that you made a difference for the people. That’s what I’ve encouraged Mike to think about as well. The business is important but the people are equally important. The people are what will make it for you.
Q: What do you see as your biggest accomplishment?
A: I can say we reshaped 3M the last six years. We reshaped by a new vision, we reshaped by six new strategies and we reshaped by a new brand platform: ‘3M science. Applied to life.’ We prioritized everything we did in the company, going from over 40 divisions to 24 divisions, and we changed the capital allocation plan. But we also built proudness around 3M. I’ve gotten multiple notes from people who told me: ‘Before, I worked for 3M for necessity or because it was close to where I live. Today, I work for 3M because I am proud.’ That’s a big difference. That’s when people are engaged. Then you know you have accomplished something. Then that’s a legacy with many pieces. Almost like a mosaic that is coming into place. You built something, but you didn’t do it alone. You sent a direction and you got people involved. I got people involved in what I was trying to accomplish. It went from very early on from Inge’s vision of strategy to our strategy.