When George Buckley stepped in as CEO at 3M Co. in 2005, he had to be a quick study of the company's vast global network.
His successor will have no such disadvantage.
3M announced Wednesday that on Feb. 24 Inge Thulin will take over as CEO, bringing more than 30 years of experience at the company and having already worked with Buckley in shaping corporate strategy as the chief operating officer.
"While people looked in from the outside, George and I have been on the inside, [preparing for] a very orderly transition," Thulin said. "There's no doubt for me in terms of having full support from the board."
Thulin's appointment marks a return to choosing home-grown leaders for the company, whose roots in Minnesota go back 110 years as a maker of sandpaper. 3M has grown to a global concern with well-known products like Scotch tape, Thinsulate material and Post-It notes. The company, which had close to $30 billion in sales last year, employs about 80,000 people, including more than 15,000 in Minnesota.
Thulin is scheduled to succeed Buckley as chairman at the annual shareholders meeting in May. His appointment caps a career that began in 1979 with 3M in his native country of Sweden.
"Inge is a proven leader with a terrific blend of strategic, business and analytical skills, and an excellent record of delivering both sales growth and operational efficiency in a wide range of global businesses," said Vance Coffman, a 3M board member. "His strengths will serve 3M well and ensure that the company remains on a strong growth track driven by innovation for many years to come."
Buckley had long been scheduled to step down later this month when his contract expires as he turns 65, 3M's mandatory age for executives. Thulin, 58, had emerged as Buckley's heir apparent when he was named to the newly created position of chief operating officer last May. Before that, he had headed international operations, which last year accounted for more than two-thirds of the company's worldwide sales.
When the company said nothing else about the transition since Thulin's appointment, speculation swirled that the board was divided over whether to amend its rules and keep Buckley, who clearly wanted to stay.
"I am heavily relieved that the board was able to sort this out," said Nicholas Heymann, an analyst at William Blair in New York.
In an interview, Thulin said he used his time as chief operating officer to gain a more complete understanding of the U.S. market, meeting customers and visiting 3M's plants and laboratories.
"I just did my job and didn't focus on anything else that might eventually come my way," he said.
Securing Thulin in the top spot ensures that 3M's commitment to innovation and global focus will continue, Heymann said. "For employees and customers, that's critical," he said.
Mariann Montagne, an analyst and portfolio manager at Marks Group Wealth Management in Minnetonka, agreed. "I don't think you're going to see any major change in strategy," she said.
Heymann and Montagne said Buckley will be remembered for reigniting research and innovation, which had languished under former CEO James McNerney's leadership. Sales of products developed in the last five years, an indicator of future revenue and a measure 3M uses to gauge the success of its R&D efforts, accounted for about 32 percent of total revenue last year, up from 21 percent in 2005. The company is on track to have 40 percent of its revenues come from new product sales by 2016.
The new products have included cutting-edge optical films that enable handheld devices to be viewed in 3-D without glasses and an electronic stethoscope with Bluetooth technology. But Buckley also challenged 3M's researchers to tap mature businesses for product ideas. In 2010, the company launched a new disposable respirator mask, a product category it pioneered in the 1960s. In 2005, 3M had no technology programs centered on adhesives, but there were 50 by 2010.
Along with Thulin, Buckley laid the foundation for more new product development from 3M's overseas operations. Heymann said Thulin and Buckley have made 3M a truly local competitor in foreign markets by adding research and technical centers in numerous countries.
"Commercialization in those markets is the big thing," Thulin said. "For example, in China we have made investments based on the local, domestic market."
Heymann also said Thulin has been instrumental in building 3M's presence in developing countries like China, India and Brazil. Developing economies now generate about 34 percent of 3M's total sales.
Acquisitions played a significant role in fueling growth during Buckley's tenure. The company spent about $3 billion on about two dozen acquisitions in the last two years.
"When George got there and looked at what was in the labs and the pipeline he found there wasn't enough to achieve what he wanted to achieve," Heymann said. "He got over the taboo that if it wasn't invented there it wasn't any good."
3M has said it expects to spend $1 billion to $2 billion this year on acquisitions and already has announced one deal to pay $550 million for the office and consumer products division of California-based Avery Dennison Corp. Thulin said acquisitions will continue to be part of 3M's growth plans but only as a complement to its own product development activities.
Buckley also will be remembered for steering 3M through the recession, which led the company to cut spending and lay off about 4,000 employees. The uncertain economic outlook for this year is prompting 3M to make more modest cost cuts.
"We are part of the world and we are not immune to cycles," Thulin said. But he added that the company's strong financial position and technology platforms put it in a good position to withstand turbulence in the global economy.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723