Richard P. Simmons soared to the top of the steel industry with intelligence, drive and a strong moral compass. But there was another ingredient that helped him become the president of Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. at age 39 and go on to have a storied career. He called himself lucky. Very lucky.
Simmons, chairman emeritus of Allegheny Technologies Inc. and distinguished adjunct professor of management at the Tepper School of Business, advised graduating master’s and doctoral students at the Tepper School to create their own luck as they ventured into the work world.
“You collectively are all the best and brightest,” he said. “But there are other variables that will determine just how successful each of you will be. What company did you choose to work for? Is the company in a growth mode? What kind of boss do you have? Do the values of the company make you feel good about working for that organization? Put yourself in a place to be very, very lucky.”
Simmons gave the keynote speech to more than 300 graduates of the Tepper School’s MBA, Master of Science in Computational Finance and Ph.D. programs during a ceremony at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Museum in Oakland on Saturday, May 19.
During his address, Simmons exhorted students to pick the right boss, advice that came straight from his own experience as a young executive. He shared the personal example of his manager at Republic Steel Corp. -- a man so loyal to Simmons that he refused a promotion unless Simmons could be his assistant.
Simmons’ diligence and discernment led to other “lucky” breaks. As president of Allegheny Ludlum, he and other investors led the purchase of the company in a leveraged buyout in 1980. Simmons, who became chief executive officer, capitalized on that opportunity in 1996 when Allegheny Ludlum merged with Teledyne Inc. to become Allegheny Technologies. Simmons, the new company’s chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer, led sales growth from $500 million to $4 billion when he retired 12 years ago.
He also shared with students how to handle the highs and lows of their careers. “I am not as concerned how you handle failure. I am more concerned how you handle success. I suggest that you should not get too full of yourself when you savor the exquisite taste of success, but for the great roulette wheel in the sky, it could have been someone else.”
In his six-decade career, Simmons saw luck attach itself to employees who commonly practiced excellence that went beyond hard work. “They have set standards of performance and improvement of which everyone around them wants to be a part.”
He also told the graduates that their honesty and integrity would be tested during their careers, and that they would be challenged to “do the right thing,” even when that meant risking promotions or angering their boss.
To illustrate, he recounted another episode from his own career. When Simmons was vice president of manufacturing at Allegheny Ludlum, he was ordered to fire a young metallurgist who had angered a customer. Simmons, whose own investigation uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing, stood up for the employee.
Simmons’ boss persisted and told him he was not loyal. Simmons replied: “I am loyal. But loyalty is telling your boss something you know he doesn’t want to hear.”
The metallurgist wasn’t fired and Simmons said the important memory of this episode in his career was still vivid today. His remarks were greeted with warmth and enthusiasm by the graduates and their families.
Dean Robert Dammon also addressed the Tepper School graduates, drawing applause and laughter with the remark, “You are moving from the classroom to your careers. Or to put it in financial terms, you are finally moving from cash flow negative to cash flow positive.”
Dammon congratulated the students on the completion of their rigorous training. “You should have no doubt that you leave here with skills and knowledge that will make a real difference in the world of business and in society in general. You are ready.”
Peter Azcue Attolini (MBA ‘12) was ready for his new career as a vice president at European Financial Group in Miami. “Tepper was very demanding, but I am very glad I went here,” he said. “My classmates were wonderful. The professors are brilliant but very nice and respectful.”
Stephanie Madia Mobley (MBA’12) finished her MBA over three years in the part-time program. Midway through, she landed a job as strategy and business development manager for Philips Healthcare in Pittsburgh. She said she would not have been able to balance work and graduate school if it had not been for the support of her family. Her classmates also rooted each other on.
“In the part-time program, you become a little family,” she said. “Today is bittersweet.”
At the Carnegie Mellon University Commencement, held on Sunday May 20, 2012, Simmons received an honorary Doctor of Science and Technology degree. Student’s completing their bachelor’s degrees in Business Administration and Economics also received their diplomas at the ceremony held in Gesling Stadium on the CMU campus.
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Watch a video of Mr. Simmons' keynote speech