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PPG CEO Says Innovate or Die

Charles BunchFor PPG Industries Inc., a company dependent on science and technology for growth and customer solutions, globalization refines its business strategy to a fine, clear point, says Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Charles R. Bunch. The point being: Innovate or die.

“If we don’t obsolete our own products with innovations, we’re threatened by commoditization,” says Bunch, when speaking recently to Tepper School students as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series, a program providing students the opportunity to discuss strategy, global business issues and personal leadership styles with CEOs and leading business executives. “Innovation is almost a rite of survival.”

PPG, a global chemical and coatings company, is deeply committed to research and development, he told the MBAs, as a way to maintain proper growth margins for the company and also to deliver new solutions for customer problems.

Innovation is so vital to PPG’s success, Bunch says, that he makes monitoring, measuring and managing R&D one of his top priorities. He says PPG develops a net present value for every research project, estimating market size, development cost, product price and time to market as part of the process. The result, he says, is a steady pipeline of new products and refinements of old products to fuel the company’s growth.

Among several R&D examples, Bunch described the extension of PPG’s Transition Lenses technology to the airline industry. Transitions Lens, an optical product originally for eyeglasses, darkens when exposed to sunlight. PPG is now extending the product to commercial jets, with an innovation that allows passengers to turn a dial to darken the windows according to their preference.

He cited another, from PPG’s coatings business, electro-deposition paint bath that has virtually eliminated rust on vehicles. Rust, he reminded the students – many of whom are in their late 20s or early 30s – was once one a severe threat to a car’s structural integrity. “Now, it is not even a problem you would be aware of,” says Bunch.

He also shared with students his insights on how he managed his career. When joining PPG, he says knew he wanted to work where he could become a general manager on the fastest possible path. But he also cautioned students to not expect to be handed the reins of power too quickly. He urged them to be flexible and willing to take any assignment, as long as they could see it as a step toward his goal.

“Sometimes they had to convince me to do something, but I trusted the people at PPG,” he says.

He also stressed performance over pedigree. Getting an MBA from the Tepper School means students have great skills, but don’t rely on the degree alone to propel your career forward, he cautions.

“The most important thing you should realize, in my view, is performance,” he says.
If you deliver in every job you’re asked to do, keep your goals clear and ask for help in achieving them, you will get the help and you will succeed, but only “if you are a valuable employee and are doing your current job.”

Bunch also talked about the changes in the work place prompted by the millennial generation. He said he moved six or seven times during the first 10 years of his career, now 29 years at PPG, but acknowledged this is harder today with two-career families – “There’s a lot more equality in relationships,” he says.

Complicating the picture is the global nature of business. His moves were largely within North America, he says. PPG executives climbing the career ladder today may be asked to move to Europe or Asia, to manage facilities in Poland, India or China, for example.

“We’ve lost more young people in the last few years than we were used to, probably around job opportunities” for spouses or partners, he says.

 


 

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Mark D. Burd

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Tepper School of Business
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