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Davis '62 on the integration of business and science, other topics

By Barry McNamara
11/28/2011
Tom Davis speaks to Monmouth students at a science seminar.
Like most institutions of higher learning, Monmouth College produces colorful literature designed to convey to prospective students what lies ahead for them on campus, and what is possible with a Monmouth degree.

Such a brochure might feature quotations from administrators, faculty, staff, students and alumni. The “viewbook” below, however, features just one voice – that of Tom Davis ’62, the college’s most recent Alumni Distinguished Visitor. While on campus in November, Davis met with more than 75 students and a number of faculty and staff. He also sat down for an interview, reflecting on his time as a student and his successful career.

The Davis bio:
Davis graduated from Monmouth with a degree in chemistry. Through the urging and assistance of Monmouth faculty, he attended the Case Institute of Technology, earning his Ph.D. in chemistry, with a concentration on physical and organic chemistry. He produced three scientific papers during his four-and-a-half years of study.

Davis first went to work for General Electric Lighting in a number of capacities, including basic and applied research and product engineering, and had three more papers published. He also served as a plant manager and engineering manager. For a short time, he served as general manager of the technology department of General Electric Plastics. He was then director of manufacturing for Philips Lighting USA before moving to Europe to serve as senior vice president of manufacturing for Philips Lighting Netherlands, where he led eight plants in five European countries.

Davis left Philips to work for Becton Dickinson (BD) – “the biggest company you’ve never heard of” – a $7 million medical device company with operations in more than 100 countries. He served as vice president of logistics, purchasing and manufacturing strategy at the division level and director of supply chain activities and metrics development at the corporate level. Today, he is a consultant in operations management and a research associate for Penn State University’s Center for Supply Chain Research.

The magic of Monmouth
• I got sold pretty heavily on the science idea and the idea that Monmouth graduated a lot of very good chem students, and they went on and did well afterwards, whether it was in grad school or business.

• I came here intending to go two years to Monmouth and then three years someplace else to get an engineering degree. But after a semester or two, I thought this is where I want to spend my four years.

• I made a joke this morning with the chem students. I said I majored in chemistry and minored in extracurricular activities. I think that you remember certain classroom experiences very well, and there’s also the other part of college life, which is what really shapes you and helps you grow up.

The value of a liberal arts education
• I’m a big proponent of the liberal arts education. There’s a lot of writing in the paper now, particularly right now, about how liberal arts students shouldn’t do that. They should do something that’s imminently practical because of the job market and all that. I still think the liberal arts are a terrific foundation.

• I probably learned more in two years as a plant manager (1976-78 at GE) than I did in the previous 10. … All the soft skills you learn at a liberal arts school – how to write, how to present, how to do a budget, how to finance – all of that stuff came to bear in that job.

• What you find in business is that it calls upon you to draw on your total life experiences and bring them to bear at whatever the issue is at hand. The broader and deeper those life experiences are, the more likely you are to succeed in a challenging business environment. … You have to have the foundation in science if you’re going into that side of the business, plus the things you get as a liberal arts student, which include verbal and written communication. You’ve got the math skills. Hopefully, you’ve picked up a little bit of language skills.

Get out of your comfort zone
• I think that especially at that age (late 20s), when you can, you should try to do other things. To put it as simply as possible, you should move. You should move yourself from an area that you’re very familiar with and comfortable to an area that’s going to help you stretch and grow. Of course, Monmouth again is a great foundation for that because you’re going to start out in one area at a school like Monmouth, convinced you’re going to go down this path, and you’re exposed to an engaging professor or idea, and it can take you in a new direction.

• (Philips USA) said we want to do a cultural exchange. We want to bring a Dutch guy to the United States to take your job. We want you to go Europe to take his job. So there I am at age 49 trying to sell my wife (Jane Robb Davis ’62) on another move. … It was a good time in our lives to go. It was the highlight of her life. She’d never had a passport, and she just enjoyed those three years in Europe (specifically, Eindhoven) tremendously.

Become a lifelong learner
• The hard science that you learn in either college or graduate school typically has a half-life of about seven years. So I’ve been through seven half lives, which means I’m down to less than one percent. But the liberal arts side of Monmouth does not decay. That is the basis for growth, so as long as you maintain that attitude of lifelong learning – continue to read and study and expose yourself to new areas – then you can use that as a place for tremendous growth and enrichment in your life.

• Those first years (at GE), I really was working in a research laboratory. … It was more physics than chemistry, so it was almost like doing a second Ph.D. – reading a whole different set of technical journals, a whole new vocabulary. … We were working on fluorescent materials – a lot of things that would go into television sets or fluorescent lamps.

• The science that you learn fades. I can barely read a scientific journal, because I’m out of practice. But the other things that you learned – how to read a good book and appreciate what you’re reading and bring to bear on it your life experiences – that only grows in time. … It’s that kind of thing that’s so valuable to you to decompress. Work is extremely structured. You have six meetings in the next eight hours. To keep your mental health, to keep your edge not to get burned out, you have to do unstructured activities, and one of the best and the easiest is to read.

Communicate in English and another language
• I almost went and got the minor, just to say I’d completed the minor in English. Even now, I’ve been retired eight years, and I’m still called back by companies to write things because I can write science articles that business people can understand.

• One of the essential skills for people in science going into business is being able to communicate in all media. So, can you present? Can you present from a slide show? Can you present from a book? Can you talk extemporaneously? Can you write? People will say, ‘Oh, I’m done with that now. I don’t have to do that anymore.’ Well, yes you do. … You still have to be able to write. You still have to be able to craft that sentence.

• The Dutch language – thanks to German at Monmouth (Dutch is kind of halfway between English and German) – I picked up enough to survive. I passed the proficiency exam after a while. Learning a language at age 49, 50 – that’s a challenge.

See the world
• I went to work at Becton-Dickinson, and I filled a new passport up in five years. For some people, they don’t like that. For me, it was one of the best parts of the job – working with people from all those different cultures and all those different parts of the world, and finding out how similar people are in so many important ways and how different we all are at the same time. Over the years, I did business in 26 countries and probably visited another dozen or so.

• The two countries that I traveled to the most – about 15 trips each – were Japan and Brazil. … The Brazilians are just the nicest, warmest people in the world. Brazil is the size of the continental United States. It’s a huge country with tremendous potential. I was fortunate enough to travel down there over so many years – a period of about 30 years – and you could really see the country change and grow in that period of time. I’m much encouraged by what I saw in the last six or eight years. There’s a genuine middle class evolving in Brazil. The infrastructure is becoming very strong. It’s still a land of great opportunity. There’s only about three percent of Brazilians who have a college degree, and they are absolutely hungry – starved – for chemists and engineers and people who can run a clinical laboratory. Just like in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, when people with those kinds of technical backgrounds flooded into the United States because the jobs were here, I would expect in the next 10 or 20 years, we’re going to see a similar flood into Brazil and South America.

The value of the Greek experience
• You did one year as a freshman in the dorms – Fulton Hall, at that time – and then I did three years in the Sig Ep house. That was a good experience, too. Essentially it’s a group of guys running your own corporation. You have to budget, you have to buy food, everybody has to accept a role in the house. You have to hire and fire people, and you certainly have to learn to get along with everybody else. That was a real growing-up experience.

• Certainly the fraternity brothers and the other people you meet in school – you see them and it all comes flooding back to you.

Be an ethical person
• Then I got recruited from the oldest business at General Electric – 1877 – to the newest business at General Electric, which was engineering plastics. … But there was a real culture clash there – my solid Midwest values against people who played a little fast and loose. Every once in a while, you have to fire your company. I explain to people that GE and I had a divorce. We agreed to part company. I won’t to go into any more details than that, but there were certainly ethical issues that bothered me a great deal.

• I got to Becton-Dickinson, and after being there a couple of years, they decided to have a corporate ethics officer. He wanted to tap people from different divisions of the company and have them also become trained so they could present with him. By luck, I was tapped in my division. I took a basic ethical fitness course and then took a more extensive course to become certified as an instructor. I worked with the Institute of Global Ethics. They don’t specify that what you’re learning is business ethics – they just say you’re learning ethics, and you can apply that in any location. … It was very satisfying.

The integration of business and science
• In industry, they look at you and they see what you’re good at and where you seem to fit. Again, thanks to Monmouth and the general skills and the social skills that you learn here, they said, ‘Well, this is not a lab rat. This is not a lab nerd who’s going to be happy staying in the lab by himself for the rest of his career. This is somebody who works well with people. Let’s see if he can move into beginning management positions.’ They actually gave me an opportunity to manage the lab techs for a while, as a sort of shepherd and a leader. … My next job was running a small engineering group of about eight people. Then they reorganized and had 24. Then we started developing special new energy-saving projects. … It all evolves.

• The language of business is finance. The real advantage that the science student has going into business is that math is not intimidating. The real advantage that the business student has going in typically is a little more vision, a little broader vision, and almost all the time better able to present and sell their ideas. What I’m hoping is that the science students can maybe pick up one more semester, two more semesters of the liberal arts side which is going to help them. I’m hoping that we can get a few business guys to understand that math is not evil and that you can actually handle enough math to get yourself through these things.

• The kids coming out now with that firm basis in the sciences plus the liberal arts – I personally think that’s a great combination.