Keith Williams, President and CEO of UL, a global safety science company, discusses the impact of culture in driving business results and the impact of technology on globalization.
What were your goals in driving change within UL when you became the company’s CEO and President 12 years ago?
Twelve years ago, the sole objective was to improve the financial performance of the company so we could continue as a global leader in the testing and certification business. At that time, the company was struggling financially. We were in a weak financial position. And we had a unique role in the industry as an independent, Mission-Driven company. The one goal we all shared was to maintain the independence of the company for the mission we served and for public safety. Our goal was simple: Stay alive; stay independent.
Revitalization required a culture change to turn us from an inward facing company to one who served to put clients first. It is a journey. The one lever we know to pull for culture change was the training and development of our prime asset – our people. So, we created of UL University. Today UL-U is the most effective tool we have.
Let’s discuss globalization. How are you globally serving client needs? And, how did the company’s acquisition strategy play into its mission and client-first strategy?
We’ve made significant investments to build local capabilities to support our clients in the locations where they want to be served. While we have grown employment in the U.S., we now have more than half of our associates outside of our home country serving clients with local language, culture and accessibility.
Built into UL’s global strategy is the idea of helping our clients win. This means providing all of the relevant services that our clients need whether they are buying the service externally or providing it themselves. Sometimes it also means solving a problem that the client thought to be unsolvable.
To be more relevant to our clients, we’ve engaged an acquisition strategy to augment our legacy business with the services clients need today—environmental sustainability, transaction security, energy efficiency and anti-counterfeiting services, amongst others. Safety is still important, and these new services reflect today’s expanding definition of safety. They round out the paradigm that exists today.
You’ve talked a lot in the past about how technology enables people. How is it helping?
Within the next ten years, globalization and trade flows will have less to do with what governments decide and more with technological advancements. 3D printing and advanced manufacturing will completely change the economics of making consumer products. Today, things made in emerging economies, where labor costs are low, will eventually be made in developing economies where the labor cost is high but a decrease in inventory and shipping costs will offset labor.
You’re a 123-year-old company. How do you see the company adapting to these technologies that are coming to market rapidly?
The whole safety industry works on the certification of a product that conforms to a safety standard. The question is what do you do when a new technology comes along for which we’ve yet to develop a standard? Slow standards development processes delay the introduction innovative products and technologies. Our world today is about speed rather than speed bumps.
In our business model, our testing business can create an outline of investigation that can serve as a stand-in for a standard until the development of a formal standard. When a new technology comes along – for example, hoverboards – we can quickly create an outline of investigation that the industry can use as a guideline to make products and that the test labs can also use for testing and certification.
What are the bigger successes you’ve had with the organization?
Fifty years ago, when I was a kid, the furniture in our house was wood, cotton and wool. Today, everything in my house is synthetic. When synthetics burn, they burn differently and produce a different kind of smoke. Dr. Tom Chapin, Vice President of UL Corporate Research, proposed over a decade ago that if the characteristics of smoke have changed, maybe smoke detection also needed to change.
We developed a smoke characterization research study that led to a significant amount of information on the smoke detection of modern materials. Based on the results, the Standards Technical Panel for Smoke Alarms adopted a new standard for smoke detection more aligned with the materials in houses and offices today. These products will have a major impact on public safety by providing smoke detection that’s well attuned to current materials inside buildings.