Bill Swanson, chairman of the board and CEO of Massachusetts-based Raytheon, has had a “personal vision” for the defense and aerospace systems company where he has worked for 40 years.
“It’s the only company I have worked for,” he said.
He has had 14 jobs at Raytheon, working his way up from the “factory floor and rising through the ranks to lead from the corner office,” Swanson said. Today, he oversees the company, which in 2011 reported $25 billion in sales and 71,000 employees worldwide.
Swanson is an example of an American success story, and one that has its roots in San Luis Obispo County. He grew up on the Central Coast, earned an engineering degree from Cal Poly and continues to maintain family and business ties here. He co-owns the Avila Golf Resort with business partner Rob Rossi, and his family visits the county “whenever we can.”
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“I know that for me, the area will always have a special place in my heart, since it provided me with the spark that launched my career, and it is a place where I hope to retire and give back to the community and Cal Poly,” he said.
The Tribune asked Swanson to discuss his time at Cal Poly, leadership role at Raytheon and what’s next for him and the company.
Q: How would you describe your experience as a Cal Poly student? How did it help to mold you into the leader you are today?
A: My engineering education at Cal Poly was invaluable. I was able to take advantage of “learning by doing,” and developed a “no fear” attitude. I learned that you can learn from your mistakes and become even better at what you do. I can’t thank my professors or the university enough for my Cal Poly education.
Q: Speaking of leadership, in what ways do you feel you have helped to shape and execute the vision of Raytheon?
A: Everything we do at Raytheon is guided by what we call our Vision, Strategy, Goals and Values (VSGVs). This is on a card many of us carry to constantly remind us. Raytheon’s VSGVs serve as our foundation, as well as our compass and a path for action. I also believe it’s vital for leadership to set an example as role models by practicing the VSGVs. By doing so, and communicating our commitment, we are able to foster a culture of trust, respect and inclusiveness.
Q: What do you count among your greatest professional accomplishments (while at Raytheon and elsewhere)?
A: There are so many things I’d point to in terms what the people of Raytheon have accomplished and that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of during my career. I am so proud to work for a company that provides critical technologies, systems and services that help our servicemen and women successfully complete their missions and come home safely. I would also count the transformation of Raytheon’s balance sheet over the past 10 years as an important accomplishment. And I’d like to point to the progress we’re making, at Raytheon and elsewhere, in supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to inspire a new generation of innovators.
Q: What are a few of the biggest challenges you face running a company with billions in dollars in sales and thousands of employees worldwide?
A: One of the biggest challenges is making sure that all of our roughly 70,000 members of the Raytheon team — from the factory floor to the corner office — are aligned around our strategy. We do this through a lot of communication, and not all top-down: Raytheon is made up of six large businesses and we do business around the world, so we employ multiple ways to get strategy and messages out to our teammates.
One of the most effective ways we initiate a strategic conversation with employees is through our internal town hall meetings and forums. These are hosted either by me or the senior leadership team and are often very engaging conversations.
Our newer generations in particular want to know why management is making the business decisions that we’re making, so we take the time to explain why. Never has it been so important for our leaders to engage in valuable face-to-face dialogue about our business with our employees, and despite their social media habits, our newer generations actually want more face-to-face time. This is healthy because they need the social skills to become leaders.
Q: The company has come a long way since the 1920s and its development of radio tubes; in what ways does Raytheon continue to be a leader in innovation and technology in its key markets? Who are your biggest clients?
A: Raytheon is in its 90th year as a perpetual engine of innovation and technology. I’m proud that throughout our history we’ve taken on some of our customer’s hardest problems.
We invest in and develop new capabilities that are aligned with our customers’ requirements. And in this current, value-driven environment, we also adapt our proven technologies for new and innovative applications.
We have a “platform-agnostic” strategy, which gives us the flexibility to place technologies and products on multiple platforms, vehicles and systems (whether they be satellites, planes, ships or networks).
Raytheon’s Innovation Challenge is a good example of how we support innovation. We put out a call to our employees for promising ideas that can solve tough challenges faced by customers or the market at large. We end up with hundreds of white papers and ideas, and the best are funded to support further inquiry. Ultimately, this has led to new research and development programs.
The majority of our sales are through contracts we fulfill for the Department of Defense, and we also do business in more than 80 nations. That amounts to more than 8,000 programs and 15,000 contracts.
Q: What’s new on the horizon for Raytheon? Anything you can share right now?
A: Our Space Fence initiative is just one example. The program will provide the U.S. Air Force with enhanced space surveillance capability to track and detect thousands of pieces of space debris.
Another program to keep an eye out for is our Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). The SM-3 is a defensive weapon used by the U.S. Navy to destroy short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles by colliding with them; a concept we like to say is akin to “hitting a bullet with a bullet.” The kinetic impact is the equivalent of a 10-ton truck traveling at 600 mph. To date, we’ve conducted more than 20 successful intercept tests using SM-3s.
We also plan to further grow our international business, and to invest in R&D to develop new capabilities in key markets such as missile defense; electronic warfare; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and cybersecurity.
Q: Where do you find most of your talent? Do you regularly look to Cal Poly for employees?
A: Our most important asset at Raytheon is our world-class people. So we’ve worked hard to become an employer of choice to attract and retain the best and brightest. We want to be a place where people want to work and build a career while tackling some of the most challenging technical work in the world. It’s about providing an atmosphere where everyone feels valued and empowered to reach their fullest potential to develop the innovative solutions our customers depend on. Part of our hiring process includes a University Programs team, which actively supports recruiting at select schools across the country, Cal Poly being one of them.
Q: When you talk to young people today, what do you tell them are the key ingredients for success, professionally and personally?
A: I believe there are four qualities that every leader should possess — confidence, dedication, integrity and love — with passion throughout. I think that if leaders can master these qualities, then they tremendously increase their potential for success. I also strongly believe in being a life-long learner. Be curious. Learn something new every day and from every experience.
Q: Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years, and what role do you think you'll be playing at Raytheon?
A: I find it hard to believe that I started with the company as it turned 50 years old, and this year we are celebrating its 90th anniversary. I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to help grow Raytheon during my time with the company. I am so proud to be a member of the Raytheon team and of everything we do for our customers who serve our nation to keep us all safe and secure. I look at life as an exciting journey. I will continue to be a life-long learner and an advocate for STEM education. I have many goals and passions, and aim to live life to the fullest no matter what I am doing.
Q: Finally, do you believe SLO County has the potential to become a “tech” hub? If so, what would it take to make that happen?
A: While it’s tough to predict the future, I do believe there is the opportunity for further growth in the technology sector here. The county has a lot of great things going for it: Cal Poly is a great incubator for technical talent; it produces a highly skilled workforce; and it is a foundation of innovative organizations. ... I believe active support of higher education and California’s universities, together with gaining commitment, investment and collaboration from county and state businesses, are sure catalysts toward achieving San Luis Obispo’s goals. Partnership and alignment across academia, government and industry are key success factors.