New Corning chief learns lessons of past

Last December, James Houghton, then chief executive of the glass company Corning, and Wendell Weeks, his heir apparent, dropped by the local chapter of the American Flint Glass Workers Union for some informal Christmas cheer.

Stephen Mandell Sr., president of the chapter, recalls making an offhand remark about quality problems at one of Corning's Steuben glass plants."Within 15 minutes Wendell was on the phone with the plant manager, asking what could be done to solve the problem," Mandell said. "Not a lot of CEOs would make that call themselves."

That kind of hands-on chief may be exactly what Corning needs. The company is doing well. But it was doing well in 2001, too, when its reliance on fiber optics almost made it a casualty of the telecommunications implosion.

This time, it is glass for flat-panel televisions and computers that could dominate the company. So perhaps the hardest job facing Weeks, 46, who officially took over in April, is to figure out how to eke every cent of profit from that booming market without hitching Corning's future to it.

"The top lesson I've learned," Weeks said in a recent interview, "is never let this company be about one product."

Among battle-scarred Corning employees, that caution gets a rousing amen. Many of them question the leadership skills of Weeks, his patience, even his grasp of strategy. But few, if any, doubt his ability to grasp details, pitch in and prevent another product disaster from almost scuttling Corning.

After all, this is a 154-year-old company whose whole raison d'être has been turning a low-technology substance - sand - into cutting-edge glass. It was a front-runner on the light bulb, on cathode-ray tubes for color televisions, ovenproof cookware, catalytic converters, optical fibers and, now, electronic glass.

"Most high-tech companies are looking to continually refresh existing products," said Steven Fox, an analyst at Merrill Lynch who has a "buy" recommendation on Corning's stock. "Corning is always looking for whole new applications for their materials."

This time, Weeks is hedging Corning's bets. He will continue to put 10 percent of sales into research, and flat-panel glass will get the biggest piece of that. But he is also putting money into various kinds of glass for use in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. And he is investing heavily in pollution-control devices for diesel cars and trucks that Corning expects will be huge sellers when U.S. diesel pollution laws start taking effect in 2007.

"We are giving flat-panel glass less than they are asking for, and we are giving diesel more than they are asking for," Weeks said.

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