Newton, MA —Many engineers dream of starting their own business. Bob Cervenka and Jim Truchard actually did it—and with great success.
Cervenka, a mechanical engineer, founded Wisconsin-based Phillips Plastics in 1964. Now, the multifaceted molder employs 2,100 and enjoys annual sales of about $270 million. Truchard, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering, used his research work at the University of Texas as the launching pad for National Instruments, which has parlayed the field of computer-based testing into a $330 million business with about 2,200 employees.
Both have created corporate cultures that thrive on innovation by putting people first. "When we started this company with a few molding machines in a converted creamery, our small band of former dairy farmers and housewives pitched in on everything," recalls Cervenka. "While we have gotten a lot bigger, respecting all our people and all that they do is still the foundation of our company. ''He urges his managers to take time to build relationships with people they mentor.
At Phillips, there are no private offices; a molding machine operator can see the business unit manager on the other side of a glass enclosure. At National Instruments, too, Truchard's office is an open cubicle, and like Cervenka, Truchard believes in "management by walking around."
Truchard sees his role now as being an agent for change, focusing on such trends as the internet and distributed automation. "I still get involved in a hands-on way in product development—but only if a project is moving too slowly.'' he says.
Both men were fortunate in that they could, in effect, "preview" the technologies they would eventually pursue as business owners. Cervenka learned a great deal from managing a metal engraving company's move into the field of decorative plastics. That gave him the confidence to pursue his own business niche—producing high quality injection-molded parts from new grades of engineering plastics.
Truchard, doing sonar research for the U.S. Navy, had to invent his own computer-based instruments. That experience gave him the vision to see the enormous potential for replacing conventional stand-alone test and monitoring devices with lower-cost "virtual instruments" based on computer hardware and software.
Phillips Plastics and National Instruments serve a broad range of markets. Cervenka has structured Phillips into several decentralized business units, typically with no more than 300 employees. A central technology center pioneers new products, processes, and automation techniques that can be applied to the business units. From injection molding, Phillips has expanded into such areas as precision decorating, multi-shot and insert molding, clean room molding, micro molding, and metal injection molding.
In recent years, National Instruments has focused on the internet, using the web for software downloads, upgrades, product configuration tools, and remote monitoring of test and automation equipment. "I'm now spending more time on internet technologies than I am on new products," says Truchard.
Advice for would-be engineer entrepreneurs? Says Truchard: "Know what you know and what you don't know, and get help where you need it." He himself is an avid reader of business books.
Cervenka stresses focus and commitment and gaining solid experience in a field before striking out on your own. And one more thing: "Stay on the leading edge of technology."
With their companies typically growing at the rate of 20% annually, the views of both these engineer-entrepreneurs have stood the test of time.