ABB Users Converge in Houston

Executives at the annual ABB user’s conference cite core strengths, target North American market.

About 1,700 people, including around 700 end-users and another 400 partners, converged on Houston April 19-21 for the ABB “Automation World” end-user conference, to learn about new products and services from the Zurich-based company, as well as to participate in training and user feedback sessions. The theme this year was “Results-Driven Automation.”

ABB Group Chief Executive Officer Fred Kindle delivered the opening keynote. His main point was that results are a consequence of many factors, but that the most important one is relationships. User conferences are a valuable relationship-building tool. Acknowledging ABB’s declining fortunes from about 2000 to 2003, and that he only joined the company 10 months ago, Kindle said that he did his due diligence before signing on, and found much core strength in ABB. Strengths include market position, relations with key customers, products, strong brand recognition and good people.

He reported that today, the company is fully emerged from past problems. The company has about $22 billion in sales, with about 9 percent margin in automation, and 7 percent in power products. The only thing holding its bond rating below investment grade is the continuing asbestos liability derived from its 1990 acquisition of Combustion Engineering. The company is taking active steps to develop a final resolution to that problem. The stock rating, according to Kindle, is now rated investment grade.

The company's strategies going forward include investment in research and development, strengthening market channels, improving operational performance, strengthening its position with core customers, and developing high value-add services.

Targeting North America

Dinesh Paliwal, head of Group North American operations, based in Norwalk, Conn., and leader of the global automation business for ABB, told a group of assembled editors during the conference Thursday that the company is targeting North America as a key market for continued corporate growth.

Joining Paliwal were North American business area managers Roger Bailey (Process Automation), Greg Scheu (Automation Products) and Bo Elisson (Manufacturing Automation). While acknowledging the two-year-old turnaround in business, the group noted that moving the company's broad and diverse product base to modern technology is the most important objective. "With the majority of projects being brownfield these days," said Paliwal, "our large installed base is a key strength."

Paliwal laid out ABB North America's strategy as: securing core business, leveraging and enhancing installed base with performance-based services, accelerating deployment of automation, developing new partner channels and focusing on key accounts.

Make partnerships work

In another opening keynote, Margaret Walker, vice president of engineering, at The Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich., discussed the ways in which ABB and Dow leveraged their strategic partnership to develop new controller technology. Technology must be there, she told attendees, or the collaboration can't even start. But it was the relationship that developed between the companies that allowed the project to be real, she said. "Relationship drives sustainable results," was the Walker dictum.

And just what makes a relationship successful? Like marriage, family or any other relationships, there are five pillars, according to Walker:

• Time and energy

• Shared vision

• Trust

• Communication

• Conflict resolution.

She noted that the first meeting between the two companies involved about 90 people. Walker laid down the following ground rules: no chairs, no tables, no PowerPoints (she used none for her speech, either)—only flip chart paper and “the kind of markers that smell good.” People were given 15 minutes to draw a picture of what the shared vision would look like—no talking allowed. Then each briefly explained their pictures.

They didn't throw the pictures out after the meeting, but instead laminated them. They were posted for each subsequent meeting to serve as a constant reminder of the goal of the undertaking.

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