Collins Delivers Commencement Address

CEM President Delivers Commencement Address at the University of Texas at Austin Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Graduation

This is a prepared text of the Commencement address to the University of Texas at Austin’s Chemistry/Biochemistry Department Graduation, delivered by Michael J. Collins, President and CEO of CEM Corporation, on May 20, 2011.

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Having Fun Doing the Impossible

Good afternoon and thank you very much. I am honored to be with you today addressing the graduating class at one of the finest universities in the world. As I stand here today looking out at you, I am very much reminded of myself sitting in your place many years ago. What I would like to share with you today is my journey, which is still on-going, and describe what it has meant to me and how it has shaped my thinking and overall perspective.

In addition, I want to discuss and contrast the world you are entering today versus the one I faced as my journey began. I hope you will find my remarks interesting and useful.

My father was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved often as I was growing up. I attended 13 different schools during my 12 years of pre-college schooling. I also flunked the first grade, but I did have an excuse missing three months of school in moving back from Germany.

My first job was a paper route at age 12 which helped teach me a lot about business. I had approximately 125 customers, but because it was on an Air Force base there was a high customer turnover with most people being transferred every six months to a year. I had to constantly get new subscriptions to maintain the business and also diligently collect money on a monthly basis. There were always some collection problems and I found it very intimidating as a 12-year-old to try and resolve these issues with Air Force officers and their wives. It was good training in learning how to deal with customers. It taught me a lot about people, cash flow, and how you sustain a successful business.

I started college as an engineer because my Dad was an engineer and had graduated from MIT. Fortunately, as part of the engineering program I took an introductory chemistry course during the first semester. This chemistry course changed my life. I was fascinated with the subject and fell in love with chemistry. I also hated the engineering course I was taking at the time and was also not doing well in it. I dropped the engineering course and changed my major to chemistry. This was an important, but difficult, decision because I felt pressure to pursue engineering and felt like I had failed. The lesson learned is to find something you have a true passion for and then pursue it at all costs.

Besides chemistry, two of my most interesting and important undergraduate courses were philosophy and economics. These courses broadened my interests to include business, as well as my love of chemistry. In my senior year, I considered going to medical school because MD’s were making lots of money, but ultimately decided on graduate school because of my passion for chemistry and my increasing interest in business. The lesson here is to follow your heart and your passion.

I spent four and one-half great and enjoyable years at UT-Austin getting my PhD in physical chemistry. During this time, more than anything I learned how to think creatively, logically, and to become a better problem solver. I also spent many late nights after leaving the lab at Shultz’s Beer Garden having some very interesting and stimulating discussions with fellow students and professors. I hope that tradition still remains at UT. I want to recognize and thank Dr. Boggs, my major professor who is here today and was a great mentor during my time in graduate school. I worked on three different research projects before I finally succeeded. This taught me to keep trying and learn from my failures. When I finally had my “eureka” moment on my last project, it was very exciting and satisfying.

Fortunately, I had a number of job offers when I graduated and accepted a position with Celanese Corporation, a multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 company located in North Carolina. North Carolina was somewhere I had never lived, but had heard good things about, and Celanese was in a major expansion mode. I received great training at Celanese in R&D and also in sales and marketing including extensive international experience. Without this experience, I would never have been successful in starting my own company.

I met two engineers at Celanese and the three of us started “moonlighting” on a product idea related to scientific instrumentation, which was outside of Celanese’s core business. We worked out of a garage belonging to one of the engineers, actually a very small garage, on weekends and in the evenings. Finally after several years, I felt we had a viable product and was able to convince the other two to go full time into our own business. The lesson here is find something you believe in and go for it. Be willing to take the risk.
We all left very secure jobs at Celanese with only our limited savings and a loan from my college roommate, which would fund us for about six months of operation. My boss at Celanese was shocked and surprised I was leaving and told me they would hire me back once I got this crazy idea out of my system. My first son had also just been born one week before I left my secure job at Celanese. My wife said she knew I would never be happy if I didn’t do this and told me to go for it and that she totally supported the decision. Without her support, it wouldn’t have happened. At the time I made this decision, I had no doubt that it was the right thing to do and that we would be successful.

As we began developing our initial products and bringing them to market, we would continually hear from various people that what we were trying to do was impossible. It had never been done before and many people were skeptical. Once we finally succeeded, the Walt Disney quote, “it’s kind of fun doing the impossible” became our mantra.
Once we got started, the company began to grow and we became very successful and eventually went public. For the next five years, we continued to grow and opened three subsidiaries in Europe. Then, in the late ‘90s, our growth slowed and we began to feel the pressure of an underperforming public company. This pressure came from our Board of Directors, shareholders, analysts and the relentless quarterly earnings estimates. These were all major distractions that severely impacted the business. The easy and safe path would have been to cash out and sell the business.

I passionately believed in the business and knew I could take it to another level if I could get it out of the public arena. Fortunately, I was able to buy the business in a highly leveraged deal, which required me to borrow $20 million dollars and provide all kinds of personal guarantees. I totally bet my future on this one. The lesson here is don’t be afraid to take big risks when you truly believe in something.

Buying the business back was like starting all over again and we quickly regained our focus and began to truly innovate again. It reminded me of Steve Jobs’ story when he was fired from Apple Computer and had to start over again creating a new company called NeXT and Pixar. He said, “it was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it” and it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him.
Since going private, the company has almost tripled in size in the past 10 years and the entire $20 million dollar debt was totally paid off in less than six years. We have become one of the leading scientific instrument companies with annual worldwide sales approaching $80 million dollars and 275 employees worldwide.

Lessons learned from all of these experiences and the journey so far are:

Be optimistic! Be passionate! Be bold! And, be the best at whatever you do!

I want to comment now on the differences between the world today and the world as it was when I started my journey. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the US economy was in a severe recession, which was even worse than we have experienced in the last few years. This followed a 25 year period of rapid expansion after World War II. The term “stagflation” was used to describe the severity of the recession, which resulted in 9.7% unemployment, 13.5% inflation and 18% interest rates. The country was in a malaise and the general feeling was that our best days were definitely behind us and the US was destined to lose its preeminence in the world. It was projected that Japan and Germany would overtake us economically by the end of the ‘80s decade.

And then, an amazing thing happened. The US economy took off in the mid-‘80s led by the technology boom and the greatest wealth creation in the history of mankind occurred for the next 25 years until 2007. All the great companies we talk about today, Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Cisco, Google, FedEx, and Walmart are less than 25 years old and were created during this period of great expansion.

Clearly now we are still in a period of slow growth, but I am very optimistic about the future. As has always happened, I believe we will enter another period of rapid growth in the next five years which will last for 25 years. This new surge will be driven by a renaissance in basic science and technology. During this period an equal number of new start-up highly successful companies will emerge, as did during the last expansion. Twenty-five years from now most of the really great companies you will be talking about do not even exist today. That is truly an exciting and amazing prospect.
All of you are entering the market at a most exciting time. On the chemistry/ biochemistry front, I see three main drivers of growth and innovation. There will be dramatic breakthroughs in the life sciences and biosciences areas, as our understanding of these processes at the molecular level continues to expand. Material science based on advances in nanotechnology will impact a wide range of new applications including everything from the life sciences to new energy technologies. Technology will continue to transform the world we live in and most of the transformational innovations will be chemistry and biochemistry based. All of you have chosen a great field of endeavor and your futures should be very bright.

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Be passionate, think big, don’t be afraid to fail and have fun doing the impossible.

As you each begin your journeys, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails and explore, dream, and discover!

I wish each of you all the best in the future!

Thank you.