For a person who has spent 32 years with one firm, Mike Roman has an eclectic CV. {An electrical} engineer by coaching, he has managed a transportation methods laboratory, run a safety enterprise in Belgium, presided over an optical methods operation from South Korea, launched a renewable vitality unit and bought industrial adhesives. 

Solely at 3M would such a background appear like a strategic profession path to the chairman and chief government’s workplace. The previous Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing firm, based in 1902 to excavate a mineral utilized in sandpaper, now spans industries from pet care to automobile security, even when it stays finest recognized for its Publish-it notes and Scotch tape. 

That breadth provides 3M a window into so many corners of the world financial system that Wall Road sees it as an essential bellwether. However, regardless of its roughly $100bn market capitalisation and greater than 90,000 staff, it has been the type of firm the place a CEO who prefers a low profile can take pleasure in one. 

That modified abruptly for Mr Roman in March when considered one of its 60,000 product traces grew to become the world’s most in-demand merchandise nearly in a single day. 

3M has made N95 respirators, whose electrostatically charged fibres filter out dangerous particles with unusual effectivity, for many years. It usually bought 90 per cent of them to prospects in factories and on constructing websites. However when coronavirus swept from Wuhan to Washington state and past, the world’s hospitals wanted that merchandise of non-public protecting gear in portions that 3M had by no means produced earlier than. 

Inside weeks, Mr Roman needed to rework the speed at which his firm was making N95s and overhaul their distribution, in order that 90 per cent had been going to not industrial customers however to healthcare professionals. 

Mr Roman is without doubt one of the uncommon executives whose firm had ready for a pandemic. Having seen the demand for respirators through the Sars outbreak of 2002-3, “we invested in capability: capital gear that was largely idle over the following 15 years”, he explains.

By late-January, at the same time as he was saying 1,500 job cuts and a quarterly earnings miss after Covid-19 hit its gross sales in Asia, he was in a position to convert dormant areas of 3M’s factories to double its N95 output. By mid-February, the corporate was producing at a charge of 100m a month. 

However demand quickly outstripped capability once more, and as nations, states and particular person hospitals raced to safe scarce provides, Mr Roman was thrust into the political highlight. 

In early April, after experiences that 3M had refused to divert hundreds of thousands of N95s from Asia to the US, Donald Trump weighed in. “We’re very disenchanted in 3M. They need to be taking good care of our nation,” the president raged, warning that the corporate would have “a hell of a value to pay” if it didn’t do higher by its house nation. 

The blast of America First logic, which prompted ugly social media feedback about Mr Roman, posed an excessive problem to a studiously on-message government schooled within the bland company language of “native for native” manufacturing. 

Requested about that second now, he’s reluctant to disclose what strain he felt. “We . . . learnt that the highlight on management on this pandemic actually had extra expectations,” he says with diplomatic understatement. “We’ve at all times labored in partnership with authorities [but] this one actually took on a brand new dimension.” 

It fell to Mr Roman to reassure staff, and to step up his communications with the surface world about an organization he instantly found was not nicely understood. “The narrative on the market had some issues that weren’t truthful about 3M. Folks didn’t know us,” he says. 

3M produces almost all of what it sells within the US contained in the nation, he says. However although the cost that it had betrayed Individuals by transferring manufacturing offshore had been unfounded, he felt he wanted to rebut them. “Communications was important each step of the best way,” he says. 

There have been three different important parts to his response. First, having turned on idle equipment to double N95 manufacturing to 35m masks a month for the US alone, he got down to double it once more. 

An $80m funding from 3M and $200m in funding from the US Division of Protection introduced US manufacturing to about 50m N95s a month by June. It has since upped the speed to about 100m a month, thanks partly to new gear, which it began working on the producer’s facility to keep away from losing time transport it. “We’ve carried out in weeks what would have taken months,” Mr Roman says.

In the meantime, 3M was constructing bridges with the Trump administration by working with the US Federal Emergency Administration Company to import nearly 230m N95s from factories abroad between April and October. 

Mr Roman’s workforce was combating on a 3rd entrance: to establish price-gouging retailers and take down tens of 1000’s of internet sites fraudulently claiming to be 3M distributors, which risked damaging its model.

“The training for me was we actually needed to step up our management, not simply in manufacturing,” he recollects. “Everyone was reacting and studying as we went.” 

Mr Roman was studying these classes whereas juggling calls for acquainted to many CEOs on the time, equivalent to the best way to function factories safely within the pandemic, and the best way to hold workplace employees productive whereas working from house. Slower demand for merchandise as numerous as workplace provides and oral care gear added to the problem, forcing 3M to chop working prices, sluggish advertising spending and give attention to defending its money circulation. 

However he was helped, he says, by the truth that he had rallied his administration workforce in January round three priorities to drive 3M’s response: give attention to defending worker security; “battle the pandemic from each angle” with its merchandise; and proceed to ship for patrons and shareholders.

Sustaining the tradition of innovation in an organization staffed by scientists has been simply as important as responding to the pressures this yr has thrown at its management. “Every thing that differentiates 3M begins with folks, so if we aren’t persevering with to make 3M a spot the place the very best expertise needs to be we aren’t transferring ahead,” Mr Roman says.

That tradition, and people folks, ought to imply that 3M delivers 2bn N95 respirators around the globe this yr — 3 times what it shipped in 2019. 

A brand new wave of Covid-19 circumstances is overwhelming hospitals once more and can check 3M anew within the coming months. However Mr Roman’s response has gained over one early critic. In April, as Mr Trump introduced the Fema partnership to import extra respirators, he concluded: “The 3M saga ends very fortunately.”

Three questions for Mike Roman

Who’s your management hero?

I grew up in Wisconsin so I at all times admired Vince Lombardi’s dedication to excellence and had his poster on my wall. [The Green Bay Packers coach led the team to five NFL championships and two Super Bowls.] American soccer for me was actually a lesson in teamwork . . . Generally he didn’t even have the best expertise and he nonetheless gained. 

If you weren’t a CEO, what would you be?

Baseball was my past love. Early on, if folks requested me I might have stated a major-league baseball participant. [But] I’d nonetheless be a enterprise chief. Enterprise is unbelievable. It provides you a lot rewarding paths and you’ve got a capability to convey collectively an curiosity in folks and management and my engineering background provides me insights into enterprise.

What was the primary management lesson you learnt?

The primary management classes I take into consideration are in my youth and so they had been sports activities associated. I bear in mind seeing examples the place management made the distinction between profitable and dropping. I performed on groups that had been nicely coached that beat groups with higher expertise . . . that’s a management lesson that I’ve [carried with me].