Saturday, July 29, 2006

Mike Cudahy and Marquette

Our Dubai office – of four people – doesn’t have any dress code, no time clock. We have no objection if office refrigerator is stocked with alcoholic beverages or microwave is used for cooking. But we are a still far cry from this amazing company who did all this for 1000 plus factory+ office employees and also had a day care center within the office premises for employee’s kids.

The company was Marquette Electronics based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA producing high quality medical equipments and was one of the top 100 US companies to work during 80’s and 90’s. The architect of this unconventional method of managing this company was Mike Cudahy.

I didn’t work for Marquette but during my stint in Oman, I was involved in selling their products, interacting with their international division people and visiting their Milwaukee facility. I was fortunate to meet Mike Cudahy first at Wisconsin and later in Nice, France during distributor conference.

Mike started Marquette as an entrepreneur with capital of $15,000 and turned the company into $700 million annual sales global company that churned innovative and cutting edge technology products. He did this by simple ‘mantra’ of letting his employees to “reach for the stars.” Mike made it a point to get to know every one of his employees and make them feel comfortable around him. Trust and faith became prized possessions. He made alcoholic beverages available at all times to employees, explaining that it represented his trust in the employees. Neckties were absent from the company in favor of more casual attire such as shorts and sandals. Mike also allowed the construction of a daycare facility on-site so that moms don’t have to worry about their toddlers while attending the job. The company also frequently held plays and other fun activities to increase morale and make everyone feel more at home. R& D dept was perched on the tree top amidst thick woods not far from the factory and headoffice. Marquette exemplified that ‘company’s success is more about people and culture than business plans and process’. As a result, every Marquette employee was vivacious and passionate about the products he produced or sold. He demonstrated that people may or may not be endowed with natural talents and abilities but both can produce brilliant results — if they are treated exceptionally well. Mike Cudahy’s management style became Marquette’s culture that set new benchmark for How to treat employees like people and consider as tangible assets of the company.

By mid 1990’s Medical device industry was being driven more by computer software progress. With cut in US health care spending and fierce global competition, most small companies were getting gobbled by big ones. Mike perhaps realized that his predecessors may not be able to keep the momentum that he had set in terms of innovativeness and fast track growth. He sold the company in late 1998 to GE Medical at nearly twice the market value for Marquette stock and all of the stockholders became rich. Its unlikely GE would have continued with Marquette traditions of unique management style. Later in 2003, he bought back his research center to serve as a business and innovation incubator

Today, at youthful 78, Mike Cudahy still keeps a busy schedule with idea generation meetings, business lunches, fundraiser campaigns. After his retreat from Marquette, Mike set up Cudahy Trust Foundation with the goal of donating money intelligently to local charities and needy organizations. He donated millions of dollars to organizations like the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Marquette University, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

He has penned his journey in his autobiography: Michael J. Cudahy - Joyworks: The Story of Marquette Electronics and Two Lucky Entrepreneurs.

Here is a snippet from his interview on

Did you know what you wanted to do with your life when you were in high school? : MC: No, does anyone? I did have a passion for mechanical and electrical things. I became an AM radio operator when I was 12 and living in Ireland (through a school program). In those days, you had to build everything from scratch, the transmitter and receiver. You also had to be very careful not to electrocute yourself which I almost did a couple of times. The thrill after building these radios and wondering how it could possibly work, rigging it up with the antenna and having someone answer your call on the radio was ... pow! Absolutely the most electrifying thing that had even happened to me in my life. I talked to other countries on my radio as a little kid. It was great.

As a tip to all parents, if you can find a thing to electrify your child .. do it. Try it. Let them find something, medicine, electronics, space science or whatever. This will launch your child's thinking!

You've been married four times? If I may ask, what's up with that? : MC: As to my four wives, I really don't have much to say except ... if I had it all to do over, I doubt if I'd change much. After all, I lived with #3 (Nancy) for 23 years, and I'm still living with #4, Lisa, after 16 years. And I have five terrific kids!

How would you define leadership?: MC: It's a funny word. It's stepping up to plate, being unafraid of the consequences of stating your opinion. Being a leader is gathering momentum by gathering other people to follow your idea.

How do you define success? :MC: First of all, one of the biggest deterrents to success is a lack of confidence in the individual. 'It can't be done. Oh, I'll never get there. It's too big for me. I don't know anything or enough about it. The people I know who have been really successful have just said, 'Man the torpedoes. We're going to do it, and I don't care how. I'll learn as we go.' That kind of attitude is what is needed!

There is an awful lot that we teach in school and business school saying you have to be fully trained here and there ... I'm not sure you need to be that structured!

What do you do in your free time? : MC: I don't have any (he laughs). I train my dog.


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