Nov. 26, 2014

Research, innovation allows Corning to thrive, says CEO

Wendell Weeks
Robert Barker/University Photography
Corning Inc. CEO Wendell Weeks gives Cornell’s 27th annual Lewis B. Durland Memorial Lecture on campus Nov. 17.

Corning’s commitment to innovation and its ability to reinvent itself have allowed the company to thrive for 163 years in an environment in which it is increasingly difficult for businesses to remain relevant long term, said Wendell P. Weeks, chairman and CEO of Corning Inc. Weeks delivered Cornell’s 27th annual Lewis B. Durland Memorial Lecture on campus Nov. 17.

One of the Corning’s innovations is a flexible glass that could be used in high-end, rollable displays such as those featured in the company’s viral video, “A Day Made of Glass,” Weeks said.

“This is a piece of glass that will form the basis of the first flexible displays that are commercially viable,” Weeks said as he slowly bent a small sheet of glass before an audience of about 140 people.

The flexible glass represents the direction the company has followed to achieve its success: investing in research and development while collaborating with customers to create products that solve technology challenges.

Weeks outlined four strategies that allow companies to thrive in what he called “a world of creative destruction”: understanding why your institution is here, organizing staff to deliver that core message, collaborating with others who share your vision, and having a clear framework for guidance.

This approach helped Corning develop one of its key products, Gorilla Glass, a durable material used to shield a variety of mobile devices. Corning began experimenting with chemically strengthened glass in the 1960s but was unable to find a viable commercial application. In 2005, Weeks explained the material to Steve Jobs, and the late Apple co-founder and CEO said he wanted to use it for the first iPhone. Corning modified the glass composition, developed a new engineering process, and Gorilla Glass was born. Less than a decade later, the glass is used in more than 3 billion mobile devices and is being incorporated into a broad range of other applications from automobiles to architecture.

Discussing Corning’s customer collaborations, Weeks said: “Most great things that are done are done in groups, teams, institutions, companies, cultures, great universities. We celebrate the individual, but that’s actually never the true story.”

Corning’s ability to respond to market needs has enabled the company to grow after weathering economic declines that have occasionally reduced demand for some of its products. Today, the company employs more than 30,000 people worldwide and in 2013 had $8 billion in revenue.

Soumitra Dutta, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, said he hopes the relationship between Corning and Cornell will be strengthened in the future. Corning employs 150 Cornell alumni, said Christy Pambianchi ’90, Corning’s senior vice president of human resources.

The Durland Lecture is sponsored by Johnson.

Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer.