Tell Us More: Elisabeth Smith '04
This ambitious Haverford alumna talks about her goals and the challenges that come with being an aerospace industry CEO.
Taking on big challenges isn’t new to Elisabeth Smith. Haverford was the only college she applied to for her undergraduate education in economics, which included a year of study at the London School of Economics. She persuaded her now-wife to move from Brazil to the colder climes of Michigan after years of a long-distance relationship; and at 34 she has already held positions at Washington-based consulting firms as well as global manufacturing giants such as Sikorsky Aircraft and Pratt & Whitney.
Now, Smith may be facing one of her biggest challenges yet. In December 2014 she was named president and CEO of Acutec Precision Machining, Inc., a machining and parts supplier to the aerospace and power-generation industries based in Meadville, Pa. (near Lake Erie), that her father, Rob Smith, helped found.
In its first two decades, the company grew from about 20 employees to more than 450, and from one manufacturing location to three, and expanded its capabilities to secure bigger contracts from its consolidating customer base. Now Smith is leading the charge to increase revenue from a little under $80 million to $100 million by 2020—a 30 percent growth spurt over the next four years.
To that ambitious project, Smith is adding her own goals of growing a diverse workforce from the ground up, with a near-term aim of wooing more women into manufacturing and tech fields.
It’s a lot to take on, Smith acknowledges. But, she says, “We are doers.”
What was the catalyst for joining the family business?
I started [working at the company] as an intern in high school and then after my freshman year in college, working in quality and continuous improvement, but I really wanted to go outside of this small town. I really loved econometrics; my undergrad thesis was on the gender wage gap among female executives, and my first job out of college was actually in economics litigation. But I went to an [aerospace industry event] in 2005 and was just blown away by two things: one, the airplanes are really awesome, and, two, there were no women anywhere.
There is new research that indicates if a female leads the company or is in an executive position, more women will be promoted behind them, and they are paid better. I thought, “Hey, I really have an opportunity to sort of pave the way,” and from there I really knew that is what I wanted to do.
How do you attract more women, and build greater diversity in manufacturing?
It is a challenge. [Young women] think of [our industry as being only] 50-year old men. That is what I am fighting. So I try to get out there and show them that we are a forward-thinking, technologically advanced company that uses million-dollar computers to cut metal.
That kind of change takes time, but I am really inspired by what large companies like Alcoa have done. They recognize that having a diverse working environment actually leads to a better return on investment and larger profits. Diverse teams work better; they challenge each other more. So I have really learned a lot, and I want to model some of that here. I am just getting started.
You talked about being the only woman in the room; but you are also typically the youngest and one of the few from the LGBT community in manufacturing leadership. Has that affected how you deal with your team on the plant floor, and how they deal with you?
I shrug those things off. On the plant floor, oftentimes they know more than you do. It’s about respecting their knowledge. You have to know that you are not the first one to go through and say you want to make some changes. They know their stuff. I made a point of getting them to teach me what they know and asking them sincere questions and using that information—it’s really about listening and respect. Respect goes a really long way.
It sounds like you are working toward an empowered workplace.
Yes, people are empowered. We don’t have engineers on the floor making changes; we have the machine operators themselves—the team leaders—make changes. People are improving things themselves. Whatever we can do to instill that value in them is great.
A couple of years ago, our IT manager got an offer from an IT consulting company. He came to me and said, “I have accepted the job and you likely can’t afford what I would be getting.” I said, “No, I can’t, but how would you like to start your own consultancy company right now?” He ended up staying here and we started his company. It’s really exciting to be part of an IT startup, and we were able to hold on to him.
There is a lot of great opportunity here. There is no reason why we should wait for somebody else to create it. We can just create it ourselves.
Are there other guiding philosophies you use to lead the company?
Rob, my father, had four philosophies. First: Always be lucky. It’s that idea of preparing for luck, recognizing when you’re lucky, and taking advantage of that luck. We did that by adding on capability and not just being a machine shop, but adding painting and coating, X-ray and weld—we set ourselves up to be able to take on larger programs.
Second: Wake up paranoid every morning. We compete globally. We always have to improve how we do things. We always have to strive to be the leanest, most flexible, adaptive group that we can, and we stay hungry.
Third: There will always be change. With our company, we’ve doubled in size since 2010; there’s been a lot of change. My father took the company from 20 mph to 80 mph, and I’m taking it from 80 mph to 140 mph. Change can wear on you, but it’s a constant.
Fourth: Life is unfair—learn that while you’re young. That’s the resiliency that we have to understand. Circumstances change. If you don’t compete and change too, you could be a dinosaur tomorrow. Things aren’t going to go our way all of the time, but we have to learn from them and move on.
I have really taken these ideas to heart and continue to advocate and run the company with this mindset.
How did Haverford prepare you to take on this challenge?
Haverford was the only school I applied to. [I liked] the egalitarian mindset—that everybody was open to engaging with each other. It felt like a family. That was an asset going in that was very important for me. But [former Professor of Economics and Provost] Linda Bell’s advising was a huge influence on where I ended up. Haverford was intimidating for me. I was from a small town in Pennsylvania; I didn’t know that I really belonged there. Professor Bell was so real. She had gone to all of these fancy schools, but she was a real person. It made me think I could do this, too.