Purportedly an exclusive interview with Corning’s Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer, Tom Capek speaks so compellingly about his experiences at the materials science company that readers could be forgiven for assuming we asked him for a recruitment pitch. Mr Capek shares his account of learning on the job alongside some of the best and brightest in the glass industry, and explains why he then gets out of their way.

Tom Capek

GW: What first attracted you to the glass industry?

My formal education is in civil engineering (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) and physics (SUNY Oneonta). I joined Corning in 1986 as a glass melting engineer where I was immediately assigned numerous projects across the corporation.

I was originally attracted to Corning because of the interesting products and exciting engineering challenges. I was also attracted to the company’s values. Unlike many of the materials engineers traditionally hired during this time, I wasn’t specifically seeking a role in glass. I was an eager engineer who got excited by technical challenges and found exciting opportunities to use my skills.

I relocated to Harrodsburg, Kentucky in 1989 in a melting engineering role, and eventually led the melting department. I went on to become an operations manager and then plant manager at that same facility several years later. During this time, I was tasked with transforming the plant into a fully dedicated flat glass melting and forming facility.

Following the plant manager role, I went on to become the division engineering director for the company’s Display Glass Technologies business in 2003. I then was appointed division vice president and engineering director for our Glass Technology group in 2010. In 2014, I was appointed chief engineer of Corning and vice president of our corporate engineering organisation. Then in 2018, I was appointed to my current role, Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer for Corning.

GW: Has your career choice lived up to your expectations?

My decision to come to Corning nearly 40 years ago has more than surpassed any expectation I could have ever had as a young engineer. The places I have visited, the people that I have met along the way and the exciting engineering challenges have all left me with a tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction.

At the time, I probably didn’t anticipate that I would spend my entire career with the same company, but Corning offered me so many exciting challenges and new experiences that I never needed to consider other options. Becoming an expert in glass manufacturing was, like many great career experiences, an unexpected benefit of the career decisions that I made along the way.

GW: Has there been anyone who particularly inspired or influenced your career?

One of the best parts of Corning is the outstanding technical talent that we hire. During my career, there were so many coaches and mentors along the way, but also so many talented engineers that have joined the company that I have had the opportunity to coach and mentor.

I will say that I have been the most inspired throughout my career by those who helped me to focus on solving problems and getting the important things done. In addition, I had several great managers who helped to shape me into a leader that can break down complex issues into solvable challenges, helping me to see the big picture and develop a strong vision for the future while focusing on the importance of the journey.

GW: What would you consider your career highlights to date?

I’m lucky that I’ve had so many energising roles and challenges throughout my career. The career accomplishments that I have valued the most are the times that I got to solve real technical challenges and when I was a part of teams that scaled up high-volume manufacturing of some of the most technically complex products in the world. In addition, being named Chief Engineer was a major career milestone for me. It’s a true honour to lead some of the best engineers in the world in creating life-changing products.

GW: From your perspective, how has the glass industry changed since the 80s?

I have seen many changes throughout my career at Corning. Some of the most notable are certainly the globalisation of manufacturing. Corning has built a strong presence which is geographically distributed around the world. This has changed the way we work, and the way we structure our organisations. One of the things that engineers do best is to anticipate changing technology, and then find ways to optimise the utilisation of that technology to deliver products that the world needs.

In addition, the evolution of computers and systems has significantly evolved during my time as an engineer. While technological advances can certainly add productivity to many tasks, they can also add challenges and complexity to interpersonal interactions. As a result of this continued digitalisation, organisations need to continue to find new and interesting ways to engage team members and encourage collaboration in a world where their colleagues might be working in different countries around the world.

GW: How beneficial to your current role is your previous engineering experience? 
I have the best job. I get to spend my day mentoring and coaching outstanding leaders. I work with leaders who are outstanding people leaders, functional managers and technical leaders. That said, I often tell others, “I wish you could see the company through my eyes.” I get the opportunity to sit at the centre and understand the opportunities, challenges, products and processes around the company. I also help get our engineering leaders connected to the capabilities and experienced resources that they need to solve complex technical challenges and provide a significant intersection point between research and development, information technology, and the manufacturing and engineering functions. The organisation that I lead supplies seasoned and experienced engineers to programmes that support both our product and process development scale up activities and solve real-world manufacturing challenges.

GW: How would you describe your management style and leadership philosophy?

I believe in hiring the best people and then getting out of their way. I trust that the people that I hire are seasoned and solid, and in some cases, they are more technically expert in their field or business than I am. They don’t need me to tell them what to do. They need me to ask them questions that help them to determine their best path forward. Every now and again, they may need my help to knock down the obstacles that are inhibiting their career success and/or getting in the way of delivering the desired result and I’m always glad to engage in these situations. In short, my job is to hire the best people for Corning overall, and to provide them with an environment where they can work on interesting projects and deliver critical impact for the corporation.

GW: What are the key corporate goals in terms of engineering and how do they link to Corning’s overall sustainability strategy?

At Corning, we take a long-term approach to sustainability as we address key challenges of the moment and evolve to meet the needs of the future. Corning’s sustainability journey began 170 years ago with an emphasis on safety, innovation and community engagement. In recent years, we’ve expanded our scope to include a broader focus on renewable energy, reducing waste, and designing and manufacturing products with sustainable attributes in partnership with our customers. Our products and technologies enable us to make a significant, positive ‘handprint,’ which we define as a profound and positive impact outside our own direct actions. We are also using our innovation skills to introduce major new products that provide meaningful environmental and social improvements.

GW: Are any aspects of the manufacturing process currently the subject of special attention for improvement?

Process optimisation is a major focus area, especially for our more mature businesses. To better optimise our existing processes, we leverage state-of-the art digital tools such as data analytics, advanced controls and advanced modelling. While some areas still require a mix of legacy and newer processes, it takes creativity to make the necessary upgrades where they are needed. It is in times like these when the ingenuity of our engineers truly shines.

GW: How do you determine your priorities across the different glass sectors that Corning serves?

We develop deep relationships with our customers in the different sectors through our five Market Assess Platforms (MAPs). Within each MAP, there are dedicated business teams, each with corresponding technology teams. These teams typically run point for their priorities but reach out to corporate engineering for support with critical programmes. This approach gives us the ability to support a variety of programmes at the same time. In some cases, we will need to pace delivery or cancel efforts as the markets dictate but this speaks to the overall strength of our engineering structure, which gives us tremendous flexibility.

GW: What advice would you give young people considering a career in glass?

Be open to new experiences and challenges. Some of the best projects that I was on or roles that I filled weren’t in my career plan. I was always open to hearing out leaders when they had roles or opportunities in mind for me. I didn’t set out to be a plant manager, for example, but that was a role that I truly enjoyed and one that gave me the best leadership foundation for the role that I have today.

In addition, don’t be so busy looking for the next promotion or more money that you forget that your real value comes in the impact that you deliver to a company. Get the impact first, and the promotions and money will likely follow. Be the person who solves technical challenges. Be the kind of person that others like to work with. You don’t want to become the person that is technically brilliant, but very difficult for others to work with. If you are one of these people, sooner or later, the value that you bring will become outweighed by the baggage that you carry with you. If you collaborate and partner with others to solve challenges and deliver impact, you will be unlimited in your opportunities.

GW: And how is Corning addressing the challenge of attracting the next generation of engineers?

First and foremost, we focus on interesting work. We are known for our broad understanding of materials as well as our ability to design effective processes for complex technologies and projects. We also deliver technology that makes a significant impact on the world. These benefits on their own draw many talented engineers to our organisation. Engineers are also further attracted by the opportunity to grow internally within a company. Our engineers can specialise in engineering; they can also work in commercial, research, development, manufacturing, informational technology or functional roles. There are opportunities to work in early-stage programmes or with inventing new processes or products. They can manufacture, sell or distribute products. They can also get enriching experiences in a variety of engineering disciplines and broaden their scopes by working across many different business areas. In addition, those that want to develop deep subject matter expertise can get deep technical experience in a particular technical capability. Corning also has a strong global presence that is exciting to new engineers, and we are deeply invested in continuous improvement in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as sustainability. We are always focused on competitive compensation and benefits to offer our employees but have learned that those aren’t necessarily the things that keep an employee interested and challenged for a long-term career. The work that people do matters, and sense of value and being able to grow and develop individuals at work matters. We try to take all these areas into consideration as we grow and develop our engineers.

GW: With more and more automation being introduced into glassmaking, is the balance between revolutionising the manufacturing process versus optimising workforces correct?

Because of the mix of legacy and newer processes in our operations, we must be thoughtful about when and how we apply automation. With newer processes, we leverage the best-available automation, installed by our best-in-class talent, using the latest technologies which are tailored to specific operations in all facilities. While there will always be opportunities to do more or go faster, it’s more important that we look for the right return on investment, which is influenced by the different markets we serve and the prevailing balance between growth and stability of legacy operations.

GW: What are your views on how glass manufacturers and technology suppliers should work together, and can you share any good examples of such alliances?

We do more than just supply glass. Corning has deep relationships with our customers, who themselves, very often are leaders in their markets. We add value to these relationships with our deep technical understanding of their designs and applications as well as our deep history with glass and materials. Frankly, I don’t know that every company is able to do this the way we can, so I cannot say that this is the model, but I know it’s worked well for us.

GW: Do you have committee roles with any trade associations and do you believe such organisations have an important role to play in the industry?

While I’m not directly involved with trade or industry organisations, they play a critical role in the glass industry overall. Outside of Corning, I focus my efforts on working with several universities on growing their engineering capabilities and preparedness for various industries.

GW: What do you consider to be the future for glass as a material in the long term? And what will Corning’s role be in the decades to come?

Glass is arguably one of the most transformative materials of all time, and Corning has played a significant role over the course of its history in building that legacy. Glass is a ubiquitous material that plays a central role in our day-to-day lives. We interact with glass screens on our computers and smart phones, take photographs through glass lenses, transmit and receive information through glass fibres, protect materials in glass covers and containers, and incorporate decorative and functional glass elements into our homes.

Innovation has been the foundation of Corning’s ability to grow and change over the last 170 years. I strongly believe that Corning will continue to play a leading role in the glass and materials space to develop life-changing innovations for many decades to come.

Further Information: 

Corning Incorporated, Corning, NY, USA
tel: +1 607 974 9000
email: innovate@corning.com
web: www.corning.com