William Christopher arrived in Cleveland in 1996 charged with the task of helping determine whether Alcoa’s aging Cuyahoga Heights facility had a future with the company. He decided the answer was yes, and the then-president of the Pittsburgh-based aluminum giant’s Wheel and Forged Products Division marshaled the plant’s workforce and large-press capabilities to turn a good heavy-truck wheel into a great one and grow the business from $400 million to $700 million without a single acquisition.
When a 50,000-ton hydraulic press broke down at the facility in 2008, Christopher was serving as Alcoa executive vice president and president of the company’s Engineered Products and Solutions Group. The plant’s performance and community and state support helped secure the $68 million needed for repairs — $20.6 million of which came in the form of loans, grants and tax breaks from state, county and local agencies.
Those successes prompted the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the region’s largest chamber of commerce and nonprofit economic-development organization, to recruit Christopher for a two-year term as its chairman in 2010. Since late 2011, Christopher has worked with more than 150 leaders from business, foundations, higher education and the public sector to create a Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy, to guide investments in economic development.
Now retired, the 59-year-old Moreland Hills resident sat down with us to talk about his climb up the corporate ladder, the opportunities he sees in heavy industry and how we all play a part in polishing our region’s image.
My childhood was interesting.
I was born in Ridley Park, right outside of Philadelphia. But my dad always wanted to live in Alaska. So he went up with a bunch of buddies and got himself somewhat settled. And then my mom, my sister, my one brother and I moved up in 1959, just as it was becoming a state. We lived in a trailer.
We lived in Alaska
for seven years … in a suburb of Anchorage. Anchorage was the largest city [in Alaska], but it was still less than a 100,000 people. By Alaska standards, it was city life. By most standards, it was pretty rural life. Everybody was very independent.
It gave me a lot of confidence
in feeling that you can live anywhere. It’s what you make out of it.
“Look, if you have an accounting degree, that’s the best way to get started in business. You’ll understand the financial side of it.” And, as my wife always says, I love logic. Everything has to balance.
I was lucky enough
to get an offer from Alcoa at a time when jobs were pretty tough to come by, and I jumped on it. I started as an internal auditor. I talk to my kids, and they say, “Well, I’d like to start here with this kind of job.” And I’m like, “I just wanted a job!”
In internal audit,
you got a chance to go visit and do work across the company. So you got a chance to learn the company very well and meet a lot of people. It opened some doors.
I remember the first operating job
I took [at Alcoa’s Davenport, Iowa, facility]. Everybody was saying, “You don’t want to take that job. Wait for an easier one. They just put this new mill in; it’s not working. They’re putting another new mill in; it’s behind schedule. You take this job and you’re just going to kill yourself trying to fix this stuff.”
Those things just energize me.
I loved that. I thought it was great. Then you can measure the impact that you and your organization are having.
When I got [to Cleveland],
the roofs leaked so badly when it rained that our equipment operators had to have umbrellas over their heads. Every major press we had broke in the first nine months I was here — for extended periods of time. There was no meaningful relationship between the management and the hourly workforce.
When we were able
to get a group of people working toward a common goal and agreeing on how it could be done, gave them the resources to do it and then gave them the recognition when they were successful, there were very few things that we took on that we couldn’t get done.
Your ability to compete
when there’s newer technology that’s better than yours, but incredibly expensive, is very difficult.
You have to say,
“If I’m locked into this technology, then are there ways to differentiate the product? Are there ways to differentiate my relationship [with customers]? Are there ways to differentiate my service?”
Even though there may be a labor
advantage other places in the world, logistics eat a lot of that up. So manufacturing in the U.S., close to the market, is actually resurging. There’s been tremendous improvement in the quality of U.S. manufacturing. So there’s really no reason why it can’t be incredibly competitive.
Our ability to really harness
the growth that we see coming is the single biggest issue: getting the right workforce, getting people who are here with the right skills, affording the right kinds of talent.
If we don’t,
then we’ll miss the growth curve. If we do, I think we can actually reverse the trends we’ve seen for the past 20 or 30 years.
Cities can’t just work.
They have to work and live. We have to be able to provide opportunities for these kids, and the kids have to go through a school system that’s going to give them the right kinds of preparation for those opportunities. So [the Cleveland Metropolitan School District] has got to be fixed.
My two or three or four
biggest mistakes were delaying decisions that should have been made — that were obvious — because I just wanted to give the plant one more chance or the business one more chance. I probably erred on the side of making sure that every avenue for success was proven not to be there.
In some cases,
had I made the decision earlier, the plant or the business would have been more desirable to a strategic owner.
People who have lived here
a long time say, “The first people we’ve got to convince this is a great place is the people who live in Northeast Ohio.” Yeah, there’s something to be said for that.
What sells places
is how many advocates you have. How many people live in Northeast Ohio? And then you talk about all the places they go. If all of them raved about where they lived, think about the impact it can have in terms of marketing.