February 2, 1997 in Nation/World

Spokane Losing Strong Advocate Johnson Matthey Executive Directed Big Expansion Here

Michael Murphey Staff writer
 

Because Geoff Wild kept such a low profile as head of one of Spokane’s biggest and most dynamic high-tech companies, his name might not be included on the typical list of this city’s business elite.

Part of his relative anonymity is a product of the quiet Englishman’s personality, and part is the historical reserve of Johnson Matthey, the company he works for.

“We haven’t gone out of our way, really, to talk about our growth and success here,” Wild says, “largely because of the Johnson Matthey culture. When you are involved in precious metals, you don’t stand up and shout about it.”

But Wild - who will leave Johnson Matthey and Spokane this month - has had a profound and far-reaching effect on Spokane’s economic development over the past five years, during which Wild has become one of the most intense advocates attracting high-tech investment here.

Wild and his team at Johnson Matthey Electronics have convinced its London-based parent, Johnson Matthey Plc, to invest more than $100 million in their Spokane facility during that time.

Employment at the plant has increased from 180 six years ago to almost 700 today.

“We’ve added 70 people in just the last two weeks,” Wild says.

And Johnson Matthey’s Electronics Division has grown from a modest operation with about $50 million in sales to a business with 22 sites worldwide, employing more than 9,000 people, with annual sales in the range of $700 million.

With that growth, Wild’s responsibilities have grown as well. Now president of the entire electronics division, he travels the world from his Spokane base to oversee global operations.

Now, though, Wild is leaving Spokane and Johnson Matthey.

He will no longer be around to remind the home office in London of the attributes of their outpost in the Pacific Northwest.

But, he says, the Spokane operation is less in need of that sort of advocacy now because its performance speaks for itself.

“What we’ve tried to build at our different factories,” Wild says, “are centers of excellence. And there is no doubt that Spokane is Johnson Matthey’s center of excellence for anything involving metal fabrication, high purity materials, and infrared materials.

“As the semiconductor industry requires more of these products, Spokane must continue to grow and the company must continue to invest here.”

Wild leaves Johnson Matthey this week to become president of the electronic materials division of New Jersey-based Allied Signal Corp.

Like Johnson Matthey, Allied’s electronic materials group manufactures products used in the global semiconductor industry. It employs about 5,000 people, and like Johnson Matthey Electronics, does between $600 million and $700 million in sales annually.

“They want to do some acquisitions and build up their portfolio of businesses,” Wild says. “They want to pull together what they’ve already got to get synergy from it. And that’s very much what our team has done at Johnson Matthey for the last five or six years.

“We built it up into a really world-class operation, and to one of the most respected names in electronics materials in the world.”

Spokane operation blossomed under Wild

Back in 1989, when it acquired Cominco Ltd.’s Spokane manufacturing facility, Johnson Matthey Electronics was just a little piece of very big conglomerate.

Johnson Matthey Plc is a 175-year old, $3.5 billion corporation that built a global empire on precious metals trading. It is the world’s leading supplier of platinum, and a major manufacturer of automobile emissions catalysts.

In the late 1980’s Johnson Matthey’s global electronic materials sales totaled only $35 million.

What Johnson Matthey found in Spokane was an operation plagued with environmental problems that was losing $5 million per year. Wild suffered some initial culture shock as well, coming to Spokane from a Johnson Matthey operation in Singapore.

By 1992, though, Wild’s team had converted the Spokane plant’s $5 million loss to a $5 million operating profit, and global electronic materials sales had grown to $81 million.

But Wild and the company had larger designs. They wanted to be among the world’s elite suppliers to the semiconductor industry.

They have succeeded spectacularly.

The company produces high purity metals and metal products - called lids and sputtering targets - that are essential in manufacturing the microchips that drive computers and other electronic devices. The company is also involved in some of the most leading-edge high-tech research and development in the world in producing materials for infrared devices.

Wild calls it remarkable that in five years the Spokane Johnson Matthey operation has advanced from a machine shop-type operation to a producer of some of the most highly sophisticated materials in the world.

“In areas like sputtering targets, where five years ago Johnson Matthey was barely a player, we are recognized today as the world leader,” Wild says. “In Japan, in Korea, in Taiwan, Spokane is recognized as the technical headquarters of this technology. When customers want these kinds of products, they phone here first.’

Fascination for chemistry launched Wild’s career

The circuitous route that brought Wild to Spokane began near London with his childhood fascination for chemistry. He obtained a degree in the field, and landed a job as a forensic scientist with the Birmingham police force.

“I was sort of a Sherlock Holmes character,” Wild recalls.

He left that work to join Johnson Matthey as a chemist, but soon switched to sales so he could travel. The company sent him to Hong Kong on a temporary assignment that turned into 11 years throughout the Far East.

The Cominco acquisition brought him here.

Among Cominco’s local legacies was an ongoing environmental controversy over pollutants at the company’s Valley manufacturing plant.

Wild’s management team was quick to confront those issues.

“Very soon after I arrived we got a fairly sharp fine from one of the government agencies,” Wild says. “It was embarrassing for us. We are the world’s leading supplier of automobile emission catalysts. We are a company that sells pollution control devices.

“We had a management team that genuinely wanted to do the right thing, but (the fine) provided a kick up the backside for us to move even faster.”

In 1993 and 1996, the company won the Washington State Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Pollution Prevention.

Among the positives Wild and his team found at the old Cominco plant, though, was a culture highly oriented to customer service. That culture, and the work force the company has found in Spokane, are the keys to Johnson Matthey’s success here.

“We believe very much in listening to customers and then trying to react very fast to try and produce the products and services they want,” Wild says. “That’s been probably the reason behind the success of this site. The people here jump so fast.”

The company’s current expansion here, he says, is driven by the plant’s ability to react quickly to new industry demands for thermal control products.

“As (semiconductor) chips get bigger, they put out more heat,” Wild explains, “and you need metal products in order to get the heat dissipated. And the Spokane site will grow substantially in that area over the next few years.

“And the reason they’ll get that business is that they reacted so much faster than anybody else.”

Departing executive salutes can-do spirit

Wild says he finds it particularly difficult to leave a Spokane work force that, he says, embodies “a talent and an entrepreneurial spirit that is unique in all our operations worldwide.”

But with 16 years of Johnson Matthey service, Wild found himself growing restless.

“I guess the year 2000 coming up had something to do with it,” he says, “and then I turned 40 last year.”

So when Allied presented “an offer too good to refuse, really,” he decided to move on. He will relocate to the San Francisco Bay area.

While Spokane’s future within Johnson Matthey Electronics is assured, its long-term future as the division’s corporate headquarters is not so clear.

Wild’s successor is Mike Cleare, who currently lives in Philadelphia. If Cleare relocates, Wild says, it will most likely be to the Minneapolis area.

“I think Spokane will remain the headquarters for the foreseeable future,” Wild says, “but with our acquisitions, we now have between 2,500 and 3,000 people in Minneapolis. So that is becoming quite a center for Johnson Matthey Electronics operations.”

Meanwhile, as the person responsible for expanding Allied Signals electronics operations, Wild says he will keep Spokane in mind.

“I think that if any company, Allied or anybody else, is looking around for an area where the skill base is available, where the climate for investment and building is good, Spokane bears consideration,” Wild says.

“Johnson Matthey is very pleased with its investment here.”

And the biggest asset the area has to offer, he says, is its people.

“Johnson Matthey undeniably has sites where you come up with ideas and people think of reasons you can’t do it,” he says. “But here, the whole mentality is, ‘Get out of the way, we’re going to do this.’

“It’s been such an exhilarating ride. It’s been phenomenally fun.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)


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