It’s a lonely job sometimes, being CEO, when you don’t have peers anymore to talk to in your company. That’s why when Nish Vartanian became the ninth leader of the century-old MSA Safety, his board encouraged him to reach out to other CEOs.
Vartanian has been amazed by the response. Growing his network of current and retired CEOs since becoming MSA’s president and CEO in May 2018, he now has people to provide input, help and feedback.
“One of the things I never anticipated was my access to the other CEOs and other business leaders in town and being able to use them for a sounding board,” he says, adding that he’s enjoyed being a part of the Allegheny Conference for Community Development.
In fact, he recently joked with his wife that he wants to take a week’s vacation and set up golf days with two or three CEOs or former CEOs, just to pick their brains.
Along with creating a network of sounding boards, Vartanian has learned to deal with an independent board. Because board members are unrelated to the business, they often have different perspectives, he says, and you have to be ready to answer surprising questions.
That’s where data are invaluable.
“As a salesperson, I would go with gut instincts on a lot of things,” says Vartanian, who joined the company in 1985 as a sales intern and has spent his entire career at MSA. “I felt I knew the market and I knew what was going on, and that doesn’t work for stating your case as to why you want to bring the company in a direction with the board of directors. It’s all good when you’re right, but when you’re wrong, boy, you’d better have data to back yourself up.”
Having a data-driven case for a particular growth strategy is something Vartanian learned late in his career, and it’s proven to be better than his gut instinct.
“I really hold myself back and say, ‘I think I know, but I don’t know. So, let’s see the data,’” he says.
Evolving and improving
MSA began as Mine Safety Appliances Co., when Thomas Edison helped the founders create an electric cap lamp for miners, and for many years, MSA was the only safety equipment manufacturer in the world. Today, it competes against companies that include Honeywell, 3M and Fortive.
MSA has changed a lot over Vartanian’s tenure. In 35 years, it’s gone from 7,000 employees on a global basis and just under $400 million in revenue, to 5,000 employees and $1.4 billion in revenue.
The workforce decrease speaks to an increase in productivity, Vartanian says. However, with the increased use of electronics and software technology, MSA does struggle to find enough software engineers, including in Pittsburgh, where Carnegie Mellon University graduates are quickly snapped up. The company’s engineers used to be three-fourths echanical engineers; today they are predominantly electrical and software engineers.
“We’re trying to use the latest technology to protect workers,” Vartanian says.
Software engineers are needed to work on products like LUNAR, a wireless, handheld device that includes thermal imaging, firefighter ranging, motion alarm and cloud technology with GPS, which helps find firefighters in a fire.
Going forward, it will only be more critical to recruit those software engineers. Helping to promote that message are people like MSA’s head of software engineering, who is based in Berlin and is passionate about passing on the message of safety.
“I was really impressed with how he talks about our mission and how that young group of software engineers in Berlin just gravitate to that,” Vartanian says. “It’s powerful.”
The company’s larger revenue is partly due to improved profitability. Vartanian says MSA went from an operating margin a few years ago of about 9 percent, to more than 15 percent today. That comes from focus and emphasizing core products.
“We’ve done well, over the last three or four years, by focusing in on and narrowing down where we’re going to compete, where we can differentiate our product and how we can bring more value to our customers,” Vartanian says.