Michael Fetsko encourages innovation Featured

1:12pm EDT March 2, 2011
Michael Fetsko, vice president of the Americas regions, Bombardier Transportation, Systems Division Michael Fetsko, vice president of the Americas regions, Bombardier Transportation, Systems Division

When Michael Fetsko lands a contract to build a train system, it’s not because he is the best salesman in the industry. He gets contracts because he has dedicated himself to driving industry-leading innovation that has helped build Bombardier Transportation’s reputation as one of the best rail transit manufacturers in the world. When Bombardier was awarded the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport job, it was the innovation of Bombardier Transportation and its Systems Division’s automated people mover train system that won them the job at one of the world’s busiest airports.

Bombardier’s Systems Division faces a tough competitive market for their products. Fetsko, vice president of the Americas regions for Bombardier Transportation’s Systems Division, is constantly focused on innovative ideas and ways to stay ahead and on top of his industry.

“Ideas are encouraged, and our company encourages the divisions to do exactly that, to develop the next idea, the next game changer,” Fetsko says. “That philosophy is instilled throughout the company, and I think it is one of the foundations to our success.”

Innovation is ingrained in the roots of Bombardier. Even when Bombardier was just a small snowmobile maker, innovation and entrepreneurship is what led them to where the company is today. The Systems Division saw annual revenue greater than $1.3 billion in 2009, just a slice of Bombardier Transportation’s total annual revenue of more than $10 billion that year.

Here’s how Fetsko’s continuous drive and dedication to leading innovation at Bombardier has helped establish it as an industry leader.

Build trust

Due to Bombardier’s commitment to being the best at what they do, Fetsko and his team need to always have an ear to the ground about prospective projects. A commitment to excellence and their ability to create strong business relationships help get them in the door.

“When we find out about projects, in this type of business, you really can’t walk into a particular city at the last minute and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to bid on your project,’” Fetsko says. “Our strategic plans take us out five plus years. We are already looking at the cities where we think and know transportation systems will be built. And we are going in and meeting with the decision-makers, the customers, the politicians and really trying to secure our foothold in that particular location. What it comes down to is building the relationships with the right people and making sure the community sees you as a viable player.”

Companies in big industries and companies that face tough competition have to rely on their ability to offer strong products that come with the support of the company from multiple areas. Bombardier is often selected because of its ability to provide the best price and the best value for the customers’ money. Bombardier’s drive for innovation is also a key factor.

“Over the last two years, for us in the Systems Division, (innovation) has become a core part of our workload,” Fetsko says. “We have 100-plus people working on various forms of innovating our products and making them better. For us, it really comes down to trying to stay ahead of the competition. It also impacts cost savings. We are working on product development right now called energy storage. We are trying to push the envelope to try and make our systems faster, more cost-effective, more energy-efficient, more environmentally friendly, and it takes a team of people to do that.”

Encourage innovation

Innovation is not just a one-off thing. If a company doesn’t work hard and continue to innovate, then it is not an innovative company. Fetsko and the Systems Division work continuously to encourage and drive innovation. Finding ways to innovate and ways for employees to bring new ideas forward are keys to the company’s success.

“It really starts at the group level, the transportation group level, and it gets pushed down through all the divisions,” Fetsko says. “Bombardier has an innovation website where we encourage employees to submit their new ideas. Each idea gets reviewed by a committee and a team, and, of course, not all of them can get implemented but many of them do. They could be simple ideas on how we might be able to save more labor hours to do individual tasks, or they could be ideas on how to create the next big product breakthrough. It’s highly encouraged, and there are a number of mechanisms we have in place for employees to submit their ideas and creativity on how we could better the business.”

Ideas like an innovation website and innovation meetings are smart and fun ways to encourage employees to submit their ideas. Without these mediums for employees to speak what’s on their minds, innovative ideas can go to waste and will only hurt your company. Three years ago, Fetsko even created a full-time position for someone to head up their innovation efforts.

“You’ve got to encourage innovation,” Fetsko says. “Part of that is you have to have people who are dedicated to leading the effort. You can’t just talk about it and hope it’s going to happen. I think that’s one of the reasons that we have been successful. Companies may not want to do it, because it’s an overhead kind of position, but we have found that it more than pays for itself in a lot of the ideas we’ve already implemented and things that we’re doing to better the business and better the product. You’ve got to have a person or a small team of people that are responsible for it and committed to driving it throughout the business.”

At Bombardier, they also have quarterly meetings where the top-level executives from the company’s numerous locations gather for a two-day discussion that is strictly focused on innovation, product development and product improvement.

“You have to look at where you want to go and what you’re trying to strive for your business to achieve,” Fetsko says. “If you want to achieve big things, you’ve got to dream big things, as well. You’ve got to put time into it. You have to run your product improvements like you would a particular project. They all have budgets they have to meet, and they all have schedules they have to meet, and finally, you have to make sure you drive it to completion.

“When we say innovation here, it’s not necessarily the next big breakthrough on a train system. It could be things on how we could manage our business better. It can even be discussions on a particular task and whether we can do it with less people and still accomplish the same thing. Can we get it done on time with the same quality perhaps for a lesser amount of hours? That all translates to cost savings. Innovation relates back to us being able to offer customers a lower price for a product in the future. When we say innovation, it’s more than just product innovation, and that’s why it’s encouraged by everybody. If you have ideas on how to make the business more efficient or how we could improve the business, that’s how we make better products.”

Be accountable

Of course, with any new product or innovative idea, testing has to be done before that idea can be declared innovative and useful to the company and to its customers.

“Some customers are reluctant to be the guinea pig for some things that are new,” Fetsko says. “One thing that we do here very well within our division is our expertise to build a transportation system from the ground up. Integration, testing and commissioning are our core areas of our expertise. When we put something new into a project and the customer says, ‘Yes, I’ll take it,’ from our standpoint, it goes through a rigorous level of internal testing and external testing. We go through rigorous design reviews with our customers, so these types of ideas if they are new and get implemented, really go through a high level of scrutiny.

“Everything has to pass through our safety group as part of our governance. They are the ones that have to give the final blessing that a system is safe to carry passengers. Anything that gets implemented that’s brand new or might get integrated into a system goes through that sequence of testing and conditioning, so both the customer and Bombardier are confident it’s going to work.”

Bombardier uses test tracks to make sure its products are up to the company’s high standards and are tested a second time once the product gets shipped to a customer.

When innovation plays a big part in your company, it is often very difficult for only one person to overlook the entire operation. Fetsko says that he encourages and expects his employees to know how to do their jobs and to be independent enough to make their own decisions.

“My philosophy is to allow for accountability for running your part of the business,” Fetsko says. “I’m not going to step in and tell people what they’re supposed to do on a daily basis and how they’re supposed to go about it. We have levels of governance and reviews that are put in place so that we can review what is going on in every part of the business. The people here are empowered and are expected to run their part of the business. My style is not to micromanage at all, but I will routinely walk around the building and interact with the employees. To them, it really shows a sense of caring and says, ‘Hey, here’s the guy that’s running the business, but he spends a lot of time with the employees.’ Not necessarily telling them what to do — I don’t do that — but rather asking them how I can help and asking them how things are going and really telling them and showing them your appreciation for what they accomplish for us every day.”

Establishing a culture where employees know that they are empowered to do their jobs is critical for a corporate environment that is innovative.

“The one thing you have to focus on is to set up a structure so that people feel empowered to do their work,” Fetsko says. “You have to make sure those parts of your business and leaders of those areas can handle the work and that they’re not too overburdened with trying to manage too much. You verbally and physically have to tell people what you expect from them.

“I’ve got monthly meetings with all the folks on my team. They are very short meetings, face to face, not through e-mail and not through the phone, to really interact on that basis is very important. If they come to me with a problem, I want them to come to me with three solutions or more, as well. I try to tell them, ‘Don’t expect me to solve all your problems.’ You’ll always have the folks that come in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem, what do you want me to do?’ My response to them is, ‘What do you think we should do?’ Certainly, I could give them my opinion, but I really try to encourage our folks and help them find solutions to their own problems. It comes down to empowering people and telling them that it’s theirs to do, it’s theirs to run. It raises a level of passion and it all translates to results.”

How to reach: Bombardier Transportation, (412) 655-5700 or www.us.bombardier.com

The Fetsko file

Michael Fetsko

vice president, Americas regions

Bombardier Transportation, Systems Division

Born: Pittsburgh

Education: Bachelor of arts degree and a master of science degree both in environmental sciences, from the University of Virginia; master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Pittsburgh

What was your first job out of college, and what did you learn from it?

My first job out of college was working for a company called Ensr, and I worked as a geologist. They were an environmental engineering consulting firm. What I learned was how important it is for projects to meet their deadlines and their goals. I also got a lot of chances to travel and meet with customers.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve received?

The best advice is the importance of relationships and developing relationships in your business, both with internal customers and external customers, and having that face time with them. People really appreciate that level of interaction versus conversing through phone or e-mail.

If you could choose one person, past or present, to have a conversation with, whom would you speak to and why?

Going back to my athletic days of playing football for the University of Virginia, one person I would really like to have a conversation with would be Lou Holtz. I have read some of his books and I am a fan of his style of leadership and what he has been able to accomplish as a football coach and what he has been able to accomplish with people who have played for him and passing on the values he’s lived by.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

If I could have a crystal ball and I could see into the future of what’s going to happen, that would probably help, as far as being able to make the right decisions and growing the business.