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The Geeks Get Loud

3M may be the greatest idea factory in the world—smarter than Apple, more innovative than GE. But has Minnesota modesty been holding it back?

The Geeks Get Loud
Photo by David Bowman

(page 2 of 3)

It’s hard to believe there is anything particularly Midwestern anymore about 3M, a $27 billion company with some 80,000 employees spread across 65 countries. Its new CEO, as of a few months ago, is Inge Thulin, a Swedish native who succeeded George Buckley, a Brit. Top executives rotate through its far-flung offices like corporate diplomats, and the headquarters in Maplewood is no different. “It’s like a mini-United Nations over there,” says one former

And yet, 110 years after five businessmen began digging around Two Harbors for minerals to make abrasives, 3M remains deeply embedded in Minnesota—and vice versa. It owns a private resort called Wonewok on a lake near Park Rapids where, for decades, it has wined and dined clients and rewarded top employees in classic North Woods style. It runs a country club called Tartan Park in Lake Elmo for 3M staff and retirees, who play golf, tennis, and bocce ball together and marry off their children in the lovely gazebo. It oversees the largest concentration of private employees in the state at its headquarters, a museum-quality specimen of Jet Age corporate campuses: 39 buildings on 417 acres with 8shuttles ferrying around 11,000 employees, many of whom literally grew up in the shadow of 3M—as did the generation of 3Mers before them and the generation before them.

“3M had a dump in North St. Paul,” recalls Dave Kolander, a retired vice president of 3M’s occupational health and safety division. “And when I was a kid in White Bear Lake in the 1940s and ’50s, they would sometimes start a fire at the dump on weekends, to burn it down a little, and that’s when we knew that fresh stuff had arrived. A buddy and I would sneak around, grabbing rolls of tape to bind up our toy guns and baseballs, and I thought, ‘If they’re burning stuff that’s this good, that’s a company I want to work for.’”

Many Minnesotans felt the same way and, by the mid-20th century, Maplewood, Woodbury, North Oaks—essentially the entire east metro of the Twin Cities—was built up as a bedroom community for 3M workers. Kolander’s neighbors in White Bear Lake included “dozens and dozens of 3Mers,” he says. They worked together, lived together, played together, and even retired together. Scottsdale, Arizona, where Kolander now lives, is thick with former 3Mers. 3M holds an annual meeting there, to update retirees; about 300 people regularly attend.

As 3M grew, doubling in size between 1963 and 1967 and again between 1975 and 1980, establishing offices and laboratories around the world, it began to export Minnesota culture along with its products. “You can go to any 3M office anywhere in the world and you’re going to find a very similar type of persona,” Jeff Lavers, 3M’s vice president of marketing, sales, and communications, tells me one afternoon in his office at 3M headquarters. “Industrious, dedicated to doing the right thing—inherently Minnesotan.”

“But we’re also not boastful, we don’t brag,” Lavers continues. “You know how you can spot an extroverted Minnesotan? He stares at your shoes when he’s talking instead of his.”

Lavers notes, for example, that in a sense 3M reached the moon first—it made the material for the soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots. Had anyone at 3M endeavored to put its logo on the soles, the brand would have been broadcast in perpetuity through the famous photographs of Armstrong’s footprint. It might still be imprinted on the moon today. But, of course, no one did.

3M’s modesty has been compounded by the nature of its business: science and technology, which not only attracts introverts, generally speaking, but also requires discretion, so that intellectual property isn’t leaked. “We’ve had a tendency to be insular,” Lavers says.

That may be putting it, well, modestly. One man, William McKnight, ran the company from 1929 to 1949 as its president and until 1966 as chairman of the board (he continued serving until 1972 as an honorary chairman). And until 2000, every CEO after McKnight was promoted from within, preserving 3M’s unique culture like that of an isolated if successful island nation.

McKnight was not a scientist. He was a bookkeeper by trade. But he understood how to inspire the guys and gals in the lab: leave ’em alone. Employees, he said in 1948, should be encouraged to “exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.”

McKnight established 3M’s legendary 15-percent rule, which is still in effect: researchers can spend 15 percent of their time on projects unrelated to their current work—tinkering, playing with ideas. The policy spawned Post-it Notes and other iconic inventions and is so ingrained at 3M that, as one engineer put it, “You can feel it right down to your toes.”

Spencer Silver, the chemist who invented the adhesive used in Post-it Notes (“Not a glue! It’s not a permanent bond!”), retired more than a decade ago and now spends his days painting in a studio at the Casket Arts Building in northeast Minneapolis. He is nearly bald, with a close-cropped gray beard and glasses; a professorial Sean Connery. When I meet him at his studio, he has a stack of Post-it Notes on a table beside a new book that describes their invention: Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. “Bunch of crap,” he says of the recounting. “Canned folkloric mythology. It didn’t happen like that.”

Silver came to 3M in 1966 and eventually went to work on adhesives for a boss he calls “an unusual man, kinda loose in the way he managed us. He encouraged us to just try stuff.” Some of this stuff was done on 15 percent time—“a Zen thing,” Silver says. “You didn’t account for it on a time sheet. It was kind of between the cracks, during lulls. I did some really strange things between the cracks.” He once grew lettuce on a machine he built, an Archimedean spiral, so that it developed vertically in a very tight space (“The butt of a lot of jokes,” he says, “but it actually worked”). And in 1968 he created an adhesive comprised of tiny spherical particles, each the circumference of a human hair.

“We were studying what happens at the interface between adhesive and surface,” he says, slowly pulling a Post-it Note off the stack then sticking it back on. “It’s what some poets have referred to as thin space, this ill-defined, ineffable plane.” Silver got what he was looking for on the first try: particles large enough and close enough together to create a permanently tacky bond yet small enough and far enough apart that something stuck to them could easily be peeled away. “Serendipity in spades,” he says.

Silver calls serendipity “keeping an open mind to events you can’t anticipate” and quotes the poet Denise Levertov to illustrate: “Vision sets out journeying somewhere, walking the dreamwaters: arrives not on the far shore but upriver, a place not evoked, discovered.” Put another way, Silver says, “When you start to mess around, things happen.”

To hear Silver tell it, 3M was a serendipity factory, if that’s not an oxymoron. Silver points to his artwork on the walls, each piece consisting of several paintings stacked together in a column, metaphorically separated by his interpretation of a thin space. “These are all experiments,” he says, “and if I thought about them too much, I probably would have talked myself out of trying new things. It’s like the Buddhists say: if you think about Nirvana, you’ll never achieve it.”

Back in ’68, he had no idea what to do with his new adhesive. No one did. He took it from one division to the next hoping inspiration would strike. It wasn’t until 1974 that another chemist, Art Fry, had a serendipitous thought while trying to mark his place in a hymnal. He built a machine at home to apply Silver’s adhesive to paper and nearly another decade passed before Post-it Notes were scaled up for mass production and marketed.

“You had to cultivate believers,” Silver says. “Work with them, pray with them. But I never had a boss who said, ‘Stop working on that.’”  

Silver retired in 1996, having spent almost his entire career in the bubble of 3M culture. He wasn’t there to see it breached for the first time.

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