Perhaps no other word can truly define the career of Walter Alessandrini and his professional pursuits throughout the years than success. He has served as CEO of major international corporations and in each case those companies have prospered and grown.
As president and CEO of Union Switch & Signal, Alessandrini moved a portion of the company’s operations from Pittsburgh to Columbia. His successes there led to his becoming CEO of Pirelli Cables and Systems, North America. Stints as president and CEO of Avanex and chairman and CEO of Ometric followed.
Q: You’ve retired several times but keep flunking your retirement. Why did you decide to get involved with South Carolina companies again as opposed to Silicon Valley or anywhere in the world you could be?
I really believe in South Carolina and the potential this state has. I always felt what happened with Silicon Valley, which was not by accident, but it was by determination, could happen in South Carolina … We have some fabulous learning institutions here. We have a beautiful place which attracts people. We have very strong work ethics. To me the idea was you’ve got to start and set an example; build some success, and then when people realize that it’s possible, then they start to do something. So in part for this reason, Ometric was started in 2005 ... Ometric, after five years, was successfully sold to a Fortune 100 company. This is a clear example that you can get things done here and very successfully. Now I’m helping another startup, quasi-startup, company in Greenville, which is in the Cloud business. I’m also helping to start a company which is dealing in 3-D printing. I believe there are lots of opportunities here.
Q: What is it that keeps South Carolina, as you say, from becoming that Silicon Valley? What do you think is holding us back?
I believe that events … developments that happen in places like Silicon Valley … first of all they require very strong leadership. If you identify Frederick Terman as the Father of Silicon Valley… he found himself in this “Cathedral in the Valley:” that’s where Stanford was. It was in the middle of nowhere. And he started to go and reach out and bring in people, and change the university’s traits from being a teaching institution to an institution that was actually helping startups. It took the three Cs: Creativity, Cooperation, and Communication; together to get this all done. You need that leadership. I feel that sometimes we don’t have that kind of leadership here. We tend to be a little too fragmented. I believe we should have regional and state interests at heart rather than the Greenville, the Columbia, and the Charleston interests. We should really avoid that fragmentation, which is not in our own interests. And then you have other things which will develop. For instance, we don’t have a culture of speed… that is one of the benefits to living in South Carolina. However, today in any business, you have to be very fast. That’s really a basic competitive advantage or weapon that you have. And the other thing is I don’t think we have the big culture of risk taking. It is very common in areas like Silicon Valley, you start up a little company and people will jump ship from big companies with benefits … and jump in and take risks, because they believe if that works it will make a big difference in their lives. In South Carolina, this culture of risks … I don’t think it’s widespread; probably limited to fewer people.
Q: How do you spur creativity? You don’t think of the South, other than literature, as being a creative place.
I believe that creativity can be taught. My personal opinion is that we do the opposite. We stifle creativity, particularly in small kids with regards to their education, because we want to regiment them … So I believe that his can be taught. So you can help people develop the creative process. Of course it has to start with learning institutions, which oftentimes don’t seem to be very creative themselves and are often compartmentalized in their department interests … that’s something that you can spur, I believe.
Q: What would you tell a businessman, who is thinking about making an investment somewhere in the world, why he should come to South Carolina?
First of all it depends on what investment it is. We clearly have a very strong expertise in manufacturing. Manufacturing was seen in the past as a way of creating jobs. I think that now we should look at manufacturing as an expertise and a competitive leverage that companies can have, even if it produces fewer jobs because of automation. We have tremendous work ethics. I had manufacturing plants all over the world and South Carolina, I know, was an extremely bright spot … We have an infrastructure that can really help a company … As I said before, you have a lot of people who want you to be successful here, so they can help. Sometimes it takes just a few phone calls and people will try to solve a problem; make sure that your company can move on without (too much) red tape or things like that. And plus, it’s a beautiful place that attracts people.
Video: Interview with Alessandrini