Monday, April 6, 2020

New Horizons: The Professional Life of a Private Pilot, Part 2

"For individual employees of companies that are in the process of merging, uncertainty about their future is often high. It is hard to quantify the impact that such uncertainty has on productivity, except that it is negative, and probably strongly so in many cases. Leaders of organizations who have completed multiple mergers may express the view: 'We've done this before and we know how to do it.' Mechanically, this may be true, but for many employees who survive mergers, the thought of repeating the exercise is not embraced, and could prove to be numbing to their motivation."
- John LaMattina, "The Impact of Mergers on Pharmaceutical R&D"
Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, 10, 559-560, August 2011 

View from the Rust Belt

When I was a kid growing up in metropolitan Detroit during the 1970s and 80s, many of my friends' parents worked in the automotive industry. Through them, I gained intimate knowledge of the word "layoff"; it had infiltrated the structure of daily life like a cancer. Hulking brown shells of empty factories occupied entire city blocks in nearby Pontiac when I was young, but by the time I graduated from high school, many of them had been erased from the landscape. I used to wonder what happened to all of the people who once worked in those factories.

August 20, 2012: The GM facility in Flint, MI where I worked as a college co-op student is now a brown field.

As I pondered college as a teenager, limited perspective led me to believe that layoffs were a blue collar problem and that higher education would save me from such corporate turmoil. Life experience over the last 20 years has shown that to be an utter fallacy.

In 2011, I wrote about how my career as an industrial scientist brought me from Kalamazoo, MI to Rochester, NY in 2006. This post continues that story. Even though I landed well in coming to Rochester, corporate machination remains a part of the job. There will not be much flying in this post.

Going to Bat: October 2005

A portion of "The Company" in Kalamazoo, MI photographed July 25, 2004

Red hued beams of late afternoon October sunlight slanted through the windows as I discussed career opportunities with a corporate vice president in Upstate New York. It was 2005 and a quest to find employment during the closure of my work site in Kalamazoo, Michigan was rapidly nearing its end. My employer in Kalamazoo was bought by "UberCo" (not its real name) in 2003 and the ongoing process of tearing down the acquired assets (that was in some cases quite literal) had finally caught up to my division. Of the multiple options before me that spanned coast to coast, a company in Rochester, NY (let's call it "GoodCo") became my first choice and I had sound reasons to believe that an offer from them was forthcoming.

To my disappointment, GoodCo determined that they were adequately staffed in my primary area of expertise and did not extend an offer to me. I received this news just as my other employment offers were on the verge of expiring, causing me and Kristy to scramble for a Plan B. It was a perfectly workable backup plan that we devised while sitting at the base of the pierhead lighthouse in Ludington, MI after a brief flight north in the Warrior.

Pier and lighthouse in Ludington, MI where difficult decisions were made. Photographed July 10, 2005.

Despite having settled on a viable Plan B, a spirited day-long lobbying campaign was started on my behalf by senior Kalamazoo colleagues who had already accepted positions at GoodCo. Their efforts culminated in a second chance, this hastily-arranged phone interview with the hiring VP. I had not met this VP previously; as the global head of product development, he traveled often and was out of the office on the day of my on-site interview at GoodCo.

In a striking reversal of fortune, the VP extended a verbal offer of employment to me at the conclusion of our discussion. I learned from him that I was originally not offered a position because those who reviewed my resume focused only on my academic expertise in mass spectrometry and overlooked my relevant industrial experience. Despite that initial confusion over my background, he now welcomed me to the GoodCo family and assured that a written offer was ready for prompt dispatch.

"If I had colleagues go to bat for me the way yours have for you, I would consider myself truly accomplished," he concluded. No one had ever said such a thing to me before and I was stunned by the compliment. As I relive that moment in the writing, I am still amazed by it.

A few weeks after I accepted the offer, but before leaving UberCo, I received an ironic phone call from GoodCo. Because the scientist who ran GoodCo's central mass spectrometry facility resigned abruptly, the company suddenly needed a new lead mass spectrometrist. Thus, the very same academic expertise that initially caused GoodCo to pass on me was suddenly of keen interest. Go figure, the world is a funny place. This random turn also transformed a good opportunity into a fantastic one.

Warrior 481's new home in Le Roy, NY photographed January 11, 2006. Nicest hangar I ever occupied.

By the close of November 2005, Warrior 481 was situated in her new hangar just down the street from the birthplace of Jell-O in Le Roy, NY. In January 2006, I moved from Kalamazoo to our new home in a suburb of Rochester, the inexplicably proud home of the garbage plate.

My neighborhood near Rochester, NY photographed January 22, 2006. There is no mistaking the new house.

"To Explore Strange New Worlds": 2006

On 19 January 2006, an Atlas V launch vehicle propelled a robotic explorer named New Horizons into space, sending it on a decade-long journey through the solar system to Pluto, the demoted planet.

Why do I mention this?


But I'll elaborate on that later. Four days after the launch and with fewer actual pyrotechnics, I began my career at GoodCo.

A Crash Course in Corporate Upheaval: 2006-2013

I was one of twenty ex-UberCo scientists from Kalamazoo to join GoodCo in early 2006. We were destined for a rough start due to a tactless executive who announced our hiring to existing staff by describing us as scientists who "actually knew what they were doing". For some reason, this statement was not well received by GoodCo's researchers. Nonetheless, we were eventually accepted into the herd and successfully helped drive a lot of positive change.

The Bear visits my lab on Take Your Daughter To Work Day, April 2014

But our collective journey with GoodCo was tumultuous. Between 2007 and 2013, the company was led by four very different CEOs. During the tenure of CEO Number One, we transitioned from a publicly traded company to one held by private equity. Despite assurance that CEO Number One would remain in place after the transition, he was dismissed from service shortly thereafter and the private equity firm installed CEO Number Two.

CEO Number Two came from a competitor ("RivalCo") and brought with him other senior leaders who attempted to recast GoodCo into the RivalCo mold. This did not proceed smoothly because, in my opinion, GoodCo did not fit into the RivalCo mold particularly well. I realized that my Kalamazoo cohort had finally been accepted as part of the team when an outspoken GoodCo scientist said to me, "You know, you [UberCo] people are way better than those [RivalCo] assholes." The poor fit of our ex-RivalCo leadership team eventually became apparent to the ownership and they abruptly swapped out CEO Number Two for CEO Number Three.

The Coup

In 2010, I reported up through an executive whose ethics were so far out of sync with mine that I came very close to leaving GoodCo and Rochester for a different job in an effort to salvage my soul. I had a new position lined up in another state that was mine if I wanted it.

Instead, I was rescued by a Vice President of research and development who wanted unfettered access to my expertise. He went directly to CEO Number Three and received approval to pull me into his organization, a bold maneuver that I referred to for years afterward as "The Coup".

From my perspective, the post-coup period under CEO Number Three was a golden era for both the company and for me. CEO Number Three and his leadership team worked to not only improve corporate performance, but improve morale. For a time, cultural drama fell to low ebb and efforts invested by leadership to make GoodCo a better place to work were palpable. Though the company was not perfect, it was collectively moving in the right direction. To my mind, trajectory is everything. I even had lunch with CEO Number Three once and, one on one, he struck me as a genuinely decent human being.

In 2013, my seventh year at GoodCo, our private equity owners determined that it was time for a "liquidation event". Though sinister sounding, the announcement actually engendered hope. Despite the unappealing option of selling-off GoodCo, whole or in pieces, another option was to take GoodCo public again. Not surprisingly, most of the staff were hoping for the latter and, before long, it appeared that an IPO was going to happen. CEO Number Three and his leadership team were doing road shows for investors and negotiating the convoluted landscape of regulatory filings for GoodCo's rebirth as an independent, public company. Anticipation was high.

Then relatively late in the process came the stunning announcement that we would instead be sold to "LeanCo".

Vampire Capitalism

LeanCo? LeanCo who?

None of us had ever heard of LeanCo or its controversial CEO, "Jabba the Hutt" (standard disclaimer: not his real name). Google searches unearthed some frightening data, however. Jabba was a vociferous critic of research and development. His modus operandi was to buy companies, pillage their existing products and near term (translation: low risk) pipelines, reduce costs by laying off scientists (the official mantra was, "bet on management, not on science"), then significantly raise the prices of existing products. I will never claim to have a head for business, but expecting growth without innovation struck me as a poor strategy for long term sustainability. LeanCo drove their business model with a smug "we're smarter than everyone else" attitude and Wall Street completely ate it up.

This is my story. My primary intent is not to analyze or judge LeanCo's business model; however, it is completely entangled with all that followed our acquisition. Colorfully described by some commentators as "vampire capitalism", judgement on these business practices already abounds in the public media.

GoodCo, photographed August 10, 2013, mere days after the LeanCo acquisition

GoodCo was significantly larger than LeanCo's prior acquisitions. Some hoped that this would put Jabba (now CEO Number Four) into new territory, that critical mass could be something of a shield, and that Mr. The Hutt might leave us more-or-less intact to operate as a subsidiary.

But as they say, "history tends to repeat itself" and "hope is not a strategy".

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables: 2013 - 2014

Layoffs began on Day One, which occurred mere days after I earned my instrument rating and a couple of months after moving from Le Roy to the Williamson Sodus Airport (just to place these events on the appropriate aviation timeline). Termination of colleagues was the first indication many had that the purchase of GoodCo was finalized.

Our research building was nearly emptied, entire laboratories idled, and offices went dark. I do not know how many people lost their jobs, but a casual stroll through the visibly empty facility in early 2014 led me to estimate about 30% of the GoodCo R&D staff remaining. It became possible to walk the entire length of the once-bustling research facility without encountering another soul. With so many losses, the crippled organization was plunged into a state of both chaos and mourning. Morale plummeted and even those with the strongest work ethic mentally disengaged for months. As one friend and colleague expressed it, "This isn't just a layoff, this is a dismantling."

Meanwhile, Jabba became a Wall Street darling for his profit-motivated crusade to eliminate the "waste" and "inefficiency" perceived to exist in the R&D units of our industry. While there was some global truth to that perception (cough, UberCo), GoodCo always ran quite lean. Nonetheless, LeanCo carried their cutting to an extreme. Outside analysts did not see that LeanCo was engaged in a high stakes game of financial Jenga, how it was literally dismantling its own foundation to build earnings in the name of short term profitability. The stock price rose at an improbable rate as Wall Street became ever more smitten with LeanCo.

Welcome To the New World Order: 2014

I survived the cuts and am grateful to those members of GoodCo leadership who actively protected me from the axe. But I cannot claim to have been unaffected by what happened.

As LeanCo actively winnowed-down programs while allowing the pipeline to atrophy through attrition, there was less and less need for my expertise. New project proposals were unexciting also-ran sorts of things. The organization lacked drive and direction. Opportunities for career development evaporated. It is one thing to look back on a period of your career and realize that stagnation had slowly crept in while you weren't looking. It is quite something else to actually feel it happening in real time.

A Research Fellow with whom I was close bluntly proclaimed LeanCo to be a hostile work environment for scientists. (Remember "bet on management, not on science"?) Another marched into the lab one day, informed me that he had just resigned, and added, "And you should too. You're better than this place."

I started having nightmares about LeanCo.

One day, I was brought face to face with Jabba the Hutt himself. I kept my introductory remarks brief, prompting my supervisor to insert himself and extol my virtues to a CEO whom he felt I was not working hard enough to impress. "Well, I guess your knowledge means that our stuff is way better than what [insert name of competitor here] makes," Jabba gloated with an oily grin.

"Maybe," I responded with a polite nod. After hearing Jabba's take on science, I was reasonably confident that the loathing was mutual.

I led a troubleshooting effort on a LeanCo product that revealed a critical design flaw. Bet on management all you want, but the laws of physics and chemistry will win every time. When I presented my understanding of the problem to a LeanCo executive, he cradled his head in his hands and lamented, "[Jabba] is not going to want to hear this." The brief moment was an eye-opening insight into the "rule by fear" culture prevailing at headquarters.

As I noted earlier, trajectory is everything. In the sum of these things, I lost my faith in the company and its leadership. I decided that I needed to go.

Being on the Market Is No Fun: 2014

I started with my network, which was quite wide so many years after the Kalamazoo diaspora. At first, I naively thought that the process was going to be easy because a number of "sure things" materialized the moment I started looking. But I was to learn that the employment market in 2014 was very different than it had been in 2005.

My former Director from Kalamazoo networked me with a hiring manager seeking someone with exactly my expertise in mass spectrometry and chemical structure elucidation. But the manager left his company before filling the role, which was subsequently re-posted at a lower level well below my pay grade.

A bench in the new Kalamazoo Airport terminal painted by Rick Herter, a very talented
local aviation artist, depicting a Cub overflying South Haven and iconic (to me) lighthouse.

A colleague in Kalamazoo reached out to me about an opportunity at his company, not UberCo, but an UberCo spin-off. Kristy was pleased with the possibility of returning to Kalamazoo and, upon hearing of the possibility, friends at the South Haven Area Regional Airport (KLWA) immediately set about pulling strings to secure a hangar for me. I returned to Kalamazoo for an interview on a bitter cold February day, reunited with several friends and former colleagues, and stepped back into a building that I never thought I would ever see the inside of again. It was the same building where I received my termination papers from UberCo at the close of 2005.

Despite my visit being a friendly homecoming, nothing clicked that day and I felt that I did not interview well. I departed the site with a headache and returned home that night with a fever. Clearly, it was not meant to be. The position was won by a close friend of mine who also survived both the UberCo purge of 2005 and the LeanCo acquisition in 2013. I was pleased for him and confident that the company got a terrific scientist out of the deal, but deeply saddened to see him move away from Rochester. Years later, he continues to thrive in Kalamazoo.

The "new" Kalamazoo Airport terminal included this Chief on floats
in which Sue Parrish, founding matriarch of the Air Zoo, learned to fly.

A consultant friend with similar expertise to mine disclosed that he had been working with a Rochester firm located 10 minutes from my home. After his first visit, he recommended that they hire an in-house expert and suggested me. Could it really be that easy to find a new job? Of course not. His client had no interest in adding headcount.

I was approached by two GoodCo executives who explained that they hoped to start their own company locally and wanted me to be a part of it. I was very flattered, but they had not worked out details of their plan and it was not clear to me whether that path was a good fit for me or not.

Chicago waterfront, photographed April 3, 2005

Another former Kalamazoo colleague connected me with his prosperous Chicago area firm for an interview. I received a generous offer of employment from them almost immediately thereafter. It was a decent opportunity, but the fit was not quite right and, once the offer was in hand -- when the prospect of moving to Chicago became real -- Kristy realized that she did not want to move there. Her reasons were solid. With regret, I declined the offer.

At one point, I developed a full on "job crush". I admired the company already, had many friends there, and Kristy approved of the geography. They created a role specifically for me and I interviewed for it as the sole candidate. My hosts and I connected extremely well and I was certain that this was "the one". What could possibly go wrong? A few weeks after my on-site interview, HR called to say that they had intended to make an offer, but the company posted lousy quarterly results and management withdrew funding for the position. The problem with job crushes is that they can be absolutely heartbreaking when they evaporate. I confess that it took me a significant amount of time to move on.

I had a telephone screening interview with a hiring manager that lasted much, much longer than usual. We found that we were very well aligned philosophically and conversation simply flowed. After such an engaged and energized conversation, I was stunned not to hear back from them at all.

To say that the job search in 2014 was discouraging would be a massive understatement. I started 2015 full of self doubt. Should I have accepted that job in Chicago? No, I told myself. Nothing changes the fact that Kristy does not want to move to Chicagoland. Still, I had some definite remorse about passing on a solid opportunity from a good company.

Possibilities: 2015

Time passed with additional churn. By mid-2015, I found myself with two offers on my plate.

The first came from my GoodCo friends who created a start-up company ("NeoCo") by purchasing a local laboratory facility. Their goal was to build on the existing expertise at the site by adding capability in new areas. Toward that end, I was slated to be the first NeoCo hire sometime mid-year. I would have directorial responsibility for one of three scientific units at the company and tasked with expanding that group's capability.

Cleveland, OH, photographed August 2, 2015

Just to inject a little late stage drama into the process, I also had an offer from a Cleveland area firm. This was a stable, well-established company in a different industry segment from GoodCo. As much as I wanted to stay in Rochester, the job was interesting enough that I accepted an opportunity to interview on site. Unfortunately, I liked the company (dammit!). I liked the people I met (dammit!). The work was of an investigative nature and interesting to me (dammit!). And I received a competitive offer from them (dammit!), though that offer contained a fairly restrictive and unpalatable non-compete clause.

Thus, by the summer of 2015, I had two offers in hand. One from friends at a Rochester "start-up" company (is a start-up that isn't really a start-up still a start-up?), the other from a more stable, established firm in another state. A relocation would have meant significant uncertainty and likely unemployment for Kristy; removing The Bear from her wonderful, unique, school (for which there was definitely no suitable Cleveland analog); and the loss of a hangar for the Warrior (because, yes, this is a flying blog; yes, this was a factor; and, yes, I called Cleveland area airports looking for hangar availability and the outlook was poor).

The decision came down to a simple question: Why would we surrender an opportunity to stay in a place where we're happy? Even if NeoCo did not work out in the long run -- because, as a start-up, there was no guarantee that it would -- why wouldn't we at least try?

Farewell: July 2015

I negotiated a start date with NeoCo and planned my departure from GoodCo. I had already spent months quietly putting my affairs into order by documenting much of my knowledge in writing and by bringing increased visibility to a scientist reporting to me so that he would be poised as my successor.

Family vacation in Vermont, July 23, 2015. The tie dyed shirts? We made them!

I planned my resignation for July 2, 2015 with a last day of July 16. This would end my (almost) decade at GoodCo just in time for our annual vacation with Kristy's family ("SurnameFest").

On Monday, June 29, I was invited to LeanCo headquarters to give a presentation on the R&D program I had founded and successfully run for years at GoodCo. It was a program that helped bring several products to market, maintained dozens of others already marketed, and brought me some amount of global recognition as a subject matter expert in my field. The presentation was a big success, even if I was the only person in the room to realize that it was actually a farewell address.

At the end of the week, I submitted my resignation. Yes, it was the right thing for me to do. Yes, I was ready. But it was still difficult. I had many valued friends and colleagues at GoodCo and I knew that I would miss them. I had never resigned from a "real" job before and it meant leaving my supervisor, Steve, with whom I had a long history. I interviewed and helped hire Steve as my group leader at UberCo-Kalamazoo sometime around 2003. Steve led the charge in persuading GoodCo to reconsider hiring me in 2005, drove me back to Kalamazoo from Le Roy the day I ferried Warrior 481 to her new hangar, and became my supervisor (again) after The Coup at GoodCo. The two of us were the last of the original cohort of twenty from Kalamazoo remaining at LeanCo, though there were a few other Kalamazoo expatriates still on site that joined at a later date. Despite the fact that Steve had been encouraging me for months to find a better career opportunity, I dreaded telling him that it was time for me to go.

If being at GoodCo had become stressful, so was making the decision to leave it. My colleagues expressed surprise and disappointment over my departure, but were all very supportive of me.

New Horizons

One of my first acts after resigning from LeanCo was to fly
with Granny for the first time on July 19, 2015. Photo by The Bear.

On July 14, 2015, after nearly a decade spent in transit across the solar system, NASA's New Horizons probe made its closest pass to Pluto. Coincidentally, this celestial journey that began a few days before I joined GoodCo ended two days prior to my departure. As I reflected on my richly rewarding, if somewhat chaotic, career at GoodCo, I came away with a strong sense that it had been a life-altering experience. The fact that it was contemporaneous with a space flight from Earth to Pluto (give or take a couple of days) underscored that feeling.

In one of those small world moments, The Bear and I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Rob Staehle, the prime mover of the New Horizons program at NASA. Staehle graduated from the same school currently attended by The Bear, a great example of the sort of high-flying students who learn and grow there. Is it any wonder that we wanted to stay in Rochester?

Hard Reset

Burke Lakefront Airport, Cleveland, OH, Agust 2, 2015

I arranged a three week gap between departing LeanCo and starting at NeoCo. I filled much of this time with flying, about 18 hours worth. From our family vacation in Vermont, we flew to Maine before returning home. Solo, I turned west and landed at Burke-Lakefront Airport in Cleveland for the first time. From there, I pressed on to Indianapolis for an overdue reunion with an old friend and a visit to Bloomington, IN where we attended graduate school.

Mike and I flying from Indianapolis to Bloomington, IN on August 3, 2015

In addition to bolstering my flight hours and placing more virtual pins on my map of visited airports, the gap helped me to detox and start at NeoCo with a fresh outlook. Though my personal new horizons did not include anything as distant or exotic as Pluto, they comprised a brand new company, a lot of new faces, a new role, and an significant opportunity to grow and try something new.

Flightless Fowl

In July 2015, just before I departed LeanCo, the stock price peaked north of $250/share. Sometime shortly thereafter, the curtain was pulled back on LeanCo's business practices, causing the stock to drop precipitously, thus ending Wall Street's infatuation with Jabba the Hutt. In 2016, after what one analyst grimly referred to as a "merry-go-round of disappointment", share prices bottomed out in the single digits.

As LeanCo's stock price fell to Earth like those turkeys from WKRP in Cincinnati, LeanCo's Board of Directors ousted Jabba and dropped a daunting task into the lap of a new CEO (Number Five!): taking an organization with a decimated R&D function and turning it into an innovative company again. Capable R&D organizations are like airports. Once destroyed, they are very difficult to recreate. On the positive side, the GoodCo name carried on and the Rochester site eventually began to grow again under a more benevolent CEO.

Staying Ahead of the Airplane

NeoCo, photographed on 14 Feb 2016. Slightly smaller in scale than the global companies I'd worked for previously.

During an early check in with the NeoCo CEO, I shared my favorite aviation aphorism with him: "Never let an airplane take you somewhere that your brain didn't get to five minutes earlier." I was making an analogy about my new role, but I think the same wisdom applies to just about everything in life. NeoCo presented me with many new challenges and, like a low time student pilot in the pattern, I found myself out of my element and task-saturated in my career for the first time in many years. I was privileged to work with a talented and engaged group of chemists in a dynamic environment. We were often doing the research equivalent of writing an instrument approach procedure while already flying the ILS through the murk. I worked hard to stay ahead of the figurative airplane that was my new role.

This is good. This is how we grow.

Everything I Know About Life I Learned from Flying...

I view every sojourn aloft as a learning opportunity and debrief after every flight. However, major life events can affect us so deeply that it is not always easy to see their lessons clearly. With five to seven years of perspective on the LeanCo experience (2013-2015), a few things stand out to me.

My adolescent notion that a scientist would somehow be more immune to layoffs than a UAW line worker is now completely laughable. Ah, the naivete of youth.

Stagnation is not healthy. Some of the best exercise for our minds is doing something new and difficult. This applies to flying as well as to our careers. It is rarely comfortable or easy, but it is how we grow. The silver lining in the LeanCo acquisition is that it forced me to expand my horizons.

Like a pilot approaching deteriorating weather, there is nothing that we as individuals can do about corporate turmoil. But we have complete control over how we respond to it. We can choose to continue blithely on or we can chart a new course for ourselves. My friends that started NeoCo epitomize this, creating not just a new path for themselves, but for others. I admire their bravery.

For me, the most valuable lesson over the years is that no one is alone. A recurring theme throughout my career has been the intervention of others on my behalf. As I grow older, I find that what I value most about my career is not the work itself, though I enjoy it, but the relationships. I am privileged to be surrounded by outstanding friends and colleagues and am humbled by their generous contributions to my success.


Life is full of twists and turns. Like unplanned weather deviations, sometimes we find ourselves navigating down unexpected paths in our careers. After a successful and challenging two and a half years at NeoCo, I decided to return to a rejuvenated GoodCo operating sans Jabba the Hutt. (Bet you didn't see that coming.) Naturally, the opportunity arose through an invitation from a treasured friend and colleague.

But that is a story for another time.