Monday, January 30, 2012

Words of Wisdom from Bart Simpson


If we could somehow blend real life with cartoons (as Robert Zemeckis did in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Bart Simpson would probably say something like this if he were introduced to George W. Buckley:

“I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?”

Come to think of it, MOST of us would have to admit an unfamiliarity with Mr. Buckley, so I’ll give you a little background information about his company.

Since I was born in Minnesota (don’t you know?), as was everyone else in both my immediate family and my wife’s immediate family, all of us know at least a few people who worked for a company named 3M at some point in their lives. A few of them managed to retire from the company after long and successful careers.

If you’ve ever used Scotch tape, sandpaper, or Post-It notes, you’re already familiar with some of the major product lines of the company. In total, though, the company’s 80,000 employees (in 60 countries) actually produce roughly 55,000 products, which are sold in more than 200 countries around the world.

3M was formed as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing in the tiny town of Illgen City, Minnesota, which is still unincorporated even today. Shortly after its founding, the company moved to Two Harbors (where it was incorporated in 1902), followed by Duluth, and then to St. Paul, where the headquarters remained for 52 years. 3M moved to its current headquarters in Maplewood, Minnesota in the 1960’s.

3M was originally formed as a MINING company, and it was formed to sell a mineral called corundum to manufacturers in the East, who used it for making grinding wheels. The conundrum that the company soon found itself in was that the mineral deposits that the “founding fathers” started to sell as corundum turned out to be a worthless mineral called anorthosite. Although anorthosite has little commercial value, its claim to fame is that it is the most common element found in lunar rock samples.

Since anorthosite could not be used in grinding wheels, the company tried to make lemonade out of lemons by using it to make sandpaper, a product that’s been in use since the 13th century.

(The odds are pretty good that you've never heard of anorthosite before, but more than likely that you are VERY FAMILIAR with the lighthouse pictured below, which sits on an outcropping of rock that is almost entirely made up of anorthosite.

Like large parts of my old home state of Minnesota, the area where the lighthouse is located is in an area that was the site of volcanic activity thousands (and perhaps millions) of years ago.)

The anorthosite didn’t work as a component in sandpaper, so the company switched to the use of imported Spanish garnet in 1914. When the garnet started falling off the sandpaper, the company set up its first research and development department, which ultimately solved the problem, and helped the company become what it is today. Today, 3M spends over $1 billion a year on research and development. As a percentage of sales, that’s roughly double what the rest of the companies in America spend on research and development.

One of the most creative innovations of the company was “the 15 percent program”, which the company started in 1948, a year after I was born. Although the link below provides more information, the purpose of the program is to allow employees to use as much as 15 percent of their paid working time to pursue ideas that they had discovered through their usual course of work, but didn’t have time to follow up on. Although there have been numerous products (and most of the company's 22,800 patents) that came into being because of the program, the best known one is Post-It notes, which were first produced in 1980:

what is the 15 percent program?

(Annual sales of Post-It notes, by the way, now exceed $1 billion a year.)

By now, you’re a lot more familiar with 3M, but you’re still not sure who George Buckley is, so I’ll answer the question for you. He is a British businessman who became Chairman, President, and Chief Executive of 3M in 2005. Although he is VERY well paid for his work (he earned a total compensation of over $13,000,000 in 2009), it’s worthwhile to read what he had to say in 3M’s most recent annual report:

a message from the Chairman

The strengths of 3M, as enumerated by Chairman Buckley, can be easily applied to our country as a whole. If you listened to last week’s State of the Union address, it’s fairly clear which political party best represents the innovative philosophy of 3M, and which one is still tied to old ideas and old technology.

In spite of his many failings, Bart Simpson had an opinion on a lot of topics. In closing, though, I’ll leave you with a quote that’s particularly relevant to people that live in border states, like Arizona:

“If something goes wrong at the plant, blame the guy who can’t speak English”.


  1. Let's see if anorthosite photos make it into the comment block. Photographer Paul Sundberg took this ice storm shot a year ago. He was standing at the edge of Crystal Bay, 3M's location at Illgen City. You may want to see all of Paul's galleries.!i=1142659484&k=9VvmP

  2. One more comment about anorthosite, from my days as a historic site Interpreter at Split Rock Lighthouse. Many of the cliffs along the Lake Superior North Shore anorthosite blocks. The Superior Ridge, two to four miles inland from the lake is the top edge of the Mid-continent Rift that extends 25 miles under the Lake Superior Basin. Blocks of anorthosite are pieces of the Earth's crust that rode atop the great volcanic floods welled up 1 1/2 billion years ago. The geological formations from Silver Bay to Finland, MN are among the most complex in the world. Illgen City at the junction of Highways 1 and 61 is a great place to observe the complex.

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