Roger G. Ackerman has accomplished what executives at such companies as AT&T (T), Kodak (EK), and Xerox (XRX) haven't been able to: He has transformed a lagging giant of the Old Economy into one of the bright stars of the digital age. When Ackerman took over as CEO in 1996, Corning Inc. (GLW) was best known for its cookware. Now, as he steps down, it's the world's leading supplier of optical fiber and other high-tech parts. Put another way: Four years ago, Corning's market value was about $9 billion; today it's around $50 billion.
Ackerman, 62, is a sort of stealth revolutionary. The engineer, who took tolls on the New Jersey turnpike while earning his degree from Rutgers, joined Corning in 1962, toiling in such prosaic businesses as ceramics and medical testing. He has lived in Corning, the tiny upstate New York town where the company is based, for some two decades. But after becoming CEO, he decided to change Corning fundamentally. "We weren't winning with the hand we had," he says. First, he sold the consumer business, including Corning Ware, a cornerstone of the company's identity. "We had agonized over that [move] for at least 10 years," says John W. Loose, Ackerman's second-in-command.
At the same time, Ackerman invested serious money in optical fiber, which Corning invented in 1970. The real test came in 1998, when the Asian financial crisis sent fiber prices plunging, and Corning's stock fell two-thirds. Many CEOs would have retreated. But Ackerman stayed the course, even boosting R&D spending from $175 million in 1995 to $560 million in 2000.
Now that the new Corning is established, Ackerman is turning over his job to Loose on Jan. 1 and completing his turn as Corning Chairman in June. Like Ackerman, Loose is a lifer who has been at Corning since 1964. Before becoming president, he headed Corning's fiber-related telecom businesses, which now account for some 75% of sales. And like Ackerman, he firmly believes that old companies can and must reinvent themselves.