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New Saint-Gobain chief in Malvern seeks to attract Americans back to factories

"We can't be just a service economy," says CEO Tom Kinsky. "You want to make something of tangible value"

Tom Kinisky's job is to make manufacturing cool, and to hire the next generation.

As the new North American CEO of the French building-materials giant Saint-Gobain, Kinisky's two-year-old office, an $80 million rebuild of a Chester County insurance campus, is a 320,000-square-foot lab and an advertisement for its materials.

The 352-year-old French firm was formed to make glass for King Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles. Its products adorn the new World Trade Center and the Mars Curiosity Rover, Paris' Pompidou Center and the Statue of Liberty, the Kimmel Center and the Comcast towers, and many quotidian structures.

But at its 800-person, glass-walled Great Valley center, west of leafy campuses housing conglomerates like Ametek, TE Connectivity, and Trinseo, much of the pride is in what you don't see:

  1. The smartphone apps that use Saint-Gobain Sage electronic glass to darken or brighten three-story lobby windows.

  2. Adjustable acoustic ceilings and walls that baffle sound for customer-service workers or amplify trainers so they need no microphones.

  3. Air controls that depress carbon dioxide buildup so researchers at the hilltop R&D annex stay awake at their benches.

For too long, manufacturers "focused on products," Kinisky said. Now Saint-Gobain wants staff and customers to see the firm as building improvements for "the 24/7 world" of sensor-equipped offices, labs, homes, public spaces, and future autonomous cars.

"It's not rocket science. Except sometimes it is: We're working with NASA," said Kinisky, who holds five patents and headed two of the company's business groups before Saint-Gobain tapped him to replace the retiring John Crowe.

"It's a great time to be in manufacturing. We're seeing manufacturing become a national priority again," adds Kinisky, a Saratoga native with degrees from Pace and New York Universities. "People say it's the Trump administration," which promised to resurrect dying U.S. industries. "But it's been happening over a series of years. After all the lost jobs, people now see that at the end of the day, we can't be just a service economy. You want to make something of tangible value."

Kinisky doesn't see the old U.S. mass-production factories coming back. His company has sold or closed plants that process wood and plastics in recent years, shrinking its North American workforce to 14,000, from 19,000 in 2010.

Looking forward, Kinisky sketches a vision of local, specialized, high-tech production at smaller plants, maybe the size of the firm's Mickleton and Montgomeryville sites. He's updating plants, labs, and offices, but isn't building new facilities yet, though Saint-Gobain is looking for acquisitions.

Innovation isn't just having the fanciest lab, he adds: "I spent a lot of years in R&D. I have heard CEOs stand up and say, 'In order to get more growth, we have to get more innovative.' But you can lose your whole organization just saying it like that. A majority of people hear that, and they get scared. They don't think they are innovative.

"R&D isn't about having the smartest people lead the organization. It's about getting diverse points of view listened to. That's why I'm a huge advocate of a diverse workforce -- different cultural background, different genders. That is critical to innovation."

I noted that DuPont Co., Merck, and other venerable U.S. manufacturers that relied on R&D have had a tough time justifying the expense to shareholders every quarter; many have reduced lab investment and spun off business units.

Manufacturing takes patience and guts, Kinisky said. Saint-Gobain trades on the Paris stock exchange, where it reports financials twice a year, not four times like U.S. companies. That slightly longer view, plus the company's long history and high degree of employee ownership, give top management more patience to develop products and customers over time, he said.

"It's not only about markets," Kinisky concluded. "When the values are strong, you survive. You have to be adaptable."