Bill Mortimer

Leader of Enterprise New Business Development at W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., headquartered in Newark, Del.

Class is never out:

In American corporate culture, Mortimer is a guy who did well even though he never finished college. At W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., it's more like Mortimer never left campus.

Mortimer was 20 in 1981 and working odd jobs - a carpet cleaning business, as a salesman, a convenience store clerk - after dropping out of college when he heard about a company with a unique way of doing business.

Bob Gore was a college student in 1957 when he came up with a way to use polytetrafluoroethylene - you now know it as Gore-Tex - to insulate wire. Gore founded his company with a culture that turned away from the typical boss-employee relationship and fostered a workplace where "sponsors" help guide associates on the job.

"They're kind of like your advocate and your cheerleader," Mortimer said. "I was lucky enough to have some very good ones who taught me a lot and let me grow."

Cloak-and-dagger: Mortimer laughs when asked if he understood what he was getting into 26 years ago. Gore job interviews focus as much on whether a candidate can fit into the culture as what skills he or she brings to the company.

"We're somewhat of a cloak-and-

dagger organization that way," he said. "We don't really tell people what they're going to be in for."

What Mortimer found was a company that had put about 400 people together in one place and encouraged them to find as many logical uses for Gore-Tex as possible. The company, driven at what he calls a "frantic, frenetic pace," tried and rejected uses and enjoyed "eureka" moments that are now part of the corporate lore.

"Cross-fertilization" of ideas: Those efforts would later be spun off into different branches of the company, arranged in cluster campuses with 8,500 people in 45 locations around the world, all innovating furiously.

They started by experimenting with Gore-Tex for use as plumber's tape to seal leaks. A technician working on an idea for a vascular graft came up instead with a new type of guitar string.

Borrowing ideas from other branches became a monthly endeavor. Another technician worried that a medical stent-graft might be too weak found a way to reinforce the device with material being used to insulate wire.

Yet another idea, this time for dental floss, was going nowhere because other corporations were not interested. So the company gave it away to dental hygienists, who made it so popular that W.L. Gore was soon overwhelmed with requests for more from patients.

Show-and-tell: Mortimer now presides over a monthly in-house trade show - sort of like a science fair for fellow associates - where ideas are shared and tested.

Five to six people are chosen each month to give a 20-minute presentation on whatever they are working on.

Many people thrive in the college-like atmosphere, where Thursday nights in summer mean competitive volleyball matches with 35 teams playing on 12 sand courts on campus.

But not everyone can take the collegial attitude. "And it's a shame because it's a painful thing to watch," Mortimer said. "If you need structure and to be told what to do, this is a bad place for you."
- Chris Brennan,
Daily News staff writer