Today it is a multinational company creating new products in fields as diverse as solar and wind power, dentistry, touch-sensitive screens, fire extinguishers and - of course - a range of sticky tape, so it comes as a surprise to discover that a business as innovative as 3M started out as a mining company. Paul Rosso, 3M's vice-president Europe, Middle East and Africa, traced the company's unusual development at the 1st International Meeting on Business and Management Innovation hosted by IESE in collaboration with the Fundación Española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología.
The company was founded in 1902 to mine minerals for grinding wheels. When the mineral proved of little use the company moved into the sandpaper business and was soon supplying the automotive industry with wet-and-dry sandpaper. When the demand for two-tone cars increased, a young lab assistant at 3M invented masking tape, thus facilitating the paint spraying process. From that point on, adhesives became its core business. The company now has more than 40 technology platforms working in a wide variety of fields.
"Our goal is to increase the rate of new products and thus to encourage a culture of innovation," Rosso said. "But they are not innovations if they are not of help to society." As a measure of the company's innovativeness, he said that 30 percent of income in any given year comes from products introduced over the previous four years, although they can take from three to 10 years to develop.
"We ask people to spend 15 percent of their time on something that interests them, aside from the project they're working on," he said. As a result, he said, the company became involved in wind technology before it was clear there was a market for it. He described the company as "customer-centric and innovation driven" and said that management were assessed every year for their leadership attributes, which he listed as: thinking from the outside, pushing for greater innovation, developing and teaching others, making courageous decisions, leading with passion, energy and urgency and keeping to the 3M values of honesty and integrity. Every year employees who have come up with a successful new product compete for a Golden Step award.