President Julie Sullivan talking with Mike Roman of 3M.

Five Observations: First Friday with 3M CEO Mike Roman

With 16 Minnesota-based companies on the Fortune 500, St. Thomas community members have a unique opportunity to hear from some of the nation’s top business leaders. On March 5, the St. Thomas Alumni Association First Friday Speaker Series welcomed Mike Roman, chairman and CEO of 3M, currently ranked No. 103 on the Fortune 500.


Mike Roman, chairman and CEO of 3M

Roman shared a glimpse with St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan of 3M’s focus on using science to solve the world’s challenges and discussed how 3M stepped up to help during the pandemic. Here are five observations from the talk.

1. To succeed in a career, you need to seek out change and align your strengths with your organization.

Starting his journey at 3M as a senior design engineer, Roman has spent the last 30 years working and moving up 3M’s leadership ladder. Reflecting on his past, Roman said an early driver in his career was the desire to lead business one day.

“I saw the way 3M builds businesses as an opportunity for somebody with a technical background to be able to step into that kind of role,” he said.

Roman shared that self-awareness of who you are, what your capabilities are and where you will be successful are key understandings that must be explored by everyone, whether starting out in the job market or years into a career.

“You have to leverage your strengths. You have to be able to compete in the opportunities that are out there,” he said.

Moving to business from the electrical engineer route was not a well-defined path, Roman said. By looking for opportunities and using the support that 3M employees so generously give, he was able to carve his own road.

“There were many turning points in terms of inflections in my own development and the things that make a difference for me today as CEO. If I hadn’t experienced some of those roles, I wouldn’t be ready for some of the dimensions of the job and the challenges we face in the world of business today.”

Another important concept that led to his accomplishments was leading change. Encouraging students to be curious and to pursue multiple dimensions of the world around them are ways in which the next generation can be set up for success.

“If you are going to really lead into change, you have to be willing to look outside in, you have to be willing to be receptive to understanding and being able to position yourself against that change,” he said.

2. The challenges that 3M faced during the COVID-19 pandemic provided enduring lessons.

Roman said that, in 2020, the pace of change was like nothing the company had experienced before. With the rapid pace of change came the intensified need for innovation.

As 3M adjusted to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the company continued to find ways to create a stronger focus on sustainability. 3M has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 60% in the past two decades and has recently promised to be carbon neutral by 2050, Roman said.

By innovating to promote greater efficiency and by ramping up production to serve customers during the pandemic, 3M was able to make strides as they pushed through the ambiguity that the pandemic brought.

“We advanced 10 years in one year because of the need for us to work remotely and to have safe and social distancing. These are all drivers for accelerated change,” he said.

As expectations increase, innovation has been a great strength that 3M continues to build on.

The company chose to focus on three “critical” priorities: protecting their employees, fighting the pandemic and prioritizing operations.

“Our people in our businesses really needed to be able to operate. Focusing on employee safety became first and foremost,” he said.

Nearly half of employees moved to remote work and 3M enhanced cleaning protocols to ensure employees were protected.

To fight the pandemic from every angle when COVID-19 hit, the company worked to deliver as many N95 respirators as possible to front-line workers.

Because 3M had preparations in place for events such as a pandemic, the company was able to perform successfully and quickly help those in need.

“In the environment of a pandemic, we actually bring on capacity that we keep idle to be prepared for pandemics,” Roman explained.

When the shift to bring on this excess capacity becomes necessary, Roman said that 3M shifts over 95% of production to serve front-line health care workers and first responders.

“By the end of 2020, we had increased our capacity globally fourfold, and we were at a run rate of 2.5 billion N95 respirators per year. We were planning to produce somewhere south of 500 million respirators for the whole year, so that was an incredible step-up.”

Another unexpected challenge for the company was the fight against fraud. The company battled price gouging of the N95 respirators and worked to take down more than 10,000 counterfeit websites selling the product.

Beyond respirators, 3M is fighting the pandemic by supplying technology to assist in the development and production of vaccines and therapeutics. Whether it was in their industrial, consumer or health care business, 3M helped make a difference everywhere they could.

“That included focusing on strong public-private partnerships [and] working with other private companies to deliver even more solutions to the marketplace. It meant stepping up to new roles,” Roman said.

Focusing on its customers, 3M had to accentuate operations as they weaved through the unknowns in the economy during the pandemic.

"We had to be ready to serve customers and deliver for our broader stakeholders, including our shareholders,” he said.

These priorities continue to drive 3M today.

3. Purpose leads growth.

Desiring to make a difference using bolder innovation for the purpose of improving lives is where it all starts, said Roman. Growth is what continues this purpose and proves it.

This idea of growth is not only a reflection of the company’s success with its customers, but it also shows that the organization is winning, which ultimately attracts top talent.

“People want to come to a company that is successful. [Growth] is also helpful for retaining talent. It helps us create career opportunities long term as a company,” he said.

Growth is front and center in 3M’s successful business partnerships. Growth supports investment in the communities it is a part of which is the basis of what 3M is as a company, a global partner and leader.

“We manufacture 80 factories in 29 states, so being able to continue to invest in those communities is critical,” he said.

Finally, growth is a way for 3M to differentiate from its competitors in the science-based market.

For instance, around the world, people are nearly within three meters of a 3M product all day.

“We have products embedded in devices, in your home, in your office, every part of your experience we have product that is close to you and making a difference in your lives,” Roman said.

4. Companies won't succeed if they aren't trusted by stakeholders.

“If customers don’t trust you, you won’t have a business,” Roman said.

He explained that in correlation, if employees don’t trust you, you won’t have a company. Unwavering integrity disallows anyone within one’s company to let down their stakeholders nor will it allow one to sacrifice the stakeholder’s trust that was earned.

“Keeping that front and center is critical,” Roman said.

The foundational ideas in driving growth for a company is centered around continuing to strengthen this trust with stakeholders and moving forward with it in mind.

5. 3M leverages its strengths to promote social justice.

With the killing of George Floyd, Roman said he noticed the tragedy brought a strong voice to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) expectations and demands from the company’s stakeholders.

“As we went out and listened to develop better understanding, it really put some clarity on what it was going to take to step up in those areas,” he said.

Adding an emphasis on the dimension of social justice, Roman noticed a clear call to action for companies to use their capabilities to fight racial inequality.

“We made the decision to focus on areas that we can make a difference leveraging the strengths of 3M,” he said.

Looking at STEM education and economic opportunities, 3M found that these areas were ones in which they would be able to make an impact. Using their tools and capabilities, 3M continues to work to create meaningful change across the Twin Cities and U.S.

“We made a commitment in terms of people, priority and investment that we know will help guide us,” he said.

Roman explained 3M has clear goals, has dedicated resources and company leadership is holding the company accountable to ensure social justice remains a top focus.