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A winning blend of technological brio and family values

It was an occasion when hard science met home economics. US gastro nomes were on fire with enthusiasm in 1912 when the Corning glassmaker introduced a new kitchen dish for baking cakes.
The product w…

It was an occasion when hard science met home economics. US gastro nomes were on fire with enthusiasm in 1912 when the Corning glassmaker introduced a new kitchen dish for baking cakes. The product was the first item of Pyrex ovenware, a name that was to become one of the best-known kitchen brands of the 20th century. The breakthrough in making a type of glass that conducted heat better than metal was appropriate for a company that had already built up a name for investing in science and technology. In 1908, Corning had set up one of the US“s first corporate research laboratories. It blended physics, chemistry and engineering to come up with, for instance, new designs of lamp lenses that made it safer to work on the US railways at night. Pyrex, so named because it was first used for cooking pies, came from the same stable of ideas. The examples of Corning“s early interest in creating the right environment for innovation – and fitting scientific breakthroughs to the needs of the market place – shine through in Margaret Graham“s and Alec Shuldiner“s thoughtful history of the company, published to commemorate its 150th anniversary this year. If it does nothing else, the book provides plenty of evidence to contradict the many commentators who even now use the term “knowledge economy” to refer exclusively to the exploits of businesses concerned with computers and information technology – excluding from this the activities of older-established companies such as Corning. That Corning has survived so long – with products vital to a huge number of fields including medicine, telecommunications, consumer electronics and missiles – is testimony to its ability to direct its profound knowledge of materials to a range of business applications. Corning began business in 1851 in Massachusetts, under the name Bay State Glass. It moved to the small town in the state of New York in 1875 from which the company took its name. The Houghton family had a huge and continuing influence, which for successive generations owned and stewarded the company, retaining control even after Corning went public in 1945. It was the Houghtons – from Amory Houghton, the company“s first proprietor, to James Houghton, who retired as chief executive in 1996 and remains the company“s non-executive chairman – who made sure the company retained a sense of scientific curiosity and interest in new markets. It is rare to find a large, long-lived US company with the continuous thread of a single family“s involvement. The pattern is more often associated with private German engineering businesses, some of which have been owned and run by the same business dynasty for five generations. Graham and Shuldiner have little doubt that the Houghton family values were instrumental in ensuring that Corning survived the competitive onslaught of the 20th century to reach the 21st century intact and with a reputation for innovation that remains high. It has not, however, been an easy ride. Speciality materials companies such as Corning have some inbuilt advantages – but some disadvantages too. They frequently work in a field of technology with few competitors and where barriers to entry are high. Corning“s main competitors in the specialist applications for glass are restricted to a handful of similar businesses, including Carl Zeiss, Schott and Hereus, all private German companies. But the inherent competitive advantages provided by technological mastery in a narrow field are at least partly offset by a dependence on a few big customers. If these move in an unexpected direction because of a change in technology or markets, materials suppliers can suffer severe and sudden setbacks. Thus it was that Corning, having transferred its early dominance in the technologies for making glass light bulbs to supplying television tubes, was hit severely in the 1970s and the 1980s by the demise of the US-based television manufacturing industry, which had been an important customer. In the past few months, too, Corning has been affected by downwardly spiralling demand from the telecommunications industry for fibre-optic glass, a field in which it is the world leader. It was partly the concern of the Houghtons and other managers guiding Corning over the years to reduce the company“s dependency on a few customers that led to Corning“s continuous, and sometimes frenetic, search for new areas in which to apply its glass and materials know-how. There were a few blind alleys, as in the company“s extended effort to use its ceramics capabilities in the biotechnology and medical fields and an ill-judged attempt in the 1960s to interest the world“s big carmakers in a shatter-proof glass windshield. But there were also technical and commercial triumphs, including efforts to make special parts for military rockets, ceramic capsules for vehicle cata-lytic converters and work on diesel filters that could turn into a successful product later this decade. The company is also a big maker of the glass that goes into liquid crystal displays. In spite of this promise, the next few years could be difficult for Corning. After doing well in the 1990s, following a terrible commercial period for the company in the 1980s, Corning could be caught out over the next few years by a tougher competitive environment and the downturn in many high-technology markets. But if the company can reproduce some of the technological brio that saw it through the early years of the 20th century, it has every chance of thriving in the 21st century.

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