Conferring of Distinguished Fellowship on John Somers
Athlone Institute of Technology
4th October 2018
Citation delivered by Orla Thornton
Director of Marketing and Communications at Athlone Institute of Technology
Great leaders have a clear, exciting idea of where they are going and what they are trying to accomplish in life. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once said: “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” What Jack was describing was a great leader, a leader like John F. Somers, President and CEO of Harmac Medical Products whom we honour here today.
At the heart of Harmac is a commitment to changing the lives of patients, employees and communities, and it is this very vision that John holds core to his beliefs and values each and every day as President and CEO of Harmac. John’s story begins with his father Lewis S. Somers III, who established Harmac Medical Products in 1981. In many ways, their stories mirror each other, in both the qualities and values they displayed in business and their consideration and care for their employees.
Two entrepreneurs, two innovators, two leaders and two individuals with common values and a shared vision for their company. Approachability, humility, honesty, compassion, integrity, respect and dedication to their employees and community, these are the hallmarks of the father-son duo and this is what makes their story so special. So, in truth, this is a story of two halves. Let us go back to the very beginning.
Born on the 4th of May 1926, Lew graduated from the William Penn Charter School and later Williams College where he received his bachelor’s degree in Biophysics after interrupting his studies to serve in the army during World War II. Sometime later, Lew married his wife Elizabeth (Betty) and together the pair gave generously of their time and money to organisations that meant a great deal to them. Inspired by arts and crafts, Betty was extremely active with the Morris Arboretum at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She was heavily involved in charity work behind the scenes and proved a pillar of strength for Lew over the years. Together they had two sons, Scott and John and a daughter, Elizabeth (Beth).
Based out of Philadelphia, Lew was President of Extracorporeal Medical Specialities, a pioneering manufacturer of kidney dialysis and intravenous treatment products which in 1977 became part of Johnson & Johnson. In 1981, the Buffalo plant was to be closed, but Lew organised a management buyout and Harmac Medical Products, a private company, was created with just seven employees.
During the 1980s, Harmac began to grow and develop its innovative solutions in a fast-moving marketplace. Lew’s company vision, coupled with his care, attention, generosity and warmth, created a wonderful company capable of effecting change in the lives of patients, employees and communities. In tandem with the growth of Harmac, Lew was also a majority shareholder in BioChem Technology in the mid-1980s. According to William T. Mulligan Jr, the company’s current General Manager: “Lew is the one who took the company in its current direction, to be at the forefront of wastewater process control technologies and financed all of its research and development in this area for nearly two decades.”
While Lew was very successful in business, he was first and foremost a wonderful philanthropist. Not a naïve, bleeding heart type by any means, but a gentleman with a sincere concern for genuine human suffering who prioritised his principles over his profits. Honesty and integrity were important values for Lew in business. He once extricated himself from a very lucrative US military contract because he realised that BioChem’s research, under the terms of the contract, was going to be used to develop a type of biological weapon. He did not want to be associated with that side of science and paid severe penalties as a result.
Lew had offers to sell his interest in BioChem. General Electric was interested in the technology at one point, but Lew held onto it as he wanted to grow it himself for he valued what he was doing with the company. This further demonstrates Lew’s determination, vision and dedication as a pioneering leader and businessman, traits which John himself embodies in his role of President and CEO of Harmac today.
Lew was a true entrepreneur who was full of ideas, but he was also a kind and generous man with a philanthropic core. As Albert Einstein once said: “It is every man’s obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of what he takes out of it.” Lew fulfilled his obligations and instilled in his son the morals and values to do the same. As we will see shortly, John has, not only followed in his father’s footsteps but amplified the giving spirit that his father was known for. Darryl J. Ford, Head of School at Penn Charter, when speaking of Lew’s generosity of time and spirit, said that Lew chaired the school’s capital campaign, raising $47 million and, in addition, generously donated $3 million of his own money to the school.
Everybody would tell you that Lew had an incredible mind and loved working with his hands, he particularly enjoyed making model aircraft. I am also told that Lew was a lifelong railroad fan who sponsored a steam train in Doylestown. He ate baloney sandwiches on white bread at business lunches (rumour had it that Betty didn’t let him eat baloney sandwiches at home due to cholesterol or something) and his favourite drink was scotch. I am not sure how many of these extra passions you inherited from your father, John, but it is evident that through Harmac’s work and your leadership, you have inherited your father’s drive to selflessly change the lives of the patients, your employees and the community that surrounds each of Harmac’s worldwide locations.
Learning about Lew is important for the context today because John learnt much of his personal and business values, values that guide his vision today, from his father. Sadly in 2011, John’s parents Lew and Betty tragically passed away aged 85 and 84 at their summer home in Raymond, Maine when Hurricane Irene swept through the United States with devastating consequences. Lew has left an indelible mark on the world through his legacy and this passion and vision lives on today in John and Harmac. They were both regular visitors to Ireland over the years and their memory will live on forever in those that had the pleasure of knowing them.
And so, to our Distinguished Fellow nominee John. John’s educational journey began, much like his father’s, at the William Penn Charter school. He later went on to study and receive a BA from Williams college in 1982, an MBA from Boston University in 1992 and most recently, went onto complete the President’s Programme in Leadership at Harvard Business School. John always wanted to join the family business, but only after he got a little life experience of his own. He lived in Boston for 10 years working in the technology industry with Computervision Corporation and Unitrode Corporation. John even spent some time in Ireland, a year’s placement in the 1980s while working in the technology sector. This is where he first fell in love with the country while being noted as the crazy American guy running and cycling in Lycra through the byroads of Innishannon!
John joined Harmac in 1991, with a long-term goal of working his way up the company and that he did. Central to both Lew’s and John’s leadership, was the culture that they had created in Harmac, an employee focussed company ran by a father and son who wanted to give back and support the communities within which they worked and lived in. John was once quoted as saying: “I personally feel my role is to change the lives of employees who work for us,” and through the culture he has created in Harmac, which his father began, he is delivering on what he set out to do. That vision is now a reality because of John and his ambition to drive the company forward for the betterment of those around him. T.E. Lawrence once said: “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible.”
In 1998, Harmac wanted to expand into Europe and eventually choose Ireland as its location and Castlerea subsequently as its home. When Lew was over in Ireland with the IDA looking for a location for their expansion, he toured many places including Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Athlone. However, Castlerea was also on the itinerary and whether it was the magic of the area or the rural setting (some even say that Lew was instantly taken by the cows in the field), the site was chosen for their Irish operation! Truth be told, Castlerea was on the itinerary as there was an empty building that was occupied by Merit Medical and they had a clean room and the clean room was the draw for Lew and John. They wanted a quick start-up and not a greenfield site, but they did fall in love with the location and with Castlerea. When you drive to the Harmac facility, you drive down rural roads meandering through the countryside with its green fields enveloping the landscape dotted with traditional stone walls. The landscape, particularly at this time of year, is breathtaking as the trees change colour and the autumn season sprinkles her charming leaves on the ground.
After Lew and John secured the site, an advert went into the national papers for a General Manager to set the plant up and establish Harmac in Castlerea. Mick McEnroe, was a graduate from the BSc in Polymer Engineering in Athlone Institute of Technology. After graduating, he moved to Sligo to work in the MedTech sector and met his wife, Yvonne, before moving overseas to Canada with Abbott. While back in Ireland, he noticed the position of GM advertised and as time had it, he was looking to move back west to Sligo. So, the stars aligned, and Mick was appointed the GM to the blank site and started to put a team together to build the Harmac operation in Ireland. Mick notes that the biggest challenge when setting up the plant in Castlerea was the location and access to the technicians who ran the processes and worked on the machines, however, this turned into the company’s best asset. Between 20 and 30 per cent of employees are graduates, many of whom are former students of plastics at Athlone Institute of Technology.
When the team at Harmac receive visitors, especially from overseas and they approach the modern cutting-edge building in rural Ireland, they are often quite surprised, but as Mick says, it was an inspired decision in hindsight because their employees are extremely loyal, their affiliation to the area is so significant that it ensures the company’s turnover of employees is extremely low. In 1998, Harmac Castlerea started with 20 people and one customer and gradually added to its portfolio of products over the years, moving into new segments and adding new products, to where they are today with over 300 employees. Today, the company still has ten of its original employees.
John empowered Mick and his team in the Castlerea base by giving them great scope to develop internally and externally and it is this belief and trust in his team that has enabled the Castlerea location to grow from strength to strength with an expansion of the facility by 10,000 square foot completed in 2011 and an 18,000 square foot expansion completed most recently in 2017. The next phase of development will see the addition of a fourth clean room with a four acres land bank at the rear of the site earmarked for future development and expansion. The fundamental level of trust between John and Mick is evident and over the past twenty years, John has watched the Castlerea location flourish under his guidance and direction with Mick at the helm, having the ambition, innovation and agility necessary to keep the business moving forward and leading in the sector. Good leaders, like John, understand that for a site like Castlerea to grow and evolve it needs to do so under the leadership of an excellent and passionate GM and that is Mick. Good leaders don’t oppose a changing path because they know adaptability is a critical component of growth. John is passionate about Harmac and Mick who has been involved since day one in Castlerea has taken his passion and together through their vision and determination have created something unique to be proud of, collectively.
Today globally, Harmac Medical Products is a full service vertically integrated contract manufacturer. They design, engineer and produce custom, single-use medical devices for the global marketplace and provide innovative technical solutions and manufacturing service for companies of all sizes including leading Fortune 500 med-tech companies. They have three sites across the globe including their headquarters in Buffalo, European operation in Castlerea and a plant in Mexico. Their multi-site footprint allows Harmac to offer innovative solutions, geographic convenience, manufacturing efficiency and the ability to provide dual-site production for business continuity.
Great business leaders inspire their teams to achieve greatness and a world-class leader is modest when successful, and attributes successes to the team. With employees in the spotlight, success is viewed as a collective reward. People are inspired and motivated by those who make them feel like their voice matters and John, through his leadership of Harmac, listens to his employees and the team that surrounds him and that shows great humility. John’s philosophy and leadership style, so much like his father’s, has always been core to who he is as a leader. To that end, there are three core elements which are central to John which stays true to his core values of honesty, integrity and respect.
The first element central to John’s philosophy and for Harmac as a globally successful company is always first and foremost the patient. They are proud to deliver results to leading medical device companies which fundamentally change the lives of patients all around the world. Their products are used in cardiology, critical care, diagnostic radiology, drug infusion, urology, extracorporeal devices, oncology, and ophthalmology, to name but a few. For John, the story of the patient is very real. He understands the implication of Harmac’s products in changing the lives of patients. John even tries, whenever possible, to get a patient who has used their product, to come in and talk to employees and tell their story. This helps employees understand why and for whom they are creating the products.
There are more medical devices out there than ever before, but the products the Harmac produce for clients promise to potentially improve the lives of millions of people around the world.
So, while it remains the Emerald Isle to many people across the globe thanks to our rich tradition in agriculture, the reality is that Ireland is also now an established biopharma and MedTech hub in both the development of new drugs and in the creation of new medical devices, such as at Harmac. In addition, there is a solid academic base where Irish-based research is helping to create and develop devices that solve a myriad of different problems, ranging from the most common to the rarest of all. So, the patient for John and all of his team is always to the forefront of their focus. John can feel proud of the role that Harmac plays in the Irish Medical Technology industry in advancing patient health and improving the quality and efficiency of healthcare systems right across the world. Their products and innovations created in Castlerea are indispensable in the provision of high-quality healthcare, enabling better diagnosis, improved treatment options and enhanced outcomes.
The second element which is central to John philosophy is that of his employees and the internal culture that he has created in Harmac. He has cultivated a culture where each and every employee feels valued and respected, and has a sense of belonging, working collectively together in an inclusive environment. Employees, collectively feel part of the future direction of the company and are, therefore, uniquely investment in the company. When John visits the site, he makes sure that he takes the time to talk to everyone in the company, down on the floor, in the clean rooms, in warehousing, logistics and upstairs to services, finance and HR. John treats everyone with respect and once said when speaking about the Buffalo site: “At the end of the day, whatever job you do at Harmac, you’re going to affect the life of the patient, whether you’re the guy picking up the trash outside or an engineer. We have a diverse group of people, from people with high school degrees who are immigrants to people with aerospace engineering or PhD degrees in Robotics. There’s strength in diversity.”
Great leaders like John are known to have high emotional intelligence. This means that they are in tune with their own emotions and plugged into the emotions of those around them. As a result, they’re able to put themselves in their employees’ shoes. John makes his employees feel valued and treats them with integrity and respect. As a result, his employees work in a caring culture which translates to high levels of satisfaction, teamwork, quality of life and pride in being a Harmac employee. John invests in his pipeline of employees from the floor up and has supports in places to encourage them to build a successful career through Harmac. He encourages mentorship, leadership skills, promoting from within and encourages employees to engage in lifelong learning, both personally and professionally with the support of Harmac. The company internally supports health awareness, offers free membership to employees to the Pulse Fitness centre, encourages all employees to be involved in blood donation, employee benefit programme and even rewards the employee of the month with their own car parking space right next to the front door. The company also provides scholarships for employee’s children and grandchildren for school and presently eight children in Castlerea are receiving scholarships, funding their education and their future development as individuals.
Employees in Harmac annually select and support a charity of the year and the whole company in Castlerea put all their energy into delivering for the charity at the end of the year. A weekly contribution from their wages goes towards the charity, which has previously included Cancer Care West and St Michael’s School for children with disabilities, where they have donated tablets and iPads to the school. This year, the chosen charity is Tarmon National School, a fantastic local national school that helps integrate children with autism into mainstream education through their autistic spectrum disorder early intervention class. In raising money, Harmac has held regular bake sales, climbed Croke Patrick and sponsored runs and walks to ensure that the end of year contribution to the charity is significant. This support of John’s employees is inspiring and speaks to his vision for Harmac, as is it the employees and their talent that is helping Harmac to build and secure a competitive edge in the marketplace.
The third and final element key to John’s philosophy is to value the community and to have respect for it. The impetus to give back and support the community, which Harmac operates in was instilled from his father Lew. In Buffalo, John took Harmac’s longstanding community involvement to a new, world-class level by spearheading the Bailey Green Initiative and revitalization plan in 2008 for Harmac’s east side neighbourhood around the company’s headquarters where many of their employees live. John’s goal was to create a safe, attractive environment that would help to build forward momentum in a community that has faced considerable challenges and decades of neglect. John noticed a deterioration of the Bailey Green neighbourhood over the years and noted that: “Back in 2008, we started by looking across the street, there were abandoned houses that were safety and health issues and we started to acquire those and knock those down to create stability.” With that, the Bailey Green Initiative was born.
John personally spearheaded a collaborative and unique multi-partner plan which involved a number of community organizations. With the help from the city, an urban planning team from the University of Buffalo and community partners from Habitat for Humanity, all of whom were focused on investing in the neighbourhood, the project got underway. They began by adding green spaces and planting trees but soon the efforts moved into improving infrastructure, building affordable housing and creating job opportunities for the local community. Through the Initiative, Habitat has built seven houses, five in 2016, and two in 2017. It has also created a community garden. John and his team were this year in the process of renovating a home to serve as the Headquarters for the Buffalo Peacemakers in the Bailey Green area. This unique, multi-partner plan, which John spearheaded, was so impressive and far-reaching, that it was named a finalist in the 53rd Annual International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) Design Competition which was held in Rome in 2015. This further exemplifies John’s passion and commitment to his company, his employees and the community in which they live. The work of the Bailey Green Initiative is an extension of this employee-centric culture.
In Castlerea, where the wonderful 20-year celebrations were marked today, this enormous contribution to the local community that surrounds Harmac is just as strong and as inspiring. In the Hub in Castlerea exists a community and enterprise venue that boasts a large sports hall housing Castlerea Boxing Club, Patricia’s Montessori, Pulse Fitness Centre, Musicians Network and An Chistin which comprises of a Training Kitchen, Professional Kitchen and Community Kitchen. Here the community can avail of chef and service staff training, up Skilling, business support and mentoring along with a whole host of community service like children’s cooking classes. The chef training schools first set of 14 graduates completed their training in August and the next 14 students are currently enrolled. Harmac’s contribution to The Hub is endless. They have provided sponsorship and funding to the hub, provided all of the clothes and materials for An Chistin and its trainee chefs, machinery for the pulse fitness centre, equipment for the sports hall and the list goes on.
As a company, they are also ahead of the curve with regards to its green footprint and they are very much committed to sustainability and their environmental impact within the community. They are committed to pursuing and achieving ongoing sustainability goals supporting the environment, the safety and wellness of their employees and the communities in which they work. A programme was initiated in 2008 which has lead to the company recycling 85% of the plants waste via a material segregation program to minimize the impact of emission to the environment. On the 29th of July, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, opened Somers Park, named after the family, in the Demense in Castlerea directly across the road from the Harmac facility. Senator Maura Hopkins, when speaking of the park, said: “Somers Park is named in recognition of the important contributions made by the Somers family to Castlerea in creating employment and supporting the community of west Roscommon.” Many local people, committees and local public representatives were involved in delivering this project along with support from Government, Harmac Medical and Roscommon County Council.
Councillor Paschal Fitzmaurice spoke about John during the summer saying: “I want to pay tribute to Mick McEnroe and to John Somers for all the belief he and his late father, Lew have had in our town over the past 20 years. This belief has given employment to 300 people in the surrounding area.” He applauded John and Mick for their vision for Harmac in Castlerea and their future expansion plans and also added that their investment in their community makes the Demesne a huge hub for employment and amenities for the area.
John lives in Buffalo with his wife Kirstin. Kirstin is a significant driving force for John, supporting him in everything he does. She loves interior and web design and is passionate about horses. It is hard to imagine that John has time for anything else outside of Harmac, his community involvement and his advocacy, but he does. In his spare time, John also loves playing golf and has played many of our famous courses while in Ireland, including the links course in Strandhill with Mick and, of course, Glasson in Athlone.
John’s legacy has always been driven by a central pillar, how you impact others in the workplace, marketplace and the community long term. Throughout his career and the growth of Harmac, he has created defining moments in the everyday. John’s vision for Harmac in Castlerea builds on the strong medical device cluster in the wider Midlands Region which is hugely important for the country as Ireland continues to win a significant share of foreign direct investment in this area.
We’re here today to celebrate the achievements of a wonderful individual. John is a luminary who is living his legacy each and every day, driven forward by his passion and vision. When I think of John, the words of author Jim Rohn come to mind: “the challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.” This is very fitting when we talk about John and the work that he has done and continues to do. He listens to his passion and intuition, he follows it and he believes in it. Through his work, John has changed and continues to change lives as he pays it forward for the betterment of everyone around him for generations to come.
Citation written and delivered by Director of Marketing and Communications, Orla Thornton.