Q&A: Corning's Comeback Ceo

At many companies, Wendell Weeks might've been fired. In2001, Weeks was running Corning's fiber-optics business when the telecom market went bust. But instead of becoming the fall guy, Weeks managed through the sales drop--and in 2005, Corning's board promoted him to CEO. In the latest installment of a series of leadership interviews conducted for the Kaplan University-NEWSWEEK M.B.A. program, NEWSWEEK Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Richard M. Smith spoke with Weeks about Corning's turnaround:

SMITH: Tell me about the highs and lows of running the fiber-optics business. WEEKS: We had a heck of a run, then the market really came to a halt. For some of our product lines, as much as 90 percent of the [sales] volume went away. It really was a time for reflection and lessons learned, as well as a heck of a lot of work. One of the main lessons is that when times are good, that's the moment to plan for what happens if the success of the moment doesn't carry forward.

How did you approach the challenge of that kind of sales decline? There is a tremendous temptation to just hope things are going to get better, so the first step is to face reality. The second is to lay forth a clear plan to everybody on how you're going to go about dealing with that reality. And then finally, and most importantly, is, you've got to do exactly what it is you said you'd do to deal with it.

How did you explain the plan out on the factory floor? You have to carry it personally. We went to our top 200, and we engaged in a dialogue with them. Then we just very transparently carried that message to every one of our factory floors around the world. I try to get to all our factories about once every 18 months, all around the world. We're 25,000 people, so that's a lot of trips.

Your stock went from above $100 to single digits. How do you communicate your strategy to Wall Street? That's one of the hardest things about running the modern capitalist enterprise: how do you balance the relatively short-term nature of the financial markets with--if you're a company that innovates--a development cycle of 10 years? The two principles that we try to apply are: First, you've got to be resolute about what it is you do to distinctively create value. And what we do is, we invent and make keystone components, usually made out of specialty glass and ceramics. That's what we do, and when we do it well, we're going to prosper and so will our shareholders. At the same time, you have to be very transparent to your shareholders, to your customers ... That says, listen, this is what we are. And it's going to be volatile.