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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When Dr. Michael Edwards joined Ocean Insight as president in July 2020, he faced the continuing fallout of a relentless pandemic, the prospect of organizational changes, and the challenge of steering a successful company to even greater heights. In a recent conversation, Edwards reflected on the key moments from an eventful year at the helm.
Q: Congratulations on one year as company president. What's it been like?
Edwards: The past year has been full of change. We've done quite a lot to advance the organization from a strategy standpoint, from an execution standpoint, and from a performance standpoint. It's been a really good experience. One year in, I'm very happy with my decision to join Ocean Insight. I can't believe it's gone that fast.
Q: What has surprised you most about the past year?
Edwards: The thing that's been surprising is just the resiliency of the people within the business and their commitment to Ocean Insight. Even when things seem to be tough, we get people aligned to what needs to be done and then the business just performs. I was expecting to have dedicated employees, but I was not expecting to have the level of dedication, the level of resiliency that we have. Our employees bleed Ocean orange – I’m convinced of it.
Q: Our customers have demonstrated great resiliency, too.
Edwards: Yes, they have. Our customers are operating in markets that are performing well. Provided we continue to meet their needs, our customers will continue to do business with us.
Q: We also benefit from the versatility of the markets for our technologies.
Edwards: We operate in markets that are anchored by good macroeconomic trends. We operate in health, safety, and the environment. With the growing population, there's going to be a need for health and safety. And with all the stressors that we're putting on the planet, there's very keen attention being paid to the environment.
Q: COVID has been with us for more than a year. We’ve worked with customers who are part of the effort in understanding, diagnosing, and treating the virus. What's that been like?
Edwards: It's been really rewarding for our organization to know that we are a part of the solution. And that our products are being incorporated into instruments and techniques that are helping to diagnose and screen patients for COVID. It's humbling to know that we are contributing to society at a level that matters when life and death is concerned.
Q: As a result of the pandemic, companies have adjusted how they operate, sometimes dramatically. What will be the lasting effects of these changes?
Edwards: I believe the way in which we do business is changed forever. Gone are the days when people like me would be on a plane for 100,000 miles a year, visiting this place and that place. What we've learned during this pandemic is that we are very capable of operating our businesses virtually.
Also, I don't know that we will ever go back and see 100 percent mandated attendance in the office every day, because it's not necessary. Companies are going to leverage technology in every way possible to streamline costs and to increase effectiveness.
Q: What impact will this have on the qualities that companies look for in employees?
Edwards: The entire workforce is going to have to be more tech-savvy. It's also going to lead to a higher skill level because companies are no longer limited to candidates that are local to their area. Companies will have the opportunity to bring on talent regardless of where those folks are physically located in the U.S. or even in the world.
Q: We opened a new facility in Orlando, Fla., in the last year, which houses our headquarters and operations. What has the facility meant for how we serve customers?
Edwards: Well, it means everything for how we serve our customers because we effectively doubled our manufacturing assembly footprint. We have more space and have designed our manufacturing flow to be more efficient. We've recently started welcoming people back into the building and had our biggest customer here about three weeks ago. It was his first time in our new facility. He was extremely impressed. I very much look forward to inviting more customers into our brand-new global headquarters. It's a world-class facility, and I'm looking forward to showing it off.
Q: And employees seem to appreciate it, too.
Edwards: Our people love coming to work because they have more space, and the building is just phenomenal. We have a game room here in the center of the building for when they go on break. So, the facility means a lot in terms of servicing our customers because our employees are thrilled to be here. And when you have happy employees, they work faster, they work better. They are more attentive to details because their minds are open, their minds are relaxed, and they just enjoy being here.
Q: Even though Ocean Insight has been part of Greater Orlando for many years, most folks wouldn’t think of the area as a photonics hub. Why is it important to have close relationships with local government, university, and business leaders?
Edwards: It’s important for a couple of reasons. One, we certainly want to make sure that our community knows and understands that we are a good corporate citizen, that we are hiring local talent, that we're providing jobs for the community, and that we're helping to support the community economically. So that's first.
We also want to make sure that we're building relationships with local government officials and leaders at universities and colleges like the University of Central Florida and Valencia College. It's important that we're maintaining those relationships so that we have access to talent. And it means a lot in terms of our ability to influence the environment in which we operate.
Q: Most people hear Orlando and think of theme parks. What might surprise them about the area?
Edwards: Central Florida is one of four photonics hubs in the U.S. We happen to have facilities in two of the four; the other one is in Rochester, N.Y. There’s a tremendous amount of technology in the central Florida corridor. The infrastructure here is growing. The Orlando airport is certainly one of the easiest to get in and out of because of its connection to the tourist industry. So, central Florida is the right place for Ocean Insight. Our customers may not know all that, but they benefit from it when they do business with us.
Q: In addition to a new facility, we’ve added new leaders and made other organizational changes in the last year. What has this meant for customers?
Edwards: I'm very keen on making sure that we have the right leaders in place who can inspire our employees to deliver and contribute beyond anything that they thought was possible. The impact on our customers means that Ocean Insight will be a better, more reliable supplier. And if we can continue to dependably supply our customers, they will provide us with their business. They will reward us so that all these changes -- in terms of changing our organizational structure from a functional structure to a business unit structure, bringing in new leaders to run various parts of our business -- will move us to the next phase of our existence.
Q: Regarding change, your predecessor was the first woman president at Ocean Insight, and you’re the first person of color in the position. What does that say about diversity in our organization? And why is this important?
Edwards: What it says is we are evaluating talent based on talent and not based on what the talent looks like. To limit the population of potential employees is to limit your business because you’re missing out on this wealth of experience that different people bring, the different philosophies that people bring, different ideas, different experiences that people of different backgrounds, culture, gender, age bring to the business. If you're going to get the best out of your business, then you need to have the best people, and the best people come from all walks of life.
Q: When you were a young man, did anybody ever dissuade you from pursuing science and technology in your education?
Edwards: I had wonderful parents who raised me in an environment where I very rarely heard the word no or you can't. My parents really encouraged me. And I was always interested in science and technology. Probably the most challenging period in terms of being discouraged from pursuing an education in science was as a first-year chemical engineering student at Georgia Tech. I had a chemical engineering professor who shall remain nameless, but was very, very clear that I was not going to be able to get through his class. But I made it out of his class, and I made it out of Georgia Tech, and then went on to pursue a master's degree and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. So, I guess he was wrong.
Q: How can businesses and others encourage more minority representation in the sciences and technology?
Edwards: There are several things that we can do. One is to support schools that are in neighborhoods where minorities are living, making sure that they have adequate funding and support from local communities and companies with people like myself.
When I was in St. Louis and working for a different company, we had a program where we would go into the schools and read to the students or they would read to us. So, we can be effective by providing educational support, and taking scientists, engineers, and business leaders in the community into the schools to help the kids get excited about education, to get excited about learning. We can put role models out there that kids can look up to and admire and to show the kids that, you know what, it's cool to be president of a company or it's pretty cool to be the marketing manager in a company. Yeah, it's cool to be a professional athlete as well. But you know what? The percentage of the population that's able to do that is so small that the odds are overwhelmingly against that. But the odds are overwhelmingly positive if you get an education and become a contributing member of society that earns a decent living and can support your family and be a productive citizen.
Q: As we move ahead, how does the general photonics business outlook shape up over the next year?
Edwards: The photonics industry is a strong industry. We can use photonics technologies to solve just about any problem that comes before us. We can measure and identify and quantify just about anything using our photonics technologies. So, we're in a strong position. As the economy continues to recover, we're going to see continued growth within our business. As our customers become stronger, they're going to be looking for nondestructive solutions and we are very well positioned to meet those customers’ needs as we go forward.
Q: What else can customers expect from Ocean Insight in the next year?
Edwards: Customers can look for an organization that becomes more efficient, an organization that becomes more customer-centric, an organization that is more dependable, an organization that is going to perform quite well. Our aim is to grow. Our aim is to grow in our support of our customers. And our aim is to grow in support of our employees as well. So, I think overall, customers can expect a highly functioning, highly performing, consistent organization that supports their needs. And that will grow with them as they grow. We want to supply them so that we can help them.
Q: And what can we look forward to from Michael Edwards in the next year?
Edwards: I have high expectations of myself and making sure that we are positioned for success. I am really driving accountability and execution throughout our organization. You've heard me say this before. There are no passengers on this bus. You're either in the front or you're in the back and you don't want to be in the back. You want to be in the front helping us drive because there are no passengers and there's no “swooping” in this business. No one's going to swoop in and fix something that's broken. And, from a broader standpoint, you can continue to expect me to drive change as well. It's change with a purpose. Organizations are fueled by people, and if you're not constantly changing the organization, giving people new challenges, and challenging them to go beyond what they think they can do, organizations can become complacent and become stagnant.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Edwards: What I would say to the employees is rest assured, we are going to do everything that we can to create an environment that is open, that is welcoming, and that is fun. And for our customers I would say rest assured, we're going to do everything that allows us to supply our customers in the most consistent and effective way.
Thank you, Dr. Edwards.
On February 24, 2021, Ocean Insight President Michael Edwards and employees welcomed political and business leaders to our facility for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.