Paul O’Neill galvanized Alcoa’s workforce by setting high standards for occupational safety, transforming the company’s financial results in the process. During his 13-year reign at Alcoa, as he reduced injury rates, Alcoa’s revenues increased from $1.5 billion to $23 billion while net income increased from $200 million to $1.5 billion.
Paul O'Neill, Former CEO, Alcoa Inc.
Paul O'Neill's contribution to manufacturing -- and to the world -- is profound. Over the years, he has collected hundreds of prestigious professional affiliations and accolades along with 15 honorary doctorate degrees for his service. His public accomplishments include serving as the 72nd U.S. secretary of treasury under George W. Bush.
In this long list of honors and success, however, the one contribution that defined his career the most came into focus with his work as chairman and CEO of Alcoa Inc. (IW 500/48) from 1987 to 1999 when he exposed the world to his signature issue: worker safety.
"In order to create a high-performance organization, you need to have values that are acted on, beginning with giving real meaning to the idea that people in the organization are the most important asset," he explains. "A way to do that is to demonstrate that they are important by acting in such a way that people never get hurt."
O'Neill's theory was that putting the spotlight on safety provided the workers and leaders with a set of common aspirational goals around which they could rally together. If empowered and encouraged to pursue those goals, he believed, workers would soon set their aim at improvement in other areas as well, creating a cascade of improvement throughout the company.
"I thought if we could live by the idea that we could strive everyday to be the best in the world at everything we do, then by definition we would have great financial success," he says. "That turned out to be true."
And by no short measure. During his 13-year reign at Alcoa, as he reduced injury rates, O'Neill saw revenues increase from $1.5 billion to $23 billion while net income increased from $200 million to $1.48 billion.
Still today, 13 years after his retirement from the company, Alcoa maintains a work-loss injury rate of .136, well-below the industry average. This points to the lasting, permanent change O'Neill brought to the company, to the industry and to the manufacturing world.
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