Working on the Right Thing
Working on the Right Thing
Since becoming CEO of Honeywell in 2002, David Cote '76 has amassed a list of honors nearly as long as his company's list of products (everything from thermostats to turbochargers). One of the latest, induction into the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, recognizes Cote not just for his success running a $40 billion global company with 132,000 employees, but also for his working-class New Hampshire roots.
Each year the Horatio Alger Association inducts 10 Americans whose hard work and determination have propelled them past obstacles to achieve their goals—like the heroes of the 19th-century novels Alger wrote. Cote often cites the lessons of his humble start, growing up the oldest of five children in Suncook, the downtown mill area shared by Pembroke and Allenstown. But when he spoke in April to high school students receiving Alger scholarships at an event in Washington, Cote warned that hard work alone is not enough.
In his junior year at UNH, Cote worked full-time at night in a factory that made jet engine parts. His GPA dropped to 1.8. Then he and a friend bought a boat, and Cote quit school to become a commercial fisherman. Though the two young men poured all their time and energy into the boat, they never managed to make money fishing. So Cote returned to UNH and earned a GPA of 4.0.
"If you're working on the wrong thing, it really doesn't matter how hard you work," Cote told the students. "Make sure you're working at all times on the right thing."
Today, the right things for Cote relate to both business and government. In March he was elected a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a position that links the government's central bank with the private sector to help ensure that monetary policy reflects real economic conditions.
A Republican, he was named by President Obama as co-chair of the U.S.-India CEO Forum and a member of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a bipartisan group charged with proposing ideas for balancing the federal budget. In addition, he serves on the steering committee of the nonprofit Campaign to Fix the Debt.
Meanwhile, Honeywell's turnaround under his leadership—a 71 percent sales increase, total shareholder return of 240 percent, and development of a "One Honeywell" culture that brought dozens of diverse companies together—has led to a raft of awards from the private sector. Cote was Chief Executive magazine's 2013 CEO of the Year. He has appeared for two consecutive years on Barron's list of World's Best CEOs, is Institutional Investor's Best CEO in his category for 2014, and has won other awards from groups as diverse as the Asia Society and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
Still, nearly every published story about Cote notes that he wears jeans, blares rap music in his office, and comes across as completely unpretentious. High school friend Donald Keeler says that portrait is not just corporate puffery. Cote still attends class reunions at Pembroke Academy, the public high school from which he graduated in 1970, chatting about old times on the basketball team and at the summer camp in northern New Hampshire where he worked with a bunch of friends.
"He remembers the names of people from that camp that none of the rest of us have thought of in 40 years," Keeler says. Though his former classmates know about his current life, Keeler says Cote never boasts, even if he's off-handedly mentioning a meeting at the White House.
"He was just one of the guys back in high school," says Keeler, "and when he comes up here, he still is."
Written by Jane Harrigan