It’s 9am in Arizona, and Tami Swearingin, the recently-appointed Managing Director of AkzoNobel’s Aerospace business, has already been at her desk for nearly four hours. It’s a factor of life in an international business spread across multiple time zones and a desire to stay connected with her teams across the Americas, Europe and Asia Pac.
Not that she’s complaining. Far from it. From a girl who grew up with two key passions – flying and business – it could almost be described as a dream job.
“I was always fascinated and intrigued by airplanes,” she says, “and trying to figure out how things worked. I could understand how a bird flew, but how did a 300-ton airplane get off the ground and make it to 30,000ft?”
Her fascination ultimately led her to fly and attain her private pilot’s license and make a rather surprising discovery: “Flying helped me to better understand the science of flight,” she says, “but I also discovered I suffer from motion sickness! I was fine in VFR conditions but flying on instruments under a hood was a challenge!”
From a very early age, Tami was also fascinated by business.
Studying Accounting at Moorpark College in California, and subsequently achieving a BA in Business Administration and Management from the California Lutheran University, Tami’s early career was in finance and accounting. She joined the Hexcel Corporation, the composite materials business, as Division Controller of its Resins business.
Hexcel had been founded in 1948 as the Californian Reinforced Plastics Company to develop honeycomb materials for use in radar domes on military aircraft. It was her first exposure to the aerospace industry, and she embraced it keenly:
“Hexcel was the originator of the honeycomb structure and as Controller I got to visit a number of our aerospace customers. While I was good with numbers – they always made sense to me – I quickly realized that it was the business side of things that really interested me.”
After four enjoyable years at Hexcel she joined the Product Research and Chemical Company (PRC) which later became Courtaulds Aerospace and, for a brief time at least, part of AkzoNobel. It eventually merged into PPG Industries.
As a Business Manager, Tami was exposed to a wide range of experiences, including M&A. She led the business acquisition and start-up of a facility in Miami to serve Latin America and the South East region of the US and introduced new Lean initiatives to deliver greater value to the business during an industry downturn.
Over a period of 12 years she managed and continually grew one of the largest aerospace sealant, coatings, packaging and color match facilities in North America. And she had fun doing it: “I always wanted to run a business, and this gave me the opportunity I’d been looking for,” she adds.
Tami continued her career with Advanced Chemistry & Technology (AC-TECH), an aerospace sealants and surface treatments business, and again enjoyed the entrepreneurial culture and the freedom of decision making more typically associated with smaller businesses. The acquisition of AC-TECH by 3M in the summer of 2011 was another learning experience, and one that has put her in good stead:
“In my former roles the businesses were still comparatively smaller and entrepreneurial, and I had grown with them. 3M was a very different business, with a functional organizational structure and multiple Business Units often competing for centralized services. Every function had their own KPIs and their own targets and navigating your way through and succeeding in such an organization required a considerable amount of skill and internal negotiation,” she says.
In many ways, Tami believes 3M prepared her for life within AkzoNobel, and recognizing that a blend of ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘structure’ is a desirable business outcome: “Being able to combine the resources and best-practices that typically come from a larger organization with the agility and speed of response that the market requires, is certainly an opportunity for the future,” she adds. “What we need to do is look at the gaps that exist between the two and find ways of bridging them to enable us to continue to serve our customers well and win in the marketplace.”
Her experience at 3M, and of being acquired, also means Tami empathizes with the Mapaero team which recently became part of the AkzoNobel Aerospace Business: “Every company I worked for early on ended up being acquired,” she laughs, “and I’m not quite sure if that says anything about me. But it does mean that I understand how the team at Mapaero feel, and how important it is to fully engage with them so that we operate as one team and our ambition and vision are aligned.”
Since joining AkzoNobel as a Sales Manager for North America five years ago, Tami gained rapid promotion, becoming Aerospace Sales Director for the Americas in 2018, before being appointed Managing Director of the Aerospace Division in August 2020.
In a career currently spanning more than 30 years, she has seen a great many changes. Building a more sustainable future has been a particular theme: “When I first started, we still used lead in sealants as well as chromates but that’s all changing now as we better understand the environmental impact of the products we use.”
She is also delighted to see more women in the industry: “In the early days if I visited a customer you would rarely, if ever, see a woman in the hangar or in a paint booth. Traditionally the Aerospace jobs had always been for the men, or so it seemed. But now, I am pleased to say, you do see a number of female engineers, mechanics, and even painters
“Today when I see the Paint Lead in a customer’s shop, and it’s a woman, I think that’s really cool. We all can see things differently, and it is this diversity of view and opinion that makes our industry stronger.”
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Tami says the industry was on a good trajectory. The pandemic has changed all that, at least in the immediate term. She points to previous challenges like 9/11 and the global economic crisis of 2008 as proof that the industry can bounce back: “COVID-19 is not in the
industry’s control and the industry outlook is still tenuous as to when things will get back to pre-COVID-19 levels , but people are by instinct mobile and have a desire to travel and meet people face-to-face. You can’t build the relationships we like and crave over Zoom!”
While COVID-19 is undoubtedly a challenge, it is also an opportunity. AkzoNobel had been on a journey to streamline its business beforehand, and as such has a resilience that has allowed it to absorb much of the shock. “My mission is to come out of COVID in an even stronger position than when we went in,” she says.
“We are already looking to how we can partner with our customers to support them in being successful, and we are not shying away from investment where investments need to be made. We need to have vision and stay focused on what we do well.”