When it came time for Pittsburgh native and 2018 ChE Alumni Award recipient Rich Lesser to begin his college search, the University of Michigan quickly rose to the top of his list. With an interest in pursuing chemical engineering, Rich found that the University of Michigan’s robust chemical engineering department made the school a perfect fit. Rich was drawn to Ann Arbor and the University’s strong sense of community, as well as the strength and approachability of the faculty, commenting, “I really appreciated how so many of my teachers and mentors were accessible and down-to-earth in spite of their stature or other commitments.”
Rich arrived as a student in the fall of 1980 and was immediately enrolled in an entry ChE course (230) due to placement credits, but he says he had little understanding of what he was getting into. At the outset, the course proved incredibly challenging, so much so that he remembers calling home to share his concern that he wasn’t going to make it in chemical engineering. What Rich didn’t realize was that many other students were also struggling in the class because, at that time, it was purposefully a “weeder” class. Fortunately he soon began to catch on to the new material and ended up doing very well in it.
As someone who has always enjoyed solving hard problems, Rich found chemical engineering problems to be a welcome challenge and ultimately excelled through his lecture classes. The hands-on lab classes (e.g. ChE 360 and 460) were more of a struggle; as he puts it, “I was kind of a hazard around the equipment, including always breaking more than my ‘glass budget’ of tubes and beakers.” Nevertheless, he knew then that he needed to improve these skills if he wanted to work as an engineer, where he would be expected to oversee and sometimes operate equipment.
Rich came to appreciate several aspects of chemical engineering that have guided him throughout his career – particularly the problem-solving elements of the discipline, combined with math and science fundamentals and the practical nature of chemical engineering challenges. He also enjoyed the chemical engineering curriculum because it balanced theory with real world observations and implications, and it gave him the opportunity to leverage creativity and insight to reach novel solutions. Rich credits this ideal combination as the catalyst for the career path he chose to pursue.
Rich’s first job after graduating was a product development role at Procter & Gamble. The role involved visiting soap manufacturing plants to run a variety of experiments. There, he discovered that although he enjoyed the chemical engineering discipline, he wanted to broaden the kind of problems he would take on while still working within teams.
Conscious that an MBA would enable him to apply his problem-solving skills to a wider range of topics, Rich enrolled at Harvard Business School in 1986. He then decided to join Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 1988, where he embraced the opportunity to take on tough business challenges for his clients that required innovative solutions.
The combination of Rich’s chemical engineering background, experience at P&G, and management training equipped him well to jump into the consulting role. In his early years, he worked in a wide range of industries – telecom, consumer electronics, paper manufacturing and distribution, and retailing. About five years in, he began working in biopharmaceuticals – with particular emphasis on manufacturing, R&D, and major corporate change programs – and this is where he invested most of his client time over the next 20 years. Despite shifting to the business side, his understanding of science and engineering were very valuable for the biopharma companies he supported and particularly for his work in R&D, operations, and strategy. Rich attributes his ability to look for new insights in solving problems as the touchstone of his career over the past 30 years.
In addition to serving clients, Rich took on ever-expanding leadership roles at BCG, first in recruiting, then leading the New York office starting in 2000, then leading operations in North and South America starting in 2009. In 2013, he was elected Chief Executive Officer of the firm by its 700+ partners at the time (now 1,200). Rich is only the second engineer to lead BCG following its founder, Bruce Henderson.
As technology continues to accelerate its impact across the business world, Rich is finding that an engineering and scientific mindset is increasingly valuable in shaping the firm’s offerings to clients. In a first for the management consulting industry, the three leading firms are all led by trained engineers – chemical engineers in fact!
For BCG, this means helping its clients adapt and win in a world increasingly shaped by digital and analytics. Under Rich’s leadership, BCG has introduced a digital innovation unit (BCG Digital Ventures) and an advanced analytics and machine learning unit (BCG Gamma) to bring new product and business innovation and artificial intelligence capabilities to clients. The firm has also developed Innovation Centers for Operations in the US, France, Germany, China, and Singapore to show how manufacturing can be reimagined by combining technology solutions in advanced robotics, autonomous in-plant vehicles, advanced sensors, machine learning, and agile work practices. This approach, combined with continued investments in globalizing the firm and investing in its many sectors and topics, has proven successful, as BCG has doubled in size since Rich became CEO in 2013.
Believing that technical and collaborative problem-solving skills are now more valuable than ever, Rich often tells students who are considering a career in business that an engineering degree is great preparation. “The problem-solving skills you learn as an engineer are useful for a range of challenges that any business leader faces today. When you have an engineering mindset, particularly a chemical engineering mindset, you are always looking for better ways to tackle challenges and improve performance. ChEs are trained to work in teams and to approach any problem in a fact-based and analytical manner with a bias to embracing change.”
Rich is so pleased to see that both Dean Alec Gallimore and his predecessor, David Munson, emphasize multidisciplinary problem solving and thinking. He is convinced this will lead to better innovation for business and society and provide better training for the next generation of engineers. This strategy also is core for the College of Engineering to remain a global leader in research and education and create an environment in which students and faculty have the opportunity to work with the best people in the world across a wide range of disciplines.
Rich is on the Dean’s Leadership Advisory Board and enjoys coming to North Campus regularly to see how it has grown and evolved over the three and a half decades since he was a student. He enjoys learning about the new approaches to problem solving that the latest generation of engineers are engaging in, particularly from his son, Robert, who is a senior in computer science engineering at Michigan. “Now seeing my son in the engineering college, I am so impressed to see how the university has evolved the learning environment for its students, particularly the emphasis on collaboration and real-time feedback in problem solving and the opportunities to work across disciplines,” he says.
Rich will expand on these perspectives when he addresses alumni and students during his visit to campus to receive the 2018 Alumni Award on Friday, October 5.