Alumni Profile: Randall Ledford

Friday, February 7, 2014

“Students graduating now have got to keep learning, be flexible, and be open to new opportunities,” says Randall Ledford. “What they think they are going to do on graduation day is not necessarily what they are going to do for the rest of their lives.”

Ledford should know. He left Duke Physics in 1976, new PhD in hand, to work as a researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Today he is the Chief Technical Officer at Emerson Electric in St. Louis, and the President of Emerson Ventures, which is an internal subsidiary of Emerson that has its own board. Emerson Electric, founded in 1890, employs about 135,000 people around the world.

“Being a CTO of a large company was never in my plan,” Ledford says. “It’s turned out to be a lot more rewarding than I ever anticipated.”

While at Bell Labs, Ledford developed an interest in business and took courses at the company, essentially earning an MBA from AT&T. His wife Wanda, who also worked at Bell Labs, noticed an ad for an engineering manager at Texas Instruments (TI) and suggested that he apply. He got the position, and he and Wanda headed to Tennessee, then Maryland, then Texas with TI, raising two daughters along the way.

He spent 18 years at TI, eventually serving as president of four different divisions. He was friends with the CEO, and he was looking forward to spending the rest of his career at TI. Then the CEO died of a heart attack. “It was one of those moments when you realize how much your life and career are shaped by things totally out of your control,” he says. A new CEO came in with a new direction, and Ledford began to wonder, “Do I really want to make silicon chips for the rest of my life?”

Soon after, he left TI to become the CTO of Emerson, a position he’s held for 18 years. Emerson produces hundreds of different products, from toolboxes to computer systems for process control and automation. As the president of Emerson Ventures, Ledford and his team of technical, financial and legal experts evaluate and invest in new ideas generated by startups. He says, “Big companies typically invest in growing the current product line. To get revolutionary ideas, you need garage shop tinkerers coming up with a new way of doing things. You place bets on them, and just like bets in real life, some are winners some are losers.”

Part of his work at Emerson has involved “globalizing” the engineering department. “The sad but true part of that is we couldn’t find enough qualified engineers in the United States,” he says. He created an engineering center in India that employs 1,000 engineers.

Ledford says his physics background helps with many of the seemingly disparate challenges he faces at work. “Physicists have the ability to solve large complex system problems,” he says. “What I do on a continual basis is to look at large systems, whether computer or mechanical, and try to visualize from a holistic viewpoint where these systems are going in the 3-5 years; I augment that with fresh ideas from venture capital, and help direct the business from a technical viewpoint into the next generation of products.”

Figuring out the next generation of products is not easy in a world where hot ticket items from just 5 years ago—like point-and-shoot cameras, camcorders, and DVD players—are now passé. And that’s where Ledford’s advice about learning and staying flexible comes in. He stays abreast of issues related to sustainability, the globalization of the economy, and changing demographics—such as the expansion of the middle class in China and the contraction of the middle class in the United States. “People (and organizations) need to be prepared to change as the environment, economy, and government change,” he says.

In October, he gave an Edge seminar to business students at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, and he’d like to do more of that sort of thing when he retires—whenever that may be—to Asheville where he and his wife own a home. Another option would be teaching in a physics department. “I like the idea of helping the next generation of physicists, of scientists, of young people as a whole,” he says. “If I can help them and guide their careers, I would find that very gratifying to be able to give back like that a little bit.”

He already gives back by sponsoring scholarships for physics majors at his undergraduate alma mater, Wake Forest University. Ledford’s father died when he was 19 and his mother didn’t have a paid job; scholarships made it possible for him to attend Wake Forest.

He majored in physics, math, and chemistry, but says, “Physics was my first love.” While at Duke, he did his doctoral research at TUNL (Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory). Lesson learned there still stick with him today.

“We started our accelerator line from scratch, putting together the vacuum pipes, the pressure readers, the magnets, making wax blocks, making lead blocks, getting isotope samples from Oak Ridge and bringing them in a vacuum container, building high speed electronics,” he says. “One of the most valuable assets I picked up from my time at Duke, at TUNL, was being able to synthesize pieces to see an ultimate solution at the end.”

Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.