Newsmaker: Tom Buckmaster, Honeywell

In his decade-plus tenure at Fortune 100 conglomerate Honeywell, the corporate communications VP has learned that simplicity is the best strategy of all.

In his decade-plus tenure at Fortune 100 conglomerate Honeywell, the corporate communications VP has learned that simplicity is the best strategy of all.

To say that Honeywell is a complicated company to explain is a serious understatement. Comprising four distinct businesses - aerospace, automation and control solutions, transportation, and specialty materials - it boasts an annual revenue of $30.9 billion and 122,000 employees in 100 countries. In addition, one of its biggest clients overall is the US government, accounting for billions of dollars per year. Given this, concise and effective communications are not only a priority for the Fortune 100 company, but a necessity.

Since 2000, that responsibility has fallen to Tom Buckmaster, VP of corporate communications. A veteran of the agency world, he came to Honeywell during a time of transition. At the time, Allied Signal, a $16 billion corporation and Honeywell, worth $8 billion, had just announced plans to merge, creating what would eventually be- come the conglomerate Honeywell is today.

In addition, Honeywell had recently completed the acquisition of Pittway, a $1.9 billion company that made fire and burglar alarms. Essentially, this left Buck-master in charge of communications for three different organizations with different histories, cultures, and products and services. The challenge for Honeywell was to align its policies and streamline its teams - across all areas, including HR, IT, finance, production, and communications.

At the time, Buckmaster began to instill a communications philosophy that has remained in place more than a decade later.

"Simplicity is the path to clarity and to execution," he says. "We try to have very simple models for how we get our work done."

It's a motto that has served Buckmaster, the overall communications function, and the company well. Today, he oversees a team of 500 communicators around the world. Buckmaster describes the reporting structure as a "complex matrix," as the corporate communications team comprises about 26 individuals and each business unit has communications personnel deeply embedded in the business. They report to Buckmaster as their functional leader and then to the head of the specific businesses.

"If you look at the communications delivery model overall, it has three pieces," he explains. "The most centralized is our internal communications, so we try to have the same conversation with employees in pretty much the same vocabulary all over the world."

At the other end of the spectrum, adds Buckmaster, is how the company handles marketing communications.

"This must be closest to the customer," he says. "We have tens of thousands of b-to-b customers in hundreds of different markets and marketplaces. So delivering terrific marcomms support for our marketing and sales organizations requires an extremely decentralized organization and a decentralized marketplace-oriented headset."

As for Buckmaster, though he reports to the SVP of HR and communications, Mark James, he has a close relationship with CEO David Cote, who Buckmaster notes is a strong proponent of communications.

"It could not be a closer working relationship," explains Buckmaster. "He sets clear priorities for the function and is a huge advocate for communications. He knows the difference between world-class communications and things that are less than that."

Complex comms approach

Like other b-to-b companies, Honeywell's products and services involve huge purchases on the part of its clients. It's not as simple as having a communications strategy that motivates a customer to purchase a $3 jar of peanut butter. These are purchases that involve long-term, multimillion-dollar - and even multibillion-dollar - contracts. As such, communications has to be the vehicle that sets Honeywell apart from its competitive set - which varies depending on the business.

"You must have a clear value proposition," Buckmaster says. "Whether we're marketing the cockpit for the next generation space shuttle or the next energy-efficient thermostat for your living room, it's all about having a conversation that is grounded in a value proposition for the customer that makes sense for them. That's how you look at good work done across a very complicated environment."

Honeywell works with several agencies across the globe, but Weber Shandwick has the largest part - a global remit that amounts to a seven-figure yearly account. And though Weber's Liz King runs the business on a day-to-day basis, Buckmaster says he works with the firm's president Andy Polansky when the time comes for a new assignment, mostly because of Polansky's experience in corporate b-to-b and industrials.

"Tom is a very sophisticated practitioner," Polansky says. "He's just as comfortable handling b-to-b or consumer marketing challenges as he is handling a crisis or public policy issue."

Buckmaster's ability during crises is something Dr. Peter Sandman, a leader in the field of risk communications and someone Buckmaster considers a mentor, sees as one of his greatest strengths.

"A lot of PR people find risk communication threatening or boring, or mistakenly think it's the same as PR," he says. "Tom knew it was different and important, found it fascinating, and set out to get good at it.   

"Perhaps more important, Tom knows how to explain what needs to be done to a far-flung empire of public affairs professionals," adds Sandman.  "That's probably his most stunning gift: the ability to bridge the gap between risk communication and PR. I am trying to learn from Tom more about how to bridge that gap - at least intellectually. I doubt I'll ever acquire his ability to inspire and manage, as well as teach. He does it all."

As is the case with many other companies, one of Honeywell's goals is to find a way to give back to its broad community of customers, employees, and the world at large. When Buckmaster began at the company, Cote asked him to take a look at its philanthropic activities. Buckmaster found that the company was doing little more than writing checks at the end of the month. It was, as he says, "philanthropic, but not activist."

After some research and internal development in 2004, Honeywell Hometown Solutions was born. It has a number of different programs, from supporting science education to helping in times of disaster. Buckmaster serves as president of the foundation, something he calls a "meaningful burden."

"It's rich and profoundly rewarding work," he explains. "It's an honor for me to have the mandate to represent our employees and our leadership and be the executive leader responsible for that work."

One of its most recent programs is addressing the devastation in Haiti after the earthquake earlier this year. In addition to giving $1 million in aid to the region, including a 100% match for employee donations, in August the company broke ground on a new school that will open in January 2011, a year after the quake.

"How can we have less rigor, less engagement in our community relations work than we have in any other part of our business? That doesn't make any sense," he says. "It should have the same rigor, engagement, accountability, and visibility to real outcomes. And, by the way, it's the same way we run our business." l

Honeywell's diverse matrix of businesses

Aerospace. Includes commercial and defense aviation and defense space systems. Among the largest clients is the US government, including NASA.

Automation and Control Systems. The products, services, and technologies of this division can be found in 150 million homes and 5 million buildings worldwide. The most prominent is the Round thermostat - a fixture in many homes.

Transportation Systems. Produces engine-boosting systems for passenger and commercial vehicles. Its consumer products group manufacturers and markets brands such as Prestone antifreeze and Autolite spark plugs.

Specialty Materials. Employs about 10,000 people at 80-plus manufacturing and sales facilities worldwide. It began as Allied Chemical & Dye Corp., later became Allied Signal, before the 1999 merger with Honeywell.

2000-present

Corporate comms VP, Honeywell; president, Honeywell Hometown Solutions (since 2004)

1999

Head of Edelman's New York office

1996-1999

EVP, GM of Washington, DC office, Hill & Knowlton

1985-1996

Senior partner, Fleishman-Hillard

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