Denise Johnson

Group President, Resource Industries, Caterpillar Inc.

Building the world’s infrastructure in times of great change

I grew up in a small farming town surrounded by a lot of family. Every Sunday, my parents, brothers and sister would get together at my grandparents’ house for dinner and share our stories from the week. Looking back, those simple times together are some of my fondest memories, and why I try to spend as much time with my family as I can.

I married my high school sweetheart, Jerry, over 30 years ago. We are both engineers, and he recently retired from a manufacturing leadership role with a metal stamping supplier. We have three grown, married daughters: Jessica (30), Sarah (28) and Katherine (25). The Johnson family continues to grow, as I now also have three grandchildren, with another granddaughter due this month! Family get-togethers are always a lot of fun.

Describe your educational background. What inspired you to become an engineer?
Growing up in Michigan, many family members and friends had connections with the automotive industry, so working in the industry was a natural fit for me. While I’d like to say that I was naturally drawn to engineering at an early age, it is simply not the case. I chose mechanical engineer for pragmatic reasons: I did well in math and science classes and researched that the top-income bachelor-degree jobs were in engineering, so it seemed a logical choice. That said, while in college, I worked as an engineering summer intern and found that engineering was a perfect fit for me. My husband and I were married after my freshman year of college and started our family—so we all went through engineering school together!

One of the key decisions I made early in my career was to do graduate work in the Leaders for Global Operations program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I wanted to go to a top-notch university for graduate school, and so I competed to win a fellowship. We moved our family from Michigan to Boston, and it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. I was able to earn dual master’s degrees in mechanical engineering and business administration. That advanced learning gave me a strong foundation for the critical thinking, business acumen and leadership qualities needed to be successful in today’s world.

Tell us about your 22 years at General Motors. What were some of your greatest accomplishments there?
I had the opportunity to work in many areas of General Motors: engineering, operations, strategic planning, product management, labor relations and other general leadership roles. I lived in several different parts of the United States—including Boston, Massachusetts while I worked on my master’s at MIT—as well as Ontario, Canada and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

I feel most proud of my involvement in launching new, innovative products—primarily small-car platforms and full-size trucks—as well as my role in leading the organization through challenging circumstances. I believe you grow and learn the most when you overcome obstacles.

How did you come to join Caterpillar?
Caterpillar’s talent manager visited MIT’s campus, and my name was recommended to him. He leveraged contacting me through a Caterpillar employee with whom I had previously worked in Detroit. As I explored the opportunity, I really liked the values of Caterpillar and the business of “building the world’s infrastructure” with the global reach of products and services. The people I met with while interviewing, like Ed Rapp, quickly made me feel at home, and I knew Caterpillar was for me.

You have risen up the ranks at Caterpillar quite rapidly. Describe some of your top accomplishments along the way.
I joined Caterpillar in 2011 and initially served as the general manager of specialty products within Caterpillar's Reman & Components Division, where I had global responsibility for wear component products and facilities. In 2012, I was named a vice president of the Diversified Products Division. In 2013, I was named vice president of Integrated Manufacturing Operations, and in 2014, I was named vice president of the Material Handling & Underground Division. Today, I’m a group president with responsibility for Resources Industries, which includes three divisions: Innovation and Technology Development, Material Handling and Underground, and Surface Mining and Technology.

My background in engineering/product development and manufacturing operations has provided a solid foundation as I have moved through various positions at Caterpillar. Much of my focus since joining the company has been on getting our strategic portfolio and competitive footprint aligned in such a way as to position us to win through economic and market cycles—superior products and services, high quality. We have an iconic brand with a powerful market distribution channel, and we need to continue to adjust our culture, technologies, products and services to deliver what our customers desire as we move forward into the next decade. It is a time of real change at Caterpillar, and it is an exciting place to be working!

Tell us more about the Women in Leadership initiative at Caterpillar. What are its primary goals, and how can it help lead to broader diversity at the company?
Studies consistently show that diverse teams who operate in an inclusive environment consistently deliver higher results. While gender balance has always been a priority for Caterpillar, now more than ever we need the right talent, in the right place, at the right time. We have intentionally focused past efforts to leverage diversity on our most senior leadership positions, and we now recognize and understand the value of broadening this strategy to encompass our total pipeline.

Currently, about 20 percent of the Caterpillar workforce is female. However, the company aims to achieve an industry benchmark of 30 percent women in its workforce and leadership roles by 2022. It’s an aggressive goal, to be sure. But it is critical that we have a diverse and deep talent pool to develop and draw from in the future.

In January 2016, we launched a dedicated initiative to proactively address diversity challenges in our workplace: “Women in Leadership.” It has three key areas of focus on how we brand Caterpillar to our employees and prospective employees; creating better sourcing for talent, both inside and outside of Caterpillar; and really disrupting our thinking around policies and procedures.

What are some of the challenges and top priorities for the Resource Industries Division, both in the coming year and the long term?
It’s no secret we are in challenging times. We are in the fourth consecutive year of a decline in mining. The drop in commodity prices—about 50-percent less than in the 2012 timeframe at the peak of the market—has put a strain on mining operations from a profitability perspective. One of the first things to be impacted when mining companies are looking to cut costs is capital equipment spending, and that impacts Caterpillar. As our sales have fallen dramatically, we have undergone considerable restructuring, consolidating to align with market realities and pruning our prime product and component portfolios to position us for success moving forward. The process has been painful for everyone, as our employees, suppliers and dealers are directly impacted.

We remain focused on a strong and viable future. Mining customers are continuing to mine ore at very high levels. As a result, we are extremely focused on capturing a larger percentage of the aftermarket through machine rebuilds and parts sales, as the need to maintain fleets and increase productivity clearly remains a top priority for miners. We are also partnering with our dealers and customers at the mine site to improve site performance (uptime, machine availability) and help our customers lower their total cost of production. We are leveraging our technology and digital solutions to transform the mine site into an end-to-end factory that runs more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

One of the things I stress as a leader is that we must achieve our commitments to our customers and to ourselves. In mining, we have put aggressive targets and goals in place to transform our products and processes without depending on a market upturn. We are focused on winning and growing our brand, regardless. This is hard work, and the team has done a phenomenal job. One thing I have learned over the past five years is that if the people of Caterpillar set their minds to a goal, we achieve results!

Describe your involvement in the community and some of the causes that are near and dear to you.
You can’t lead from behind a desk. You need to get out and get engaged. An important part of leading is connecting with people where you live and work, which is why I am active and engaged in the community.

In Peoria, I serve on the Board of Directors for The Center for Prevention of Abuse. This nonprofit organization does such great work for our community by providing care and services for those most in need: victims of neglect and abuse. I personally believe in supporting organizations that not only protect, but even more importantly, provide services that are focused on transitioning, educating and empowering individuals to break the abuse cycle for the future.

I was also excited to be the co-chair (with Dr. Divya Joshi) for Easterseals’ annual Tribute Dinner, honoring community leader Sue Yoder-Portscheller. Easterseals supports so many families who face disabilities, and the recent focus to build a best-in-class Center for Autism is an excellent example of how it continues to evolve as the community need changes.

Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career? How did this person(s) help you along the way?
Yes, I had two remarkable mentors/champions early in my career who shaped me greatly: Mike Brady and Willkie Hopkins. Both were in the latter stages of their careers and took a real interest in helping me succeed. I learned how to transition from an engineering office environment into a challenging manufacturing environment. I give them the credit for teaching me how to manage people: difficult people, challenging situations and politically-charged events. They also advocated for me when the time for larger roles or promotions came up. They did a great deal behind the scenes to ensure I received credit for what I accomplished when it was not clear to the decision makers. Their credibility and advocacy made a real difference in my career. Looking back, they spent considerable time coaching and advocating for me. I am indebted to them, and feel personal responsibility to “pay it forward” by mentoring younger, motivated team members.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
I received some advice early that still resonates with me: “Push yourself hard—you can do more than you think you can—don’t ever give up.” I personally believe in the power of hard work, perseverance and sheer determination. I was told so many times in my early career that “you can’t do that” or “that will be too difficult.” I am attracted to challenges and enjoy finding a way to get the job done. When I feel most ready to stop or give up on something, I push myself to do more.

My daughters sent me this quote by R.M. Drake because it reminds them of me:

“She was fierce, she was strong.
She wasn’t simple, she was crazy
and sometimes she barely slept.
She always had something to say,
she had flaws and that was ok.
And when she was down, she got
right back up. She was a beast
in her own way, but one idea
described her best. She was
unstoppable and she took anything
she wanted with a smile.”

Of course, my husband said he totally agreed with the “having flaws” part!

As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
A teacher. I loved reading and enjoyed going to school, especially when I was in elementary school. I remember crying when I came down with the chicken pox in first grade because I had to stay home from school. I thought learning was great fun, so I decided early on that I wanted to be a teacher. Teachers have such a great influence on children and can significantly impact their confidence, the choices they make and how they approach problem solving. I was lucky to have some outstanding teachers in my lifetime! iBi

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