Peter BigelowIs there more to good fortune than just fate?

We often hear the names of up-and-coming companies, each with interesting (or hyped) capabilities or fresh market approaches. Ironically, those moments can prompt us to contemplate companies long gone and the factors that helped others survive. What enables success in our highly competitive, ever-changing, global industry? Is it vision, opportunity or luck?

Early in my career, I was with large, publicly traded “Fortune” listed corporations. For those just starting out, those are heady places to be. Corporate headquarters were full of bright people whose jobs were to find ways for all the many diverse plants, operations, divisions and “strategic business units” to be successful contributors to the corporate good. Top on their list was making sure all people in all facilities knew and understood that pithy document known as the corporate “vision statement.” Those succinct declarations attempt to do two things: first, to channel staff efforts toward company success, and second, to convince staff that senior management in “the ivory tower” was focused on the future.

Yes, vision was doing the homework and planning for the future, so the company and all its dedicated employees would, in the end, overcome whatever competition or companies crossed their path. The belief was that if you had a vision of a product or the industry’s future, you could successfully develop a strategy or plan and execute it, ensuring long-term success. The Kool-Aid was sweet, the vision inspiring. What I observed, however, was in the end, no matter how well-vetted and communicated those corporate visions were, those companies were ultimately either acquired or foundered because their vision failed to see a major disruptive technology that radically changed a key market or entire industry.

Some may say the printed circuit board industry has never been long in vision. Rather, it’s been an industry of opportunists. Indeed, the founders of the early PCB companies were entrepreneurs who saw opportunity and, in some cases, almost with blind faith, set up shop. Hang around any old-timers and the stories will begin to pour out about the trials and tribulations to develop and master processes or technologies. With demand for our “new” technology growing exponentially, the pioneers hired people, bought equipment and sold product not out of vision but opportunity. And that opportunity was now! If you could make more, you could sell more. If you sold more, you needed to make more.

Opportunity required moving fast and taking risks. Many in our industry were risk-takers in the right place and time. The challenge those entrepreneurs had, however, was that maintaining a frenetic pace while constantly taking such risks was not sustainable. One major economic downturn can suck the wind out of orders, capacity utilization and, ultimately, the cash to continue. As our industry is no stranger to periodic economic downturns, regrettably almost all those early entrepreneurial companies are long gone – victims of banking only on the next opportunity.

Luck, however, seems to just happen and often to those least likely for success. Someone somewhere wins the lottery. Luck requires nothing but fortunate timing.

Or does it?  

Years ago, I worked for a sales manager who at every opportunity would preach, “Luck is good planning, carefully executed.” I did not necessarily buy into his mantra. It seemed too many people worked way too hard with marginal results, while others seemed to effortlessly hit their numbers. There had to be more to success than luck.

Indeed, success does require far more than plain old luck, or opportunity, or vision. In an industry that has had too little of one, too much of another and a smattering of the third, we are ripe for fresh new companies to forge a far more stable, successful future. The same can be said of the incumbents. Whether they date to the early entrepreneurial days or perhaps evolved through mergers, it may only be a balance of all three that ultimately results in success.

Yes, you need vision. Every business needs to have a sense of what they do well, where their deficiencies are, how much they want to stay the same or change, and where they want to be. Nonetheless, a vision also requires a realistic look at the available resources – people and money – as well as an honest appraisal of trends that could provide a tailwind or a headwind. Vision need not be 20 years out, but it does need to be based on reality.

Equally, a vision is an overall direction that can be changed – and often must be. Be flexible enough to handle good – or bad – opportunities. If you are too set on a plan based on a rigid vision, you may miss an opportunity or not be able to adapt to a surprise challenge. Flexibility is key. Nothing wrong with leaving New York to head for Los Angeles. But don’t be afraid to take a hard right to Chicago if a better opportunity presents itself.

Never underestimate luck, but likewise, don’t underestimate the effort required for luck! Luck involves planning to have resources available to enable that flexibility. Luck is planning in the event something goes wrong. Luck is making sure staff does not make avoidable mistakes. Luck is listening and paying attention so when an opportunity arises, you identify it and don’t miss it. What contributes to success? That’s the place to start when doing your annual planning.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His column appears monthly.

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