By Kate Siber D’02
Published Mar 25, 2013
People call Eric Spiegel the most natural leader they’ve ever met. Now CEO of Siemens USA, a global electronics and engineering powerhouse, he gets to lead on the issues that matter most. To his company and the country.
Eric Spiegel T’87, CEO of Siemens USA, does not have a plaque with his name affixed to his office door. He does not have any photographs of his wife or two children on his desk, or gold-framed diplomas hanging on the wall. His office looks like any other office, and when he is not there, others are welcome to use it.
Two years ago, a year after Spiegel assumed the helm of Siemens USA, the company’s Washington, DC, headquarters moved to a new building and a “new way of working.” It was one of Siemens’ first American offices to move to a new model of workspace. When a staffer arrives, she picks a desk and her calls are forwarded there. About three quarters of the office is open space, every wall is glass, and there are no cubicles.
The office is designed to be more inclusive, less hierarchical, and to encourage connection, team building, and the cross-pollination of ideas. To those who know Spiegel, it comes as no surprise that he embraces the new concept. “One of the key things I’ve learned in my career is when new opportunities come up, be willing to make changes and be willing to move and adapt,” he says. Even when it comes to something as elemental as office space.
Embracing change is precisely what Spiegel did about three years ago when he made the leap from senior partner at Booz Allen Hamilton to CEO of Siemens, a powerhouse of electrical engineering and one of the country’s largest companies. Headquartered in Germany, Siemens produces highly engineered products to serve four sectors: energy, industry, health care, and infrastructure and cities. Their products encompass a spectacular range, from MRI machines and high-tech industrial automation systems to steam and gas turbines, wind turbines, and electric trains.
Since Spiegel arrived, Siemens has grown 9 percent annually, outpacing the market’s growth during the recession. In the U.S., it has more than 70 businesses, 60,000 employees, and, in 2012, about $27 billion in sales, including exports. It has also grown immeasurably in profile since his arrival—big enough to warrant mention in the two most recent State of the Union addresses. Its reputation has also grown enough to allow the company to act as a proponent for issues that matter, from the nation’s technical skills gap to the need for a comprehensive long-term U.S. energy policy.
Eric Spiegel always knew that he wanted to be in the middle of the action. He is motivated by the desire to have an impact on the world, though he didn’t always know what that might be. He did know that he was ready to move and he was ready to be open to whatever opportunities and challenges came has way. With each new experience, from undergraduate school at Harvard to business school at Tuck to consulting for eminent CEOs like Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault and Nissan, he has been able to set his sights higher. It has all led to here, a position where he has the opportunity to effect change in a highly matrixed organization with multiple CEOs. If there were ever someone to take advantage of that position, it is Eric Spiegel.
Spiegel grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where his father ran an insulation construction business and restaurant. When Eric was a kid, Mr. Spiegel would occasionally bring him to work sites. One day, he brought him to a power plant in Pittsburgh. To the young man, it seemed huge and wondrous and monumental. It was the first time he realized the spectacular scale of power generation. While other people might be intimidated by the sheer enormity of it all, he was fascinated. He knew he wanted to be a part of something this big.
Tall and strong, Spiegel is a natural athlete, and he went to Harvard to play football. Before he left, his dad gave him some good advice: don’t come back. Youngstown, he told his son, is a city living in the past. “When I left to go off to college, my dad said, ‘You know, don’t be afraid to move to where the action is, to go where you can best advance your career and what’s good for you and what’s good for your family,’” says Spiegel. “He said, ‘You’re going to great schools, you’ll work hard, you can do anything. But every time you get too comfortable, think about changing your life.’”
At Harvard, Spiegel realized that he had set his sights too low. He no longer wanted to be a sales manager at a middling industrial company in Youngstown. Harvard was swimming with people with big ideas and skyscraping ambitions—people who opened his mind not only to what he was capable of but what was possible. During his junior and senior years, he dove into a thesis exploring the future of nuclear energy in the U.S., researched for a policy team studying nuclear waste disposal, and consulted on energy part-time for a local firm. It was the beginning of a career-long interest in energy.
After college, Spiegel went to work at Temple, Barker & Sloane, a consulting firm in Boston. In a few years, he rose to the level that he would have entered as a business school graduate, but he decided to go back to business school anyway, a decision that baffled some colleagues and friends. But he wanted to change his life. He wanted to go someplace that would be special and impactful and would help him figure out what he wanted to do—and he was willing to step out in a new, risky direction.
“Eric is the guy from Youngstown, Ohio, who is deeply grounded but als knows how to make things happen in the industrial world," says Phil Giudice T’85, a former colleague at Temple, Barker & Sloane. “And that’s exactly what Tuck is all about—people solidly grounded in facts and foundations and building things that are quite awesome in terms of their scope and span and perspective.” Spiegel’s decision to go to Tuck, perhaps more than any other decision in his adult life, shaped the trajectory of his career.
One Tuck professor, John Shank, had a particularly meaningful impact on Spiegel, who took at least three of his classes. Shank was a master of case discussion and Spiegel remembers feeling electrified in his first-year management course as he learned the priceless skill of thinking quickly on his feet. That class was where he learned that when working with the brightest minds in business, he’d better be well prepared, he’d better believe in his ideas, and he’d better be ready to defend them when colleagues or clients inevitably challenged his thinking.
“I would give a huge amount of the credit for where I am today to the Tuck experience,” says Spiegel. He still keeps in touch with some professors and occasionally participates in corporate communications professor Paul Argenti’s Analysis for General Managers course. He is on the board of overseers, has participated in an executive residence, and helped Siemens set up a recruiting program at the school.
“Eric was a great student, and he’s one of the best strategists I’ve ever worked with, just from an intellectual perspective,” says Argenti. “He was the kind of student who wouldn’t just answer a question. He would get the point of a question and move on to inquire what the implications are of that question.”
After Tuck, Spiegel went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton, a global consulting firm. Over 23 years, he consulted with utilities and big companies in oil, gas, coal, power equipment, and other energy-related industries. He moved to New York, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Tokyo, and Washington, DC, following opportunities as they arose.
One of Spiegel’s most profound experiences as a consultant came in Japan. Just after moving to the country, he landed a plum assignment working with Nissan. The company had lost $6 billion in 1998 and, edging toward bankruptcy, hired Carlos Ghosn, the COO of Renault, to lead an ambitious restructuring program called the Nissan Revival Plan the following year. Spiegel came in to advise Ghosn, a speaker of many languages and a firebrand of energy. It became one of the most successful business turnarounds in Japanese history, and Ghosn became a legend and eventually the first person to run two companies on the Fortune 500 simultaneously.
“It was everything I ever wanted to do when I went through business school and went into consulting,” says Spiegel. “It’s exactly the kind of person you want to be working for to challenge and test your ability to think—and not only keep up with someone like Carlos Ghosn but be able to come up with ideas to help him think through his problems. It made me grow tremendously as a consultant and adviser, but also as a business person.”
Years later, in 2009, Siemens was searching for a CEO for its U.S. business. Eric Spiegel was not a top candidate. Recruiters were looking for a person with an engineering background who had run a large industrial engineering business in the United States. Because the U.S. is the company’s largest market, they also needed a leader who could raise the business’ profile in this country. Headhunters called Spiegel twice: once to ask for referrals and then to ask if he would join the interview process. At first, he didn’t take them very seriously. He figured he didn’t have the requisite background, and he didn’t even speak German. But the recruiters’ call came at an opportune moment.
“I think it was the right time in my career because I basically had just turned 50, and I was trying to figure out what to do with the next 10 years or so of my career,” says Spiegel. “I was at a point where I had been advising CEOs and senior executives for 20-plus years and I was looking for an opportunity to try out some of what I had been advising people about. This seemed like a great opportunity to do that.”
Though he didn’t have an engineering degree or experience as a CEO, he did have valuable assets: a strategic perspective, good ideas, innate leadership skills, and charisma among many other things. He cased the company and arrived in Germany well prepared. He hit it off with many of the people on the managing board, and they offered him the job.
When Spiegel came to Siemens, he decided to do what had served him best in consulting: listen. He spent six months traveling around, visiting most of the businesses in the U.S., meeting all of the senior executives, and listening to their ideas and concerns.
Then he and the newly formed U.S. leadership team came up with an agenda to speed growth. First, Siemens needed to drive more organic growth, because previously it had grown primarily through acquisitions. Spiegel also wanted to cultivate more U.S. leaders, both for the U.S. business but also globally. And he wanted to build Siemens’ reputation in the U.S., where it did over $22 billion in business but did not have a brand identity commensurate with a company this size.
One of the reasons why Spiegel has been so immediately successful at Siemens is his natural ability to lead. Perhaps part of that owes to his commanding physical presence—6’5” and athletic—or the fact that he can talk to just about anyone about just about anything or that he holds remarkably high standards for himself and for others.
“Eric is the kind of guy who sees an agenda and creates a path that naturally draws people along very rapidly,” says Al Escher, a former colleague at Booz Allen Hamilton. “I think Eric has been successful because of the impact he has on other people. I’ve never seen someone with natural leadership skill like Eric. It’s bred in the bones.”
One of the major initiatives Spiegel has helped oversee is the launch of Siemens Government Technologies. SGT was founded in late 2011 in order to capture more of the $25 billion addressable market created by the needs of the federal government. SGT serves defense, intelligence, and civilian agencies, providing products and solutions across all of Siemens’ sectors. Recently, Siemens completed work on the Army’s largest solar photovoltaic system, located at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and secured a contract to build the U.S. government’s largest wind farm at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Plantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. They also supply a large number of imaging and diagnostic technologies to the VA and Department of Defense hospitals as well as building new electric locomotives for Amtrak and mail-sorting equipment for the Postal Service.
Another initiative is a hiring program aimed at employing veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Under Spiegel’s watch, the company has hired more than 1,000 veterans and founded the Siemens Veterans Network, Siemens’ first national employee group dedicated to supporting veterans.
Spiegel has also helped guide the company into the spotlight and the national conversation. Shortly after he took the job, Siemens moved the U.S. headquarters from New York to Washington, DC, in order to be closer to the working gears of the federal government. Since then, the president and cabinet members have visited Siemens’ plants and sites. Spiegel also serves on the Workforce Development Committee for the Business Roundtable, one of the country’s largest organizations for CEOs, in order to work with politicians to solve complex challenges for business. These are problems like the country’s declining civil infrastructure and the skills gap, the lack of technical education that prevents companies like Siemens from being able to hire enough skilled workers for jobs in America.
Media outlets from CNBC and the NBC Nightly News to Fox Business News and the Financial Times have interviewed Spiegel on these topics and others, helping to raise Siemens’ profile in the U.S. At the same time, Spiegel is realizing that the opportunity to bring Siemens into the spotlight comes with another opportunity: using that spotlight to help drive positive change.
“Eric has raised the profile for Siemens in the U.S., particularly in Washington, DC,” says Camille Johnston, the vice president of corporate affairs for Siemens. “He has done a really good job describing what business needs in order to drive growth in America.” Energy policy is just one of those issues, an issue that he realized, over the years, is just as much about politics as it is about economics.
While Spiegel was a consultant, he became frustrated with the enormous amount of public misunderstanding about energy. The 2008 elections finally inspired him to write a book, with former Booz colleague Neil McArthur, to dispel some of the myths over the energy economy. In 2009, “Energy Shift: Game-Changing Options for Fueling the Future” was published.
The book is a condensed road map of the broad strokes of the energy shift. In it, Spiegel and McArthur argue that the energy shift that must occur will take much longer than anyone is currently estimating. They also argue that it will involve private and public resources and global cooperation on a scale much greater than most imagine.
Four years later, one of the outcomes that surprises Spiegel most is that the U.S. still has no comprehensive long-term energy policy. Now, Spiegel finds himself working for a company that is a global leader in energy technology; a company having a tremendous impact on the energy shift. Spiegel finds he can have a greater impact on the topic in this role.
“There’s no doubt that this kind of a role has much more impact on the national agenda than a consultant can have,” says Spiegel. “As a CEO, if you’re willing to get out in front of issues and really talk about it, and really use your platform to raise these issues, you can have a much much bigger impact.”
At a White House meeting earlier this year, President Obama asked a group of business leaders, including Spiegel, what the government could do to attract more jobs back to American soil. Spiegel had a ready answer. He told the president that if the government could modernize more of the infrastructure in this country, Siemens would invest more here.
On Tuesday, Feb. 12, Spiegel had just finished giving a speech and was tuning in to President Obama’s State of the Union address at a restaurant in Crystal City with dozens of employees.
“Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and Internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids,” said President Obama. “The CEO of Siemens America—a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina—has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs.”
The crowd was silent for a few moments. A friend finally piped up and asked: “Eric...was he talking about you?”
Already hundreds of text messages and emails were surging into Spiegel’s phone, but he didn’t know that yet. It took Spiegel a moment or two to contemplate the answer to his friend’s question. The president, the most powerful person in the world, had just mentioned not only Siemens but him, the CEO, on television in front of hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Now an issue that had been concerning the company was ostensibly concerning the rest of the world. Eric realized that the answer to the question was yes. He turned to his friend and said just that: Yes, he said, it appeared that the president was talking about him.