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What can you learn from Cree?


Recently I had the pleasure of attending a Triangle Business Journal Power Breakfast with Cree CEO Charles Swoboda.

Based in my home town of Durham, NC, Cree is a market-leading innovator of everything to do with lighting and a large company by any measure ($1.63 Billion market capitalization with 6,400 employees).  What most intrigues me is that Cree – and its CEO – remains entrepreneurial in its thinking, its culture, its actions even with its huge size.

As Chuck explained, in the world of most large US companies the focus is on doing their best to minimize risk and create predictable results for Wall Street.

Cree is in business to make energy-wasting traditional lighting technologies obsolete through the use of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly lighting technology – in particular LEDs.  That statement is about transforming the way we use energy.  Transformation and innovation is literally baked into their purpose for being.

Chuck Swoboda CEO of Cree
Sougata Mukherjee of the Triangle Business Journal skillfully interviewing Chuck Swoboda CEO of Cree

It puts them in a place where they are  intentionally innovating their products (R &D is huge for them) while simultaneously paying attention to what is happening in the current business environment.

They regularly take risks in service to innovation, feeding their transformative reason for being in business.   Predictable results won’t make wasteful technologies obsolete – by definition.

Forgoing the predictable, however, is not always an easy road.

Recently their stock price has taken a beating – trading at half its 52-week high  due to huge manufacturing overages in the LED lighting business worldwide.

Chuck Swoboda is painfully aware that this is a tough place for company shareholders, but he is positioning and pivoting this large company for future growth in new areas.

Staying true to his entrepreneurial nature, Chuck steered the company toward developing two other business lines that grew at 20 and 37% last year.   One is about to spin off as a separate public company in which Cree will be a majority stockholder when it goes public.  This company, Wolfspeed, was founded with another transformative mission to liberate power and wireless systems from the limitations of silicon using LED technology as its base.

Chuck Swoboda, CEO of Cree
Chuck and me…did he play basketball?

Just as LEDs were for Cree a few years ago, these new business lines are like start-ups with a great new idea and an innovative solution, emerging to face untapped markets with huge potential for growth.  They are changing how whole markets operate.  You can imagine that operating like this, Cree’s stock price will come back; by definition they are creating incredible value.

Chuck said last week if you can solve a real problem in the world, you don’t have to worry about the market.    The key to staying relevant is to be continuously solving critical problems.  Solutions that work go to market; the team stays focused on how to solve the next problem.

Chuck calls Cree a twenty-eight-year-old overnight sensation!

He says this kind of company is not for everyone.  It is for entrepreneurs; people not afraid to take risks or to get unpredictable results.

I don’t think there is a business or non-profit organization in the US, big or small that could not learn from watching how Cree operates.  Chuck and his team have been able to create a huge company with substantial resources that is able to maintain its  entrepreneurial mindset and culture.   The employees have an incredible commitment to Cree and its vision to solve big problems by creating the best products.  Do this in business and you will always be in business.   What a lesson for the rest of us.

What is one thing that you could do in your business today to make your products or services more relevant, more helpful for your customers/clients?  What big problem are you solving?  If you don’t know – start to ask different questions.  Ask your customers and clients what are the biggest problems they’re facing right now and then start thinking how your company can solve them.  These are your emerging markets and represent your areas of growth.

Want some help getting started?  Click here to access Essential Elements of Sustainable High Performance – a guide for CEOs and Executive Directors who want to create meaningful financially sustainable enterprises.  No cost involved – just consider it my gift to you.

If you are a nonprofit CEO or Executive Director, join me for a special half-day intensive workshop session just for you September 30th from noon to 4:30 pm.  We will focus on your unique role in making organizations more entrepreneurial and sustainable Learn more here.

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