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Written by Mike Buetow   
Saturday, 01 August 2009 00:00

Caveat LectorJim McElroy is about the last person who would want to be profiled in an industry magazine, which is probably why the iNEMI chief executive has been so effective over the past 13 years.

Indeed, he has made his mark in the background. To McElroy, running the consortium is not so much about leading, but “leadership facilitation.” Or, as the low-key, longtime New Hampshire resident describes it, “leading from the rear.”

Association management tends to be intramural, attracting candidates from other associations, rather from industry. But one of the secrets to McElroy’s success has been the more than two decades he spent as an engineer and business manager for the likes of RCA, Digital Equipment Corp. and MMS, where he eventually rose to vice president of international operations. Such background and experience cannot help but inform a person about how difficult a task it is to conceive, design and build quality electronics products, and how in an industry that changes at light speed, nothing can be taken lightly or for granted.

These notes resounded in an interview McElroy conducted with Circuits Assembly on July 6, the day he announced his retirement. (For the full transcript, visit circuitsassembly.com/cms/component/content/article/5-current-columns/8560-leading-from-the-rear.)

Asking what type of person it takes to succeed in his job elicits a laugh from McElroy, who admits he’s “probably biased.” Still, he elaborates in a way that’s refreshingly candid, especially given the tech industry's penchant for secrecy. “The biggest part is leadership ability. It’s different from leadership ability in a public company, where in a sense, you’re in charge of your own destiny; you can do what you have to do. That’s not the way it works in this job. The leadership has to be subtler. Our role is more one of leadership facilitation, forging direction and making things happen. The most successful things we do are driven by industry leaders with the passion to drive it to timely completion.

“[And you] have to be able to interact at a number of different levels. Our project [staff] might be working at the engineering level or the first level of management. But if we’re driving a new initiative, we have to get the attention of senior-level people. Executives approach technology gaps in a different way than technologists do. We need to be able to speak the language that each understands so that we can connect with them and gain their support.”
When McElroy took over, iNEMI primarily was a vehicle for roadmapping activity. Name recognition was limited. On his watch, the organization has grown both in scope and stature. It expanded overseas, where it now has a pair of outstanding engineers, experienced handling operations in Europe and China, respectively. It took a lead role in facilitating the lead-free transition, helping to settle on a SAC alloy from which the industry could start baselining solutions, and publishing extensive research on the subsequent tests. And McElroy was perhaps the only person capable of sorting out the longstanding battle between various trade groups and companies over the competingdata transfer formats – a conflict about as lengthy and arcane as the Middle East's.

Although it lacks a dedicated research facility, it is the closest undertaking to Sematech insofar as being a forum where the best and brightest engineers share ideas, resources and work out problems. (The roadmaps, which iNEMI has steadily published every two years, have become, in McElroy’s words, “self-fulfilling prophecies,” pointing to the targets and setting the industry in motion toward them.)

As is his style, McElroy didn’t spend much time discussing his legacy, preferring to note the work ahead. As the supply chain becomes more segmented, the layers add to the complexity of the problems – and solutions. “We still have to orchestrate across that supply chain in order to drive the technology,” he says. “When companies were integrated, it was easier to do. We’re doing tech initiatives across a number of different companies and cultures, and in an environment when many companies have limited margins. So folks have limited funds to invest in R&D. The question is, How do we do this in a positive way that has the biggest impact?”

It’s someone else’s turn to address that issue. Now 64, McElroy is looking for a change, citing the opportunity to spend more time with family and give back to the community. The electronics community should be grateful, for among his peers managing associations, McElroy is head and shoulders above the crowd. For iNEMI, it’s been a lucky 13 years.

 

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