Innovation is in the very DNA of Harold Brewer’s business endeavors.
Brewer, co-founder and chairman of the board for Intuitive Research and Technology Corporation (INTUITIVE), which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, was one of 52 top innovators across the country recognized in the second annual Great Place to Work For All Leadership Awards earlier this year in San Francisco. Brewer sat down to share his thoughts on the honor, and the importance of innovation in the workplace and the Huntsville community.
Q: What does this honor mean to you?
A: It’s very flattering. It’s kind of twofold the people who give it – it’s the Great Place to Work Institute, and then Fortune magazine works with them. Fortune publishes its Fortune 500 for the big companies, and this recognizes the medium-sized companies. They do a top 100, and we’ve been very blessed to have been recognized by the GPTW as the number one medium-size workplace in the United States three times in the past few years. This particular award recognizes, not necessarily technological innovation, but innovation in the workplace. We are proud to be known for creative thinking when it comes to our employees and business model.
Q: Why is it important for you to empower your employees to be innovative?
A: Innovation is one of the key principles we were founded on. Rey Almodóvar and I founded the company back in 1999. We loved the work we were doing as civilians with the Army – supporting the warfighter is in our genetics. We enjoy that and it’s very fulfilling, knowing that you’re helping save lives and protecting the country – we just wanted to be able to be a little more innovative and have more freedom.
There were a lot of good companies in Huntsville in 1999, but we wanted to put a little different spin on it – our model and philosophy is hiring talent. We don’t win contracts, we hire talent, contracts are just the way we do our government business. We like hiring the best and brightest folks, which this community is full of. This town is very good for business. It’s important to me to provide people with opportunities for innovation because that’s what we set out to do. We wanted a company where our employees could be entrepreneurial and innovative, creative types.
Q: What advice would you give to other people wanting to follow in your footsteps, and create a culture of innovation in their workplace?
A: If you’re going to have innovation, you have to create the culture. We have a creativity incentive program, in which we reward people for creativity and for coming up with new ideas or solving problems. Number one is you’ve got to create the culture and really stick to it and with it. You have to talk the talk and walk the walk. It’s important to give people that freedom and those opportunities. We have a vice president of employee experience and she goes around to employees and inquires, ‘Are you doing what you want to do? Are you happy? Do you want to do something different?’ We keep track of that. We have monthly and quarterly meetings with managers to go over what every employee is working on and to ensure that each employee is meeting their professional and training goals.
It’s not easy. Sometimes people get stuck in a rut, maybe do things a little longer than what they wanted to do, but we watch that. We watch to see how long people have been involved in jobs or if they’re at a point in their career where they need more responsibilities. You’ve just got to manage it and you’ve really got to live it.
Q: How can this culture of innovation benefit your customer at the end of the day?
A: We can solve hard problems. Sometimes it takes very innovative, out-of-the-box thinking to solve hard problems. Our customer gets their problem solved. Our employees really do enjoy what they’re doing and they really enjoy their job, which for our customers brings enthusiasm, and we bring them talent.
We like to call it hiring “Swiss Army knives.” Everybody’s got a main blade, something they’re really good at it, but we like to hire people that have a couple other tools in their Swiss Army knife. You may be an engineer, but you may also be a real good cost analyst or have other skills. We do hire subject matter experts, but a lot of our employees are multi-skilled.
Q: You not only place an emphasis on innovation here, but INTUITIVE has also played a big role with the new planetarium at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Why is this something that is important?
A: This gets back to you’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk. I’ve lived here in Huntsville since 1963, and I really did feel the ground shake during the Apollo era. I remember that, the energy in this town, the enthusiasm with putting man on the moon. We’ve got the von Braun Astronomical Society Planetarium – but I always thought the Rocket City should have a larger, more state-of-the-art planetarium. We are excited for Huntsville to now have a world-class, top-notch digital planetarium, in which they can connect to any telescope that connects to the internet.
It was really important to us for the community to have this as a resource to get our kids fired up about space exploration. I think it’s Huntsville’s destiny to be a leader in space exploration. The INTUITIVE Planetarium just blows your mind – when you get in there and start seeing how big the universe is, you’re just like, ‘Wow.’ There is so much out there for us to explore as mankind. It’s important to us for the community to have it as an asset, and it’s really important for educational purposes for our kids here.
Also, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is the number one tourist attraction in the state of Alabama, and Dr. (Deborah) Barnhart is doing a great job of refreshing the Space & Rocket Center. It’s not just a museum – a museum looks backwards. But with the INTUITIVE Planetarium, Huntsville looks forward.