Blue Chip Leader

Big Blue’s Vermont facility has evolved with the times and the markets

by Will Lindner

ibmJanette Bombardier joined IBM in 1980 right out of UVM with her master’s degree in engineering. In 2010, she was promoted to site leadership (senior location executive, director of microelectronics division site operations, and director of photomask development and manufacturing) at the company’s 700-acre Essex Junction facility.

Janette Bombardier, the first woman to hold the senior location executive position at IBM’s 760-acre Vermont facility in Essex Junction and Williston, has taken part in the corporate/cultural shift that has transformed not only her site, but every location, worldwide, that bears an IBM footprint.

“The physical site here operated through a traditional hierarchy for years after I arrived,” she says. “That’s not the way it works anymore. Some people based at this campus report to people on this campus; but there are others who report across the country (like New York or Raleigh, N.C.) and even across the globe, like Brazil. I have people in New York who report to me. There’s a much more diverse, matrix aspect to our operations. Because of the Internet and telecommunications, conference calls and emails, you no longer have to sit at the same place as others you’re working with.”

And yet, she points out, the “matrix” has its limitations.

“IBM is a manufacturing company,” says Bombardier, who was promoted to senior location executive at the Vermont facility in 2010. “And you have to do the manufacturing at the place where the equipment is.”

Thus, while IBM’s engineers and executives work across time zones, climates, and continents as if they were irrelevant, the Vermont campus is intimately connected to the state and community that have hosted it since 1957.

The connection is inevitable, for despite several rounds of well-publicized layoffs, some 4,000 people reportedly work at the site (the company is guarded about its employment numbers), making it Vermont’s largest private employer. But the connection is also cultivated and reinforced. Martha Maksym, executive director of the United Way of Chittenden County, says that’s a hallmark of Bombardier’s leadership.

“Every year they run an ECCC — employee community charitable campaign,” says Maksym. “This year they raised $780,000. It was an extraordinary effort, and an effort — and I emphasize this — embraced by Janette. It couldn’t be successful without everyone having permission to take the time to participate, and engaging the entire IBM community.”

Maksym cites other examples: a semi-competitive “bike build,” in which teams of employees rehabilitate bicycles that are apt to arrive as a boxful of pieces, for donation to a bike-safety program in schools; a food drive supporting area food shelves.

“The entire site becomes engaged in thinking not about itself but about the community in which they’re doing business,” says Maksym. “Janette is at all the shifts, thanking people, participating. She really connects with people at all levels of the organization.”

“We collected four tons of food for the food drive,” Bombardier says proudly. “Nobody measures their food drives in tons! We’re doing our jobs every day, but we’re engaged with the community on a number of levels.”

That engagement runs deeper than charity. As a manufacturer, IBM works with highly advanced technologies. Its Vermont campus is best known for production of IBM’s 200-millimeter (8-inch) semiconductors. Most of the semiconductors produced at the site go into mobile devices such as components for high-end cellular phones and other consumer goods in a dynamic, expanding market. The site is also a Department of Defense Trusted Foundry and makes semiconductors for government applications.

An important production line is housed in its own specially constructed building on the campus, known as the Mask House. This is where glass plates are imprinted with intricate circuit patterns for use in the semiconductor lithography process. Using a lithographic optical projection system called a “stepper” or “scanner,” technicians reduce the patterns to nanoscopic size and imprint them upon silicon wafers that will ultimately become semiconductor products.

“You can’t make a semiconductor without a photomask,” Bombardier explains. “The Vermont facility provides masks for our Vermont 200-millimeter line, our Fishkill, N.Y., 300-millimeter line, and our Albany research center.”

Manufacturing isn’t the only activity that requires specialized expertise. Like a small city, the plant has internal energy, water, and wastewater systems that must operate at maximum efficiency, “because,” Bombardier points out, “we have costs that competitors elsewhere don’t have. One is the cost of power; it’s extremely high, and we use a lot of it.”

IBM pioneered its own “smart grid” system a decade ago, using some 5,000 sensors and meters to monitor power quality and flow, striving to improve power reliability and reduce waste. Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., credits Bombardier for a significant role in developing the system, which he describes as “transformative” at the Vermont campus.

“She was the operations manager prior to becoming senior site executive,” says Cioffi. “What she did in terms of creating an energy efficiency program involving the entire campus is a model for industries all over the world.”

Her intimacy with some of the world’s most vital and sophisticated technologies — both in IBM’s product lines and the operations of a highly integrated industrial campus — informs Bombardier’s commitment to yet another community cause: education.

“Math expectations have to rise dramatically in our state if we’re going to have the kind of employees we need,” she says. “We are all in global economies now. We need to be competitive and innovative, and to know there will be employees who are qualified for our entry-level positions. That’s something that concerns me very much.”

Janette Bombardier (her first name is pronounced Janet; “The extra ‘te’ is just for fun,” she says), grew up in Andover, Mass. She ran track in high school and excelled in math and science, but as a senior in the early 1970s had not decided what to do until a biology teacher inspired her.

“He brought me a course catalog from Worcester Polytechnic Institute,” she recalls. “He had marked in it a degree program for environmental engineering. It incorporated biology, chemistry, and math. That sounded interesting.”

Environmental engineering was classified as a subset of civil engineering. Accordingly, Bombardier applied to four technical colleges and the University of Vermont, “primarily since some of my high school friends were going there,” she says. She was accepted everywhere, but grew disenchanted as she learned more about engineering schools.

“The ratio of women to men was very small, less than 10 percent,” she recalls. “There were no women’s sports or women’s activities; women lived in converted [previously male] dorms. It was just an environment I didn’t feel I could live in,”

Fortunately, she discovered, it wouldn’t be necessary, because requirements for accreditation in civil engineering were uniform. “The technical content wasn’t going to change from one school to the other, but the environment was.”

A personal, handwritten letter of invitation from the assistant dean at what was then called the College of Engineering, Mathematics, and Business Administration at UVM cinched the deal. Bombardier earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, graduating magna cum laude, in 1980. Her first job out of school was right where she has stayed, at IBM. She completed her master’s in civil engineering in 1984 while working at IBM.

“IBM was expanding and doing a large amount of construction,” she says. “There were issues with roadways and traffic management, as well as Act 250, which are areas of expertise for a civil engineer. I had experience in civil engineering work over the summers. IBM reached out to UVM and some of us applied.”

Bombardier won the job (it couldn’t have hurt that she was the top student in her class). Thirty-three years later her position is equivalent to being governor of a campus employing one of the largest and most skilled workforces in Vermont.

As the senior location executive for the company in Vermont, the director of development and manufacturing for photomasks, and the director of microelectronics division site operations, which includes the supervision of the power, water, and wastewater systems — not only at the Essex Junction campus, but also at the East Fishkill facility in Dutchess County, N.Y. — her duties combine administration and leadership with continued engineering responsibilities.

“External relations” are also Bombardier’s responsibility, which could mean providing testimony to the Legislature regarding bills pertinent to IBM’s operations, and communicating similarly with Vermont’s congressional delegation.

On top of it all, “wife” and “mother” are prominent entries on Bombardier’s resume. She is a civil engineer married to a civil engineer; her husband, Greg, is founder and co-principal of Champlain Consulting Engineers, located in their hometown of Colchester. Greg and Janette are parents to yet another engineer — Matthew, who earned his mechanical engineering degree at Union College and has worked at IBM for three years. Their daughter, Kirsten, graduated from Rochester Polytechnic Institute in 2013 and is pursuing a Ph.D. in physical therapy in Portland, Maine.

“We’ve always been an active family,” says Bombardier. But although the family used to ski frequently, she has turned to biking and running for recreation (sporting a headlamp as she jogs the streets of Colchester after dark). She and Greg are drawn to seaside locations for their vacations, and as Red Sox fans they must have had an exhilarating summer.

Meanwhile, Bombardier continues to advocate for higher academic standards in Vermont’s schools, a quest she shares with others who see the state’s future hanging in the balance. Maksym, at the United Way, applauds Bombardier’s commitment.

“The business community, the education community, the nonprofit community — we’re all saying the same thing,” says Maksym. “We need to graduate students with the skills and competence to do the work needed in the 21st century. Janette has really stepped up to be a voice for that cause. She cares very deeply.” •