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Steve Zelnak is College’s 2010 Person of the Year

Zelnak received his award as part of the college’s second annual Leadership and Innovation Showcase, held Tuesday, April 27, at Nelson Hall on the NC State University campus in Raleigh, N.C.

“We established this award in 2008 to recognize a distinguished individual who has made outstanding contributions to the college, to his or her profession and to the NC State community,” said Ira R. Weiss, dean of the College of Management.

“This award celebrates Steve’s involvement in the life of the college and the university, as well as the vision and leadership he has brought to Martin Marietta during his distinguished career there,” Weiss said.

Zelnak joined the Martin Marietta Corporation in 1981 as vice president of planning and business development for the Aggregates Company. He was appointed president in 1982, elected an officer of the corporation in 1989, and promoted to president of the Materials Group in 1991. In 1994, Martin Marietta Materials, Inc., became a publicly traded corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange, with Zelnak as president and CEO. He was elected chairman of the company’s board of directors in 1997.

During his time as CEO, Zelnak grew Martin Marietta from a revenue of $450 million to over $2.2 billion, and the share price of the company increased from $20 per share in 1996 when the company became a fully independent public company to a peak of over $168 per share. He was responsible for over 70 acquisitions which significantly broadened the company’s geographic footprint. He also devised and implemented a novel long haul distribution strategy which has made the company the industry leader in rail and water distributed aggregates products. In 2008 and 2009, Martin Marietta Materials was recognized as the leading company in its industry category worldwide in the Fortune Magazine “Most Admired Company” listing.

Zelnak serves on the boards of Beazer Homes and Pace Industries, and is active in civic affairs and business groups. Born in Savannah, Ga., he received his bachelor’s degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech and his master’s in administrative science and business administration from the University of Alabama system.

His commitment to education is reflected in his service at NC State University and other academic institutions. He serves on the NC State University Board of Visitors and is completing a three-year term on the NC State College of Management’s Board of Advisors, but his involvement with the college goes back to 1999. In 2007, the college established the Zelnak Professor of Marketing Innovation with the support of his financial gift. In 2004, he established the Martin Marietta Endowed Scholarship Fund in the college, providing financial support for an incoming freshman. He also serves on the Georgia Tech Foundation Board and the Georgia Tech College of Management’s Advisory Board.

Previous Person of the Year Award recipients from the NC State College of Management are James Owens, chairman and chief executive officer of Caterpillar, in 2009, and Benjamin Jenkins, managing director and vice chairman for retail banking at Morgan Stanley and formerly vice chairman and president of the General Bank at Wachovia Corporation, in 2008.

As is customary, Zelnak, as the current Person of the Year Award recipient, announced the winners of the college’s student Leadership and Innovation Showcase scholarship awards. Three teams of undergraduate students in the College of Management, and three from the college’s Jenkins Graduate School of Management, were selected for their work on projects in which they provided solutions for real world problems presented by companies working with the students in the college’s practicum courses.

Audio Interview on Innovation

Steve Zelnak responds to a few questions about innovation in today’s business environment. Audio Interview Text Transcript


(Left to right) Steve Zelnak receives Person of the Year Award from Ira R. Weiss, dean, NC State College of Management

Interview with College of Management on the Topic of Innovation

COLLEGE OF MANAGEMENT: Mr. Zelnak, congratulations on your award again. And you mentioned in your remarks that as you were walking around and looking at the innovation you were struck again with the importance of innovation in all of the economy right now. So if you could just speak to that a little bit.

ZELNAK: Well if you think about the American economy in particular it’s not really a resource-driven economy, it’s really an economy based on ideas. And innovation is the core of it because if we’re not innovative, we’re not necessarily going to be the low cost producer, we’re not a resource economy, we have to create value out of those ideas and innovations. And if you look at the students, these young people are our future. You know, I was absolutely amazed at the ideas that they had. They’re sitting around there talking about things in detail that they’re excited about; they’ve done their homework and you’re looking at job opportunities coming off of this that did not exist ten years ago or fifteen years ago. It’s truly the new economy and it was a very wide range of things.

COLLEGE OF MANAGEMENT: I think that’s what struck me when you said they’re looking at opportunities that did not exist even ten, fifteen years ago. That’s just mindboggling.

ZELNAK: Well it means that the universities must change, and I think NC State is doing that in terms of looking at the economy that we live in today which is very global, how we compete, and I think back to my college years which were too long ago, and I look at these young students and what they’re doing. We simply didn’t have the need because the economy at that point in time the U.S. sat at the top of the heap at world-wide manufacturing. That was commanding. The U.S. made the best products. It didn’t make any difference whether or not they were most cost-effective or feature-effective. Today, it’s much more competitive and you really have to differentiate yourself with what you’re doing with the innovation.

COLLEGE OF MANAGEMENT: That’s another thing that struck me as well. I remember maybe fifteen, twenty years ago when manufacturing was really starting to see the impact of global sourcing, and people were just getting more and more upset as factories starting closing down and shifting to other countries. It is painful for people who can’t see a way past that or can’t find a way for their own jobs to continue.

ZELNAK: Well, we were at a point where we were doing commodity manufacturing; we were not the low-cost producer on those commodities that we were making. And when it’s a global world, you lose the game if you are not a low-cost producer on a commodity. However, if you can differentiate the product, that’s where innovation comes in. You may have more cost in the product, but it has more features—therefore, more value. And that’s something that we as a country do very well.

An interesting thing about manufacturing is that there is a fair amount of manufacturing that’s coming back to the United States right now based on innovation, based on the inability of worldwide low-cost producers to manage quality. Quality has become very, very important because what we make today is becoming so precise in terms of the parts and components and if the quality is not there, it doesn’t work. It’s very interesting. My son and I recently bought a machine shop business. As I retire from Martin Marietta, I am busy creating my next phase of life and we are going to try to build a company, through acquisition and organic growth off of that. And we are very business. In fact, we’re running flat out because of the manufacturing opportunity for precise, high quality products. Our customers would be military, medical equipment, measuring devices, and high tech companies, where that precision is absolutely required. In fact, people, engineers can work on a product and be able to get to the person who manufactures it nearby instead of banking on the fact that it’s going to come from China or Mexico or some other low cost place and be right… they’re finding that there’s real value in the supply chain with that approach.

COLLEGE OF MANAGEMENT: That makes sense. I suppose that would include the impact of nanotechnology.

ZELNAK: There’s a huge amount of research worldwide and particularly in the U.S. with respect to nanotechnology. If just one-tenth of one percent of the ideas out there with respect to nanotechnology come true, we’re going to create a vast global industry with products that use nanotechnology. It’s fascinating when you go to research institutions like NC State and see what they’re doing.