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2008 Investiture Address by Richard W. Couch Jr.

Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Hypertherm, Inc.

(See full bio)

June 7, 2008

Thank you, Dean Helble, for your kind introduction. I am pleased to be here today to offer my congratulations to the graduating class of 2008. Welcome Provost Scherr, graduates, faculty, staff, parents and friends.

Thank you for the honor of receiving the Robert Fletcher Award. To receive the same award as my mentor and adviser, Myron Tribus, Dean of the engineering school when I was here, is a wonderful recognition.

Dick Couch
Dick Couch

In the good news/bad news department, when Dean Helble called me to tell me about the Robert Fletcher Award, I was excited to receive the recognition. The bad news was that a speech was required. I do not have a clear recollection of my graduation forty odd years ago. I called Marcie Jacobs to ask her, "Who spoke at my Investiture?" I was relieved to learn that Investiture is a relatively recent practice, started by Dean Hutchinson in 1986. So, I did not have to worry about the fact that I could not remember the Investiture speaker.

My wife, Barbara, and I went to an engineering school graduation last month at a prestigious university that will remain anonymous. The speaker, in an attempt to clearly articulate his main points, had the graduates repeat the points out loud. I'm not going to do that.

I saw a cartoon reprinted in last week's New York Times, it shows the class valedictorian speaking at graduation. He says, "...and when we look at the future given to us by our elders, three words come to mind: We are toast." It would be easy to think that with the daily dose of bad news.

I am struck by the thought that in many of life's major decisions and events we don't listen or heed advice very well. In important matters, we tend not to listen to advice—selecting friends, choosing a college, getting married, and having and raising children are examples where we don't listen. Conversely, we listen to advice on how to swing a golf club or fix an auto engine.

This is humbling since I ask myself, what is the likelihood of graduating students listening to what Dick Couch has to say? I think all I can hope for is that one or two things stick—without having to repeat them out loud.

Forty years ago when professor Bob Dean and I started Hypertherm, we pitched our ideas to several venture capital firms. After one particularly elegant presentation to state street, the banker said, "Don't do it." Then he said something to the effect, "Do you realize you'll have to do things like buy office furniture and equipment?" Of course, we did not listen to him. It took me a long time to learn the lesson that technology was not everything, and you also had to do things like answer the telephone and buy desks.

I now routinely tell people interested in starting a business, "Don't do it"—on the philosophy that you better want to do something pretty badly before you start.

It is worthwhile to listen carefully; there just might be a thought worthy of attention.

The advantage of a Dartmouth engineering education is its breadth. The disadvantage is you will have to explain many times that you don't have an electrical or mechanical degree, you have an engineering degree from Dartmouth.

Many of the most challenging engineering problems are multidisciplinary. At Hypertherm, we design and manufacture plasma cutting equipment—an electric arc process for cutting steel. Deep knowledge of heat transfer, material properties, physical chemistry, and electronics are necessary to design our equipment. Our core competency is the intersection of plasma process design and high power electronics. You need both to be successful. There are many organizations that have capability in one or the other, but not many with both.

Innovation is sometimes the result of failed experiments and trying to analyze what is not behaving as you thought.

An example: in our lab at Hypertherm, we were measuring the pollution output from plasma cutting. We had developed water-injection cutting where we constrict the plasma arc with radially injected water. We suspected that our process reduced particulate pollution compared to conventional cutting. Because we injected water, we conducted these tests over a reservoir to keep the water from flooding the lab. Using a fairly simple test of particulate output, we were getting inconsistent results. The results would vary widely over some period of time. It maybe took us too long, but we finally figured out that when the water level got higher in the tank, the high jet velocity of the gas and particulates scrubbed the particles from the gas stream and reduced the emissions.

We called this invention the water table. The use of a reservoir of water beneath the cutting area to capture particulates. Of all our patents, it is the only patent that went through the patent office without a comment—just the approval.

We didn't make a lot of money from this patent, because it was so easy to copy—all you needed was a tank of water beneath the cutting table.

An engineer I once worked with would say, you can learn almost as much from a failed experiment as a successful one.

The combined knowledge of many men and women designed and delivered the educational experience you have received at Dartmouth. You are well prepared.

Many of you are leaving Hanover to embark on your career or to obtain an additional degree. As you consider future options, I hope you consider opportunities to return to New Hampshire. There are a growing number of high technology companies that offer exciting career opportunities coupled with living in our beautiful state.

I offer you my congratulations on your graduation and wish you the best of luck in your future.

Thank you for listening.