Elaine Thibodeau is the platform leader, manufacturing surgical vision at Johnson & Johnson. Below is an interview conducted for the NAM’s morning newsletter, Input.
Input: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you come to be interested in manufacturing?
Thibodeau: I always liked making things, building things. I used to make furniture for my Barbie Dolls with raisin boxes and pieces of wood, stuff lying around in the garage.
I was good in math, and I had a couple of teachers that encouraged me, so I ended up in engineering. But when I graduated it wasn’t easy to find a job. After working for the Canadian government for a while I realized I wanted to work in private industry, and the same day that Johnson & Johnson offered me a job I had an offer from Continental Can. I said, “Well, I don’t know who Continental Can is, but I know who Johnson and Johnson is, so I’ll do that.”
I’ll have been with J&J for 30 years in June, which is hard to believe. I’ve made over-the-counter medications, did six years of marketing and sales, and then went back into supply chain. I’ve done orthopedics, diagnostics, cancer drug manufacturing, consumer medical devices. And when we purchased Abbott Medical Optics, I had the opportunity to become its manufacturing lead. I’ve been doing that for two years and love it.
Input: In terms of your early education, what do you think was most valuable in preparing you for a manufacturing career?
Thibodeau: My father was an electrician, and he used to take me along with him. He taught me a lot about troubleshooting and the dos and don’ts. I learned a lot from him.
And when I was a kid, I had building blocks and I liked to sew. I was always interested in putting things together. Later on, I had an excellent calculus teacher in high school—I used to ask him for extra homework. Manufacturing really brought together my crafty side and my love of science and math.
Input: At one point in your career, you had to take over a third-party plant while keeping the production of a cancer medication going. That sounds like a high-wire act. Can you tell me a little about that?
Thibodeau: The drug in question was on the shortage list, so we were under a lot of scrutiny—from the media and from the FDA. We made a deal with a supplier to take over a section of their plant because they were closing down their operations. We had to isolate it to create a clean environment, take on their employees, and negotiate with the FDA to make sure we were in the clear.
And meanwhile, we had doctors telling us that due to the shortages we were asking them to play God with their patients. Some people would get medication, some wouldn’t. And that always stuck with me—it motivated me every day to do my job well.
Input: Let’s say you’re talking to a young person who hears this story and thinks: “I want to be able to do that someday.” How do you prepare early on in your career for challenges like that?
Thibodeau: It’s important to have opportunities to collaborate and get out of your comfort zone. I coach a lot of young people these days and say, “If the new job or the new project doesn’t scare you a little bit you’re probably going to be bored in six months.”
Input: Tell me a little about getting Puerto Rican manufacturing companies up and running after the hurricane.
Thibodeau: The personal stories of devastation are just heartbreaking—whether it’s property loss, or discovering a relative has died under terrible circumstances, or worrying about elderly parents. Plus, day-to-day life was just physically difficult—think about going five days without washing your hair. We had to take care of the people first, making sure they had what they needed to be safe, whether that was a generator or medicines or clothing or diapers.
Meanwhile, getting the plant back up and running was a great example of local collaboration. The site leader [at one J&J facility] works in an industrial park and joined forces with the other businesses there, making sure that everyone had gas and other essentials and that decisions made by one company didn’t cause problems for another. They treated each other as partners.
Input: What else can we do to inspire more young women to join the manufacturing industry?
Thibodeau: This is personal for me—I’ve got three nieces. I tried so hard, but not one of them went into engineering, though one is a scientist. I think we have to keep fighting the myth that a manufacturing career doesn’t marry well with having a family, and that it’s harder to do than some other jobs. We need to find opportunities to bring young women into our factories and give them early, positive experiences with the industry.