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Updated: June 3, 2019

Curiosity steered Kaman’s Keating from engineer to CEO

Photo | HBJ File Neal Keating
Neal Keating Chairman, President & CEO, Kaman Corp. Size of organization: 5,400 employees; $1.9 billion in revenue Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, University of Illinois; MBA, University of Chicago Previous job(s): Chief Operating Officer of Rockwell Collins; Chief Operating Officer of Hughes Supply; CEO of GKN Aerospace, London, England; and the important jobs that helped me get there: paperboy, caddie, busboy and mowing lawns
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In an office full of artwork and awards, Neal Keating’s most treasured keepsake lies on the top shelf of a closet: a sheaf of yellowing papers torn from an easel pad.

Keating, president and CEO of Kaman Corp. in Bloomfield, sketched out plans for a new product on those yellowing papers in an earlier job at Rockwell Automation.

“I had an idea … and my boss said we couldn’t do it, we didn’t have the money to do it. I didn’t accept that,” Keating said. “We did it.”

That product — a novel machine-human interface called PanelView — has sold more than 50,000 units and still sells strongly in updated versions decades after its introduction.

Keating’s ability to innovate, put together winning teams and advocate for what he believes in have helped lift him to the top ranks of the state’s C-suite executives.

A willingness to talk bluntly about the challenges facing the state’s business community has also helped lift Keating to the top ranks of impactful CEOs in policy discussions.

“[Keating] is always straightforward and direct in his assessment of policies that affect the competitiveness of Connecticut companies,” said Joe Brennan, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association. “He’s also very passionate about his workforce as well as the community. … He takes his role as a good corporate citizen very, very seriously.”

Engineering success

Curiosity helped spark Keating’s career, at first as an engineer and then as an executive at a series of aerospace and technology companies. The son of two Irish immigrants, he grew up learning the value of hard work and admiring the technical know-how of his father, a maintenance worker at Sears, Roebuck and Company in Illinois.

“When the boilers went down at two in the morning, dad would go wake you up and take you in to work,” Keating said. Early on, the young Keating developed a fascination with all things mechanical and electrical, an interest that was honed by his appreciation of the space program and other technological advances in the 1960s and 70s.

“Growing up in that time, you worked on things, you worked on cars … there were so many new things happening. I was really intrigued with how things worked,” Keating said.

He earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois and in 1977 went to work at manufacturer Allen-Bradley, now a division of Rockwell Automation.

His aptitude for both the technical and administrative side soon brought Keating into management, with stints as national sales manager, director of marketing, director of development engineering and general manager of a division at Allen-Bradley.

But as he moved up in the ranks, the young executive felt a need to satisfy his curiosity about another complex subject — business.

“It really hit me dealing with finance and accounting and operations. … I didn’t know it. If I wanted to be able to lead people effectively and reach my full potential and have them reach their full potential, I needed to be a little smarter,” Keating said. He went back to school, earning an MBA from the University of Chicago.

When Allen-Bradley was acquired by Rockwell in 1985, Keating was able to pursue his lifelong interest in aircraft technology as chief operations officer for the conglomerate’s commercial aerospace business. That led in 2002 to him taking the post of CEO at GKN Aerospace, a Britain-based company that had planned to expand its U.S. operations.

When that expansion failed to materialize, Keating joined Florida-based Hughes Supply as COO until that company’s acquisition by Home Depot.

At that point, Keating got a call from then-Kaman CEO Paul Kuhn, who was planning to retire in 2008 and was in search of a successor.

“It was a really exciting and unique kind of opportunity,” Keating said.

Big shoes to fill

Keating was intrigued but cautious about the top job at Kaman. Charles Kaman, a legend in the aerospace and manufacturing world, had led his namesake company to success from its founding in 1945 through the 1990s, but the firm hit some turbulence in the 2000s.

A $1.2 billion contract with Australia to supply Seasprite helicopters for that country’s navy was cancelled in 2008 amid concerns about delays and technical issues.

“It was an opportunity to take on a company that Charlie had molded that had gone through some relatively challenging times,” Keating said. With the company’s portfolio of innovative technology and talented workforce, he added, “the potential was just incredible.”

One of Keating’s first tasks was to unwind the Australia project; Kaman ended up selling 11 returned Seasprite helicopters to New Zealand in 2013 in a $120-million deal.

Looking forward, Keating is excited about a next generation of autonomous systems under development at Kaman.

Next-generation helicopters will go through their paces at a new test facility for advanced drive-shaft capabilities due to open on Kaman’s Bloomfield campus next month. Another priority is continuing to grow the company’s equipment-distribution business, which has expanded to $1.2 billion in sales this year from $645 million in 2009.

At the end of the day, Keating said his focus is on maintaining and improving all of Kaman’s products, which include heavy-duty helicopters used on the front lines in war zones, wildfires and disaster relief.

“I think that the most important thing we’re going to do comes back to saving lives,” Keating said. “The hardest thing is that you really do have to make the commitment to be prepared every day, to get it right every day.”

On the job

Guiding business principle: Lead by example

Best way to keep your competitive edge: Run and read — preferably not at the same time

Proudest accomplishment: Being able to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Kaman

Goal yet to be achieved: Getting it right every day

Favorite part of the job: Working alongside the incredibly talented and committed team at Kaman

Least favorite part of the job: Quarterly investor conference calls

Personal touch in your office: Salvador Dali, “Alice in Wonderland” artwork, and Chinese pottery

Judgment calls

Best business decision: When I was 31 years old, being committed to a new product concept when “we could not afford the development costs.” Six of us found a way and it changed the trajectory of the business for the next 10 years.

Worst business decision: Hiring based on what the person had accomplished in the past and not based on the demands of the new role.

Biggest missed opportunity: While at Rockwell, I did not have the vision to see how we could have combined our leading positions in GPS, communications, software development, flat screen displays and semiconductor technologies to change the world 20 years earlier than Apple.

Best way to spot trends: Ask questions, listen (don’t think you know the answer), travel, read, think, and always be curious — never complacent.

Next big move: Saving lives by expanding our Autonomous Air Vehicle (UAV) capability across military, humanitarian relief and firefighting missions.

Your pet peeve: When people are not willing to put in the work to be prepared. Our employees and their families, our customers and our communities are counting on us as the leaders of Kaman.

Personal side

City of residence: Farmington

Favorite way to relax: Spending time with my wife, Alison, running and working on old cars

Hobbies: Running, working out, scuba diving, old cars and anything with my kids — Jeremiah (18) and Meghan (16)

Last vacation: Turks & Caicos, scuba diving

Favorite movie: “All the President’s Men”

The car you drive: 2014 Range Rover — bought it used

Currently reading: “Bored and Brilliant,” by Manoush Zomorodi — not usually my style, but a gift from my remarkable 16-year-old daughter Meghan. (And yes, it’s actually really good.)

Favorite cause(s):

Giving back: Navy Seal Legacy Foundation & Marine Corp Semper Fi Fund

Giving forward: Education at both primary and secondary levels

Second choice career: Coach


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