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Rockwell Automation: Time for an Overhaul

By William D Alessandro on August 13, 2010 at 10:52am.

Content:

With roots in America’s industrial heartland, Rockwell Automation is most famous for what it no longer is.  The company’s web site contains a special section just to list brands (like Admiral appliances) and product lines it has hived off, and to whom. 

Its former self, Rockwell International Corp., operated the storied - and contaminated - Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory near Denver, Colorado, from 1975 through 1989 for the US Department of Energy.  Rockwell Automation divested its aerospace and defence business to the Boeing Corp at the end of 1996. 

A decade later, in January 2007, the company divested its Dodge mechanical and Reliance Electric motors and repair service to Baldor Electric Co. for $1.8 billion.  They were part of Rockwell’s power systems operating unit.  The company has been defending itself - successfully for the most part - in lawsuits alleging personal injury resulting from exposure to asbestos.

With a legacy of criminal charges, counter-charges, and pollution, what is Rockwell Automation today? 

It is the offspring of the Allen-Bradley industrial control equipment manufacturing concern founded in 1903.  In 1944, 80% of its orders were war related, centred on industrial controls and electrical components.  By  2009 the surviving, reconstituted company had two operating segments with a combined total of $4.3 billion in sales.  Its architecture and software unit is a leader in integrated controls for plant operations.  The control products and solutions business makes products for intelligent motor controls and industrial controls.

Rockwell Automation’s corporate responsibility report has not changed much since the combination of environmental, health, and safety (EHS) information with social responsibility narratives in 2005.  The presentation is fundamentally the same, just less of it.  The latest report for 2009 is 29 pages, a reduction by 25% compared with the first edition. 

CEO Keith Nosbusch delivers a circumscribed idea of sustainability in his introductory letter:  “Our technology helps our customers ensure these products are reliable, affordable, and available on demand.” 

In the same vein, the company declares its mission to “improve the standard of living for everyone by making the world more productive and sustainable.”  The preponderance of the report is devoted to spreading the gospel.  Right through to the last page, the report is essentially the sum of recitations of manufacturing achievements and the volunteer contributions made by employees.  The complete record is as long as it is enviable.  Here is just a sampling: 

• Rockwell Automation wins the North American Frost & Sullivan Industry Innovation & Advancement of the Year Award for patented predictive emissions monitoring system software, an alternative to costly hardware-based continuous emissions monitoring systems. 

• General Mills saves $2.6 million annually through a standardised energy management system for air handling.

• Green Planet Farms in South Sioux City, [Nebraska] uses Rockwell Automation technology to help process the industry’s first hexane-free, soy protein isolate.

• Ice cream equipment supplier Gram Equipment in Vojens, Denmark, buys GuardLogix® controllers to improve the operation and safety of its machines.

• Sales engineer Craig Hacche and his wife lead Answer Africa, a non-profit organisation that distributes insecticide-treated mosquito nets. 

• For the second year in a row, its Asia Pacific Business Centre receives the gold award from the Singapore Ministry of Manpower and Workplace Safety and Health Council.

Data that is routinely collected by US companies on occupational safety is included, along with rudimentary environmental performance figures.  But industry honours and acclamations displace most of the analyses and disclosures one expects to get about sustainability from a company with 55 plants and core operations worldwide, and a workforce of 19,000 of which more than half is outside the US. 

Communication:

Viewing the 2009 corporate responsibility report simply as a linear extension of static EHS accounts published since the early 1990s, Rockwell Automation’s effort is passable.  The message is inexorably straightforward.  There is no place for a reader to become lost and no curves to cause confusion. 

Brevity can be a virtue, but not beyond the point where a topic receives short shrift.  More than once the company crosses the line.  On the other hand, the report is similar to and easily the equal of those from competitors Emerson Electric and Schneider Electric.  It does not rival some others, however, including Siemens and ABB, either in the breadth or detail of coverage.

The company has additional information available.  For instance, the annual financial report contains a prelude several pages in length highlighting future business strategies, including a discourse on what the company refers to as its newest growth accelerator: sustainability.  A 12-page white paper on sustainable production is retrievable with a few clicks for stakeholders who may be looking for that kind of information on the company’s web pages.

Credibility:

If the recognition bestowed by other organisations can be taken at face value and is assumed to be above reproach, the report provides more than enough assurance that Rockwell Automation is at the top of its game.  But apart from the stack of awards garnered in 2009, no other approaches, standards, declarations, or opinions from experts, stakeholders, or anyone else are present in the sustainability report to testify as to the transparency, accountability, or completeness of the information provided.

At the end on page 28, passing reference is made to a few performance indicators contained in the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability guidelines.  The management makes no assertions of any kind that an attempt has been made to use the GRI, nor does the content of the report demonstrate that the standard has been followed. 

Recommendations:

1. Appeal to a wider audience.  Consider leapfrogging to an integrated annual report.
2. Direct readers to any additional information on sustainability that the company has elsewhere.
3. Take a fresh look at the techniques competitors use in their reports.

William D’Alessandro is president of Victor House News Co., an independent agency reporting on law and the environment for trade publications and executive newsletters.  He also edits Crosslands Bulletin http://www.crosslandsbulletin.com covering strategic corporate environmental management and sustainability issues.