Corrections or additions?
This article by David McDonough was prepared
for the January 31,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Woman Who Leads NEC’s High Tech Spinoff
by David McDonough
I try to explain things to people the way I explain
them to my mother," says Michelle Kuplic, president and CEO of Eulix
Networks Inc., a recent spin-off from communications technology giant
NEC. "Let’s say you had a Palm Pilot, and you wanted to have your
grocery list on there, and watch your favorite soap opera, and take
calls from your grandkids, all from the same tool. Surface providers
have the technology to do those things, but one of the snags that
they have is that they have an infrastructure like our grandparents’
party lines. All these different technologies — wires, fiber
— and they’ve got to make them all talk to each other, so that
no matter where you are, your unit receives all that kind of data.
Simply put, we’ve produced the DeltaX switch, which allows your
provider to do all that."
A 20-year veteran of the information technology industry, Kuplic was
named head of Eulix last December, when Japan-based NEC announced
the creation of the company, which is based at 4 Independence Way.
At present Eulix has one new product. The DeltaX switch is a smart
router that enables service providers to replace single-function
that transmit information via DSL, wireless, cable or telephony with
multi-function devices that can use all those services and switch
between them effortlessly.
"At the very core of Eulix will be the goal of bringing products
to market that help carriers and Internet service providers overcome
a wide range of technical challenges," says Kaoru Yano, president
of NEC USA Inc. "The establishment of Eulix is part of NEC’s
to launch new entrepreneurial business ventures capable of bringing
advanced new technologies and solutions to market quickly. Michelle
brings to this exciting new enterprise a wealth of skills and
that is exactly the right match for a company in this market."
Kuplic, born and raised in Wisconsin, "a cheddar-header and a
Packer fan," as she puts it, received a computer science degree
from the University of Wisconsin (Class of 1982). After graduation
she went to work for Wisconsin Bell as a programmer. But the company
was not a good fit. "Not that they weren’t nice and weren’t
she says of her first post-college employer, "But I saw this huge
monolith and I thought, `I don’t know how I’m gonna get going here.’
I could just tell that atmosphere wasn’t mine. You had to be there
20 years to get ahead. I didn’t stay very long."
Kuplic decided to take a chance on a fledging company called Microwave
Communications, now MCI. "They were a little more fast-paced.
I was taking a break at work, and, being just out of school, I was
impressionable. I kept seeing these orange MCI ads on TV. I thought
`Communications, I’m kind of interested in that’. So I called them.
I passed some management tests and the guy said, ‘Why don’t you meet
me for lunch?’, and he hired me within 30 minutes. I think he saw
the energy and the potential."
With the move to MCI, Kuplic also made the move to sales. "I found
out that writing code and doing Cobol programming was not going to
be the thing that fulfilled me. MCI gave me the option of service
or sales. I said, `Which one makes more money?’ When they said sales,
I said that was the one I’d try."
Kuplic moved on when some up-and-coming co-workers took over U.S.
Telecom and asked her to help with that company, which is now U.S.
Sprint. An up-and-comer herself, Kuplic moved quickly through the
communications industry, from district sales manager at Sprint in
Atlanta to general manager of communications services at Comdata in
Nashville ("we grew the business three-fold in one year,"
she notes). Then it was a vice-presidency in sales and service at
Ericsson Inc., and a quick stop as vice-president/general manager
North America at Wavetek Wandel & Goltermann Inc. as it moved toward
a merger with TTC to form Acterna, the second largest test
organization worldwide. In 1999 she became senior vice-president of
global sales and services for Gai-Tronics.
A lot of jobs in a comparatively short time? Maybe, but Kuplic
that is the pattern today. "People move on in today’s market,
unlike 50 years ago," she says. "I think it was a hard lesson
that our parents learned. Companies aren’t loyal to you. You’ve got
be loyal to your own progression. My dad worked in a paper mill as
a pulp engineer for years. People just don’t do that anymore."
Nonetheless, when NEC approached her at Gai-Tronics, Kuplic wasn’t
looking for a new vista. "They pursued me for a couple of
she says, "and I was going `No, I’m not ready for anything.’ But
then I spent a couple of months checking them out. Did I want to head
a company with one product, working to expand and evolve that company?
Before I get into a venture, I like to check everything — get
background on the company and product, speak to people who know the
technology. I called friends in the industry, and asked, `Do you think
this something you will see out there?’ When I got three heads to
nod, I knew I was onto something."
NEC is an industry leader, so it wasn’t as if Eulix would be a
start-up operation out of someone’s garage. Acknowledging that even
a spin-off from a company with deep pockets is not a dead certainty,
Kuplic points to current, highly publicized problems at communications
giants AT&T and Lucent Technology to make the point that startups
aren’t the only companies that can trip up. The key thing, in Kuplic’s
view, is not the age of the company but whether it has a product that
solves a problem and fulfills customers’ needs.
According to reports, NEC has invested $15 million in Eulix, and hopes
it will go public at some point. Exactly when is up in the air.
figure that out with the venture capitalists," says Kuplic.
always approached by outside organizations. They look for return on
investments and future growth."
In the communications industry, the future is a world that looms
large. Kuplic knows that today’s technology is tomorrow’s Antique
Roadshow, and she doesn’t intend to let Eulix fall behind the curve.
technologies like HDTV will create a whole new set of problems. The
guy in the infrastructure doesn’t want you, the consumer, to worry
about that, but he also wants to make sure you don’t get that old
party line kind of service again. So we made the software to allow
it to grow with the market. It’s so important to anticipate the next
"Parts of Europe are a half generation ahead, other parts half
a generation behind," she says. "Then there’s Asia, which
is building all new infrastructures, and is possibly one or two
ahead. One of the good things about the spin-off from NEC is that
we can learn from what they (NEC) have learned. We can have a backbone
from NEC’s being one or two generations ahead. We’re trying to
based on experience."
So if NEC has the technology, why spin the product off with a new
company? The answer, says Kuplic, is simple: Marketing. She says
companies need to be close to their customers so new products don’t
get lost in a research lab.
In Eulix’s case, those customers are not consumers, but rather are
large telecommunications companies. Eulix has but 10 potential
Kuplic says, and needs to sell them on how its switch will meet their
needs. "It’s very different from selling to consumers."
Eulix was scheduled to unveil the DeltaX switch at the Comnet
& Expo in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, January 30. Trade shows are
important, Kuplic explains, because they attract the people who are
deploying communications networks and want to see the new
These decision makers, she says, may not be Eulix’s standard contacts
at their companies, and they might not understand how the company’s
technology will solve their problem. Beyond giving the company a crack
at corporate managers it might not otherwise easily reach, trade shows
provide Eulix with the exposure that leads to brand recognition,
Kuplic likes the challenge of spinning off Eulix. "A lot of people
aren’t comfortable with constant change," she says. "One of
the things a company looks for in managers or leaders or executives
is those who handle that pressure well and make people comfortable
with it. I love it," she says, "I thrive on change. I like
the pressure. It’s like putting together a puzzle — how fast can
I put it together?"
Kuplic feels her approach allows her to avoid the
missteps that encumber so many administrators. She has figured out
her strengths, and adds staff whose strengths complement hers. Then,
she says, she tries to step back and let them do their jobs.
"Now, some people are very nervous about that," she says.
"I’ll say `Okay, go get it done,’ but some people have a very
difficult time with that. You get to be attuned when you work with
a group of people — who you can leave on their own and whose hand
you have to hold."
"We look for hungry, innovative, intelligent people who want to
help grow a company. I take my cue from a manager I had at Ericsson,
who used to regularly talk to the factory workers. One time a worker
said to us, `I’ve worked here for 30 years. You’ve used my hands,
but did you ever ask me to use my mind?’ That stuck with me, and I
realized that if you empower your workers to speak, it’s amazing the
innovations they come up with. You foster a growth environment. Every
two weeks we have employee meetings. We send out notes giving everyone
updates. In a start-up company, there’s so much that’s changing that
they need to understand."
The Princeton office of Eulix houses 45 to 50 employees. The
company also has an office in Colorado and three overseas offices.
Many of those who work for Kuplic are engineers, a group traditionally
thought of as a unrepentant male bastion. She is unfazed by that
"Engineers?" she muses. "Well, I’m married to one. Also,
not all engineers are alike. R&D engineers are different than product
development engineers — they want to make the cockroach fly over
a thousand feet and they’ll play with that for five years. But out
of that may come something else, something useful. And you need
to talk to those engineers because they only respect each other!"
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now make up 10.6
percent (221,000) of the total number of engineers in this country,
up from 58,800 or 4 percent in 1980. And engineering is one of the
fast tracks to corporate management. So the time is coming when it
will be common for Kuplic will pick up the phone to call a fellow
CEO and hear a female voice on the phone.
The idea that she is something of a pioneer is not one she seems
on. "The glass ceiling for women — I can’t say it’s never
been there, but what I can say is that I understand it, and you just
work with it or around it. My feeling is that if you are good at what
you do, just as I am good at what I do, then I don’t care what gender
you are. I’m not going to get hung up on it and I’m going to try and
get my job done. While you’re working with me, so will you. I guess
I’ve just learned to be able to accept it. Engineering and business
are famous for it, but you know, there all kinds of minorities. You
can’t get too frustrated — although there’s moments, of course.
I’ve banged my head against the wall, but don’t we all?"
"The thing I like about international companies like NEC is that
sometimes they are more open than other cultures. I think NEC has
stepped out in the right direction by doing this. Am I a role model?
I hope so, but I don’t go out and say, `Hey, look what I do.’ I’m
not like that."
Like so many people in business management, Kuplic is balancing family
and work. She has been commuting weekly to Princeton from Chapel Hill,
North Carolina since December, which doesn’t faze her, although she
admits all she has seen of the area so far is her office and her
"I’ve been traveling for years and years. I’ve been all over the
world and the country, and having to go to one spot for a change
of five cities in a week is okay with me. We probably will move here
at some point. My husband has his own architectural engineering
with a home office, so he has some flexibility. My daughter is 11
and my son is 16 and just joined the football team — as starting
quarterback! — so they are at the age where you don’t want to
move them if you don’t have to. You’ve got to be considerate of
Once the family is moved and Eulix is fully underway, can Kuplic sit
back and relax? Not likely. "I have a lot left to learn,"
she says. "When I went to school, this field did not exist. You
learned from the old Bellheads, the guys who had worked at Bell Labs
way back when. There’s new stuff for me everyday — new acronyms,
new start-up companies I never heard of. If you get too comfortable,
you forget things."
She may have found at Eulix what she was looking for so many years
ago when she joined Wisconsin Bell — a place to stay.
"Can I see myself here in 20 years? I don’t see why not. I’ve
wanted to work every place for 20 years. You just hope you and the
company evolve at the same pace. I think that can happen here."
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