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

optics

— 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

service

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

devices

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

strategy

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

leadership

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

good,"

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

communications

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

maintains

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

months,"

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

seat-of-the-pants,

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.

"We’ll

figure that out with the venture capitalists," says Kuplic.

"We’re

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.

"Future

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

generation."

"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

generations

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

anticipate

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

international

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

customers,

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

Conference

& 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

technologies.

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

says.

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

micro-managing

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

100-person

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

observation.

"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

engineers

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

focused

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

hotel.

"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

instead

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

business

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

them."

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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